Alabama woman who joined IS hopes to return from Syria camp

ROJ CAMP, Syria (AP) — A woman who ran away from home in Alabama at the age of 20, joined the Islamic State group and had a child with one of its fighters says she still hopes to return to the United States, serve prison time if necessary, and advocate against the extremists.

In a rare interview from the Roj detention camp in Syria where she is being held by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, Hoda Muthana said she was brainwashed by online traffickers into joining the group in 2014 and regrets everything except her young son, now of pre-school age.

“If I need to sit in prison, and do my time, I will do it. … I won’t fight against it,” the 28-year-old told The News Movement. “I’m hoping my government looks at me as someone young at the time and naive.”

It’s a line she’s repeated in various media interviews since fleeing from one of the extremist group’s last enclaves in Syria in early 2019.

But four years earlier, at the height of the extremists’ power, she had voiced enthusiastic support for them on social media and in an interview with BuzzFeed News. IS then ruled a self-declared Islamic caliphate stretching across roughly a third of both Syria and Iraq. In posts sent from her Twitter account in 2015 she called on Americans to join the group and carry out attacks in the U.S., suggesting drive-by shootings or vehicle rammings targeting gatherings for national holidays.

In her interview with TNM, Muthana now says her phone was taken from her and that the tweets were sent by IS supporters.

Muthana was born in New Jersey to Yemeni immigrants and once had a U.S. passport. She was raised in a conservative Muslim household in Hoover, Alabama, just outside Birmingham. In 2014, she told her family she was going on a school trip but flew to Turkey and crossed into Syria instead, funding the travel with tuition checks that she had secretly cashed.

The Obama administration cancelled her citizenship in 2016, saying her father was an accredited Yemeni diplomat at the time she was born — a rare revocation of birthright citizenship. Her lawyers have disputed that move, arguing that the father’s diplomatic accreditation ended before she was born.

The Trump administration maintained that she was not a citizen and barred her from returning, even as it pressed European allies to repatriate their own detained nationals to reduce pressure on the detention camps.

U.S. courts have sided with the government on the question of Muthana’s citizenship, and last January the Supreme Court declined to consider her lawsuit seeking re-entry.

That has left her and her son languishing in a detention camp in northern Syria housing thousands of widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.

Some 65,600 suspected Islamic State members and their families — both Syrians and foreign citizens — are held in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria run by U.S.-allied Kurdish groups, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last month.

Women accused of affiliation with IS and their minor children are largely housed in the al-Hol and Roj camps, under what the rights group described as “life threatening conditions.” The camp inmates include more than 37,400 foreigners, among them Europeans and North Americans.

Human Rights Watch and other monitors have cited dire living conditions in the camps, including inadequate food, water and medical care, as well as the physical and sexual abuse of inmates by guards and fellow detainees.

Kurdish-led authorities and activists have blamed IS sleeper cells for surging violence within the facilities, including the beheading of two Egyptian girls, aged 11 and 13, in al-Hol camp in November. Turkish airstrikes targeting the Kurdish groups launched that month also hit close to al-Hol. Camp officials alleged that the Turkish strikes were targeting security forces guarding the camp.

“None of the foreigners have been brought before a judicial authority … to determine the necessity and legality of their detention, making their captivity arbitrary and unlawful,” Human Rights Watch wrote. “Detention based solely on family ties amounts to collective punishment, a war crime.”

Calls to repatriate the detainees were largely ignored in the immediate aftermath of IS’ bloody reign, which was marked by massacres, beheadings and other atrocities, many of which were broadcast to the world in graphic films circulated on social media.

But with the passage of time, the pace of repatriations has started to pick up. Human Rights Watch said some 3,100 foreigners — mostly women and children — have been sent home over the past year. Most were Iraqis, who comprise the majority of detainees, but citizens were also repatriated to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The U.S. has repatriated a total of 39 American nationals. It’s unclear how many other Americans remain in the camps.

These days, Muthana portrays herself as a victim of the Islamic State.

