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The parts of America cut off by the pandemic

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(CNN) — Each evening, Point Roberts residents Steve Work and Shawna Sylvester head out for a walk. Strolling along the sandy beaches that surround the community, Work says it often feels like the American/Canadian couple has the eight miles of shoreline to themselves.

This is because many of the houses in their neighborhood are empty — the owners are absent because months of coronavirus travel restrictions have made it impossible for them to reside in Point Roberts.
Point Roberts is a 5 square mile outpost separated from the rest of Whatcom County and Washington State by 25 miles of British Columbia and two border crossings. Restrictions have made it impossible for US citizens to get to the island.

Point Roberts is a 5 square mile outpost separated from the rest of Whatcom County and Washington State by 25 miles of British Columbia and two border crossings. Restrictions have made it impossible for US citizens to get to the island.

Courtesy Diane Selkirk

“It’s like an idyllic island;” says Work of Point Roberts, “except it was never set up to be an island.”

Point Roberts is a 5-square-mile outpost separated from the rest of Whatcom County, Washington state and the United States by 25 miles of British Columbia and two border crossings.
Those boundaries never used to matter because Point Roberts was integrated into the nearby town of Tsawwassen in Canada says Work, “The border felt transparent. It was easy to come and go.”

But when Covid-19 cases began to soar in the United States while growing more slowly in Canada, the two countries agreed to border restrictions.

A border problem

The closure, beginning March 21 and renewed monthly, resulted in a dramatic drop in traffic between the two countries, although essential workers — such as truck drivers and health-care professionals — were still able to cross.

“This is a beautiful place with a strong community, but we’re isolated from just about everything,” says Work, who like most residents is eager for both governments to come up with a solution that allows residents to enter and exit Point Roberts more easily.

The goal would be to get a special exemption to cross into Canada to stock up on supplies and visit family or to return back through the Peace Arch border crossing into Washington State.

Point Roberts is just one of many close-knit, cross-border communities along the US-Canadian border that have been cut off since Covid-19 travel restrictions were implemented.

But unlike more typical border towns — which may be separated from their Canadian counterpart but are still attached to their larger county and state — Point Roberts is what geographers call a pene-enclave; a piece of land that can be reached only by traveling through a foreign territory. Other pene-enclaves along the border include Hyder, Alaska; the Northwest Angle in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota; and Campobello Island, New Brunswick.)

The community of Hyder, Alaska, has seen a dip in population and economic activity due to the restrictions.

The community of Hyder, Alaska, has seen a dip in population and economic activity due to the restrictions.

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In normal times, this hasn’t really mattered. Point Roberts developed a unique hybrid identity where residents were equally likely to be Canadian as American. In the enclave, traffic speed signs were in US miles per hour but gas prices were Canadian dollars per liter.

Daily life tended to move fluidly across the border — with residents often working, shopping, recreating, going to school or getting health care on the Canadian side.

Covid-19 stopped all this.

Empty pene-enclaves

Pene-enclaves such as Point Roberts and Hyder often grew out of nation building negotiations. In the case of Point Roberts, the isthmus was once a favored summer camp for Indigenous people from the Cowichan, Lummi, Saanich and Semiahmoo nations.

When the US-Canada border was set at the 49th parallel in 1846, it intersected the Tsawwassen Peninsula, leaving a blob of the United States dangling on the bottom.

Point Roberts is what geographers call a pene-enclave; a piece of land that can only be reached by traveling through a foreign territory.

Point Roberts is what geographers call a pene-enclave; a piece of land that can only be reached by traveling through a foreign territory.

Courtesy Diane Selkirk

Rather than being a mapping oversight, this line was actually strategic. It granted the United States a military foothold as well as valuable fishing and crabbing rights. For decades, the enclave was a no-man’s land occupied by “smugglers and otherwise lawless men” (according to one report).

This changed when the US government cleared the population in 1892, making way for settlers in 1908.

Point Roberts never became what you’d call bustling. The tranquil little community with its beaches and forested landscape attracted summer vacationers and 1,191 permanent residents (swelling to about 4,500 in the summer) who enjoy its laid-back vibe.

Since the closure of the border, the population is estimated to have dropped to between 800 and 900 people, and businesses shortened their hours or shuttered — dropping by about 80%.

