Category Archives: USA

New York girl missing for two years found alive in a hidden staircase room

Paislee Shultis, 6, was found by New York police in a makeshift room underneath a staircase in the girl’s grandfather’s house. Photograph: Saugerties Police Department/Reuters

Two years after she went missing, a six-year-old girl has been found alive and in good health in a makeshift room underneath a staircase in a house in New York state, according to police who said they suspected she was abducted by her biological non-custodial parents.

Officers found the girl, Paislee Shultis, on Monday in a house in the town of Saugerties, two years after she went missing from Spencer, New York, about 180 miles (290 km) to the west, the Saugerties police department said in a statement on Tuesday.

At the time, police believed her biological parents, Kimberly Cooper, 33, and Kirk Shultis Jr, 32, abducted her, they said. The couple did not have custody of the girl, police said.

On Monday, police said they received a tip about the girl’s whereabouts and obtained a search warrant.

They said they went to the girl’s grandfather’s house where they searched for about an hour before locating the child hidden in a makeshift room, under a closed staircase leading to the basement.

Upon removing the step boards, the girl and her mother Kimberly were found hiding in the dark and wet enclosure, police said.

Paislee was taken to police headquarters where paramedics examined her, police told the Daily Freeman, the community’s local newspaper. The girl was in good health and released to her legal guardian.

Police arrested her parents and the girl’s grandfather Kirk Shultis, 57. They face charges of custodial interference and endangering the welfare of a child.

Police said they interviewed Kirk Shultis Jr several times since the girl went missing. He maintained that he had no knowledge of her location and told officers that he had not seen the child.

Amid pandemic, Indigenous Mexican workers in US fight to be heard

Advocates with MICOP speak with workers in Californiafields
Advocacy groups say that Mexican Indigenous farmworkers are especially vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, such as wage theft [Courtesy Vanessa Teran/MICOP]

Oxnard, California, United States – When Arcenio Lopez made the journey to the United States from his hometown of San Francisco Higos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 2003, he was just 21 years old. Spanish was commonly heard in his hometown, along with Mixteco, a language spoken by Indigenous Mixtec, or Nuu Savi, communities in southern Mexico.

In California, Lopez found work in the strawberry fields surrounding a small city called Oxnard in Ventura County, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of Los Angeles.

Many workers who spent hours hunched over picking berries also had origins in Indigenous communities in Mexico, and spoke native languages such as Mixteco, Zapoteco, Purepecha and Triqui. Some spoke little Spanish, inciting scorn from Mexican foremen and some colleagues in the fields who looked down on Indigenous workers.

Lopez, now the executive director of the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), which serves the Mexican Indigenous population of Oxnard and several neighbouring counties in southern California, says anti-Indigenous racism continues to follow workers across the border. “This goes all the way back to the history of colonisation,” he told Al Jazeera. “We carry this trauma in our DNA.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional challenges, as community members struggle to find resources in Indigenous languages and to take advantage of public programmes for vaccination and testing, after decades of immigrants being discouraged from utilising public assistance.

Community groups have thus stepped in to bridge the gulf of trust between the government and Indigenous migrant workers.

Legacy of discrimination

Even before the pandemic, advocates have said anti-Indigenous racism and a lack of resources in native languages made Indigenous workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including wage theft.

“A lot of farm labour is paid by the piece,” Jorge Toledano, a Mixtec community organiser with MICOP, told Al Jazeera. “If an Indigenous worker brings in a basket of strawberries, the supervisor might cheat them by marking it down as less fruit than is actually there in a language they don’t know, so the worker gets paid less.”

Sarait Martinez, an Indigenous Zapotec who heads the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO) in California’s Central Valley, said there is “a lot of anti-Indigenous racism in the Mexican community”.

“It can be intimidating for people to demand their rights,” Martinez told Al Jazeera. “But if you work up the courage to contact the government to tell them about a workplace violation, what do you do if no one at the agency speaks your language?”

Such language barriers can have lethal consequences. In July 2021, Gerardo Martinez, a 19-year-old Zapotec man, was shot and killed by police in the city of Salinas. Martinez was holding what appeared to be a handgun and did not respond to demands from police given in Spanish. But the weapon in question turned out to be a BB gun, and Martinez was a monolingual native speaker who did not understand Spanish.

California has never thoroughly surveyed the state’s Mexican Indigenous population, and estimates of their size and composition in the labour force vary. The most comprehensive effort was the Indigenous Farmworker Study, carried out by the California Endowment and California Rural Legal Assistance in 2010.

The study estimated that there were approximately 120,000 Mexican Indigenous farmworkers in California, mostly in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions. Yet, despite their substantial representation in California’s $50bn agricultural industry, Martinez says authorities have shown only limited interest in understanding such communities – although this has started to change during the pandemic, amid growing pressure from Indigenous advocates.

“We ask counties and different departments how they track Indigenous needs, like language needs, and they don’t have an answer,” Martinez said. “Institutions are not allocating the right amount of resources to ensure our communities have access to information and services in their languages. The fact that we’re invisible among those services really impacts the way they serve us.”

Lilia Garcia-Brower, the California state labour commissioner who oversees enforcement of wage and hour laws, told Al Jazeera that her office has worked with community organisations before and during the pandemic, and has partnered with MICOP and CBDIO on “labour caravans” that seek to inform workers of their rights.