Speaking with TNM, she describes how, after arriving in Syria in 2014, she was detained in a guest house reserved for unmarried women and children. “I’ve never seen that kind of filthiness in my life, like there was 100 women and twice as much kids, running around, too much noise, filthy beds,” she said.

The only way to escape was to marry a fighter. She eventually married and remarried three times. Her first two husbands, including the father of her son, were killed in battle. She reportedly divorced her third husband.

The extremist group, which is also known as ISIS, no longer controls any territory in Syria or Iraq but continues to carry out sporadic attacks and has supporters in the camps themselves. Muthana says she still has to be careful about what she says because of fear of reprisal.

“Even here, right now, I can’t fully say everything I want to say. But once I do leave, I will. I will be an advocate against this,” she said. “I wish I can help the victims of ISIS in the West understand that someone like me is not part of it, that I as well am a victim of ISIS.”

Hassan Shibly, an attorney who has assisted Muthana’s family, said it is “absolutely clear that she was brainwashed and taken advantage of.”

He said her family wishes she could come back, pay her debt to society and then help others from “falling into the dark path that she was led down.”

“She was absolutely misguided, and no one is denying that. But again, she was a teenager who was the victim of a very sophisticated recruitment operation that focuses on taking advantage of the young, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised,” he said.

Lawmakers agree to repeal military vaccine mandate in defense bill over Pentagon objections

Congress is poised to use the annual defense policy bill to eliminate the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.  

In a compromise with Republicans, House Democrats are allowing language into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that repeals the coronavirus vaccine mandate for U.S. service members a year after it was enacted, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) confirmed to The Hill on Tuesday.  

The bill, which lays out how a $847 billion Defense Department (DOD) top line will be allocated in fiscal 2023, is tentatively set to be released late Tuesday or early Wednesday and voted on by the House on Thursday, Rogers said.  

Asked if he believes the language will stick amid all the last-minute jostling over the bill, Rogers replied, “Yes.” 

Republican lawmakers for months have pushed back on the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first instituted in August 2021.  

Since then, thousands of active-duty service members have been discharged for refusing the shots, according to the latest Pentagon numbers.  

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is vying for the Speaker’s gavel in the next Congress, said on Sunday that the NDAA “will not move” unless the mandate for the military is lifted through the bill. 

The compromise is effectively a loss for the White House and Pentagon, which have both opposed using the NDAA to repeal the vaccine mandate.  

“We lost a million people to this virus,” Austin told reporters traveling with him Saturday, as reported by The Associated Press. “A million people died in the United States of America. We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.” 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday strongly supported the Pentagon’s mandate but also emphasized that the art of compromise means that no side gets everything it wants. For Democrats, he said, that might mean they have to give up the mandate to pass the bigger package. 

“It’s a question of how can you get something done,” he told reporter in the Capitol. “We have a very close vote in the Senate [and] a very close vote in the House. And you don’t just get everything you want.”

One thing not expected in the bill, however, is language to reinstate troops, sailors and airmen who were discharged or received penalties for declining the vaccine, a provision GOP lawmakers hoped to insert in the legislation.  

Instead, lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are planning report language for the bill that allows the DOD to evaluate service members affected by the mandate, Rogers said.  

“There’s no statutory language, but there’s report language that tells the [Defense Department] to ascertain everybody that’s been adversely affected by the vaccine mandate and what it would take to make them whole and get that to us next year, and then we can decide if we want to try to do that or not,” he said.  

“Some people aren’t going to want to come back to the military, but if they do, what would that look like? How many people are we talking about?” he said.

Immigrants in Joplin – Top 5 countries they come from

Nearly 14% of the United States population is composed of immigrants. But in reality, the vast majority of Americans today are here because of relatives who immigrated from other countries some time in the last several hundred years.

And while the distinctive American culture and spirit is the result of blending many diverse cultures and histories, the United States has for centuries had an up-and-down relationship with immigration.

