US elections: Still undecided in Iowa

As the US presidential campaign heads into its final stretch, neither the Democrat nor Republican parties show any signs of letting up.

Across the Midwestern state of Iowa, TV and mail ads are everywhere. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and their vice presidential candidates are making their case in person at rallies - sometimes in the same city, within hours of one another.

In unprecedented numbers, celebrities - mostly Clinton surrogates - are canvassing the battleground state, and volunteers are remaining persistent on the phones, urging people to get out and vote.

At events in cities such as Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, committed supporters show up and cheer - imagining what a scary place the United States will be if the opposing candidate wins.

But for many others, the decision of whom to for vote has proved a difficult one.

After more than a year and a half of political campaigning, 7 percent of Iowans still do not know for whom they want to cast a vote, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.

This is despite the role of Iowans in hosting the nation's first caucus, which has given residents more chances to interact with the candidates than anyone else in the US.

Well informed but 'unenthused'

"Here in Iowa, we get to see every candidate three or four different times. If you want, you can go ask the next leader of the free world a question or two," said Pat Rynard, a former Democratic campaign staffer and founder of the political news site Iowa Starting Line. "Iowans are very, very well informed."

In that sense, many "undecided" voters are more apt to refer to themselves differently. Entrepreneur Neil Jirele, a resident of Iowa City, said he has struggled with his decision, not because he does not know enough, but because he sees both of the main candidates as "extreme".

A better term to describe himself, he said, would be "unenthused".

Although Iowa has voted Democrat in five out of the past six presidential elections, an average of polls now shows Trump ahead at 46.3 percent to Clinton's 44.3.

That means undecided voters have the potential to swing the state red or blue - if they turn up to vote.

"These people are probably considering whether or not they're even going to vote," Rynard said. "They're frustrated with the candidates."

While Clinton has been able to sway some suburban, conservative-leaning women to her side, she has not yet convinced many former Democratic Bernie Sanders supporters and young people.

Rynard noted how Sanders' messages of anti-establishment and critique of Clinton resonated well in Iowa during the caucus earlier this year.

"They're not happy with Hillary. They don't think she's progressive. So they're just sitting out," Rynard said.

For Bryan Branscomb, an IT specialist, this is certainly the case. He said he is still "disheartened" over the way the Democratic caucuses and primaries played out. If he could vote for Sanders, he would.

"Honestly, I'm a little lost," Branscomb said. "I feel both would be a detriment to the country."

Rather than turning to Jill Stein, who ideologically more closely aligns with Sanders' platform, the Iowa City resident said he is leaning towards Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, partly because he is polling much higher than Stein.

"I want my vote to mean something," Branscomb said. "I've been studying up on Gary Johnson's stance, and I'm closer to him than anybody."

Republican ideals

While Trump has been able to make unprecedented inroads with working-class men, his rhetoric about women, immigrants and people of colour and disabilities has pushed many other traditional Republicans away.

Steven Hartzler, a college student who usually votes Republican, said he was dissatisfied with his party's candidate, but could not support Clinton.

"Both the Democratic and Republican parties in the primaries had better options," Hartzler said, adding that he would have voted for any other Democratic candidate against Trump and vice versa.

Still, Hartzler plans to vote - as do Branscomb and Jirele.

The presidential candidates are not the only ones on the ballot, and Hartzler wants to ensure the right local and state representatives are elected. If he does end up voting for Trump, he says it will be a "sacrifice" in service of ensuring Republican ideals are better supported across the board.

To the polls

Both Republican and Democrat staffers at the local level recognize the necessity of securing undecided and independent voters. At this late stage, however, the focus has shifted to ensuring supporters show up to the polls.

They hope rallies featuring key speakers might tempt any hold-outs.

As for undecided voters themselves, many seem doubtful much can happen before November 8 to decidedly swing their vote. After decades of being in the public eye, the impressions of both Clinton and Trump - good and bad - are pretty cemented.

But Rick Kadlec, an inventory planner who remained committed for almost a year to not voting for either Clinton or Trump, swung in one direction only recently. Upset by what he saw as the "depth of corruption" surrounding the Clintons, he decided to take a stand and attened a Trump rally in Cedar Rapids.

"I'm not a Trump guy. I'm an anti-Mrs Clinton guy," Kadlec said.

"I'm not saying the bar has been lowered. I'm saying it's been knocked to the ground and stepped on."

Equally unenthusiastic about the choice he has to make on Election Day, Jirele, the entrepreneur, says: "I hope Jesus's name comes up" on the ballot.


Somalia: As stability returns, Fadumo Dayib throws her hat into the election ring

"My life is one that a lot of millions of refugees and displaced people can relate to," Fadumo Dayib says as she discusses her bid to become Somalia's first woman president.

Born in Kenya to Somali parents, Dayib was deported to Mogadishu in 1989, while a young teenager. Soon afterwards, the violence of Somalia's civil war overtook the capital and forced Dayib to plead for a ride on one of the last departing planes for her and her two younger siblings. Together, they fled to Moscow, before finally settling in Finland.

Since then, Dayib, who arrived in Finland with only five years of education, has gone on to become a critical care nurse and earn a master's degree from Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government. She credits much of that success to her mother, who despite receiving little formal education herself, recognised the potential in Dayib at a young age and set aside funds for her daughter's education.

Since then, Dayib has worked for the United Nations as a healthcare practitioner around the globe, including Somalia. Today, she focuses her time on assisting Somali refugees  many of whom are young people. She says she is running for president now not just because she has the capability, but because it's her civic duty.

"It's the moral obligation for each and every Somali to do something about the bloodshed, the bloodletting in the country," Dayib says of the continued instability and bombings in Somalia

"The youth are in a very dire situation. Without them, Somalia would not progress. If properly trained, they could actually be productive citizens who are able to pay taxes and work and actually propel the country forward," the candidate says.

In order to tackle this, Somalia needs to see an improvement in security across the board  something Dayib says the current administration has been failing to do.

Under the leadership of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whose administration replaced the Transitional Federal Government, the country has seen global support and praise for its progress. An unprecedented number of countries have opened  or are in the process of opening  embassies in Somalia for the first time in more than two decades. They include the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, Turkey, and China. Major lending organisations such as the International Monetary Fund are looking to bring Somalia back online and members of the Somali Diaspora are returning in droves.