“One of the ways to ensure we’re available to workers is to partner with organisations the community trusts. We want to make sure those relationships continue,” Garcia-Brower said. “Those investments are one component, but they also can’t replace a more institutional effort to accommodate workers in multiple languages.”

During the pandemic, a lack of information in native languages has created confusion, leaving gaps quickly filled by rumours and conspiracy theories. “If you can’t find answers to your questions, maybe you look to social media instead,” said Lopez, who recently penned a column highlighting the spread of misinformation among Mexican Indigenous communities on social media.

Groups such as MICOP have used radio stations to share information on the pandemic, worker’s rights and updates to immigration law, all in Indigenous languages. In Oxnard, MICOP runs 94.1 Radio Indigena, which features 40 hours of weekly live programming in Spanish, Zapoteco, Purepecha and a variety of Mixteco dialects.

In the Central Valley, a station called Radio Bilingue also offers programmes in Spanish and Mixteco. Many staff at these stations are Indigenous, making them a reliable source because of their roots in the communities they aim to reach.

Keeping up with constantly shifting pandemic guidelines and updates – and translating all of that information into many languages – is time-intensive. To deal with the scale of need in the community, MICOP has expanded from 70 staff to 120 since March 2020, Lopez said, “Delta, Omicron, new CDC guidelines; we have to stay on top of all this information, then translate it into several languages so it can reach people in a timely manner.”

The difficulty has been heightened by a political climate in which migrants, especially the undocumented, are hesitant to ask the state for assistance. Even workers who are entitled to use government programmes often avoid doing so, worried that relying on welfare programmes could hurt their chances of obtaining citizenship.

In such an atmosphere, admonitions by the state to get tested and vaccinated for free may appear contradictory. “It’s hard to undo something that has been so ingrained for such a long time,” Martinez said.

While community groups can help to bridge the gap between state institutions and community members, that responsibility – largely due to a void left by government agencies – can also be exhausting. “There’s collaboration we haven’t seen before with the state,” Martinez said. “We’d like to ensure the changes we see are structural, and there are more agencies hiring people who speak these languages.”

Toledano, despite the challenges his community faces, feels hopeful about the future because of the power in organising. When he first came to California, he saw a video of legendary labour rights activist Cesar Chavez and was spurred into workplace organising.

“When we’re divided, we can be taken advantage of,” Toledano said. “But when we fight together, then we’re in charge and we can demand our rights. Nothing will change until we make them hear us.”

Ohio congregation looks to martyred nun Stang as guide to implementing Laudato Si’

Mural of Dorothy Stang in chapel in Anapu, Brazil (Barbara Fraser)
Mural of Dorothy Stang in chapel in Anapu, Brazil (Barbara Fraser)

Even before the official launch of the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, the global program for putting Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical into practice throughout the Catholic Church, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Ohio had chosen their guide for the journey: martyred Sr. Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in Brazil in 2005.

The Dorothy Stang Initiative for Laudato Si’ Action “is our response to the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, the call from Pope Francis to the global church,” said Teresa Phillips, who heads the Ohio province’s Justice, Peace and Care for Creation Commission.

The sisters have been laying the groundwork for a Laudato Si’ action plan since early this year, Phillips told EarthBeat.

“It was very clear from beginning that Dorothy Stang’s legacy was forefront in our minds. She had such a love for the environment and she was very concerned and very vocal about protecting the rainforest, so it was a natural inclination to name this in honor of Sr. Dorothy Stang,” she said.

Stang, who worked with small farmers near Anapu, Brazil, was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, by hit men hired by wealthy landowners. Other sisters from her congregation still work in the state of Pará, one of the most violent in Brazil, helping smallholders defend their land rights.

“I feel like every sister I’ve spoken to feels that … Dorothy is a shining light in these issues,” Phillips said. “And because the pope’s plan includes cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth, that cinched the deal for us. Dorothy’s passion was people who live in poverty.”

The Laudato Si’ Action Platform is a seven-year process that encourages all sectors of the church — individuals and families, parishes and dioceses, religious congregations, schools and universities, healthcare facilities, farms and businesses, and other church groups — to implement the principles of integral ecology as articulated in Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

The process, officially launched Nov. 14, sets goals in various areas, including responding to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor; ecological economics, spirituality and education; sustainable lifestyles; and community engagement.

For the Ohio Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the first year will focus on involving everyone in the province — sisters, staff, associates, volunteers, donors and a health center — in planning actions for the years ahead.

“We will be talking to everyone about what their concerns are. We really see this as a province-wide journey to changing the way we live so that the Earth can live,” Phillips said.

Ideas so far include installing solar panels or wind turbines on congregation property, reviewing investments and incorporating the principles of Laudato Si’ into the sisters’ work in education, their principal charism.

Recalling Stang as a person who “had a passion and a presence that was gentle but firm,” Phillips said, “I think part of her legacy is due to the fact that she knew that she was on a death list. She knew her life was in danger, and she chose to stay with her people, with the people that she loved and with whom she worked.”

