Islamic State may have been driven from Kobani, but wounds remain

Friday, November 13, 2015

By Roy Gutman

McClatchy Foreign Staff


KOBANI, Syria _ Dump trucks by the hundreds ply the streets of this mostly Kurdish town daily, hauling off the rubble left from the Islamic State’s attack a year ago and the U.S. airstrikes that forced the insurgents out.

Whole sections of the town still lie in ruins, with multistory buildings flattened like pancakes, some 3,500 houses destroyed and 4,000 seriously damaged, according the official overseeing rebuilding.

But the Kurdish authorities that control the enclave have decided to make this a showpiece for reconstruction. Water is now flowing to some 40,000 of the 70,000 residents, and the town is bustling. Cement trucks can be seen heading for construction sites, businesses are reopening, and there are even city services, like trucks washing down the streets.

“We will build a new Kobani. It will be ecological _ no house more than three floors,” said Abdurrahman Hamo, 41, the coordinator of reconstruction. “Every resident should be able to enjoy a bit of earth, see the sun, and have a garden at home.”

While the town and its environs seems to be physically on the mend, reconstruction may not ease the anguish caused by the Islamic State’s second attack in June, when its fighters infiltrated the city and slaughtered nearly 300 people, most of them civilians.

Kobani is a tale of two disasters. The first played out on live television in autumn 2014, when Kurdish fighters fought and died to save the town as the U.S. airdropped ammunition and conducted airstrikes. The second drama took place off camera, in the middle of the night and on the back streets. This time, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG militia that had fought so valiantly to defeat the Islamic State, were nowhere to be found.

Berivan Hasan, 25, lost six members of her family on June 25, the first of three days of terror. It was during Ramadan, when many people sleep during the day when they are supposed to be fasting but are up well into the night when eating and drinking are allowed.

“I got home at 3:30 a.m. I was so tired. I woke up because of the sound of bullets, heavy shooting in our house,” said Hasan, the deputy prime minister of the canton.

Islamic State fighters had entered the house and shot her older brother and her sister-in-law on the ground floor.

“He was in the corner of the room. They fired many bullets.” His wife, with a 2-month-old baby in her arms, rushed to him. “They killed her as well,” Hasan recalled.

Then her mother, an aunt and two cousins went into the street seeking help. All were shot. Hasan barricaded herself in her room.

When she came out the next afternoon, her first concern was for her brother’s six children, but all had survived. She had suddenly become their surrogate parent.

About 80 Islamic State fighters were on a rampage. They went house to house, threw grenades into dwellings, shot family members in groups, and posted snipers on rooftops, shooting down at civilians, Human Rights Watch reported, based on interviews with survivors. It took three days before the YPG was able to restore order to the town.

Altogether, the Islamic State fighters killed 286 people, all but 28 of them civilians, according to Bozan Khalil, the minister of the interior in the canton. Hundreds more were wounded.

What happened next was typical for any Islamic State assault against Kurdish- dominated northern Syria. Leaders of the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, immediately blamed Turkey for the slaughter, as did the main Kurdish party in Turkey.

Figen Yuksekdag, co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party, the Kurdish party that had entered the Turkish Parliament for the first time weeks earlier, led the charge. “The whole world knows the Turkish government has supported ISIL for years,” she said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “Today’s massacre is a part of this support.”

Salih Muslim, the PYD’s co-president, made the same claim. “Everything shows there was infiltration from Turkey,” he said. “Turkey is denying everything, but she is telling a lie. Some had escaped to Turkey and yielded to Turkish soldiers.”

Turkish support for the Islamic State is an article of faith among Kurdish officials. “For sure, they came across the Turkish border,” said Khalid Ali, the coordinator of the House of the Peoples, a group that helps run the city of Tal Abyad, interviewed in mid-October.

“We don’t have any proof,” said Khalil, the canton’s interior minister, but “for sure Turkey gave them some intelligence.”

Hasan sees it differently. “The fault was ours,” she said. The Kurdish police force and the YPG “should take responsibility. We couldn’t provide enough protection for the civilians.”

