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ISIS Loses Kobani, Russia's "Junk" Rating, Blizzard Friends With Benefits

ISIS Loses Kobani, Russia's "Junk" Rating, Blizzard Friends With Benefits

ISIS LOSES LONG KOBANI BATTLE
After more than four months of intense fighting, Kurdish fighters have taken control of the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border and have driven out ISIS fighters, though these still occupy important areas outside the town, Reuters reports. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 1,600 people died in the battle, most of them jihadists, and tens of thousands have fled.

ON THIS DAY

Seventy years ago on this day, Auschwitz was liberated ... Time for your 57-second shot of history!

GUNMEN TAKE HOSTAGES IN LIBYA
Libyan security officials say that gunmen have taken hostages at a luxury Tripoli hotel popular with foreign visitors after a car bomb exploded in front of the building. At least three guards have were killed, and a witness told the AP there were at least five gunmen. The BBC says they could be linked to ISIS. The story is developing.

NEW ENGLAND BATTERED BY BLIZZARD
New York, Boston and most of the Northeast are experiencing a potentially historic blizzard, with snowfall rates approaching 4 inches per hour and winds nearing hurricane force. New York City (see photo above) is effectively closed, and life is expected to be brought to a standstill in the region, as winter storm Juno has already led to more than 7,000 flight cancellations and disrupted ground transportation.

GREEK CABINET TO BE ANNOUNCED
Newly elected Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is expected to unveil his cabinet later today, and his choices will represent a drastic change with the creation of four “super-Ministries,” newspaper To Vima reports. Athens will soon start negotiations with Brussels and other international lenders over the repayment of its debt. The chief economics spokesman for Tsipras’ party Syriza told the BBC that his country could never repay all its debt. “I haven’t met an economist in their heart of hearts that will tell you that Greece will pay back all of that debt,” he said. “It can't be done.”

VERBATIM
“I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said in his first public comments since the U.S. and Cuba agreed to normalize relations.

S&P DOWNGRADES RUSSIA TO JUNK
Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has downgraded Russia to junk status, the first time in a decade the country has reached such lows. It comes amid falling oil prices and Western sanctions that have badly hurt the economy, The Guardian reports. The U.S. and EU are threatening further economic sanctions as fighting intensifies again in eastern Ukraine.

$889 MILLION
The Koch brothers and the conservative political network they oversee plans to spend an astonishing $889 million in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, more than double what they spent in 2012 and almost as much as each party spent at the time.

UN FORCED TO HALT GAZA REBUILD
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees announced it couldn’t repair Gaza houses destroyed by the Israeli army in last summer’s war because donors who pledged to finance the rebuild have failed to pay up. “Virtually none” of the $5.4 billion pledged at the Cairo aid conference last October has reached Gaza, the agency said, adding, “This is distressing and unacceptable.”

MY GRAND-PÈRE'S WORLD


ARGENTINA TO SHUTTER INTEL AGENCY
Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner has announced plans to dissolve the country’s domestic intelligence agency after the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, The New York Times reports. Accusing rogue factions inside the agency of trying to sabotage an agreement with Iran to jointly investigate the 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, she said she would create a new organization with reduced surveillance powers.

WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO
As Le Temps’ Caroline Christinaz reports, a Swiss Simon Jacomet, who was raised by Benedictine monks, makes high-end skis for a very select clientele. “Turning his back on mass production, he targets instead a niche clientele and works with the best brands, such as Bentley or Hublot,” the journalist writes. “He is tech-savvy and lets his imagination flow, inspired by tradition and the nature around him. ‘The people of the Surselva valley have a know-how in terms of craftsmanship, what must be preserved,’ Jacomet says. ‘We need their knowledge to create skis. We're six people in the workshop, and we're all from around here.’”
Read the full article, The Swiss Who Makes The Rolls Royce Of Skis.

UGANDA SUED FOR MEDICAL “BRAIN DRAIN”
A Ugandan think tank is suing the African country’s government in what it says is one of the first ever public interest litigation cases concerning a medical "brain drain," AFP reports. It has denounced the country’s policy to “export” doctors abroad while it desperately lacks medical staff. “Thousands of people will die, thousands die already," it claims, pointing out that 16 women die each day because of complications related to childbirth.

BLIZZARD FRIENDS, WITH BENEFITS
As New Yorkers prepare for a three-foot snowfall, some of them want to ensure that they don’t spend it alone.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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