She added, “For me, part of her legacy was her passion for those people who lived in poverty, who were marginalized, who were just trying to make a living, just trying to feed themselves and have shelter, and were so neglected by the world — not just the people in Brazil who were getting rich off logging and cattle ranching, but the people in world who don’t see those who live in poverty as having meaning and worth.”

Stang saw how people’s health and livelihoods depended on the Earth “and how the changing climate was going to affect them first, and hardest,” Phillips said. “She was passionate about that. She knew that could get her killed, and she chose to stay anyway. I think that’s what speaks to so many people.”

Naming the congregation’s Laudato Si’ initiative after Stang was a way of commemorating her after the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 disrupted plans for marking the 15th anniversary of her death, Phillips said.

“We feel like Dorothy is our guide on the path,” she added. “She’s over there saying, ‘This is the way, this is our path, we need to follow it.’ “

‘A willingness to start with ‘yes’’: How one Catholic school graduated its first student with Down syndrome

Abby Aguedelo
Pastor of St. Augustine’s, Fr. Peter Gori O.S.A. (right) and admissions director Paula O’Dea (left) hand Abby Aguedelo her diploma on graduation day./ Wendy Agudelo

Tears flowed down the faces of Abigail “Abby” Agudelo’s classmates, as earlier this year she became the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from St. Augustine’s School in Andover, Massachusetts. 

“We know other parochial schools in Massachusetts are striving to do the same today,” Abby’s mother, Wendy Agudelo, told CNA in an interview in August. “And because of Abby’s experience, other families who desire a Catholic school education for all of their children, including those containing a family member with special needs, are now looking at parochial school education as opportunistic.”

Because of her own mother’s strong Catholic faith, Wendy Agudelo had always wanted a Catholic education for all of her children. She also hoped Abby would have an academic path with “full inclusion,” and would not be placed in a classroom separate from other students. 

After Abby’s time in public preschool, however, her mother was not certain of a combination of Catholic education and full classroom inclusion.

“We noticed a divide between what we wanted for Abigail and what the school felt she should receive given her diagnosis,” she said in an email to CNA. 

It was during Agudelo’s search for a school that then-St. Augustine principal Paula O’Dea and pastor Fr. Peter Gori O.S.A. stepped into the breach, and decided that St. Augustine’s would accommodate Abby’s needs. 

“When Abby and her wonderful parents first made their inquiry to us at St. Augustine School about enrolling, the principal and I were concerned that we might not have available all that Abby would need for a successful experience,” Gori told CNA in an email. “We and Abby’s parents all agreed to give it a try and that there would be no hard feelings if things didn’t work out.” 

Gori said that Abby’s parents were “right all along” in believing that Abby would thrive at St. Augustine’s. “We received from her as much or more than she did from us,” Gori said. “It was a delight and a blessing every day and every year to have Abby at St. Augustine School.”  

Wendy Agudelo told CNA that, in general, parochial schools may not have a significant amount of resources. She noted organizations that exist to educate and support parochial schools interested in broadening their demographics. She named the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion and the FIRE Foundation as a few examples of these groups.

“Not every parochial school, or administrator for that matter, is interested in this path,” Wendy Agudelo said. “It comes with its set of challenges, but also great reward.”

She said that those who choose the path that St. Augustine’s School chose “ultimately earn the greatest return on investment.” 

“Nine years ago,” Paula O’Dea told CNA, “we didn’t have any teachers with a moderate disabilities certification. Now, we have a lot of teachers with that as their second degree, and we’ll have two full-time special ed teachers on site.” O’Dea is currently admissions director for St. Augustine’s.

O’Dea, who was the school’s principal at the time of Abby’s entrance, believes that St. Augustine’s was the only elementary school in the Archdiocese of Boston to accept a student with Down syndrome.

She told CNA that in Abby’s time at public school, her parents observed her in the corner of the classroom with a special education teacher, “not really being included in anything in the classroom.”

When Abby first arrived at the school, O’Dea said the school decided that, in order to properly live out its Catholic mission, it needed to find ways to support any student who wanted to attend. 

The school partnered with local Merrimack College to hire a student studying moderate disabilities as a subsidized, full-time teacher to support Abby. O’Dea said the school’s decision was a success, because it was affordable and effective for Abby. St. Augustine continues to have a “Merrimack Fellow” today.

O’Dea said that hiring the Merrimack Fellow was “a very small investment financially for us to have such a great outcome in the end.” She says she would recommend it as an alternative to hiring a full-time special education teacher for the classroom. 

Abby’s parents said that they stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the administration and staff throughout Abby’s schooling. They encouraged teachers at every grade level to gain more professional development and experience with special needs through local conferences and workshops. 

While working full time, both of Abby’s parents spent much of their time at St. Augustine’s volunteering at Kindergarten centers, the lunchroom, as a chaperone on numerous field trips, and as active guild members helping to run events and fundraisers.

Wendy Agudelo said that partnering and collaborating with the school “every step of the way” bore amazing results.  

“In my opinion,” Agudelo said, “it’s not about available resources as much as it is a willingness to start with ‘yes’ and work together towards a shared goal.” 

“We’re not alone and believe that the more families know, the more armed with opportunity they become,” she said. “We’re very, very fortunate to have found such great academic partners for our children, but pepper in some serious faith and a sprinkling of compassion, and nothing is impossible!” 