But Dayib says these images of success are misleading:

"Prior to this government, the security was somewhat stable, but under this administration, the instability has increased," Dayib says. "You have Al-Shabaab taking back areas that were claimed by the AU [African Union] and Somali forces. They are attacking in broad daylight, and it's very brazen, which shows you that they have the upper hand."

Dayib argues that bad governance is driving radicalisation.

"Really everything that the government does badly is actually a driver for Al-Shabaab to recruit. It's become very fashionable to say, "Oh we're not able to have the election timelines or deadlines because of Al-Shabaab. Oh, we're not able to finish this policy because of Al-Shabaab."

Dayib admits that the lack of political connections could cost her the election come October 30, but at the same time she's not willing to compromise her values in order to win. She calls the system "corrupt" and one that not only favours men from major clans over minority groups and women, but also encourages vote buying  an allegation charged by many Somalia observers.

"I've always stated that I will fight corruption, yet I am not yet ready to be corrupt in order to say that I am fighting corruption," she says

Direction chosen

From the age of 2 to 18 years old, Arkansas was my home. Growing up in an upper-middle-class family, in a community where everyone looked like me and professed the same faith, I never feared the cops--who gave polite waves--or of hiding my (straight) identity. That sameness, endorsed by the people in charge locally, statewide and nationally, afforded me the ability to simply focus on what I wanted to do after high school and dream big.

Looking back, I now see this wasn't the case for all Arkansans.

After college, I moved to San Francisco, where I worked on behalf of undocumented workers. Away from their families, with little safety net, my clients were taken advantage of by being taken advantage of by (mostly) white American employers who stole wages from them. In northern Somalia, where I lived next, I educated students who wanted nothing more than to get a good education and a good paying job. As a citizen of a country that saw terroristic activity, my students' families faced impossible visa requirements to schools and work abroad. As a result, they took to traveling illegally across many borders “ too often dying in the process to get somewhere they hoped would be better.

While in the Middle East, where I worked with the most incredible journalists from around the globe, I found, as always, a warm reception. Regardless of our religious or cultural differences, it was easy to find common ground. After awhile I stopped being astounded with their abilities to discern between the American government and me, the American “ something I've yet to see happen on a wide scale basis in my own country. As the first Arkansan anyone met, I did my best to endear people to my state.

It's beautiful, I would say. It's so green, with lots of places to hike and be outside.

But how do they treat brown people? They would ask in response, drawing on what little they had heard about the South “ usually little more than the notion that the region was full of racist people carrying guns. I can't tell you the number of times I heard jokes about getting lynched or shot if they visited me there.

No, I would insist. It's not like that. They'll really nice. People may vote against your best interests, but they're really friendly in person. Do you see the difference? 

For the first time in over a decade, I spent Election Day this year in Arkansas. Waking up the day after, I was humbled by the results. We, as white people, had just elected a man who built his campaign through assigning blame to every single group but his own, a man whose victory was welcomed by current and former heads of the Ku Klux Klan. The whole day, I moved numbly from one errand to the next. It seemed the whole world was on fire, and yet no one in my hometown seemed bothered. And why would they? Their physical safety was not at risk “ a reality that would have been the same irrespective of who won: Hillary Clinton, Evan McMullan or Mickey Mouse.

With each interaction, I wondered whether this person smiling at me, helping me, making my day just a little bit better had in fact voted against people I cared deeply about. The hair stylist who leaned toward neutral ground when discussing the flaws of both main candidates; the restaurant host who kindly “ and hugely outside of her job description “ carried part of my large order out to my truck. Did she just vote to endanger my 4-year- old godson, who inherited his mother's Malaysian heritage and Muslim faith? Did she just vote in favor of placing bulls-eye targets on my colleagues, journalists who went into the profession not for the money (certainly not for the money), but because of their interest in serving others?

There is an inscription in downtown historic Little Rock that reads: When we know where we have been, we can choose whether to go there again. Now, I expect not everyone has seen it “ I happened across it just last weekend “ but I have to assume that whoever commissioned it did so with the belief that learning from our past in order to make better decisions in the future is a valued and shared sentiment among other Arkansans. Yet, for a state that prides itself on its Southern hospitality, it's horrifying that Arkansans continue to endorse initiatives and politicians that do anything but that. Praying for others is not enough. Being outwardly kind is not enough.

If this is the direction that Arkansans have chosen “ one that rewards xenophobia and fear “ then I will no longer differentiate between how we Arkansans behave in public versus how we behave privately.

The story of Samia Omar, the Olympic runner who drowned in the Med

In 2008, a thin 17-year-old Somali athlete settled in to her starting block in lane two to prepare for the Olympic 200m dash. 

Flanked by women in Lycra outfits, Samia Yusuf Omar stood out in her long black leggings and oversized white t-shirt. On her feet she wore shoes recently donated by the Sudanese womens track and field team. 

At the gunshot, Omar immediately fell behind. The other runners crossed the finishing line several seconds ahead of her, but seeing just how hard she was running, the crowd rose to give Omar the loudest cheer of anyone in the heat. 

 Charles Robinson, a journalist who watched the race, remembers: I literally got goosebumps. They were just sort of pushing her.

When Robinson interviewed Omar after the race the runner explained, embarrassed, that she would have preferred to be applauded for her performance instead of her effort. Seeing the quality of the other athletes in Beijing that year, she had become keenly aware of how few training resources were available to her back home. 

 On Friday, Somalia's two newest Olympians will appear in the opening ceremony at the Rio games, continuing a 20-year tradition of sending competitors to The Games despite their country's turbulent and often violent history. Omar will not be with them, but her story “one of triumph, determination and tragedy“ has come to shape the country's athletes, who have used her untimely death to fight for better protections and support.

When Omar and her team-mates began training for the new athletics season in 2009, they were no longer just facing poor training conditions. They now had to contend with the growing influence of the militant Islamist group, al-Shabaab, which which had come to control all but two key kilometres of the capital, Mogadishu.

Of the era of al-Shabaab, "it was the worst," said Leila Samo, a former team-mate of Omar's, who now plays handball for Somalia. A girl could not run, could not even walk without wearing heavy robes.