Struggling communities

Similarly, the community of Hyder has seen a dip in population and economic activity. The easternmost town in Alaska, which is cut off from the rest of the state by a vast wilderness and mountains, relies on its Canadian counterpart of Stewart, British Columbia, for its fuel, groceries and other necessities of life.

Canada's pandemic restrictions on border crossings has left the Point Roberts community largely empty.

Canada’s pandemic restrictions on border crossings has left the Point Roberts community largely empty.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux

Found at the very end of BC Highway 37A, Hyder is the only Alaskan town drivers can reach without traveling the Alaska Highway. The community usually sees as many as 100,000 tourists in a year thanks to events such as the annual Hyder Seek gathering of motorcyclists.

“Pre-Covid-19, the border barely seemed to matter, many of us crossed back and forth two or three times daily and moved between residences fluidly depending on the season,” says Jennifer Bunn, resident of Hyder and Co-Chair of the Hyder AK & Stewart BC Covid-19 Action Committee.

Now the 63 residents of Hyder can’t travel to Stewart and the 425 Stewartites aren’t permitted to visit Hyder. Currently, one member of each Hyder household is identified as the “designated shopper” and is allowed a single trip each week for fuel and groceries. No cross-border socializing, recreation or school attendance is permitted.
The border restrictions have left schoolchildren in Hyder, Alaska, unable to get to their school in Stewart, British Columbia.

The border restrictions have left schoolchildren in Hyder, Alaska, unable to get to their school in Stewart, British Columbia.

Courtesy Jennifer Bunn

Bunn says she hopes that officials recognize the interdependence of the two communities and allow them to create a bubble before winter hits, “Due to border restrictions, Hyder residents were unable to collect firewood in Stewart, and I’m unsure how many will heat their homes this winter. We aren’t prepared for winter, emotionally or physically.”

In Point Roberts, fire chief Christopher Carleton also hopes lawmakers on both sides of the border will realize how unique the pene-enclaves are. While the ban on nonessential travel across the land border makes sense to him, he points out his community is experiencing unique hardships such as families choosing to leave so their kids could go to school.

‘Common-sense solutions’

Campobello Island in New Brunswick is another pene-enclave. In this case, the only land route is through the United States.

Campobello Island in New Brunswick is another pene-enclave. In this case, the only land route is through the United States.

Shutterstock

This combined with US visitors abusing the Alaska Loophole — a provision that allows Americans to drive through Canada to get to and from Alaska, by taking the shortest route possible, stopping only for essentials and avoiding tourist attractions — has made Canadian officials reluctant to make any changes to already complex border restrictions.

But Bunn and Carleton point out that neither community has had a single case of Covid-19 and that their very unusual circumstances should make them eligible for common-sense solutions.

The Canada-US border remains closed to all but essential travel until at least October 21.

However, newly announced rules around family reunification, entry for compassionate reasons and entry for international students to Canada as well as enhanced compliance and enforcement efforts indicate the border will remain closed indefinitely.

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US-Russia crew back to Earth in first post-lockdown space mission

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NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner touch down safely on Kazakhstan steppe.

An American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts have touched down safely on the Kazakhstan steppe, completing a 196-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that began with the first such launch under coronavirus lockdown conditions.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner landed approximately 150km (90 miles) southeast of the Kazakh city of Zhezqazghan at 02.54 GMT on Thursday, footage broadcast by the Russian space agency Roscosmos showed.

Visuals from the landing site showed a seated Cassidy bumping elbows with one member of the crew at the recovery site and saluting another after they exited the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft. They were then taken to medical tents ahead of their onward journeys to Moscow and Houston.

“How are things?” asked Cassidy in Russian, smiling.

The three-man crew had blasted off minus the usual fanfare in April with around half the world’s population living under lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

They did not face questions from reporters in the Baikonur space launch facility and were not waved off by family and friends – both time-honoured traditions before the pandemic.

Their pre-flight quarantine was also intensified as they eschewed customary sightseeing trips to Moscow from their training base outside the Russian capital.

The mission, carried out by tycoon Elon Musk’s SpaceX company as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has helped heighten talk of a new “space race” between a number of countries.

But Russia’s Roscosmos, which enjoyed a monopoly on travel to and from the space station from 2011, remains the fastest player in the game in terms of travel to and from the ISS.

Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley’s journey in May to the space station and return to Earth in August in the SpaceX craft saw the pair spend the best part of the two days in transit.

Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner’s touchdown on Thursday by contrast came less than three-and-a-half hours after undocking, while a three-person crew reached the ISS from Baikonur in just three hours and three minutes last week, setting a new absolute record.

Prior to returning from his third mission in space, former US Navy SEAL Cassidy, 50, tweeted a picture of blood samples that astronauts have to submit at various points in their mission, including just before undocking.

“What is the price of a return ride back to Earth? … 8 tubes of blood!! The 7 shown in this picture were taken in the morning to be placed in our deep freezer, and the 8th will be drawn just prior to undock for ground processing soon after landing,” Sudoku puzzle fan Cassidy wrote.

First-time-flyer Vagner was a rare Roscosmos presence on the micro-blogging platform, where most NASA astronauts have a profile.

“Mama, I’m coming home,” the 35-year-old tweeted on Wednesday.

Ivanishin, 51, wrapped up his third mission, after NASA’s Kathleen Rubins, with whom he launched to the ISS in 2016, arrived for a second stint on board the station last Wednesday along with Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of Roscosmos.

The ISS has been a rare example of cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Members recently reported issues with the oxygen production system, a toilet and the oven for preparing food.

But Roscosmos said in a statement on Tuesday that the issues had been “fully resolved by the crew”.

“All the systems of the station are working well and there is no danger to the crew or the ISS.”

Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the orbital lab being permanently occupied by humans, but the station is expected to be decommissioned in the next 10 years due to structural fatigue.

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Israel travel ban: Gaza nurses protest loss of permits, layoffs

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Nurses expressed anger at Israel, which has restricted the entrance of Palestinians from Gaza, and the Makassed hospital which laid them off.

A group of nurses from the besieged Gaza Strip have staged a protest in a public square, saying an Israeli travel ban has led the Jerusalem hospital they worked at for many years to fire them.

Seven nurses, who worked at the Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem for at least 20 years each, gathered in Gaza City on Wednesday, wearing lab coats and holding banners that said: “Firing us is a death sentence for our profession and families.”

They are angry at Israel – which has heavily restricted the ability of Palestinians to leave the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, even for work – and at the decision by Makassed to lay them off.

“We never expected that Makassed would dismiss us arbitrarily,” said Baher Lulu, 53, a critical-care nurse who said he joined the hospital 30 years ago when travel from Gaza to Jerusalem did not require Israeli permission.

“This has hurt us and our families, who rely heavily on this income.”

Vaguely defined permit process

Israel has always formally required a work permit for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to work in Israel.

Before the first Intifada – 1987 to 1993 – the permit system was reportedly widely unenforced or permits easily acquired when applied for. After the Intifada, work permits have become increasingly difficult to obtain for Palestinians.

In 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas gained control of the territory, and movement became even more difficult.

Under the blockade, it restricts the entrance of Palestinians from Gaza to Israel on security grounds it defines, with some humanitarian exceptions.

The medics said they used to receive renewable three-month permits that allowed them to spend the week at Makassed and return to Gaza each weekend.

But, they say, starting in 2016 Israeli authorities gradually stopped issuing permits – citing security controls – and by 2019, none of them had permits.

COGAT, the Israeli body that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, said it is forced to restrict access because Hamas “does not hesitate to promote terrorism by cynically exploiting the Gaza Strip’s population”.

It said its rules for entry are available on its website, and every permit request “is thoroughly examined by the relevant professionals, subject to security considerations”.

Human rights groups have long criticised the permit process, saying the criteria are vague.

An official from Makassed, one of several hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem serving Palestinians from the city, West Bank and Gaza, declined to comment.

The nurses say the hospital had asked them to volunteer at medical centres in their hometown until they could travel again. But this summer, they received the dismissal letters, brought by a patient returning from treatment in Jerusalem.

The medics say Makassed has weathered a series of financial challenges, but they believe a decision by the Trump administration in 2018 to redirect US aid elsewhere from the network of occupied East Jerusalem hospitals has left the hospital unable to continue paying their salaries.

The medics say there is no chance of finding full-time work in Gaza, where unemployment is close to 50 percent.

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After teacher’s killing, French Muslims fear rising Islamophobia

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Paris, France – The gruesome killing of a teacher by an 18-year-old suspect of Chechen origin is testing the country’s fragile relationship with its Muslim minority, with growing fears of collective punishment.

