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How one woman gave up Olympic skiing to become Lebanon’s fastest runner

By Adrian Brune JAN 3, 2017

The dais was up, the lights were switched low. Cameras were set back a respectable 20 or so feet from the stage for the “Meet the Athletes” press conference, ready to snap photos of athletes the day before the running of the 14th annual Beirut Marathon through the streets of Lebanon’s largest city this past November.

But before any of them appeared—before the Kenyans with their Olympic marathon medals, the Paralympians with their inspiring stories or even the marathon’s popular founder, May El-Khalil— Chirine Njeim stepped up to the podium, garnering wild applause as she did.

Njeim, a professional marathoner who cuts a low profile in every other country, is a celebrity in her native Lebanon. She’s made three Winter Olympic teams in alpine skiing—one of the country’s most popular sports—while this summer, she ran the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games, making her one of only 28 women ever to participate in both the Winter and Summer Games. Anyone in Lebanon with even an inkling for sports either knows Njeim or has heard of her. The 35-year old made her first Olympic team in downhill skiing at age 16, carrying the Lebanese flag as one of two of the country’s athletes at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, where she placed 36th in the the slalom and 45th in the giant slalom. She went on to represent Lebanon at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics with a top finish of 34th in the downhill.

Now officially retired from skiing, Njeim started running by a “happy accident,” she says. After the Salt Lake Games, while training for the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, she began jogging nearly every day to stay in shape—a practice she brought with her to Chicago when she moved to the U.S. in 2010. Once there,  Njeim quickly made friends in the local running community, and as a challenge, she and and her husband, Ron Kamal, entered the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Njeim crossed the line in 3 hours, 7 minutes, placing 120th in the women’s field.

Prodded by friends to try to break the 3-hour mark in the marathon, Njeim started running up to 14 miles per day, to and from her job as an office manager while carrying a backpack of clothes. In 2015, her dedication paid off when she finished the Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 46 minutes—good enough for 29th place in the women’s field. A month after Chicago, Njeim ran the 2015 Beirut Marathon in 2:49:23.

Her next step? To run the 2016 Houston Marathon in January and break 2 hours, 45 minutes—the women’s qualifying time to make an Olympic team for Lebanon. She finished Houston in 2:44:14, a time that not only earned her a berth on the 2016 Olympic team, but also broke her own Lebanese national record and made her the first woman in her country history’s to run an automatic Olympic qualifying time in track and field.

“Rio was a victory race for me—it was so hard just to get there,” Njeim told Excelle Sports. “I was standing at the start and seeing all my Olympic heroes—I felt like I knew them. I enjoyed every single moment of it.”

In Rio, Njeim ran 2 hours, 51 minutes—good for 109th place. While she was disappointed, she can realize that she’s come a long way since deciding to run her first marathon only four years prior to her running debut at the Games.

“I try not to think about the things I cannot control,” she said. “There is a new road every day. You just have to keep your head up.”

As a elite athlete since 16, Njeim has had years of practice on how to keep her head up and persevere, especially in a country like Lebanon where support for female athletes is limited if not nonexistent.

“If I didn’t have my parents supporting me when I was skiing, I could not have left Lebanon to do what I did,” said Njeim, who began skiing at age 3 near her family’s home in Beirut before moving to France and then Salt Lake City to train. “Sports has never been the biggest thing in Lebanon—it’s not the first focus. Unless you say I want to be a doctor or a lawyer, people don’t understand that you’re actually running for a career.”

In Chicago, Njeim has had to make sacrifices for her running too, which wasn’t lost on the local community. “Chirine was known as the ‘girl with the backpack’ around Chicago because she would run to and from work,” said Dr. Loryn Kromrey, an anesthesiologist and competitive U.S. distance runner who trains with Njeim in Chicago. “She even ran with her computer in her backpack because she needed it for work.”