The group not only banned all sports in the areas they controlled across southern Somalia, but pressured athletes to join their ranks. 

In that time [between 2008-2011], if you wore sports clothes al-Shabaab could have said: "Oh, you have leisure time. Come and fight with USA" says Abdulahi Bare, a middle-distance runner and close friend of Omar's. 

By October 2010, after being forced to relocate to a camp for displaced persons outside the capital, Omar decided to leave Somalia. It had become too difficult for her to train and she dreamed of finding a coach in Europe. By late 2011 she was in Libya, having paid smugglers to transport her across from Ethiopia and up through Sudan. 

Her sights still firmly fixed on competing at the summer Olympics, Omar boarded a flimsy, overcrowded boat in April 2012, hoping to arrive in Italy and find the training she so desired. It was a risky plan: she had no connections to professional coaches or teams in Europe and very few friends or family outside of Somalia. 

Pushing off with around 70 other people, they soon ran out of petrol, leaving the boat drifting in open water. When an Italian rescue ship finally found them, many of the migrants fought to grab hold of the ropes thrown down to them. In the chaos, many people were knocked into the water, including Omar. 

Witnesses said after treading water for a while, Omar eventually went under. She was never seen alive again. She was 21 years old.

The loss of such a promising young athlete has haunted the national team and galvanised a fight for reform. 

In 2014, a group of athletes gathered to start fighting for better conditions, holding small demonstrations in Mogadishu and boycotting athletic events in the hopes of bringing about new athletic leadership. 

Duran Farah, secretary general of the Somalia Olympic Committee, says so far, things have been slow to change. There are a lot of challenges, he says.

As yet, no professional facilities have been built to accommodate the athletes in Mogadishu, a provision which is particularly important for women, who are discouraged from training in public spaces. 

"Now the security is stable. Slow by slow. But there's no equipment, no training, no encouragement. That's why we're losing our sports people," said Mohamed Mudie, a sports journalist at a local station, Ciyaaraha FM.

In such challenging conditions, athletes on the national team say many of their team-mates have decided to leave Somalia, lured by the promise of training in financially and culturally supportive environments. They travel to Europe or even Yemen, embarking upon dangerous journeys similar to Omar's.

For those who try to succeed in Mogadishu, Facebook messages and phone calls from friends who have made the journey abroad can be tempting. Bare says Omar was one such voice when she was in Libya. She said, "You know the situation in Somalia, the situation in the athletic federation, and you know the environment we live in. There is no more improvement. Come with me, we are going somewhere better than here," she told him. 

"But many athletes and administrators refuse to give up. [Sports] is the best use of community engagement and also for building peace and development," Duran says, explaining why he continues to invest his energy and his own money in sport. 

Back in 2010, when asked during an interview to reflect on the hardships she had endured in Somalia, Omar declined to answer and said: We Somalis don't look back at those things. We just keep going.

As Al Jazeera America Closes, Greenlee Grad Reflects on Life-Changing Career with Network

My first interaction with the Middle East, similar to what I imagine it was like for many of my generation, was the 2001 collapse of the Twin Towers. Sitting in my communications class on Sept. 11, 2001, as a high school junior in Heber Springs, Arkansas, I had no previous knowledge of the buildings, who al Qaeda was or even the term terrorist.

Immediately, those in my homogenously white, Christian world began passing analysis on Muslims and Arabs and the motivations behind the attacks. Democracy. Jealousy. The ongoing news coverage featured commentary from Americans, politicians from both parties, discussing, again, Muslims and Arabs and motivations behind the attacks. I was left with still more questions and a strong desire to learn more about these seemingly elusive communities.

A few years later, sitting in an undergraduate global communications class, I was introduced to the documentary The Control Room. The film followed the fractious relationship between the Arab channel, Al Jazeera, and the U.S. during the peak of the war in Iraq. It was well-reported that the channel was decidedly anti-American and had ties to al Qaeda.

A proud Republican, my half of my dorm room was covered in Bush/Cheney 2004 stickers, I was still a supporter albeit reluctantly of the U.S. mission in Iraq. We were there to liberate them. What I took away from the film, and the portrayal of Al Jazeera, was what no other American network was showing: the actual impact on ordinary Iraqi citizens, the emotional toll on U.S. soldiers and the U.S. attack that accidently killed an Al Jazeera journalist. It left me wanting for a genuine and deeper conversation not just about that war, but of all wars especially the ones in which the U.S. was involved. Just as importantly, it identified a new goal for me as a young journalist.

By my senior year I scheduled morning viewings of Link TV, a small network that showed dubbed programs of Al Jazeera.  I later won a Scripps Howard scholarship to intern with LinkTV in New York. I enrolled in the newly-offered beginning Arabic class at Iowa State, but otherwise I was met with resistance to pursuing my dream. My advisor all but told me not to go to the Middle East because I was a woman and would not be taken seriously. My parents, who had never left North America, threatened to put me on the no-fly list if I followed through with my intent to study in Bulgaria. They discovered, after dragging their pointer fingers across Bulgaria, into Turkey, Syria and finally Iraq on my brother's full-wall map, it was too near the (dangerous) Middle East.

So I watched from my laptop as Al Jazeera English launched and began posting jobs for the new channel. While intrigued, I remained hesitant.

After graduation, I moved to San Francisco as an AmeriCorps volunteer before running across an ad for a university teaching position in Somaliland (northern Somalia). I knew nothing of that region, but it was a (poorly) paid gig and it moved me closer to the Middle East. Upon arrival, I carved out a freelance career on the side, stringing for anyone who would take my work. While frequenting both expensive and local restaurant lobbies, I watched Al Jazeera English, which was always on. The channel covered Africans as equal members of our global society, and Somalilanders rewarded the channel with higher viewership and acclaim.

When job postings for the channel resurfaced in mid-2010, I had graduated from bylining articles in my hometown newspaper to covering the Somaliland Presidential Inauguration for the Associated Press. More confident in my skills and ability to make it, I applied, interviewed and screamed quite loudly when an offer landed in my inbox. Less than five months later, I boarded an aging plane on an unfinished Somali airport tarmac headed for Doha, the capital of Qatar.