The YPG fighters who had been posted to the town had left to fight at Tal Abyad, 35 miles to the east, and once they’d pushed the Islamic State from that city had moved

to Sirrin, south of Kobani. The capture of Tal Abyad allowed the militia to link up two of three self-styled cantons and craft a contiguous entity Kurds call Rojava. It also cut a major transit link from Turkey to the Islamic State.

But Kobani paid the price.

The second assault of the Islamic State was another reminder that it is no ordinary terrorist group.

The fighters were outfitted in uniforms identical to those of the YPG or to those of the Arab units of the Free Syrian Army who fight alongside it. They learned simple Kurdish phrases and used them as they approached a checkpoint 2 miles south of Kobani about 3 a.m.

“They managed to talk their way through the checkpoint,” Khalil said. Some of the blame was on the guards on duty. “One of the fundamental errors we made was that we accepted anyone who wanted to join the Asayish,” the local police force, he said.

Islamic State fighters also came from other directions.

Coordinating by walkie-talkie, the assailants started firing their weapons once in the town. “We thought people were celebrating the liberation of Sirrin,” said Hasan. “They were not.”

The Islamic State also drew on newly inserted sleeper cells. A few days before the massacre, the Islamic State ordered all Kurds out of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital southeast of Kobani, and many of those expelled headed to Kobani. “They could have sneaked some people in among them,” said Khalil.

Today, there’s a neighborhood watch group on every street, to alert everyone to any disturbance and become the first line of defense. “We have learned our lesson,” said Hasan.

By Roy Gutman

Iranian-trained Shiite fighters rally to Syria offensive

Friday, October 23, 2015

By Mitchell Prothero

McClatchy Washington Bureau


IRBIL, Iraq _ Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi Shiite militias in unprecedented numbers have been drawn into the Syrian civil war as the Syrian government backed by Russian air power embarks on a four- pronged offensive to retake territory lost to rebels over the past four years.

Hundreds if not thousands of Iranian- trained and -equipped Shiite fighters have joined the battle, providing the government with badly needed manpower, according to a wide range of sources, including Lebanese officials, members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, Iraqi militia officials and reports on social media sites.”The Syrian army was about to collapse because none of the young people wanted to do their military service and went to Europe,” said one Lebanese intelligence official speaking from Beirut.

Because of his close personal and professional ties to the Syrian government, he asked that his name not be used.

“Putin brought weapons, planes and artillery, but this is never enough, you need men,” he added. “And the Iranians produced them by bringing in more from the Resistance, Iraq and even other places.” The Resistance is how many pro-Hezbollah Lebanese refer to the organization.

The early days of the Russian bombing, which began Sept. 30, primarily targeted front-line areas critical to the government in Hama, Homs and Idlib provinces in Syria’s west, far from areas that the Islamic State controls.

Those airstrikes brought condemnations from U.S. officials, who said they were clearly intended to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad in its fight with rebels who include U.S.-supplied groups and were not aimed at the Islamic State.

Then, this past weekend, thousands of pro-government fighters backed by Russian artillery, jets and helicopters launched an assault aimed at retaking Aleppo, which has been split in the years-long stalemate between the government and rebel groups.

The new fighting sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a flow that is likely to exacerbate the refugee crisis that already has sent millions fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Dr. Zaidoun al-Zoabi, head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, told the BBC that several villages he had visited were empty, and he saw thousands of people on the move with no shelter or medical support.

The recent influx of foreign fighters _ mostly from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite Muslim communities in Iraq _ appears to exceed anything seen so far in the civil war and comes at a time that the Syrian government has found itself short of the manpower needed to reconquer vast areas of its country.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 52,000 Syrian soldiers had died in the civil war as of Oct. 15, more than 40 percent of a force that was estimated at 125,000 before the civil war.

Another 35,000 pro-government militiamen have been killed. Fewer rebels have died, the observatory estimated, with about 81,000, including foreign fighters, killed in their efforts to topple Assad.

One U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, said the Iraqi Shiite militias, which have been a bulwark of that country’s effort to contain the Islamic State, had been diverted to Syria under the leadership of Iranian advisers. As a result, the offensive to retake the western Iraqi province of Anbar, which is almost completely controlled by the Islamic State, has stalled.