While running marathons has become popular in many Western countries, where the distance also has recreational appeal, the sport has only, at best, a nascent following in the Middle East. Instead, the region tends to excel in those Olympic sports like fencing and martial arts that have ancient cultural roots. Distance running has recently become more popular in Lebanon, though, thanks in part to the Beirut Marathon Association (BMA). Former runner and philanthropist May El-Khalil founded the BMA in 2003, not only to help further the sport of distance running in the country, but also to use events to help counter the country’s inflamed religious divisions and political impasses that have existed since the end of the Civil War in 1990. In 2005, the BMA organized  a “United We Run” race to help foment unity after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It attracted 60,000 runners.The Beirut marathon now has the endorsement of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), whose president, Lord Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic track star, came to oversee the running of the race in November.

While Njeim now has to pick and chose which races she runs in order to keep her body fresh, she says she likes to run the Beirut Marathon where she can use her stature as a national celebrity to help raise awareness about the need for more Lebanese Olympic-level runners—and athletes of all kinds.

“The way I see it, going to the Olympics was great, but I want to make history in the Middle East, to be an ambassador for the sport,” Njeim said. “The Beirut Marathon has been doing an amazing job of promoting running and pulling people together through running. It’s not so much about getting women into the sport anymore—things have changed with the new generation. Now, we just need the promotion of our own elite athletes. It makes me so proud to say that I am from Lebanon and that I believe that we can achieve greatness in running, that we just need support.”

With the Tokyo Olympics less than four years away and counting, Njeim has her work cut out for her. At this year’s Beirut Marathon in November, she finished just under two hours, 54 minutes, placing among the elite women. That’s fast, but it might not be fast enough. Although the IAAF won’t announce the qualifying times for the 2020 Olympics until at least next year, Njeim would have to shave at least 30 minutes off her time in Beirut to medal in the Olympics and 20 minutes off her Rio time to place in the top 20.

“In skiing, you really have to be focused—you have one minute to forget about everything and get down the hill as fast as possible,” Njeim said. “When I started running, I came out of the gate so fast, I had to learn to be patient and not look for the same intensity or adrenalin rush. But it’s so motivating to see how people react. You run fast, good things happen.”

International Policy Digest: The Kafala System

BY AMBRUNE ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2010

The Qatar women’s jail lies hidden far outside of Doha’s central Al Rayyan district, in a compound of 10-foot walls. It resembles more of a construction trailer, than an array of human-sized cages. Women, mostly Filipino and South Asian, are often escorted there without handcuffs, but held by an abaya-adorned woman, from the Ministry of the Interior. The holding cell itself is crowded by scores of women, all vying for space during their detainment to eat, sleep, pray or make food. The sole sink-and-toilet-only bathroom adjoining it not only services all thirty or so women, but also serves as a makeshift shower, bath and laundry.

The majority of the women migrate from South Asia and the Philippines seeking employment as domestic laborers in Qatar – the second richest country in the world – and other Gulf States. Most gain employment via domestic agencies that maintain relationships with the Qatari government; yet these entities rarely educate women about the potential pitfalls of the work: long hours, low pay (if any), domestic enslavement – and in some cases, sexual abuse.

Once one – or more – of these has occurred and the workers escape their mistreatment, neither the agencies nor the government protects their newest arrivals through Ministry of Labor laws, safe houses or even legal recourse, leaving them to face extortion from corrupt local officials and imprisonment. The United States and other Western countries – with lucrative business ties to the country, and ex-pats who hire these workers – have, so far, turned a blind eye to the problem.

“We have been working on this for six or seven years now, but it is massive in scale and largely hidden compared to other human rights abuses,” says Nisha Varia, senior researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

“When we try to bring up this issue in the region, we find that journalists, government agents and even other human rights workers are actually employers (of South Asian women) themselves.” Last month, Human Rights Watch issued the latest of many reports targeting the abuse of migrant workers abroad: “Walls at Every Turn: Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers through Kuwait’s Sponsorship System,” this time turning its focus to the Middle East. Though the report concentrates on Kuwait, Varia states the problem is endemic to most of the countries of the Arabian Gulf, specifically Oman, Bahrain, the United ArabEmirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – many of which rank now in the world’s top GDP percentiles, due to their oil-based economies.