For the next few years, I covered everything from the Arab Spring and the Tokyo earthquake to the death of Kim Jong Il. My colleagues from all religious, political and ethnic identities engaged and challenged me in rigorous discussions in ways I likely could never enjoy by solely working in my home country. It impacted the way I conducted my research and asked my questions in a very tangible way.

The process raised my expectations of what to expect and demand from both the journalism industry and elected officials. I wasn't alone. Frustrated with the shallow coverage from U.S. networks, Americans streamed Al Jazeera English for our coverage of the Arab Spring of 2011 in record numbers.

In 2013, I returned to the U.S. for graduate school at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York City, wanting to enhance my analytical skills in order to better decipher all that I was witnessing. The move coincided with the opening of Al Jazeera America. Juggling classwork and a new job, I joined this new venture, thrilled to remain connected to the hard questions Al Jazeera demanded be answered. As CNN, MSNBC and Fox News show wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's rallies, his tweets and his latest sensational statement, Al Jazeera America has remained steadfast in its commitment to covering all Americans stories in a nuanced and dignified way.

For reasons expounded upon elsewhere, the channel is closing its doors today, on April 12. I ache for our viewers who are just as sad to see us go, but also for Americans who aren't even aware to the degree they are being shortchanged when it comes to American-based media's portrayal of news. It doesn't have to be one party or the other, anti-American or pro-American. It can simply just be level-headed, reflective in its delivery and still surprise! interesting.

Al Jazeera has been more than a job to me. It has been the foundation for so much of what I value and practice as a journalist. Working through this company has challenged me to think further, deeper and wider and has permanently altered the way I interface with the world. It has given me the opportunity to pursue answers to my own questions and enter communities I previously believed impenetrable.

For anyone looking toward their next venture, either an internship or that next job, I encourage you to trust your curiosity and find a place that allows you to explore it. I know I will be. 

Report: Somaliland mental health patients abused and neglected

People with psychosocial disabilities in Somaliland have been abused and abandoned by the state, by either entering poorly-run institutions against their will or being left in the care of of ill-informed family members, according to allegations in a Human Rights Watch report released on Monday.

"One of the reasons why we actually decided to do the work in Somaliland instead of in south-central Somalia is because the government has prioritized mental health as one of its health priorities," said Laetitia Bader, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch and an author of the report.

Yet the report found that Somaliland's government and its public facilities fell short of being able to adequately meet the need for better healthcare.

Based on interviews with 115 people  including 47 people with actual or perceived psychosocial disabilities  in three of Somaliland's major cities, researchers found that patients across the board experienced a number of abuses.

Most experienced involuntary admission, involuntary medication, overcrowding, few opportunities for sunlight and - with the notable exception of Hargeisa Group Hospital  spent a significant amount of their time locked up in chains.

The report particularly zeroed in on privately-run facilities, which were the worst offenders and have been less reported upon, according to Bader.

"As you'll see in the report, we don't really call them mental health institutions, because we don't really see them as providing mental healthcare," Bader said.

Up until the last few years, mental health had not been prioritized a trend not just seen throughout Somaliland, but also through many other post-conflict societies. Only two qualified psychiatrists serve an unknown number of individuals experiencing psychosocial disabilities within a general population of 3.5 million people.

"In Somalia, the health programming is focusing on mother and child care. And we don't question the prioritization of that, but there is also, given the rates of mental health problems, given the impact it has on the economy, on security, on the household, I mean, ignoring it does appear to be a real mistake," Bader said.

One of those psychiatrists is Dr. Liban Hersi, who was trained in Ethiopia because Somaliland does not currently have schools to train doctors. Hersi said he is doing his best to treat patients as well as train new staff, but it's not enough.

"The problem is that one person cannot do all of it," Hersi told Al Jazeera America.

"We don't have the governmental support or other international organizations who can work with the few people who are willing to make change. So far."

As for the Somaliland government, Faisa Ibrahim, director of policy planning and strategic information for the ministry of health in Somaliland, says it wants to "embrace the report" with a "degree of understanding."

"I think the assessment generally captures the idea that the health sector needs investment," she said

The report points out that there isa concern with the prevalence of shackling and the lack of counseling and trained professionals that exist throughout Somaliland.

At the same time, it indicates that Somaliland has made strides in the last few years and is already in the process of rolling out both next year's strategic plan and a strategic plan for the next five years  specifically addressing mental health issues.

"Unfortunately, Somaliland is a country that is largely funded by external aid, and internal revenues are still really small. It's really difficult, because the needs outweigh all of the things you need to do," Ibrahim told Al Jazeera.

She added that because of this, Somaliland has tended to focus on addressing issues like saving lives, rather than chronic diseases like mental health.

"[We] sometimes forget that this country has a double burden of disease, both communicable and non-communicable," Ibrahim said.

Somali runners feel safest in years

Al Jazeera English

It has been almost two weeks since Al Shabab rebels killed at least 35 people in a Mogadishu courthouse, forcing the question of whether security in Somalia is improving as rapidly as previously believed.

As politicians, foreign agencies and other usual targets for Al Shabab brace themselves for potential future attacks, at least one of these groups -members of the Somali National Team- said they feel just as safe now as they did two weeks ago.

"The situation has not changed," said Leila Samo, a runner who recently qualified for the Olympic team.

"I tell people I am an athlete"
 - Leila Samo, runner who has qualified for Olympic team

Samo said she 'felt shocked, but not scared,' and emphasised that these events are quite normal.

Her coach, Mohammed Adow Nuur, concurred. Nuur said that following the attack, their training was postponed for two days. He explained that it was done so out of mourning - not out of fear the team might be at risk.

The situation they are referring to, one of more freedom to practice sports, is still fragile and limiting-but a welcome relief after having gone underground for a few years during Al Shabab's control of large parts of the city.

With the withdrawal of rebel forces in August 2011, athletes -especially females- have enjoyed a little more leeway when it comes to their involvement in sports - an activity previously seemed punishable by the rebels. Wearing jerseys are no longer banned, and people are freer to watch televised sports games.

"I tell people I am an athlete," Samo responded when asked whether she continues to hide her passion.

While it is still too dangerous for athletes to practice in the streets, Conis Stadium-long used as training grounds over the years for revolving occupying forces, including Al Shabab-has become a welcoming place again.

