Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide

Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide
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An Iraqi school girl studies remotely through a tablet in Baghdad on March 25, 2020 amidst a lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. (AFP)
Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide
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Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the "White Helmets", helped by Turkish health organisations, sterilise a school in the area of Ghosn al-Zeitun in Afrin as part of a campaign to disinfect schools against the coronavirus in the Afrin region of of Aleppo, Syria. (AFP/File Photo)
Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide
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Palestinian health workers prepare a stretcher at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. (AFP/File Photo)
Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide
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A Syrian medic holds an awareness campaign on how to be protected against the novel coronavirus pandemic, in a camp for displaced people in Kafr Lusin, in the northwestern province of Idlib, following heavy storms. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 01 August 2020

Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide

Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide
  • Regional organizations looking for ways to support remote teaching of refugee students
  • Experts underscore need for creative solutions to conflict zones’ educational challenges

DUBAI: As online learning gathers pace to become the new norm for millions of students worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, regional foundations are lending a helping hand to refugees who may not have the privilege of online access.

Educational experts say it is crucial that organizations find ways to support refugee students at this time.

“One of the biggest challenges to helping vulnerable students in this crisis has been the lack of alternatives to online learning,” said Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Shaikh Saud bin Saqr Al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al-Khaimah, the UAE.

The challenge is especially big when one considers the fact that “refugees and students worldwide who are disadvantaged often don’t have access to devices or the internet,” she told Arab News.

“There are other options such as project-based learning, using the materials that students have around them, no matter how basic, that could offer cost-effective, low-tech solutions for independent learning when in-class lessons can’t take place,” Ridge said.

“But while online learning is important for refugee children, it isn’t necessarily the only answer. Distance education has been taking place across the world for decades.”




Technicians from the Kurdish educational authorities, prepare recorded classes to be broadcast on local television and Youtube for distance learning, in Qamishli, Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. (AFP/File Photo)

Judith Finnemore, an education consultant in the UAE, expressed similar sentiments, noting that education is the only route out of continued poverty for refugee children.

“Refugee populations include many children whose families have been stateless and homeless for a number of generations, such as Palestinians, and now an alarming number of Syrians and other nationalities are losing their homes,” Finnemore told Arab News.

“When you’re a child your home is your roots, and it isn’t their fault that they don’t have roots,” she said.

“School can be the only stable thing in their life and, in the current situation, providing a way for them to continue their education is vital.”

FASTFACT

Jordan and Lebanon are among the top 10 hosts of refugees globally — UNHCR

She cited the example of Tendai, one of her former Ugandan students and a refugee who was accepted at Oxford University.

“He was shocked. He didn’t think such a prestigious institution would accept him. The day he graduated, he thanked me for encouraging him to raise his aspirations at school,” Finnemore said.

“Today, Tendai is an investment banker and a very successful one. We must do everything we can to encourage such children, particularly now.”




A Palestinian girl displays a package of crafts and reading material distributed by volunteers for the Women's Program Center to children in Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Ridge provided a similar example of how schools can empower children to wake up to their potential.

Alice Springs School of the Air in Australia has been operating for over 60 years to help students who live in some of the world’s most remote areas with no access to schools.

“While there’s a technological component now, that hasn’t always been the case. (The school) uses a lot of physical resources and self-guided materials so students can learn at their own pace,” Ridge said.

“We need to develop more of these kinds of materials for refugee camps so students are able to continue to learn no matter what.”




A Palestinian teacher Jihad Abu Sharar presenting an online class from her home in the village of Dura near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, after school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)

One of the prominent entities promoting education in the region is the UAE-based Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE).

Launched in 2015 to support high-quality education opportunities for Emirati and other Arab youth, it is one of the largest privately funded philanthropic organizations in the region.

In response to the pandemic, AGFE last week inaugurated a COVID-19 Online Learning Emergency Fund, as part of its Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund, to support the educational prospects of refugee children and youth across camps in Jordan and Lebanon, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The reality is that, according to UNESCO, the percentage of people with a master’s or equivalent in the Arab world is lower than the global average. 

Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, CEO of Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education

“Online learning has become the new norm to ensure the continuity of education for millions of students across the world, and we know that access to this modality of learning is restricted for too many refugee communities,” said AFGE Chairman Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair.

“Refugee education has been severely affected by the pandemic, and the aim of launching the fund is to collaborate with grantees and partners to find creative solutions to the pressing needs of refugees and vulnerable students.”