BACKGROUND

Qatar, like many other Arabian Gulf states, remains bound to the kafala (sponsorship) system, in which foreigners are “sponsored” by their employer, who hold their passport, control their movements, demand fees to terminate a contract and prevent them from changing jobs. Qatari officials, members of the royal family, ex-pats with close ties to the country and even lawmakers maintain that domestic employers in Qatar treat their employees like “family members,” which, in their eyes, makes legal reforms moot, and effectively separates domestic workers from the laws that govern regular workspaces. Qatar officials have also placed no restrictions on the employment of women, with opportunities determined by market demand and located mainly in service professions.

Once the filial goodwill ends, however, and domestic workers flee, their sponsors report them to the police, who arrest and charge them with absconding. Government officials then immediately cancel the workers’ residency visa and leave them in one-room prisons, where they are subject to the mercy of police guards and administrators, who regulate their living conditions, their meals and even their access to outside help on a whim. Only 20 percent of female inmates ultimately have access to attorneys, while the remaining 80 percent face Islamic courts without a lawyer, many times after waiting months for a hearing in these holding circumstances.

“If these women do make it to an embassy shelter before they are arrested, they are housed among 200 to 600 other women at any given time,” Varia says. “This certainly gives you a sense of how pressing the problem really is.”

ANALYSIS

In many ways, Qatar has emerged as a beacon of the restive and recalcitrant Middle East. The emirate has undergone a period of liberalization and modernization under the current Emir,Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, but most importantly under his closest ally, Her HighnessSheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al- Missned, his second wife. Sheika Mozah chairs the progressiveQatar Foundation, sits on the board of Qatar’s Supreme Education Council, and in September, gave a presentation at the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York.

“Her Highness Sheikha Mozah has a leading role in promoting peaceful dialogue and cross cultural understanding as a means to bring about peaceful resolutions,” reads her official website. “Through her work with UNESCO and the UN Alliance of Civilizations, she helps formulate programs to educate and protect victims of human rights abuses – victims who are usually women, children and youth.”

Despite its espousal of humanitarianism, the government of Qatar has not yet enacted necessary anti-trafficking legislation or shown evidence of prosecuting and punishing trafficking offenders and identifying victims of trafficking. Human Rights Watch has called on the Gulf States to abolish or significantly amend provisions of kafala to prevent forced labor of migrant workers; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has singled out Qatar. Short of that,UNHCR has asked the Ministry of Labor to increase efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking and apply formal procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as those arrested for immigration violations or prostitution.

Most of all, Varia says the government, run by the royal family, has the obligation to shift the social attitude toward domestic slavery. “One of the reasons it is so difficult to combat, is that it’s accepted. People think its okay to take her passport, make her work seven days a week, subject her to inhumane conditions,” she says, “We need constant and continuing advocacy.”

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International Policy Digest: SE Asia's Nuclear Race

BY AMBRUNE ON JULY 31, 2010 5:29 PM

DEVELOPMENTS

On March 19, 1998 Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu-backed BJP parliamentary party was sworn in for the second time as India’s Prime Minister. Though elected on a narrow confidence vote, just six weeks into his tenure the Indian government announced before the surprised nation and the international community that it had conducted three underground nuclear explosions in Pokhran, which would be followed by two more tests two days later.

Amidst ecstatic bravado within the party and country, and many denunciations worldwide, India declared itself a nuclear weapon state, and thus, further kicked dirt on the 1970 UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which it refused to sign. “Our nuclear weapons are meant purely as a deterrent against nuclear adventure by an adversary,” Vajpayee said of the occasion. The rebuke of Vajpayee’s declaration lagged not too far behind: Pakistan followed India’s lead a fortnight later with tests of its own.

Since then, India has come dangerously close to engagement with Pakistan over Kashmir four different times. The country has declared its weapons program “responsible,” despite leading the way for South Asia’s development into a “nuclear flashpoint,” according to P.K. Sundaram, a researcher at the Indian Pugwash Society which studies the conflicts between science and world policy. India brokered a deal with the US two years ago to enable the country to have ’civilian’ nuclear trade – in terms of nuclear fuel, technology, and reactors – primarily with the US, though the country has also invited others to the table. It also managed to skirt inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which applies only to the “civilian” reactors and not the “strategic” (bomb-making) ones. This nuclear option in South Asia has engendered a very real regional push-and-pull, as neighboring powers attempt to respond with their own capabilities, and treaties to balance each other and the U.S.