Philip Smyth, a researcher of Shiite paramilitary groups for the University of Maryland, warned that Moscow is gambling by relying in part on Iraqi Shiite militiamen as part of the ground force, because the Iraqi militias have a poor combat record, and it remains to be seen whether they can shift the ground war in Syria in favor of the Assad government.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Smyth.

Early reports provide no clear answer. Anti-government activists have reported that the initial Syrian government push met fierce resistance from rebels with U.S.- made anti-tank missiles that destroyed as many as 40 government tanks.

But in recent days, government forces have captured a half-dozen villages, and on Tuesday, Assad traveled to Russia, his first trip outside Syria since the civil war began.

“If they are able to concentrate in one area and in addition put together a good profile for air support from the Russians (and) on-the-ground air control from the Russians, then that would set off warning bells, because it would demonstrate unity of arms. And unity of arms we haven’t seen in the Middle East,” said Smyth.

Still, Smyth recalled that the Iraqi militias have failed to turn the tide of battle in Syria previously, including a counteroffensive in southern Syria that began last fall. Officers from Iran and Hezbollah oversaw the operation, which Smyth said was a total disaster.

“They had their shirts handed to them,” he said.

Hezbollah, which has a much more successful record fighting in Syria and against the Israelis, has manpower limitations, as the group has been forced by the Syrian situation to expand far beyond its initial formation as a small but highly disciplined force focused on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

The Shiite community in Lebanon has grown increasingly uneasy at the number of casualties the group has taken in Syria.

The constant flow of men and weapons from Lebanon into Syria has made eastern Lebanon’s main commercial arteries targets. On Oct. 6, for example, a remotely detonated roadside bomb struck a van on a narrow asphalt road that cuts through fruit orchards and sprawling farms, parallel to the main highway in Chtaura, a major town and crossroads in the Bekaa Valley that teems with Syrian refugees and Lebanese merchants.

The occupants of the van apparently suffered only minor injuries. “They were lucky the bomb was small,” said a Lebanese construction worker who was on a nearby building site at the time of the blast.

An officer from Lebanon’s internal security forces, which has a station several hundred meters from the site, said the van belonged to Hezbollah. He noted that SUVs belonging to the militia traverse the same route several times every day.

Germany considers charges against Facebook for hate speech

Friday, October 23, 2015

By Matthew Schofield

McClatchy Washington Bureau


BERLIN: The anti-refugee post on Facebook by a 29-year-old Berlin woman last spring seemed little different from many of the hate-filled rants that pop up on social media sites.

“Let’s get rid of the filth,” she wrote. Then, referring to a series of arson fires that have destroyed refugee housing under construction across Germany, she continued: “Many more refugee centers will burn, hopefully with the doors boarded up.”

But there was a difference between her words and many others that appear online: She was a German, posting in Germany. And while social media globally might assume a more American character of erring on the side of free speech over censorship, Germany does not share this view when it comes to hate speech.

The woman was charged with violating Germany’s hate speech law, convicted and sentenced to five years of probation. She’s not the only poster to have run afoul of the law: A 25-year-old man from the small town of Passau in Bavaria was fined 7,500 euro (about $8,500) for a Facebook post offering to deliver “a gas canister and hand grenade, for free,” to a group of asylum seekers. A 34-year-old Berlin man was fined 4,800 euro (about $5,500) for posting: “I’m in favor of reopening the gas chambers and putting the whole brood inside.”

Now, with the swelling number of refugees prompting still more such posts, German prosecutors are considering going after Facebook itself for acting as a home for posts that advocate racial hatred and violate laws against neo-Nazi speech.

German prosecutors are investigating possible charges against three Facebook managers, prompted by a complaint that they failed to act against racist comments about Europe’s refugee crisis.

The complaint came from German attorney Chan-jo Jun, of Wuerzburg. In it, he claimed to have flagged more than 60 Facebook entries that would violate German hate speech laws. In an interview in Die Welt newspaper, he noted that the posts he flagged some even featuring Nazi insignia and people posing while giving a Nazi salute are strictly forbidden by German law.

But, he said, Facebook responded to his complaints by saying the content didn’t violate Facebook’s community standards, and the posts were not removed. He made copies of the posts and sent them to Facebook’s German managers by registered mail.

“We need to put an end to the arrogance with which some companies try to translate their system of values to Europe,” he said.