With its dirt track and inner football grounds, the stadium has recently seen more athletes and sporting events.

Fund shortages

With runners exercising more control over their sport, there is hope that current and future Somalia-based athletes will opt to remain in the country or East Africa even after international events.

This would be a stark contrast to only one Olympian from the last three summer games who is currently active in Mogadishu sports; the far majority of the others have either remained behind in Europe or died years later in the dangerous route to the continent.

As security has arguably improved for at least many of these individuals, other facets of their lives have remained unchanged.

Female runners such as Leila Samo are no longer scared to hide their passion for sport [Teresa Krug/Al Jazeera]

Nuur said coaches they rarely see promised salaries. There is a severe shortage of funds and basic materials, like good running shoes, and weights are unheard of. When asked about nutrition, members laughed.

"No Somali has a balanced diet," said Abdullahi Barre, another runner.

And not everyone has enjoyed the same degree of this new, relative freedom.

Intimidation is still a problem for some runners, such as Barre. Despite Al Shabab's weakened control, Barre said he continues to receive cell phone death threats about his running. As a result, unlike Leila, he said he is uncomfortable telling most people that he is an athlete.

Since the shootings last week, Barre, said he has actually been stopped more often by police forces as well, as his young male status profiles him as a possible Al Shabab member.

"Why are you running? Where are you running? Does someone know you?" he relayed questions they often ask him.

It is not unlike the harassment he and his friends have faced for years, but once again Barre has had to tailor his schedule. Now he trains in the afternoons, when there is less of a police presence outside.

"I fear both [Al Shabab and the police]," Barre said.

Still, he said, he is able to train more openly now than in previous years, and doing so is a risk he and others are willing to take.

"We are not worried now, but anything can happen," Barre said.

One Culture, Two Nations

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

(Hargeisa, Somaliland/Somalia) Ali Mahamad Ali is a single dad and experienced negotiator. He mediated a handful of lucrative deals over the last few years and was featured in many international newspapers and broadcasts, including NPR and Danish National TV. His then line of work, which oversaw transactions of millions of dollars, provided a great sense of relief to each side, both the Somali pirates and their hostages.

The first time we met for tea, Ali explained that he had become familiarized with pirates a couple years back when a German couple was kidnapped. A German colleague residing in the area had called to request that Ali set up communication between the German foreign ministry and pirates and pirates holed up in a remote mountainous area. Fifty-one days, and a million dollars ransom, later, the man and woman were released.

The sea jockeys, better known as pirates, are part of one of the most lucrative professions in Puntland, an autonomous state within Somalia's Transitional Federal system. Last year an estimated $60 million was raised, a significant amount of cash for a country whose citizens earn fewer than two dollars a day.

Despite international efforts to limit the effects of piracy, the practice that materialized around 2005 has seen a surge in ships seized. Pirates attacked 217 ships in 2009, which almost doubled the number from 2008.

Ali said the pirates try to justify their actions by pointing to the fact that there is no central government or other authoritative body to patrol the waters bordering the Somali coast. He said they argue that they protect the waters and monitor illegal activities that include poaching and toxic waste dumping. Ali said he believes piracy mainly serves another important function.

Faced with few other viable options out of poverty, the Somalis of Puntland have discovered that piracy is the quickest and most profitable way to earn money. These men, who sometimes cannot even swim, risk heavy amounts of others' people money, as well as their lives, to get a good catch. Desperation ensues for those who return empty-handed to the large number of expectant community members and investors, and often they venture deeper into the Gulf of Aden and into the Indian Ocean to attempt to capture any vessel.

Their home country of Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991 when military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted. Called the world's most failed state, Somalia has gone through a series of changes in leadership since then, including warlords and U.S. backed Ethiopian troops. The southern region is currently primarily in the hands of the militant groups of Al-Shabaab and Hizbul-Islam. The internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), headed by President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate who is a former schoolteacher leader of the Union of Islamic Courts, only maintains control over about 2 kilometers of the capital of Mogadishu, its airport and the port.

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees calls Somalia an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Of the total estimated population of just over 9 million people, at least 1.5 million people reside in internally displaced camps. (Many people believe this number to be much higher.) Over the years, hundreds of thousands of southern Somalis have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries. An estimated 100,000 have fled the capital just since this beginning of this year, and numbers are expected to continue to rise as heavy fighting escalated last week (Editor: began about March 12th).

Famine and starvation, which became concerns 20 years ago, continue to be serious issues. The last UN report says that between two and three million people are starving in southern Somalia, most of who live in the IDP camps. It's an issue that has recently gained global attention with allegations that aid through the World Food Program has been bypassing those in need.

Media-wise, the Committee to Protect Journalists has named Somalia the second most dangerous country for journalists, after the Philippines. As al-Shabaab continues to seize news outlets, local Somali journalists are daily forced to choose between risking torture and death or fleeing the country, leaving significant gaps in information. Foreign journalists pay hefty amounts of money to travel with caravans of armed guards for just a few days at a time.

The violence in Somalia is sadly not isolated to its region. Just last summer, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, formerly known as Carlos Bledsoe, conducted a drive-by shooting on a Little Rock recruiting office in a self-admitted jihad attack. Before returning to Arkansas a year before due to his overstaying a Yemeni visa, he had been found to have a fraudulent Somali passport on him.

In January of this year, shortly after the Christmas Day attempted hijack, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations issued a report about Somalia, and Yemen, that showed a strong connection between al-Shabaab and al-Qaida.

In its report, the members of the committee stated that because Somalia is a failed state, our concern is that [it and Yemen] could become safe havens for al-Qaida. According to the report, an al-Qaida base has already begun, and it is believed that many of its members have begun training members of al-Shabaab. In a strong word of caution, the report went on to say that there is little the United States can do to weaken al-Shabaab.

As Somalia remains in a seemingly endless state of violence and instability, Somaliland, the northern piece of a 1960 union with Somalia and current home of Ali, offers a different picture. Although it shares the same coastline as central and southern Somalia, Somaliland has been able to stand as a stark anomaly to the lawlessness and fear that grip its former partner.

For the last two decades, Somaliland, which unilaterally separated from Somalia in 1991, has tried to distance itself from the negativity of violence and piracy that surrounds this region.