“Abby’s achievement is very impressive,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, to CNA. “But the biggest impact is the effect she had on the entire school community.  They all were blessed to have her as a classmate or student.”

After historic flooding, amount of parish, community support is ‘phenomenal’

Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Tennessee., talks with James and Patsy Bradley of Waverly, Tennessee, Aug. 24. The parishioners of St. Patrick Catholic Church in McEwan, Tennessee, said their home was destroyed by the Aug, 21 flooding. (CNS photo/Ka
Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Tennessee., talks with James and Patsy Bradley of Waverly, Tennessee, Aug. 24. The parishioners of St. Patrick Catholic Church in McEwan, Tennessee, said their home was destroyed by the Aug, 21 flooding. (CNS photo/Katie Peterson, Tennessee Register)

Waverly, Tennessee — Henry Kersten was pacing back and forth inside his family’s home in Waverly Aug. 21 when he saw the backyard shed being carried off by the flood waters. His wife, Leslie, was trapped inside.

“It was amazingly fast,” Kersten said. “She was trying to save some things [in the shed]. We never knew the extent that was going to come because we were going by the last flood that we had two years ago.”

The water “started to seep into the shed, and then it came so fast that she didn’t feel safe coming out,” he recalled in an interview with the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Nashville Diocese. “She called me on the phone, told me that she loved me and our children.”

“As I was pacing, I saw the shed get washed away and watched her go by,” he continued. “It took about five hours, but by God’s blessing, a former neighbor … was able to find her.”

Leslie Kersten, who was a parishioner, along with her family, at St. Patrick Church in McEwen, Tennessee, was one of 20 people confirmed dead in the flooding that washed through Humphreys County Aug. 21. Up to 18 inches of rain fell in the area in less than 24 hours, breaking the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall.

When planning for Leslie’s funeral the morning of Aug. 24, Henry Kersten said they chose a quote from the Gospel of Mark for the program cover: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:29-31)

“That’s Lesley’s life in a Bible verse. She loved the church. … The church has been so important in our life,” Kersten said. “She was the epitome of God’s greatest commandment.”

In the darkness of tragedy, Kersten still finds the light of God’s grace.

“God sends his toughest challenges for his strongest soldiers,” Kersten told Nashville Bishop J. Mark Spalding, who visited victims of the Waverly flood Aug. 24.

As Spalding visited flood victims at relief shelters and their destroyed homes, he brought with him a message: “You’re not alone.”

“In times of profound tragedy, presence is the most important thing,” Spalding said. “No matter what crisis we face in life, just knowing another is there with you and for you, especially in our context of faith, to know that God is with us and for us as well is what people need to know.”

On Aug. 20, downpours of rain reaching more than 18 inches hit Humphrey County, about 60 miles west of Nashville. By 8:30 a.m. the next day, the rapidly rising flood waters were crashing through Waverly, wreaking havoc on homes and businesses. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed.

“It just came in as an influx,” said Grey Collier, public information officer for the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency. “Within just 10 to 30 minutes, people went from dry floors to having to climb in their attics.”

Barbara Hooper, flood relief coordinator for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Patrick Church and conference vice president, said this was the worst flood the community has ever experienced.

“This is like a tsunami in a foreign city, and we’re in a little town in Tennessee,” Hooper said. “Now we’re seeing what they go through all the time.”

On the morning of the flood, Jackie Tate, a middle school language arts teacher at St. Patrick School, and her family were at home and had their bags packed and ready to go.

They were keeping an eye on the back door, where they expected to see the waters rise. But after her husband, Christian, took their dog out in the front yard and saw the rising water headed their way, he rushed inside to warn them to evacuate.

The Tate family was unable to leave in their truck, so they sought shelter at their neighbor’s home on higher ground.

“We knew we might get into the flooding area, but I’ve never seen anything like that,” Tate told the Tennessee Register.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Patrick helped Tate and her family secure a rental property while they wait for government aid.

“They have been an absolute godsend,” Tate said of the parish. “They’re my people.”

On Aug. 24, President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Tennessee, making assistance available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to supplement state and local recovery efforts, including in Humphreys County.

FEMA assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Despite the devastation, victims and volunteers said the way the community has come together with clothing and food collections in McEwen and Waverly has been overwhelming.

“The outpouring of support has been phenomenal,” Collier said.

“This is what humanity is,” said Margaret Loose, family friend of St. Patrick parishioners James and Patsy Bradley, who also lost their home.

“This is what the Volunteer State truly means,” Waverly Vice Mayor Mike Goodman added, referring to the state’s nickname.

Tate’s family has already benefited from the collections of food, clothing and supplies.

“It is really amazing to watch, but I’m not surprised,” Tate said. “[This community] will give you the shirt off their back.”

‘This is just another low-paying job’ say overtaxed U.S. firefighters

Firefighters conduct a prescribed burn in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Oregon, U.S., May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Ilie Mitaru

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, – More than 17 years of fighting wildfires for the U.S. Forest Service has taken a toll on Brian Campbell.

He’s been homeless, once spending months sleeping in a van while fighting fires in the state of Idaho. He routinely is called to drive the engine he captains in Washington state across the country at a moment’s notice to support local crews.