Each era of immigration has been met with reductive ideas and resistance, whether the backlash was directed toward the Chinese, Irish, Italians, or Mexicans. Immigration laws have targeted specific groups at various times, stoking intolerance and preventing people from truly joining American society. Over time, however, as laws changed to be more equitable and immigrants found their footings, we have reaped the rewards of innovation in business, music, art, literature, dance, food, societal norms, entertainment, and sports—all while realizing a greater understanding of and respect for different cultures, religions, and ideas.

Stacker compiled a list of the countries most immigrants to Joplin come from, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Countries are ranked by highest number of foreign-born residents who lived in Joplin as of 2019’s five-year estimates.

Keep reading to find out more about the immigrant community in Joplin:

16 / 20Joseph Oropel // Shutterstock

#5. Philippines

Joplin, MO Metro Area
– Number of residents: 232
– Percent of foreign born residents: 3.2%

– Number of residents: 1,983,939
– Percent of foreign born residents: 4.5%
– #4 most common country of origin

17 / 20Abasaa // Wikimedia Commons

#4. Micronesia

Joplin, MO Metro Area
– Number of residents: 280
– Percent of foreign born residents: 3.9%

– Number of residents: 28,315
– Percent of foreign born residents: 0.1%
– #109 most common country of origin

18 / 20Quangpraha // Pixabay

#3. Vietnam

Joplin, MO Metro Area
– Number of residents: 380
– Percent of foreign born residents: 5.3%

– Number of residents: 1,336,988
– Percent of foreign born residents: 3.0%
– #6 most common country of origin

19 / 20Jakub Hejtmánek // Wikicommons

#2. Mexico

Joplin, MO Metro Area
– Number of residents: 1,839
– Percent of foreign born residents: 25.6%

– Number of residents: 11,250,541
– Percent of foreign born residents: 25.6%
– #1 most common country of origin

20 / 20Kobby Dagan // Shutterstock

#1. Guatemala

Joplin, MO Metro Area
– Number of residents: 1,998
– Percent of foreign born residents: 27.9%

– Number of residents: 979,098
– Percent of foreign born residents: 2.2%
– #10 most common country of origin

How much money international travelers brought into Joplin

JOPLIN, Mo. — More than $4 million — that’s how much international travelers spent in Joplin last year according to a new report. It breaks down the list of tourists both by country of origin — and how much they spent using Visa credit cards.

Canada was first on the list — more than 16,000 travelers spent nearly $1.7 million. Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Guatemala also topped the list.

Overall, there was a total of 21,000 international travelers.

Joplin teen selected for national Olympic cycling training

JOPLIN, Mo. — With the school year close to being over, many area families are planning vacations and road trips.
But one area family chooses a different mode of transportation than most to get from point “A” to point “B”.

When members of the Hendricks family in Southwest Missouri go on a trip, they do so on wheels, but without leaving any carbon footprint. Like most families, this family takes trips, but they don’t use cars.

It all started a few years ago when Chris Hendricks, an employee of the American Ramp Company, which sponsored a ride for charity, decided to give cycling a try.

“First one that I did was from Moore, Oklahoma to Joplin to raise money for tornado victims. I enjoyed that so much I told my wife about it, she got kind of excited. We got her a bike and we turned around the next year and did another ride from Joplin to Nashville so it was like 600 miles in 6 days,” said Chris Hendricks, Proud Dad.

Hendricks’ jersey

The couple even did a seven day, 700 mile ride to Chicago.

And when their son, Coren, was about 10 they bought him a bike. As it turns out, he’s pretty good at it. Coren’s ability on the bike has captured the attention of the USA Cycling Olympic Development Academy that has selected him to represent the USA in an upcoming event in Europe.

“We leave somewhere around July 7th through the 27 for the Netherlands and we’ll also be racing in Belgium, very excited it will be a big change but I think I’m ready for it.” Coren said.