In the complaint he filed, he noted, “Facebook Germany encourages the dissemination of offensive, punishable content through its actions in Germany.”

Germanshavecomplainedforyears about what they see as warped morality on Facebook and other U.S.-based social media sites, where nudity is strictly controlled but posters are allowed to spout hate-filled screeds that Germany outlawed after the Nazi reign of Adolf Hitler.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas recently announced that Germany would establish “a task force to combat hate speech on social media platforms, notably Facebook, and a number of social networks, including Facebook, are to take part.”

“Racist, inciting statements are inconsistent with our system of values and cannot be justified under any imaginable aspect,” he said. “One thing is clear: If Facebook gets complaints about racist and xenophobic messages that violate criminal laws, then the company must react and delete such posts quickly and reliably. … There must be as little space in social media for racism and xenophobia as there is on the street.”

Facebook has agreed to take part in and partially fund the task force, but for many it’s showing too little concern about a matter Germans take seriously.

Facebook has announced measures to counter hate speech. However, in the past it has also noted that the site “allowed discussions on the network to be conducted using robust diction.” Overall, German officials claim they have received wordfromFacebookthatitprefersapolicy of “discuss, not delete,” in many cases.

German news stories have quoted German Facebook policy manager Eva-Maria Kirschsieper as defending her company’s policies by noting that Facebook reaches a billion users far beyond Germany’s borders.

“It is a constant challenge to balance the interests of this diverse community and we are constantly working to adjust our policies and procedures to be even more effective and sensitive to the concerns of local communities,” she said.

Konstantin von Notz, a member of the Green party who is considered the group’s top expert on the Internet, questioned whether Facebook is following its own anti-hate speech guidelines. He noted that members of his party have been attacked on Facebook and have filed criminal charges. “Some of what is being posted not only goes against German law but also against Facebook’s own terms of business,” he said.

This week, the German tabloid Bild ran a two-page spread of nothing but hateful Facebook comments, complete with user names and profile photos. The comments were directed at the large number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany, and those who support them.

“Green Fascist pig, hang them all,” said one post directed at Claudia Roth, a pro-refugee Green politician. Another was more general: “A bullet for every Muslim and their supporters.” “Muslims are worse than cockroaches. We don’t want Islam in Germany and Austria,” read another. Another poster, identified as Silvio Bettin, asked, “Aren’t we all a little Nazi?”

By Matthew Schofield

DCCC graduate humanizes Syrian refugee crisis

Friday, October 23, 2015

By Marwa Benahmed-Ali

Khaled Alkurdi, 22, a DCCC business administration major who has transferred to Temple, was 18 when he and his family left Syria for the United States.

Alkurdi was preparing for his final exams when the Assad regime was strengthening in his hometown of Damascus, prompting fear among himself and family, he said.

“Damascus was protected by the regime but there were explosions and helicopters,” Alkurdi said. “I was afraid to leave my house because I wasn’t sure if explosives would kill me or not.”

Because homes and shops were being destroyed by the Assad regime, he said, explosions would wake Alkurdi and his family every night.

According to Alkurdi, his family became more concerned about their safety when the Syrian army invaded their home.

“My brother and I were hanging out on our rooftop and listening to [Syrian] anti- Assad Regime music,” Alkurdi said. “Four soldiers slammed our door open and had AK-47’s. We had to hide our phones from them or we would be arrested and possibly tortured for being against the regime.”

Alkurdi said there was a torture house close to his neighborhood where Syrian spies, called the Mukhabarat, violently apprehended civilians against the regime. Methods of torture included whipping, electrocution, and death, Alkurdi said.

“The army continued to stop me everywhere,” Alkurdi said. “The army always asked for my ID and cell phone, but they were so illiterate that they had no idea what they were reading.”

His terror in Damascus grew stronger. Everyday, Alkurdi received news that family and friends were being killed by the regime, including his beloved Arabic teacher’s son.

“One day, my teacher came to class with red eyes and messy hair,” Alkurdi said. “I asked him if he was ok and then tears started rolling down his face. At that point I didn’t know what to say.”

Alkurdi’s professor told him his son was burned alive in an explosion in a Syrian town called Daria.

“His son just finished dental school and was getting married soon,” Alkurdi said. “It broke my heart even more when my teacher told me I reminded him of his son.”