The aggressive civil war that preceded the separation left an estimated 50,000-60,000 Somalilanders; another 80,000 risked further targeted bombing and starvation across the arid land as they took anywhere from a few days to several weeks to walk to the Ethiopian border. Those ‘fortunate' to reach the neighboring country were greeted with cold rain for comfort, mud for bedding and almost no food for months as they waited for camps to be developed. Until the mid- to late-1990s, parts of the larger cities still remained relatively empty: the majority of the Diaspora in refugee camps or flung around the world.

Since declaring itself as a separate country, Somaliland has developed similar structures to other countries. Its currency, which remains worthless outside its borders, was launched in 1994; all Somalia-issued bills were subsequently banned from use just three months later.

Ministries covering everything from tourism and culture to education have been established. The first president was democratically elected in 1991 and two presidents have since taken his spot. The Somaliland Armed Forces, including a navy, have developed and contribute to the very low level of violence and terror. Armed escorts are required to accompany foreigners, and cars are stopped to have interiors scanned both in the capital and at checkpoints frequently located along the main roads.

The uniquely Somali culture, which draws from Islam's obligation to take care of the poor, as well as loyalty to clan members extending generations, means that Somaliland sees significantly less homelessness and starvation than other African nations. This fact is underscored by the fact that an estimated $US 1 billion annually is sent in remittances, making up about 18 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

Yet, despite all these efforts to ensure a functioning, thriving government and people, Somaliland still awaits international recognition from the African Union and consequently the rest of the world. Many factors play a role, including the reluctance of Arab countries to accept the two separate entities.

Somaliland also garners little international attention, keeping the issue on a global backburner.

Somaliland is not on the horizon because it is peaceful, said Muyhadin Saed of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies through the University of Hargeisa. It would lead headlines if it bled.

He further explained that Somaliland experiences negative peace. Despite the lack of open violence in the country, Saed said people still suffer from structural violence like lack of justice and healthcare; this prevents individuals from reaching their full potential.

War, drought and periodic international bans on the Somali livestock have led to a shift in the traditionally nomadic culture and a migration to the cities. Unemployment and underemployment run rampant, as there is very little work for Somalis to do.

The most recent presidential election has been postponed at least five times since early 2008 due to suspected voter fraud and politics between the three parties. While talks to reschedule the election resumed in early March, it is unlikely the country will see it until this summer at the earliest.

The capital of Hargeisa provides any passerby with daily reminders of the brutal war. In between multi-story glass-plated buildings and aluminum shacks selling Ethiopian coffee, a good number of buildings, including former schools and hospitals, stand in ruins. Roofs are gone, and multiple bullet holes litter the walls that still exist. The majority of these concrete structures have been rebuilt or rehabilitated to accept new inhabitants. Many, however, remain broken and unused, shells of what existed before the three-year campaign to exterminate the northern Somali population that began in 1988.

Shoes, clothing and other material remnants of victims targeted as they tried to escape the bombing are present to this day. I am told that parts of skeletons, including skulls, continue to emerge after the twice-yearly rainy seasons. Despite multiple sweeps across the country, fears haunt the survivors that one of the more than 800,000 mines planted during the civil war are still around. Undiagnosed post-traumatic disorder plagues a large number of the citizens, and the slightly narcotic drug, khat, has taken over people's incomes and culture of work.

Oddly enough, it seems the only saving grace from Somaliland's status as a non-state has been its inability to borrow money from IMF and other international agencies. While the lack of money has contributed to the stunt in growth, Somaliland has escaped the crushing debt its fellow African nations are staggering under.

Despite the setbacks, Somalilanders are resilient. Former refugees and well-educated returnees who account for the far majority of the population have now returned to Somaliland and are developing hospitals and schools. In addition to Edna Adan, the former foreign minister of Somaliland who set up a maternity and teaching hospital, other returnees have begun developing state-of-the art facilities to treat and educate Somalis.

Dr. Hussein A. Bulhan, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and authored The Politics of Cain, is now head of the University of Hargeisa as president and chancellor. Bulhan is working to make the major university not only a place for which graduates can be proud, but also one that international employers and graduate schools will recognize.

Dr. Ahmed Hussein Esa, the former head of the Flow Cytometry project at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has co-founded the secondary school of Abaarso Tech. The school educates the country's brightest girls and boys in science, math and logic, regardless of their abilities to pay. Esa's dream is for these students to land spots and scholarships to major universities in the United States and United Kingdom, gain degrees in engineering and other badly needed skilled professions and continue the tradition of returning to their homeland to help others.

While violence continues to dissolve the once magnificent city of Mogadishu and the rest of its country, formal international recognition for Somaliland could be the first step in protecting peace and stability for at least a portion of this region's inhabitants. Many fear that continuing to tie the two nations together will not result in stabilization of the southern region, but rather lead to the downward spiral of the northern region into a similar state of violence and lawlessness.

Until then, the Somalilanders plan to continue developing badly needed services and structures, offering their refuge to others and all the while waiting for the closest thing to their fairy tale ending.

Somalia's difficult road to the Olympics

Al Jazeera English

With just 100 days until the London Olympics opening ceremonies, one country must cope with overcoming the emotional loss of its sporting figurehead.

The death of the president of the Somali Olympic Committee (SOC), Aden Yabarow Wiish, along with the head of the Somali Football Federation, Said Mohamed Nur, in a suicide attack in early April shocked Somalia's sporting community.

It was really a very sad day for all Somalis, especially the sports community who lost their leaders and friends, said Abdi Bile, the former Somali world champion and Olympic medalist middle distance runner.

We were calling each other. You could feel the devastation everywhere.

The attack, which has been attributed to a female bomber but challenged by al-Shabab who claim they had already distributed bombs, killed at least nine other people - including the former minister of youth and sports Mowliid Macane Mahamud.

It was a big loss for the sports in Somalia, said Jama Aden, the Qatar Olympic coach for the men's middle distance team.

It was very, very shocking to me.

Aden had known Wiish closely since childhood and spoke of his positive nature:
That's what was so special about him. Very charming man, always laughing, very generous, Aden said.