During fire season he spends long stints in the forest without seeing his wife and young children.

Yet his salary is barely enough to get by on – $50,000 a year. Although he loves the job, he’s keeping his eyes open for other work.

“The seasons are longer, and we’re not being treated any better,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview – a view echoed by a half-dozen other current and former wildland firefighters.

As climate change strengthens, bringing hotter temperatures and worsening drought, the United States is entering what experts fear could be yet another devastating fire season.

But 20% of the federal government’s fulltime firefighting positions are currently vacant, according to Kelly Martin, president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

Those vacancies, which Martin attributes to poor working conditions driving firefighters out of their jobs, are leaving communities around the United States more vulnerable, she said.

“With climate change, extreme heat, and drought, we’ve set ourselves up for something I’ve never seen in my career” – a depleting firefighting force at a time of worsening fires, said Martin, who retired in 2019 as chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park.

“It’s too much for understaffed firefighters, with limited pay and benefits, to bear anymore,” she said.

Low pay is a big part of the problem, federal government officials admit, with President Biden calling the $13-an-hour minimum wage for federal firefighters “ridiculously low,” and promising to raise it to $15.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, admitted that “hiring and retaining firefighters has been complicated by our inability to offer competitive wages”.

But the agency is looking at options to “modernize” firefighter compensation, the spokesperson noted in emailed comments.


Lawmakers from western states where the fires are fiercest have been eyeing broader changes to the federal government’s role in combating wildfires and say those on the front lines deserve proper safeguards.

“I do think we need to take a look at a range of issues on compensation, including what jobs need to be permanent jobs rather than temporary jobs and what we need to do for health care,” Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The federal firefighting force includes full-time firefighters as well as seasonal and temporary workers who are laid off during the off-season. Those firefighters are in turn supplemented by state and municipal fire crews and in some states jail and prison inmates who are paid as little as $2 a day to cut firebreaks.

For the bulk of federal firefighters, salaries tend to be lower than comparable work with other fire departments, Martin said – and only full-time workers have access to paid health benefits.

The way most firefighters make ends meet is by racking up significant hours of overtime, Martin said, setting up a perverse incentive to work too hard, and possibly get injured or burned out.

“If they pay more, firefighters wouldn’t need to be working overtime to get a livable wage,” she said. “In a perverted way we’ve monetized risk taking.”

One former federal firefighter in New Mexico, who recently left to join a municipal fire department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the low pay and lack of benefits forced him out of his job

“I worked for five years as a seasonal firefighter, starting at $13 an hour, and ending at $15. In the end it was just too stressful to make ends meet, ” he said, asking for anonymity to speak freely about working conditions.

Like Campbell, the firefighter also spent some seasons sleeping in his car, unable to afford rent.


Firefighting services in the United States have become increasingly in demand in recent years, experts say, as a combination of limited wildland management and climate change has increased the duration, extent and ferocity of the fire season.

2020 study published by researchers at Stanford University found that 50 million U.S. homes are now located in zones that are threatened by fire.

But authorities have not invested in the manpower needed to protect them, despite repeated warnings, said Donovan Lee, who spent 22 years as a federal firefighter, most recently as deputy forest fire management officer at Mendocino National Forest in California.

Before Lee quit last year he served on a task force studying staff retention issues in California. He circulated a memo warning that the Forest Service was “currently losing employees at an alarming rate to employers offering better compensation and overall quality of life.”

“Every year for the last five years it’s getting worse and worse,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “You make more money at McDonalds”

One of the issues Lee spotlighted in his memo was the classification of federal wildland firefighters as “forestry technicians” which means they don’t get the same specialized healthcare provision as city and state firefighters.

In an effort to boost firefighter recruitment, a bipartisan group of U.S. federal lawmakers earlier this year introduced legislation that would require the Office of Personnel Management to reclassify the position from technician to “wildland firefighter.”

The year after Lee circulated his memo, in 2019, the United States experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, with firefighters stretched so thin they, unusually, had to abandon some residential areas to fire.

This year, Washington state – hit by drought and record heat – has already seen a 56% increase in fires compared to the same point last year.

Firefighting units, meanwhile, are still experiencing dramatic attrition.

One hotshot firefighter – the term for a member of an elite firefighting crew – described seeing 16 members of his 20-person team leave over the past three years.

“All of us are concerned about the breakdown of our bodies from carrying 80 pounds and a chainsaw all day,” he said. “After a while the glamour fades – and you realize: this is just another low-paying job.”

Malaysia to review recruitment fees, agreements after U.S trafficking report

FILE PHOTO: A police officer instructs workers during a spot check at a factory, during an enhanced lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shah Alam, Malaysia July 3, 2021. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

KUALA LUMPUR, – Malaysia will examine recruitment fees charged to workers and review its agreements with the home countries of migrant workers, the Human Resources Ministry said, after the Southeast Asian nation was downgraded in a U.S human trafficking report.

The U.S. State Department last week ranked Malaysia in ‘Tier 3’ in this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report and said forced labour is the predominant human trafficking crime in the country.

Malaysia’s Human Resources Ministry said it viewed the issues raised in the TIP report seriously.