The teenager attacked Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old father, in broad daylight on Friday, beheading him near his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb about 15 miles (24km) from the centre of a Paris.

There has been an outpouring of grief and shock among top officials; Paty on Wednesday posthumously received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, in a ceremony attended by President Emmanuel Macron. Thousands have attended protests.

Paty’s attacker had been angered that he showed his pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the days after the killing, the government launched a crackdown against Muslim organisations while vigilante groups have attacked mosques; places of worship in Beziers and Bordeaux have been placed under police protection after having been threatened with violence.

Tensions between the state and France’s Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe, have deepened.

They were already on a downward trend after Macron, on October 2, launched a plan against what he called “Islamist separatism” and said Islam was “in crisis” across the world.

Muslims fear Paty’s tragic death is already being weaponised to advance a government policy they worry conflates Islam with “terrorism”.

“Muslims are being targeted,” Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist, told Al Jazeera, adding he believed Macron was “using Islamophobia to power his campaign.”

On Monday, the French government said it was strengthening its crackdown on suspected “extremists”, carrying out multiple raids and threatening a mass expulsion of more than 200 people.

More than 50 Muslim organisations are being targeted; the “Cheikh Yassine Collective”, an organisation has already been banned in the wake of the killing.

But there are more surprising names on the list.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has proposed to ban the Collective Against Islamaphobia in France (CCIF), an association that tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes, in a move that more than 50 civil society groups and academics have warned against.

In an interview with French radio station Europe 1, Darmanin lambasted CCIF as an “enemy of the republic”, adding it was one of several organisations he would dissolve at Macron’s personal request.

CCIF condemned Darmanin’s language as slander, stating the government was “criminalising the fight against Islamophobia”.

Darmanin, who was appointed in July during a cabinet reshuffle, routinely raises eyebrows for comments appealing to conservative and far-right parties.

In an interview with BFMTV Tuesday evening, he said he was “shocked” to see Halal and Kosher food aisles in supermarkets, which he believes contributes to separatism in France, comments that were instantly mocked on social media.

But there are fears recent government actions contribute to a discourse that endangers Muslim lives.

“What is going in France at the moment is unprecedented,” activist and co-founder of CCIF, Marwan Muhammed wrote on Twitter last week. “Fundamental freedoms are at stake, as the government is focused on stigmatising and criminalising Muslim communities.”

Many viewed the government’s vigorous and accelerated response to Friday’s attack as a dire warning that the law could be manipulated to target Muslims more generally.

The crackdown has echoes of France’s response to the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris by ISIL. Human rights groups criticised those measures, which saw mass arrests and raids under emergency rule, saying they yielded few results and left Muslims feeling like second-class citizens.

A French Republican Guard holds a portrait inside Sorbonne University’s courtyard in Paris on October 21, 2020, during a national homage to French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class [Francois Mori/ POOL/AFP]

During Wednesday’s eulogy, Macron remembered Paty as someone who “loved books, loved knowledge”.

Originally intent on becoming a researcher, Paty chose instead to follow the same path of his parents and become a teacher.

Paty ultimately was killed, Macron said, “because he made the choice to teach.”

He had shown the caricatures during a lesson about free speech.

Muslims believe that any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.

According to reports, Paty advised Muslim students who might be offended to leave the room or look away during this part of the discussion, as a measure of sensitivity.

The attacker posted a photo of the decapitation on Twitter before being shot and killed the police. According to French media, the teenager had been in touch with Paty before the killing.

Fifteen people have been arrested as part of an investigation into the killing, including the assailant’s family members.

The attack also follows two stabbings last month outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September at the start of the trial for those suspected involvement in the January 2015 attacks which killed 17 people.

In his anticipated October 2 speech, Macron sought to address “radicalisation”.

The new law he is proposing to push religion further out of education and the public sector in France, aims to strengthen “laicite”, France’s strict separation of church and state.

It would, among other things, let the state monitor international funding coming into French mosques, limit homeschooling to prevent Muslims schools from being run by what Macron cited as “religious extremists”, and create a special certificate programme for imams to be trained in France.

Mame-Fatou Niang, an associate professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon University, told Al Jazeera the government was not simply “going to war against terrorists”.

“Rather they’re taking these seeds of division planted by terrorists to erase any grey areas and create a completely polarised society … it’s a declaration against not only fundamentalists but against Muslims in general.”

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