Abdullahi Mohamed Saneey, a manager for the Somali Olympic team, remembered the long hours Wiish, who had been president since 2009 - put in with a smile.

He was a very humble, very happy, and he liked to produce young people to the professional level, Saneey said.

Memorials were held, and others have stepped in to cover the gaps. Duran Farah, senior vice-president and head of international relations for SOC has taken over as the acting president.

Whether Farah will maintain the position or another will take the permanent position is still yet to be seen.

Easy targets

Amid feelings of sadness and optimism, anger has surfaced due to the fact that sports figures and organisations - who by nature are largely nonpartisan - often come under fire.
We have nothing to do with politics, Aden said.

I don't know what the target is.

It is not the first time the Somali community has had to cope with the horrific loss of lives.
In 2009 another suicide bomber blew up a medical students' commencement ceremony in an attack that claimed the lives of 25 people, including the minister of youth and sports.

In addition to the deaths of the sports leaders, deaths within athletes' families are also not uncommon. Abdi Said Ibrahim and Samia Yusuf Omar who represented Somalia in the 2008 Summer Olympics had both lost a parent before they competed.

The success of sports programs throughout greater Somalia has fluctuated tremendously in the last 21 years since the country collapsed.

Little funding is available for athletes impacting on the ability for Somalis to participate in sports. Even the neighborhood a Somali resides in can determine the level of freedom they have to access sporting facilities.

Most recently at the height of al-Shabab's reign, women were banned from sports participation and all Somalis were banned from watching sports or wearing sports jerseys. Many athletes had to hide the fact that they were involved in sports or they faced being accused by al-Shabab of being an Ethiopian spy or Transitional Federal Government loyalist.

Consequently they were forced to flee or risk being murdered.

AU troops stop and ask them, "Why are you running? Stop, stop, stop!!" said Saneey, explaining that if an athlete did not stop, he would be shot. When he did stop, he could be delayed for up to an hour for questioning.Areas under control of the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government - which have increased - allow more freedom, but due to the high level of suspicions from every warring party, athletes have even been harassed by African Union peacekeeping troops.

They have to wear normal clothes, not their uniforms because people will think they are soldiers, he continued.

You can't do the training.

National athletes receive little compensation for their running and struggle with the same hardships as their fellow countrymen. Many have spent time in internally displaced camps or left Somalia in search of a safer life. Even finding one daily meal can be difficult.

Their body tells them they can't do anything more, Saneey said of the physical shape that Somali athletes run in.

Hesitations and risk

While the situation in southern Somalia is arguably improving, most Somalis who left decades ago are hesitant to return due to the security risks.

Despite a strong desire to personally contribute to returning the country to a culture that celebrates and encourages sports participation, they are mindful that a decision to come back could have consequences. Many members of the SOC divide their time between Mogadishu and London, where they have since put down roots.

Making that choice was something that the former SOC president pushed on his friends.
Even before he died, [Wiis said] why don't you come to Mogadishu?' Aden quoted him as saying.

Someday you have to come back so people can be motivated by you.'
Others have returned to safer areas, such as Somaliland in northwestern Somalia - a region that has self-governed since 1991 but lacks international recognition. 

Abdi Bile, who was given a hero's welcome by former military dictator Said Barre after he won the 1500m World Championship title in 1987, has lived in the United States for the majority of his adult life.

He made his first trip back in late 2010 and has since spent a significant amount of time volunteering in and near the capital of Hargeisa. He is currently in the middle of establishing an NGO that focuses on youth and sports.

Fortunately, in southern Somalia more opportunities have also become available to athletes, allowing Olympic hopefuls the opportunity to compete globally in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Some training opportunities have also been made possible in Kenya, and a base in Ethiopia was established by Saneey to train men - although there is not enough funding for women.

The SOC went beyond Somalia's borders this time around to recruit from the diaspora; two on the national team are from London.

Even with the added attention, training and opportunities, it may be too late for the athletes to gain the ground needed to compete on an international level.

Saneey is realistic that many will fail to qualify for this year's games. None of them have managed to secure anything better than last place in any of the last few months' international events.

But, as the Olympics have shown fans time and again, anything is possible. And if there is one underdog worth rooting for, it is certainly Somalia.

Forging ahead // The Ñaña knitters' collective

Briarpatch Magazine

Even after the doctors had left, the Peruvian alpaca sweaters lay neatly folded in the large suitcase near the entrance. The clothing had been carefully selected, packed and transported to the edge of town the previous day in the hope that a group of foreign doctors who were passing through the area might take an interest. After perusing the collection, however, the foreigners purchased the inexpensive finger puppets in lieu of the pricier sweaters, hats and mittens. Pressured to compete with the market prices in downtown Arequipa, the knitters had even offered a discount.

The knitters, who call themselves Ñaña (meaning sisters in the local indigenous language, Quechua), are constantly mindful of their struggle to earn a living wage. Located in the dusty, depressed community of Alto Cayma on the outskirts of beautiful Arequipa, Peru, Ñaña's three-room workshop offers its members a refuge from past hardships and current struggles. Inside, the women are welcomed and supported by one another.

Though their genuine alpaca clothing is far superior to the products sold in the city centre, foreign tourists don't know, or care, about the difference and are often unwilling to pay the premium. Accustomed to paying essentially pennies for souvenirs in Southern countries, buyers bargain the city vendors down from their already too-low prices to prices that oftentimes do not even cover the original costs.

Because of this, the members of Ñaña have refused to sell their products in the local markets for the last few years. The members are instead focusing on a much wider, global clientele. As the women regularly remind themselves, they must salir adelante. Roughly translated, this means to pull through or forge ahead.

I want it to be a big business, to be able to export explains Andrea Gutierrez, one of the founding members of Ñaña. That's my dream.

The story of Gutierrez's life resembles that of many of her compañeras. As a child she experienced the crushing effects of losing five of her 13 siblings to poverty-related deaths; as a teenager she worked long hours tending to animals and working for a street vendor before becoming a single mother at the age of 20. Forced to relocate to Arequipa, she began grueling fieldwork to support her son.

Around the time of her second son's birth two years later, she connected with a friend and began spending afternoons knitting. The hobby had never gone beyond generating a small side income, but now it seemed more lucrative.