“The government will continue to give attention to challenges in addressing forced labour issues, especially those involving foreign workers, and will continue to implement various improvements to existing initiatives,” minister Saravanan Murugan said in a statement on Monday.

The ministry has received 4,636 complaints from workers between May and July 4 via a new mobile app, and had taken action in 3,502 cases, including investigating allegations of forced labour, he said.

Malaysia depends on about two million documented migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and India to make everything from palm oil to rubber gloves.

Saravanan said the ministry would review the levies imposed by private recruitment agents and check whether there were any hidden charges that might lead to risks of exploitation and debt bondage.

“The Ministry will also review the memorandum of understanding that has been and will be signed with the source countries in particular to strengthen the element of protection of worker’s rights and, at the same time, not burden employers,” he said.

A national action plan on forced labour and child labour is also expected to be finalised in the fourth quarter, Saravanan added.

Malaysia’s state-funded National Human Rights Commission in a statement said the government had taken some initiatives to address human trafficking, but more transparency, law enforcement capacity and stronger labour laws were still needed.

EarthBeat Weekly: Record-breaking heat helps make climate change feel ‘real’

A digital sign in Seattle shows a temperature reading of 109 degrees Fahrenheit June 28, 2021. (CNS photo/Jason Redmond, Reuters)

This week, climate change was on many people’s minds in the U.S. because of the brutal heat wave that struck the country, especially the Pacific Northwest, where Portland, Oregon, set temperature records on three consecutive days, and Seattle set two in a row.

More than 60 deaths that may have been heat-related were reported in Oregon, along with 10 times that many visits to emergency rooms and urgent-care clinics. In western Canada, there were hundreds more deaths than usual during those few days, leading officials to suspect they were related to the extreme temperatures in the region.

Surveys show that exposure to hot, dry days tends to make people more likely to say that they have experienced the effects of climate change, so the convergence of events in the West, where heat is combining with drought, may lead to greater support for climate legislation.

Coinciding with the heat wave, environmental and Indigenous activists descended on Washington, D.C., chaining themselves to White House gates as they called on President Joe Biden not to weaken his infrastructure proposal that he has been negotiating with Republicans in Congress. Critics fear that the bipartisan agreement that was reached could water down measures aimed at combating climate change.

The heat wave certainly underscores the urgency of legislation aimed at strengthening the country’s infrastructure in the face of climate change, as power cables for Portland’s rapid transit system melted and electricity use strained power grids. It remains to be seen whether the extreme weather out west will move the needle in Congress, but it may become more and more difficult for skeptical lawmakers to deny the consequences of a warming climate.

This was also a momentous week for EarthBeat, as the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co. announced that it was divesting of fossil fuel stocks.

NCR environment correspondent Brian Roewe reported on the decision by the NCR board of directors, which unanimously approved adding to the company’s investment policy statement — the document that guides financial decisions related to its $12.7 million endowment — both a screen against fossil fuel companies and an endorsement of investments in renewable energies.

Roewe has been reporting for a number of years on the growing divestment movement in the Catholic Church. In some cases, students are pushing their universities to divest. In other cases, religious groups or organizations are making the decision based on faith, and financial, convictions.

Other groups, however, continue to hold just enough shares in fossil fuel companies that they can propose shareholder actions aimed at forcing the companies to be more accountable. In May, activist shareholders gained ground with efforts targeting ExxonMobil and Chevron.

This week, Claire Giangrave at Religion News Service takes a behind-the-scenes look at how faith groups and participants in the Vatican-promoted “Economy of Francesco” project played a key role in those shareholder actions.

Activist shareholders are not the only ones taking aim at fossil fuel companies. There is a growing wave of lawsuits by cities and states around the U.S. that are based on the growing evidence that oil and gas companies have known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels was causing Earth’s climate to warm abnormally, but covered up that research.

Chris McGreal at The Guardian provides a good overview of the issue. And Sarah DeWeerdt at The Anthropocene reports on a study that indicates that climate lawsuits could be more successful in linking government or corporate actions to harm from climate change if they made better use of scientific evidence.

As newly arrived immigrants move beyond US-Mexico border, sisters are there to help

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Mary Alice McCabe welcomes an Angolan father and son to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, in January 2020. (Courtesy of Mary Alice McCabe)
Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Mary Alice McCabe welcomes an Angolan father and son to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, in January 2020. (Courtesy of Mary Alice McCabe)

Successfully crossing the United States’ southern border is only the beginning for the thousands of migrants who don’t plan on building a home on the finish line.

Health care, legal assistance, interpretation, housing and financial aid, work — though the needs are many, migrants throughout the United States can look to women religious whose ministries focus on directing them to services they may not know how to find for themselves.

A quick rundown of Sr. Mary Alice McCabe’s many regular tasks provides some insight to the challenges that come with such a dramatic resettling, as the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur does what she can to help the immigrants who entered the country illegally and refugees in her city of Baltimore.

Lately, McCabe has been interpreting for migrants out of her car by phone, connecting them with social, legal or health services. Sometimes it’s to help them receive financial supplements and rent aid or sort out their documents; other times, it’s interpreting for their lawyers or at health clinics.

She also helps women with high-risk pregnancies who have recently arrived in the United States, accompanying them before and during the birth and, sometimes, through “really tragic situations” in which the babies have died.