“I’m very proud. I think I’m most proud of his work ethic, and his willingness to just keep trying even if it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, he’ll just keep trying, and keep trying and that’s what makes me proud,” said Amber Hendricks, Proud Mom.

“My understanding is it’s a pretty select group that they choose from, they usually have a few hundred applicants and they choose 10 to 20 athletes a year to do that so the opportunity to be on a development path towards the Olympics or the national team is just something that as a parent you couldn’t be prouder,” added Chris.

Sunflowers for Ukraine local fundraiser

JOPLIN, Mo. — The State of Kansas is known as the “Sunflower State.”

The sunflower also happens to be the national flower of Ukraine. That’s why the Joplin business Higdon Florist is currently raising money for the country through the sale of sunflowers.

Lance Hoopai says it’s hard to follow the news out of Ukraine without wanting to help in some way.

For the remainder of this month, all the proceeds from the sale of a sunflowers in any arrangement – five-dollars a stem — will go to help Ukrainian refugees.

“For us to look at the news and to see that, we felt we needed to do something other than just taking money out of our own pocket and giving it to a non-governmental organization, we decided that maybe it would be better if we tied in the whole community as well,” said Hoopai, Co-Owner, Higdon Florist.

All the money collected through the promotion at the end of the month will go to Samaritan’s Purse — which has sent team members to Ukraine, Poland and Moldova to help war victims and refugees.

Webb City man encourages others to fly Ukrainian flag

WEBB CITY, Mo. — You can find American flags waving in front of Four State homes on any given day of the week. But a Webb City man has been flying some different colors lately.

Ray Hulstine has a Ukrainian flag on his house. He says he’s been sickened by the brutality of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s treatment of the Ukrainian people.

He also says, if he was younger — he’d travel to one of the countries accepting refugees to help out.

“This, this means, this means something more than just a Democrat or Republican, this is about democracy against autocracy and I just, just feel for the Ukrainians, they’re good people!” he said.

Hulstine got the flag on Amazon.

He says he hasn’t had anyone complain about it — and is encouraging others to do the same to show their support.

Host family fundraiser aims to assist former Ukrainian student's family

ORONOGO, Mo. – The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues to be felt across the world, including the Four States.

Now a host family is looking to help a former foreign exchange student, as she tries to begin a new life in Poland.

“I was a part of their family, and I still am,” said Sofiya Bezpala, a Ukrainian living in Poland.

Sofiya Bezpala became part of the Four State community six years ago as a foreign exchange student. She went to school, church and even volunteered.

“She came into our lives 2016 to 2017, and she changed our lives forever,” said Amy Krtek, Sofiya’s host family.

She’s since returned home to Ukraine — and later went to school in Kharkiv. But it all began to change when Russian forces attacked Ukraine.

“She lived in an apartment downtown in the city, and I could actually hear the bombs going off whenever I called her,” said Krtek.

“I woke up personally at 5:17 in the morning, that’s when I personally heard the bombing for the first time. The people in my city, we never believed in the war, like none of my parents, none of my colleagues, we were not running out of the country and stuff and we just lived regular life, everything was perfectly fine and we were not ready. The thought that I got was if I die within the next hour, I would prefer to die with my family,” said Sofiya Bezpala, Ukrainian Living In Poland

Sofiya and her parents began to flee the country like many other Ukrainians. Suddenly a trip that would take two hours took longer.

“The first day it took her nine hours, the second day it took her nine hours, the third day she drove for 20 hours,” said Krtek.

“We were lucky to stay at my friend’s houses. One time we had to sleep in the car at the gas station because we were waiting to get the gas as soon as possible. I am safe but the fear hasn’t gone anywhere,” said Bezpala.

The Bezpala family safely made it to Krakow, Poland. Like many others, they’re trying to restart their lives.

“Trying to find a job, trying to file all of the documents so that we can be totally legal here, it’s just a lot of things,” said Bezpala.

Her family stateside is offering a helping hand — setting up a fundraiser to help the Bezpala’s have a little relief.