When Alkurdi came to the United States in 2011, he said he felt sad and angry that his country was falling to pieces.

“I didn’t like the idea of moving because my whole life belongs in Syria,” Alkurdi said. “There’s one thing having a house, but having a home is way different.”

Alkurdi said he tried to not lose hope of improvement in Syria, but his cousin, a soldier fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), told him the crisis was getting worse.

“My cousin told me ISIS, or Daech as we call them in Arabic, are trying to form a new Islamic State by exterminating people that aren’t devout Muslims,” Alkurdi said. “He told me that they’re the most inhumane people on the planet, that they decapitatemen’sheadsiftheyshavetheir beard.”

Alkurdi said he saw a graphic picture of a good friend on his Facebook, whose body was burned in an explosion.

“Seeing a person die in pain is bad but why did she, or any of the other people, deserve to die?” Alkurdi said. “The regime wanted their people to live, not us, meaning the people against the regime. I’ve lost my friends, my family, my life, and my home —Syria.”

Alkurdi is not alone in his fears about his country being destroyed. According to the United Nations, 12 million Syrians have fled from their homes, since the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

The humanitarian organization Mercy Corps reports Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time, with more than 12 million Syrians displaced and 240,000 killed.

In March of 2011, anti-government demonstrations began as a part of the Arab Spring. Syrians experienced violent crackdowns from the Assad Regime, according to World Vision, an organization that is helping 2 million displaced refugees.

According to Mercy Corps, the free Syrian Army and other Syrian Civilians, took up arms to join the opposition. Division between ethnic and political groups created more complications in Syria.

Now, ISIS has stirred more trouble in Syria, killing minority groups such as the Kurdish and Yazidi, U.N. reports.

According to the U.N., ISIS has killed 24,000 Syrians and has taken control of dozens of towns.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, Government of Turkey (UNHCR) states that only 2.l million refugees have registered with UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Nearly 2 million Syrians registered in Turkey, and 26,700 in North Africa.

According to UNHCR Australia, 440,000 refugees have dangerously crossed the Mediterranean to tiny islands in Greece and Italy.

Three thousand men, women, and children have been drowned or lost by crossing the Mediterranean.

Syrian refugees have also fled to Hungary, Austria, and Germany.

According to the European Commision, Germany, which has been a popular destination for Syrians, will accept 800,000 refugees. France also vowed to take in 24,000 refugees in the next two years.

But today, 7.6 million Syrians are still internally displaced, according to Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

More than 50 percent of children are affected by the brutal four-year-war, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Children have been put at risk by extreme violence, destroyed schools, crumbling infrastructure, and food shortages.

“Millions of children inside Syria and across the region are witnessing their past and their futures disappear amid the rubble and destruction of this prolonged conflict,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “We must rescue them from the brink, for their sake and for the sake of Syria in future generations.”

According to World Vision, Syrian refugees are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Refugees are in dire need of food, clothing, health assistance, and basic hygiene products.

With so many refugees, The World Food Program recently cut a third of food assistance. Camps are also running out of space for refugees, according to UNHCR.

Alkurdi said he was tired of hearing his fellow Syrians suffering from the crisis. “Everyday, I receive depressing phone calls,” Alkurdi said. “Someone dying, someone’s home destroyed, someone starving.”

Alkurdi said he was motivated to take action about the crisis. He decided to be a member of various organizations that send food and clothing to refugees.

“I’m a part of many organizations, including the Syrian American Council and Sawsia,” Alkurdi said.

Alkurdi added he was mostly active in the Narenj Tree Foundation where his uncle Nizar Alkurdi is the founder and president.

“We’ve sent 12 containers of goods to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan,” Alkurdi said. “We don’t send any to Syria because you can’t guarantee what’s going to happen to the container.”

Luis Lopez, 19, an engineering major at DCCC, helps Alkurdi collect food and clothing.

“We collect canned goods, and dry beans,”Lopezsaid.“Wealsopersonallygo to people’s homes to collect goods.”

Alkurdi said that his uncle opened a warehouse in Norristown where he stores donated goods.