When she learned of an immigrant family about to come to Baltimore, she used her personal contacts to set them up with housing. McCabe also recalled working with a Honduran woman who had broken her knee while traveling through Mexico, offering her assistance and getting her in touch with hospitals.

“If you shop around and keep going, you find out that it is possible to get free health care for immigrants in emergency situations,” she said.

Then there’s the social accompaniment, which includes attending birthday parties and gatherings at immigrants’ homes to maintain a relationship and a sense of community.

Typically, sisters find themselves ministering to immigrants who have already established a life in their new town or city rather than those newly arrived to the United States after processing at the border.

Sisters who spoke with Global Sisters Report say that perhaps newly arrived immigrants don’t connect with sisters quickly because they’re still in survival mode. The basics are their focus: toiletries, cellphone chargers, shelter, food.

“They are at various degrees of suspicion with us,” said Mercy Sr. Anne Connolly, speaking from her experience in McAllen, Texas. Exchanging just a few words with them, however, can ease their “angst.”

Their lingering trauma, too, makes it difficult for them to open up. But once they do, sisters are there to help.

As a counselor at Holy Cross Ministries in Salt Lake City, Sr. Verónica Fajardo of the Sisters of the Holy Cross hears her fair share of heartbreaking stories from migrants who have been referred to her for their mental health needs. Some of the migrants are victims of labor trafficking, sexual assault, abuse or being held captive; others have witnessed the death of family members or describe vividly a grueling journey to the United States from South or Central America.

Often, she witnesses post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and/or anxiety and gets immigrants in touch with crisis clinics if they are suicidal. The increase in numbers of newly arrived immigrants in the city has led to a waiting list for Holy Cross Ministries’ counseling services, though the ministry also offers case management and health services.

“I can empathize with their experience of trying to leave war or violence because it’s my own story,” said Fajardo, who is originally from Nicaragua. “So, having come to the United States as an immigrant in a totally different time period but with similar circumstances, there’s an understanding of that kind of difficulty of resettling in a new place, having a lot of questions, having difficulties in the new place.”

Her clients who are new to the United States, she said, often wind up living in neighborhoods with high levels of crime, leaving them vulnerable to robberies and physical assaults.

“It’s difficult, so I feel that it’s great that we can provide the services and accompany people as much as we can … supporting them and helping them deal with their symptoms,” she said.

Ministry to ‘our sisters and brothers’

Located in 49 states with more than 380 organizations, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC) is the country’s largest charitable legal immigration network, training nonprofit immigration lawyers to provide affordable representation.

In Miami, Mercy Sr. Rosemary Sabino, an emeritus member of the CLINIC board of directors, said the increase in demand has led the local CLINIC office to be appointment-only rather than accepting walk-ins as usual. But with their help, immigrants receive the legal assistance necessary to help them stay in the United States or facilitate any other documentation they need. One of their tasks included attempting to reunite mothers with their children after they were separated at the border.

“It hasn’t been very successful,” she said. “We’ve reunited some, but we have a long way to go, and it’s only going to get done through legal work.”

Now, Sabino said, CLINIC is also helping immigrants who have been picked up for criminal offenses, most of whom have mental illnesses and/or are experiencing homelessness, particularly by helping them with paperwork to access the mental health services or housing for which they qualify. (Thanks to a grant from Sabino’s Mercy sisters, which a corporation matched in donations, Miami’s CLINIC now has $30,000 for this effort.)

Typically, these immigrants are made homeless as a result of not having work permits, she said — exactly the kind of thing that CLINIC can help with.

“It’s not as difficult as you would think because we need workers,” said Sabino, who has been with CLINIC for 20 years. “That’s a true statement all over the United States, but I don’t think a lot of states are willing to admit that. Here in Florida, we admit we need workers.”

Outside Chicago, Mercy Sr. JoAnn Persch leads longtime ministries on behalf of migrants, advocating for those in jails and detention in her city and organizing efforts such as public protests and mass prayers while sending money to those locked up.

Lately, her advocacy has included a project called Harper Hospitality, in which Persch and her fellow organizers work with churches and religious communities to sponsor housing for those newly released from detention, helping them establish a community while also offering a case manager if they have pending legal needs.

Persch’s and her volunteers’ presence is made known almost immediately to those arriving in Chicago by bus. When they learn migrants are about to arrive, a team arrives at the bus station as early as 4 a.m. with backpacks and basic necessities for the newly arrived migrants, who often have nothing but plastic bags on hand with their few items.

Throughout the pandemic lockdown, Persch said their programs never ceased running.

“We are committed to our immigrants, our sisters and brothers,” she said.

Like Persch, Mercy Sr. Judy Carle and her community in Burlingame, California, respond to migrants’ needs however they can, teaming up with local groups to form an interfaith solidarity committee. One of their more regular focuses has been accompanying migrants to their immigration hearings.

Now, their advocacy includes what they call a “freedom campaign.” Carle said the group connects with immigrants who did time in jail for crimes they committed as teenagers but who, upon release, are then put into detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We’ve been involved with many of these cases; we know who they are, we know their families, and we’ve gone to their hearings on a regular basis,” she said, adding that some cases do end in deportation.