“So much support through my church family The Sanctuary of Joplin, my work friends. So many people because Sofiya was so involved,” said Krtek.

“It’s something I’m super thankful for because at least it releases a little bit of the stress we have here now… My entire community that I have in America, they are very protective of me and I am very thankful for that,” said Bezpala.

A link to the fundraiser can be found here.

Donating to Ukraine scam warning

KSNF — If you’re looking to help the people of Ukraine, experts say be careful of any donations you make.

If that donation is financial, the Better Business Bureau has some tips on how to ensure your money doesn’t end up in the hands of scammers instead of the people that really need it.

They say to be wary of any claim that 100% of the donation will go to victims. They say all charities have some amount of administrative costs.

Be cautious when giving online to unfamiliar charities, even if that claim links to a relief organization. Find out if the charity actually has a presence in the region they claim to be helping. And be cautious about crowdfunding because some websites do very little to check out the individuals seeking funds after a disaster.

You can always check with the Better Business Bureau to get a review of actual charities and nonprofits.

To do that, we’ve provided a link here.

COVID-19 emergency could end this year, WHO says

GENEVA (AP) — The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said Tuesday that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic — deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns — could be over this year if huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly.

Dr. Michael Ryan, speaking during a panel discussion on vaccine equity hosted by the World Economic Forum, said “we may never end the virus” because such pandemic viruses “end up becoming part of the ecosystem.”

But “we have a chance to end the public health emergency this year if we do the things that we’ve been talking about,” he said.

WHO has slammed the imbalance in COVID-19 vaccination between rich and poor countries as a catastrophic moral failure. Fewer than 10% of people in lower-income countries have received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Ryan told the virtual gathering of world and business leaders that if vaccines and other tools aren’t shared fairly, the tragedy of the virus, which has so far killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide, would continue.

“What we need to do is get to low levels of disease incidence with maximum vaccination of our populations, so nobody has to die,” Ryan said. “The issue is: It’s the death. It’s the hospitalizations. It’s the disruption of our social, economic, political systems that’s caused the tragedy — not the virus.”

Ryan also waded into the growing debate about whether COVID-19 should be considered endemic, a label some countries like Spain have called for to help better live with the virus, or still a pandemic — involving intensified measures that many countries have taken to fight the spread.

“Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people; endemic HIV; endemic violence in our inner cities. Endemic in itself does not mean good. Endemic just means it’s here forever,” he said.

Public health officials have warned it is highly unlikely COVID-19 will be eliminated and say it will continue to kill people, though at much lower levels, even after it becomes endemic.

Fellow panelist Gabriela Bucher, executive director of the anti-poverty organization Oxfam International, cited the “enormous urgency” of fairer distribution of vaccines and the need for large-scale production. She said resources to fight the pandemic were being “hoarded by a few companies and a few shareholders.”

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, decried the “total collapse of global cooperation and solidarity” over the last two years, saying it was “totally unacceptable” that only 7% of Africa’s population was fully vaccinated.

He also sought to douse the belief among some that vaccine hesitancy is widespread in Africa, citing studies that say 80% of the continent’s populations were ready to get shots if the vaccines were available.

The comments came on the second day of the online alternative to the annual World Economic Forum gathering, which was postponed over pandemic health concerns.

In speeches at the event, world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed approaches to the pandemic. He said his country, which quickly rolled out a widespread vaccination campaign, has a strategy of being “at the forefront of the medicines and the vaccines” against COVID-19.

Citing advanced research in Israel, Bennett said, “We want to be first in the world to know how vaccines and the new variants respond to one another.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said separately that his country had high levels of vaccination because society values protecting the elderly and vulnerable. He plans to keep stringent border controls in place until the end of February.

He said he was trying to balance restrictions with keeping the economy open but that “so-called zero COVID policy against the omicron variant is not possible nor appropriate.”

In a separate press briefing Tuesday, WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the omicron variant of COVID-19 “continues to sweep the world” and said there were 18 million new COVID-19 cases reported last week.