BACKGROUND

Pakistan countered true to form. Just after May’s UN Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (RevCon) formally requested India, Pakistan and Israel join the NPT, the Chinese government confirmed that the China Nuclear Power Corporation signed an agreement with Pakistan for two new nuclear reactors. The deal essentially violates the oversight of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the body that oversees non-strategic trade – which forbids nuclear transfers to countries that are not NPT signatories.

The Obama administration has chosen to firmly oppose the Sino-Pak deal when it comes before the NSG this week. This puts the U.S. in a difficult position. “China supplying nuclear reactors to Pakistan is more a strategic move than a commercial one, sort of a mirror image of the US move in the context of the nuclear deal with India,” says Sukla Sen of the India-based Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

According to Sen, under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. wanted to build up India as a tactical counter to China and other potential challengers in the region such as Russia or Iran. “Commercial benefits would be an icing on the cake.” India’s nuclear enrichment pact with the U.S. in 2008 evoked strong displeasure from China, however, which views Pakistan an important asset in countering India. According to the Wall Street Journal Asia edition, it induced Beijing to send the message that if Washington played favorites, it would as well.

“There is news that Pakistan is improving its weapons and increasing its stockpile. It is also believed that after the deal, India can use its domestic uranium for more bombs, while it uses imported uranium for its civil reactors,” Sundaram says. “So concretely, South Asia is entering deeper into abyss.

“Also, the international atmosphere – delegitimization of nuclear weapons as called by President Obama – will have its impact on the region. There has to be a South Asian initiative for a nuclear-weapons-free region, and obviously that also will have to include China. I feel that is what makes it tricky for us.”

ANALYSIS

China’s strategic relationship with Pakistan started in the mid-1950s, but reached serious thrust after the 1962 Sino-Indian war when the two states signed an agreement honoring Chinese control over portions of Kashmir to which India has long laid claim. The ties have run so deep between China and Pakistan that Chinese President Hu Jintao once characterized the alliance as “higher than mountains and deeper than oceans.”

As recorded by Pakistan’s nuclear patriarch, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship is likely the only case in which a nuclear-weapon state, despite its signing of the NPT, has given weapons-grade atomic material as well as a bomb design to a non-nuclear-weapon state. Once upon a time, Islamabad sought a similar nuclear pact with Washington along the lines of the India deal. However, the Bush administration made it clear that given Pakistan’s unfavorable nuclear proliferation record – and its alliances – it didn’t trust Islamabad to play it straight.

“We have an ambitious agenda with India. Our agenda is practical. It builds on a relationship that has never been better. India is a global leader, as well as a good friend,” said former President George W. Bush upon his visit to India in February 2006 after pandering to Pakistan during the war in Afghanistan. “We’ll work together in practical ways to promote a hopeful future for citizens in both our nations.” Needless to say, both Pakistan and China felt jilted.

“The chickens are coming home to roost,” Sen says of the current situation.

After May 18, 1974, when India carried out its “peaceful” nuclear test, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, proclaimed that the country’s citizens would “eat grass if necessary” to make a nuclear bomb. Twenty-four years and ten days later, Pakistan delivered on its own nuclear explosion. Once again, after feeling rebuffed on its demand for the same treatment as India, Pakistan is making its own deals for legitimacy. “For India, the nuclear deal meant a prestigious re-entry in the club of nuclear nations as a de-facto nuclear weapons state,” Sundaram says. “Pakistan’s weapons were seen as a trouble internationally for being prone to sabotage/use by terrorists. Now that Pakistan is also getting a similar deal, that feel-good in India is gone.”

What will make the feel-good return? “Before its own nuclear tests, India used to take a radical peace-disarmament position internationally. It used to call for comprehensive disarmament and to protest the current global order that is divided between nuclear haves and have-nots.

But India has drifted from its principled stand and now thinks its own nuclear weapon posture is ‘responsible’ while that of Pakistan, Iran or N. Korea is ‘dangerous’,” Sundaram says. “When we talk of Indian people, there is a strong tradition of Gandhian non-violence and leftist anti-nuclear movements in India, but for these voices to be heard, there has to stability between India and Pakistan; also the politics of nuclear pride and jingoism have to end.”