“We collect donations every Saturday from 10-2,” Alkurdi said. “Once containers are full, we will send them immediately. I also went to an event in New York City, called NYC Solidarity with Syrian Refugees, on September 12, to get our government to bring in refugees.”

Alkurdi said he urges everyone to sign the petition to resettle 65,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. The petition requires 100,000 signatures by 2016 and 101,506 have already signed the petition.

“It’s really not about the politics anymore,” Alkurdi said. “We’re just doing it for peace.”

Pope provides inspiration during Philly visit

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

By Danielle Francisco

Lebanon Daily News, Pa. (TNS) Sept. 29

Hundreds of thousands gathered in Philadelphia Sunday for Mass with Pope Francis. Followers began filling the Benjamin Franklin Parkway early in the morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.

“We actually found a pallet and some cardboard from the water bottles and used those so we weren’t sitting on the ground,” said Dave Hugenbruch of Ephrata. Hugenbruch made the pilgrimage to Philadelphia on a bus organized by the Harrisburg Diocese.

Attendees on those buses that departed from Lititz were lucky enough to make their way through the security checkpoint into the parkway.

Thousands were still in line after Mass. One woman said she waited for over four hours in line, only to turn around and take the SEPTA train back to her bus.

Stories like hers were heard from both those inside and outside of the parkway.

A Harrisburg couple waited for three hours in line but considered themselves “lucky” to get in before the Mass.

Many of their fellow bus travelers never made it through security. An officer at one security gate estimated at least 25,000 were still in line just at that gate after the Mass started.


The crowd stretched for over a mile from the altar down toward City Hall on the parkway. For those outside the parkway or further down from the stage, 40 Jumbotrons were placed throughout the city for viewing.

His visit to Philadelphia, coinciding with the World Meeting of Families, was the final leg of a six day tour of the United States. Francis used his final public appearance to stress the importance of faith and family, a message that was repeated thoroughly throughout the week.

“Really the whole week was about kindness and not passing judgment,” said Dennis Smith of Lebanon, “His messages about family and the younger generation, it was all inspiring.” Both Smith and his wife were present in Philadelphia on Sunday.

During the homily, delivered in Spanish, Francis compared families and homes to church and encouraged acceptance, saying, “Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions.”

He urged those listening to act as an example for youth. “May our children find in us models of communion, not division,” he said and asked the crowd, “What kind of world do we want to leave our children?”

“Inspiring” was the word many used to describe Francis and his words.

Rebekah Hall of Elizabethtown traveled to the City of Brotherly Love with her two children. “Just the things he is saying and the impression he is leaving for the younger generations… is something I can really get behind,” she said.

Smith felt a sense of nostalgia. “I really appreciated that a part was in Latin,” she said. “There were other languages, but that took me back to my childhood.”

Leading up to the Papal Parade, crowds cheered and chanted to pass the time and stay warm during the breezy fall afternoon.

“One would yell ‘Papa,’ and another would yell ‘Francis’ back, and it just kept going,” said Hugenbruch. Chants of “The Pope of the people” could also be heard.

One section even attempted to start the wave. Mei Hugenbruch described the crowds as fun but did comment that there was some pushing at times.

“There were times when the people would push against us. Especially if the pope was near, but you kind of expect it and go with it. I think everyone was pretty respectful,” said Dave Hugenbruch.

For the Hugenbruchs, this wasn’t their first time seeing a Pope. They previously had the chance to see Pope Benedict in Rome thanks to the Diocese of Allentown.

“We were there for a Wednesday Mass and had noticed that our tickets were a different color from everyone else. Now usually that is a bad sign,” said Mei. “As we entered they kept waiving us forward, and we would think that we were as far as we would get, and they would again wave us forward. We were two rows away from the Pope. I could have reached out and touched him.”

The experience left an impression on both of them and even though they can’t call seeing the Pope a “once in a lifetime chance,” they acknowledge how important Sunday was.

“He was practically close enough that I could touch him,” said Mei. “An opportunity like that does not happen often.”

The group they were with arrived early enough that they were able to stand against the fence as Pope Francis was driven by. They left that evening with a perfect video and picture.

“I just wish he would have turned around. He was waving to the crowd on the other side,” she said.

Pope Francis concluded Mass with one request: “I ask that you pray for me. Do not forget.”

By Danielle Francisco