Finding sponsors for housing is also on the group’s radar. They use their interfaith network to find congregations or parishes willing to take in new immigrants.

McCabe said ministering to new immigrants also entails reaching the larger population to educate them on the importance of these new arrivals to the nation.

“They’re good people. They’re family-oriented, they’re workers, and they just want a chance. They’re respectful of the country and are so grateful for anything,” she said.

“Those who know the immigrants up close and see their faces and hear their stories, they have no problem whatsoever in saying, ‘Welcome.’ It’s those who don’t know, who don’t get close to them, who have a different attitude.”

Black American families strive to build a town free from racism

People camp out on land in central Georgia where organizers hope to create a new town of Freedom, seen July 2020. Handout photograph by FGI2020, LLC.

WASHINGTON, – Haunted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black people and reports of police violence against their community, a group of families in the southern state of Georgia have banded together to create a town called Freedom.

“We were watching the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all of the other people we can name,” said Ashley Scott, one of the effort’s organizers, referring to Black victims of police violence killed last year.

“My friend and I were just depressed and feeling like we needed to be able to do something to protect our husbands and sons.”

They found a 96-acre (39-hectare) property for sale in central Georgia, and came up with a 10-year-plus timeline and a vision of using the land to build intergenerational wealth, something financial experts say is key to closing the racial wealth gap.

The families purchased the property in August 2020, and after some social media and news coverage, “we went viral,” Scott, 34, a realtor in Atlanta, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

“We had thousands of people reach out saying they wanted to move to Freedom.”

Today, the group’s 19 founding Black families has amassed more than 500 acres in two parcels.

Aiming to be a model for equity, energy efficiency, local food production and more, the Freedom project has drawn political support as an opportunity to build a community from the ground up.

“It’s truly a situation where we’re taking our destiny in our own hands,” said Democratic State Representative Mandisha Thomas, whose district does not include Freedom but who sits on the project’s advisory board.

Even as they wade through the logistics of how to set up the complex systems an incorporated city would need, Scott and the others behind the initiative are planning to break ground by next year, starting with a visitor and conference center.

Speed is important, Scott said: “We don’t know when another George Floyd might happen. We want to move as quickly as possible to create this safe haven, so we can replicate it.”


Physically the project is still little more than the two parcels of land, mostly located on an old lumber farm, with rolling hills, a creek and wide views.

“When I first experienced the land, touched the land, it felt surreal – it felt empowering,” said Aqeela Reyad, one of Freedom’s founding members.

There are still fundamental obstacles to creating Freedom, the organizers said.

The families will need about 100 more acres of land in order to incorporate as a city, for instance, a process that will also need to go before a local ballot and a series of political entities.

They are also fundraising to be able to access a line of credit, hoping to raise the last of the $500,000 they need during a celebration next month for Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in 1865.

Local officials on the county board of commissioners, in the nearby town of Toomsboro, and at the local Chamber of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.

The state Department of Economic Development declined to comment.


As audacious as the project may seem, it fits into a long tradition of Black Americans seeking to create havens from white oppression, said Thomas Healy, who teaches at Seton Hall University’s School of Law in New Jersey.

Most of those communities were small agricultural centers, but some would thrive for a period, amassing several thousand residents.

One of the most ambitious was in North Carolina in the late 1960s, when a civil rights activist named Floyd McKissick sought to use a federal “new towns” program to create what he called Soul City, said Healy, who wrote a book on the subject.

McKissick viewed Soul City – which would be inclusive, but predominantly Black – as the last step in the emancipation of Black people in the United States, Healy said.

And the effort went much further than most anticipated, with 3,500 acres under development for a decade, complete with infrastructure, neighborhoods and public services, he said.

But McKissick was never able to convince factories and industry to relocate to Soul City to power the local economy, and the project eventually unraveled.

As the plan to create Freedom gets underway, the country is still dealing with many of the same issues that McKissick was seeking to address, Healy said.

“If Black people weren’t worried about driving down the street and being pulled over by police and being shot, and if they had an equal stake in the wealth of this country, there would be no need for a place like Freedom,” he said by phone.

“But that’s not the world we live in,” Healy continued, pointing to disproportionate levels of police violence toward African Americans and the massive wealth and employment gaps between Black and white communities.

Government data shows white families are 10 times wealthier than Black families, while the number of unemployed Black Americans has increased 40% since March 2020 compared to 34% for white Americans.


Tabitha Ball, a psychologist in Atlanta, had been noticing rising levels of anxiety among her patients amid the pandemic, driven by the stresses of the health emergency and the racial tensions that gripped the country following Floyd’s death.

“It was a heavy, heavy time,” Ball said. “There were very high levels of fear.”

One of those patients told her about the Freedom initiative, and now Ball is the project’s managing partner, with a pair of two-acre plots for her and her husband.

“It really did feel like a major beacon of hope to be part of a project where we could literally build something for ourselves, and something that would offer us the opportunity to grow and thrive however we saw fit,” she said.

Owning land had long been important in her family, but it was something she had not yet gotten around to prioritizing, said Ball, who has two nine-year-old sons.

“When they heard of the land and went out there one of the first times, they said, ‘This is all ours?’ And my husband said, ‘This is our land.’ And they had big smiles on their faces,” she said.