The emergency fund promotes the continuation of existing programs for refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, to counter the impact of precautionary measures meant to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The fund’s objectives focus on the gaps and challenges faced by the most vulnerable refugee youth and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon, which the UNHCR says are among the top 10 countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees globally.




Palestinian activists and volunteers for the Women's Program Center disinfect and prepare crafts and reading material packages to distribute to children in the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Aiming to reach 6,000 children and youth, the fund focuses specifically on refugees living in overcrowded camps, informal tent settlements and congested host communities, where access to online education is currently out of reach.

It will help organizations address their challenges in transferring their education programs to online modalities or TV. Logistical barriers such as lack of connectivity and technology access will be addressed through the provision of internet connection, laptops and tablets, as well as technical support for digital content.

The fund will also provide access to innovative learning methods, such as high-quality bilingual educational platforms and online tutoring support.




Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair, chairman of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation (AGFE), during a visit to the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. (Supplied)

“The world is going through challenging times,” said Khaled Khalifa, senior adviser and Gulf Cooperation Council representative at the UNHCR, which has highlighted the need for more support to refugee education.

“The spread of COVID-19 is disrupting the lives and education of millions of refugees. The partnership between the UNHCR and the fund will help refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, who aren’t equipped with the necessary tools, to join their peers in distance learning without further exposing them to infection.”




Syrian refugees check the damage following a fire that ripped through their refugee camp in the village of Yammouneh in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley in 2018. (AFP/File Photo)

To date, the fund supports 11 organizations that are collectively reaching over 17,000 refugee and vulnerable youth, and aims to benefit 20,000 refugee youth in Jordan and Lebanon, and conflict-affected children residing in the UAE, by 2022.

Another AGFE program is the Al-Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program (OLSP), which was designed to provide high-achieving Arab youth from disadvantaged backgrounds with educational opportunities.

“The reality is that according to UNESCO, the percentage of people with a master’s or equivalent in the Arab world is lower than the global average,” AGFE CEO Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar told Arab News.

“Our OLSP scholars are talented Arab youth who’ll enter post-graduate degree programs at Arizona State University without leaving homes.”

She said AGFE has ensured that students who cannot afford the high fees of elite universities will be able to access elite graduate programs while remaining connected to their communities.

“Online learning is a key solution to help these deserving students enrol in master’s degrees for programs like clinical research management and biomimicry, to become globally competitive specialists,” said Ben Jaafar.

“This is good for them as individuals, but even better for our region since they’ll continue to contribute to the development of their nations.”

FASTFACTS

Arab e-Learning

Jordan and Lebanon are among the top 10 hosts of refugees globally. (Source: UNHCR) 


Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
Updated 43 min 22 sec ago

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
  • At least 122 people have also been injured in the fires
  • President Erdogan announced that an arson investigation has already been initiated

ANKARA: Three people were reported dead Thursday and more than 100 injured as thousands of firefighters battled huge blazes spreading across the Mediterranean resort regions of Turkey’s southern coast.
Officials also launched an investigation into suspicions the fires that broke out Wednesday in four locations to the east of the tourist hotspot Antalya were the result of arson.
Turkey’s disaster and emergencies office said three people were killed — including an 82-year-old who lived alone — and 122 injured by the fires.
“Treatment of 58 of our citizens continues,” it was quoted as saying by the Anadolu state news agency.
The fires first emerged across a sparsely populated region about 75 kilometers (45 miles) east of Antalya — a resort especially popular with Russian and other eastern European tourists.
But they were creeping closer Thursday to sandy beaches dotted with hotels and resorts.
Images on social media and Turkish TV showed residents jumping out of their cars and running for their lives through smoke-filled streets lit up by orange flames.
The heavy clouds of smoke turned the sky dark orange over a beachfront hotel complex in the town of Manavgat.
Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said a hotel was also being evacuated near the tourist city of Bodrum — some 300 kilometers west of Antalya — as new fires broke out across the southern coast.
Pakdemirli said 150 cows and thousands of sheep and goats had perished in the flames.

The fires were raging with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and wind gusts of 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour.
But Antalya mayor Muhittin Bocek said he suspected foul play because the fires started in four locations at once.
“This suggests an arson attack, but we do not have clear information about that at this stage,” Bocek said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said an investigation had already been launched.
The Russian embassy said Moscow had sent three giant firefighting aircraft to dump fire retardant on the burning forests to contain the flames.
More than 4,000 Turkish firefighters had been dispatched across the region to help contain the damage and search for people needing help.
They rescued 10 people on Thursday who were stranded on a boat in a lake that was surrounded by burning forest.
“All of the state’s means have been mobilized,” Environment Minister Murat Kurum said. “All our teams are in the field.”


Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
Updated 17 min 52 sec ago

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
  • This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago
  • The widespread attacks at army outposts near the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic

AMMAN: Syrian rebels waged a spate of mortar attacks on Syrian army checkpoints in the southern province of Daraa, rebels, residents and the army said on Thursday.
This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago.
The widespread attacks at army outposts near the Damascus-Daraa highway leading to the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic at the main gateway for goods from Lebanon and Syria to the Gulf.
Multiple army checkpoints around key towns and villages from the town of Nawa north of the province to Muzarib near the border with Jordan were also seized, they said.
The army has sent reinforcements from its elite Fourth Division, run by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, senior military defectors said, confirming army leaks.
The attacks came after the army launched a dawn operation against the rebel-held old quarter of the city of Daraa, where peaceful protests against decades of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011 and were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.
The army has sought to reassert its control after the collapse of talks earlier this week to get local elders and former rebels to allow the army to extend its control inside the old quarter, known as Daraa al Balad.
The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of the strategic province that borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights to the west in the summer of 2018.
Russian-brokered deals at the time forced rebels to hand over heavy weapons and return state institutions in the enclave but kept away the army from entering their neighborhoods.
“The rebels have waged a counter offensive after the army operation against Daraa whose intensity has taken the regime by surprise,” said Zaid al Rayes, a political opposition figure in touch with local groups in Daraa.
State media said terrorists had fired at the main hospital in Daraa and the army had evacuated hundreds of fleeing families from rebel held neighborhoods.
Thousands of former rebels had chosen to stay with their families rather than head to remaining rebel-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas had gathered.
The province saw a widespread boycott of last May’s polls that extended Assad’s presidency in what officials saw as a defiance of state authority.
Western intelligence sources say growing dissent is aggravated by the presence of Iranian-backed local militias who now hold sway and act with impunity since the central government is too weak to impose its authority on the area.


Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
Updated 29 July 2021

Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
  • They sent “flirtatious” videos to build rapport and later delivered malware to targets’ devices
  • It is unclear whether any sensitive information was stolen

LONDON: A group of Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors from Liverpool, UK, and sent flirtatious messages in an attempt to steal sensitive information from defense and aerospace industry personnel.

The hackers’ false identities were exposed by Facebook and the cybersecurity company Proofpoint, which said the operation proves the effort that Iran is putting into targeting individuals of interest.

The hackers have been identified as part of the TA456 group, which also goes by the name of Tortoiseshell — a group widely believed to be aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Proofpoint described the group as “one of the most determined Iranian-aligned threat actors” that it tracks, due to tactics of spending months or years building up a relationship with targets across various platforms, as well as its “general persistence.”

The operatives created fake Facebook, Instagram and email accounts for a woman named Marcella Flores. She was depicted as a smiling, tanned and dark-haired Spanish woman working as a fitness instructor in Liverpool. They created a fake education and work history for her.

Proofpoint said that Flores would target people who publicly identified themselves as employees at defence contractors on social media accounts, befriending them before starting up a conversation.

In one case, she sent the target benign messages and photographs, as well as a “flirtatious” video to build a rapport, before later sending a link to a dietary survey but that in fact contained a malware download that would steal usernames, passwords and other data.

Proofpoint did not say whether the attacks were successful, but if they were, the stolen information could be used to gain access to larger aerospace companies that the original target was a subsidiary or contractor for.

Facebook banned her account and that of several others earlier this month, saying that they were all fake online personas created by the Iranian operatives to “conduct espionage operations across the internet.”

Facebook said: “Our investigation found them targeting military personnel and companies in the defence and aerospace industries primarily in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK and Europe.”

When the comprehensive campaign was revealed, Amin Sabeti, an expert in Iranian cyber-operations, told Arab News that the strategy — which he dubs “social engineering” hacking — is a go-to tactic for Iranian operatives, or those working on behalf of the state.

“It’s the same pattern that Iranian state-backed hackers have been following for years,” he said.

Sabeti explained that they rely on manipulating targets into providing sensitive information or account details that can then be exploited for their gain — and, since they are operating from Iranian soil, “they have the consent of the regime.”

Sabeti said: “It’s easy, cheap, there’s plausible deniability and it works, it’s effective.”


Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
Updated 29 July 2021

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
  • WHO said the highly transmissible strain has been recorded in 15 out of the region’s 22 countries
  • Tunisia has been struggling to contain the outbreak

CAIRO: The World Health Organization said Thursday the Delta variant has led to a "surge" in coronavirus outbreaks triggering a "fourth wave" in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where vaccination rates remain low.
The global health body said the highly transmissible strain, first detected in India, has been recorded in 15 out of the 22 countries of the region under its purview, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
"The circulation of the Delta variant is fuelling the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in an increasing number of countries in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region," it said in a statement.
"Most of the new cases and hospitalised patients are unvaccinated people. We are now in the fourth wave of Covid-19 across the region," said Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region.
Infections have increased by 55 percent, and deaths by 15 percent, in the last month compared to the month before. More than 310,000 case and 3,500 deaths have been recorded weekly.
Countries such as Tunisia, which has suffered the biggest number of Covid-19 deaths in North Africa, have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
Critical shortages of oxygen tanks and intensive care beds have stretched the capacities of healthcare systems regionally.
WHO noted the rapid spread of the Delta variant was quickly making it "the dominant strain" in the region.
According to a recent paper in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the Delta variant was 1,000 times higher than patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing its contagiousness.

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In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes

In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes
Updated 29 July 2021

In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes

In Iraq, vaccine hesitancy gives way to jabs as Covid spikes
  • "In the last 10 days, the number of (vaccination) patients has risen to 600 or 700 people a day" compared with 200 to 400 previously
  • This week Iraq reported 12,000 new infections in 24 hours, a milestone previously unreached since the pandemic hit in March last year

BAGHDAD: A soldier exposes his shoulder and awaits a jab to the amusement of fellow troops, a familiar scene in Iraq where a Covid spike is prompting more vaccinations despite widespread hesitancy.
At a Baghdad hospital administering the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, chaos reigns as dozens of men and women of all ages stream into an inoculation center where doctors are unaccustomed to seeing such crowds.
An elderly man shuts his eyes as the needle approaches, a young woman poses for her friends, and patients emerge from a room clutching certificates and looking relieved.
“In the last 10 days, the number of (vaccination) patients has risen to 600 or 700 people a day” compared with 200 to 400 previously, says Dr. Abbas Mohammed.
“The increase in the number of infections and deaths is really starting to scare people,” he says.
This week Iraq reported 12,000 new infections in 24 hours, a milestone previously unreached since the pandemic hit in March last year.
On Wednesday, a new daily high was reached with 13,515 cases. The government is ramping up warnings and incentives for people to get vaccinated as well as to comply better with poorly followed health protocols.
“Up until now, I was afraid (of vaccination), but the worsening of the situation has convinced me,” says Ali, a young man now “very excited” about getting his first dose.
The wait can last several hours, says 50-year-old Adnan Abdelhamid, bemoaning the “lack of organization” and “the people who know someone and go before the others.”
But the majority of patients are satisfied, like Salima Mehdi, an elderly woman whose head is veiled by a chequered scarf.
“I am so happy to be vaccinated, thank God,” she says, her eyes gleaming behind her facemask.
Dr. Mohammed says the number of people vaccinated in the country each day has risen from 23,000 to 110,000 of late.
And despite the blazing summer heat, queues are getting longer in front of vaccination centers in the capital, in the eastern province of Wasit and in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north.
The number of people to have received two doses reached 1.5 million this week in Iraq, a country with a 40-million strong population and where distrust of vaccines has been particularly strong.
“There is a jump in the rate of vaccination in all provinces,” health ministry spokesman Saif Al-Badr told AFP.
Fifty-year-old Ali admits he has long been afraid of the side effects of vaccines, an anxiety fueled by misinformation, including from health professionals.
“But more and more doctors on TV are explaining why you should get vaccinated. We also see people around us leaving. So I took the plunge,” he says, although the rest of his family have yet to decide.
“They are waiting to see; I am their guinea pig,” he says with a loud laugh.
A doctor at a private clinic says his patients prefer to get treated for Covid rather than get vaccinated.
“Too many people still don’t realize the importance of the vaccine and preventive measures,” says the doctor who requested anonymity.
But “opinions change easily in the face of the gravity of the situation,” he adds, and notes that the recent growing awareness is a “very good thing.”
Iraq launched its inoculation campaign in March and uses the Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines.
On a visit to Washington this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi said some 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were to be delivered in the coming weeks.
More than 18,000 people have officially died of Covid in Iraq in the past 18 months, and the country has recorded nearly 1.6 million cases of infection.