Until 2004 the women would meet and knit every Wednesday; it was still necessary to hold other jobs to support themselves. At first they spent the entirety of the day and well into the night knitting in someone's home. They would then walk an hour from Alto Cayma to Arequipa's city centre because they could not afford a taxi or bus. For all their efforts, they would be rewarded with roughly $3 for a pair of mittens.

I was fine, but the prices just didn't go up Gutierrez said.

Eventually a place to knit and market their products was arranged by a local priest in Alto Cayma. Other resources began trickling in and more women began to join. Today there are a handful of regulars with another 15 or so who cycle through. Some of the women have been knitting their entire lives; others have only just begun. Some still hold other part-time jobs. The vast majority of the women have children. All want to improve their knitting and expand their business.

Yeny Narcy Panta Coripua, who began knitting when she joined the group, credits a lot of her success to Gutierrez, who always pushed her to learn.

Yes, you can. You have to come, you have to come Coripua said Gutierrez told her when she doubted herself.

Coripua began working as an empleada, or domestic worker, at the age of eight to support her four siblings when her father passed away and her mother abandoned them. At the age of 20, pregnant and alone, she too came to the Arequipa area. She worked as a money changer for the local buses and later owned a food stand before meeting her now-husband. She eventually found Ñaña because her second-born child attended daycare in the same complex. Knitting through Ñaña has now provided her with a sense of independence and self-worth that former jobs could not.

Whatever their backgrounds, the women share one common goal: expand Ñaña for the benefit of everyone involved. When speaking about their objectives, they use we and us rather than I or me. Their struggle continues to be an uphill battle as they resist the urge to sell their products for less than they are worth. Their name is also still relatively unknown and the current recession has not helped their business. Fortunately, they have established connections with a few fair trade stores and high schools in North America. Despite the odds, they are determined to continue forging ahead in search of financial independence for themselves and their families. 

Occupiers aim to impact Iowa caucuses

Al Jazeera English

(Des Moines, Iowa) As caucus-goers head to Iowa precincts on Tuesday, Occupy Iowa Caucus protesters are hopeful that their direct actions and media attention this past week have paid off.

After 59 arrests and several sit-ins, the protesters have tried to make it clear that what they are working toward is helping the 99 per cent - the average American - to better participate in their own democracy.

"We are here to make the caucuses a true representation of democracy," said Paul Engler, an activist and protester from Occupy LA who was part of the People's Caucus, which launched this past week's actions.

Advocating for Iowans to become more vocal at their local caucuses - and possibly even vote "uncommitted", or for none of the candidates on the ballot - has been the leaderless group's main initiative. Despite its members' numerous and disparate grievances, they have joined together to achieve the same goal: making government more accountable to the people.

Setting up a plan

The People's Caucus on December 27 took place just steps away from the state capitol and attracted not only dozens of national and international journalists, but also about 250 people from around the country. Some attendees were passionate enthusiasts, campaigning in their respective corners of the United States, while others were curious onlookers who were unsure whether or not they should pledge their name along with others.

Even before the organisers unveiled the main event of the night - a mock caucus in which participants voiced their grievances instead of their support - the energy and camaraderie in the room was clear. Though many of them had never met one another, all were hopeful that this event was going to finally bring them an outlet to voice concerns.

For 45 minutes, participants were allowed to share their platforms with the public, in typical caucus form. Their ages spanned multiple decades, from teenagers to those in their 70s. Each speaker was respectful, honest and warmly embraced by the audience.

At the end, the organisers encouraged everyone to split into affinity groups, based upon candidates they least liked, with the initial idea that these groups would be mobilised to "occupy" candidates' headquarters the following day.

The numbers varied, but Mitt Romney collected the most and Rick Santorum - who was then still considered a long shot - only attracted one. Others, like Rick Perry, collected a few because of their views on abortion and gay marriage.

There was even an affinity group against President Barack Obama, and a strong showing for "uncommitted". Clarke Davidson, who runs live streaming for the Iowa Occupy actions and was fired from a local television station for his participation in the movement, tried to persuade members of other affinity groups to work toward solutions rather than simply angrily targeting candidates.

"Let's not throw stones at hatred," Davidson urged attendees. "We're going for healing."

The week of direct actions

The next morning, however, the size of the group had dramatically decreased and remained roughly this size for the remainder of the week as roughly 40 to 50 people showed up, prompting a debate over whether everyone should split up to pursue individual candidates - meaning smaller turnouts - or combine forces and take one candidate at a time.

After about an hour and a half of open debate, the decision was made to not only resort to direct action against Mitt Romney - who the activists considered an obvious member of the 1 per cent - but also against Wells Fargo, which had contributed $61,500 to Romney's campaign and was conveniently located a block away from the Republican's Iowa headquarters.

At the first action against Mitt Romney, protesters chanted, hoisted signs and eventually blocked entrances to deny anyone from leaving as employees sat inside, unable to exit while the parking lot continued to fill with people.

In the end, seven people were arrested, but only after the police officers had explained the violations to protesters and informed them that they would be arrested if they did not immediately move away from the doors. All arrests were handled peacefully, and a paralegal was on site to ensure that protocol was followed and no one was hurt.

"We've got a working relationship," said David Goodner, a community organiser with Citizens for Community Improvement, referring to the Des Moines police force. "We've got a job to do, and they've got a job to do. We aren't out here for them. We are out after the corporations."

The group then migrated to a Wells Fargo branch, where protesters chanted "raises for the police" and "this is what democracy looks like". Three more people were arrested in a civil manner, including an 8-month pregnant woman.

The next day, more direct actions - this time outside Ron Paul's headquarters and the Iowa Democratic Headquarters - took place. Again, there were civil interactions between police officers and protesters, unlike in other parts of the country where batons and tear gas were used.

Protesters and activists' attendance hovered around 70, but several motorists honked their support as they drove by.

More actions at various locations continued throughout the rest of the week leading up to the caucuses. While arrests and the media increased as the week went on, the turnout at the actions varied little throughout the week and many of the same people were arrested multiple times.

The campaigns respond

When protesters/activists first arrived at the Iowa Democratic Party Headquarters, demanding that the president be called to address numerous concerns - including the National Defence Authorisation Act - Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky and executive director Norm Sterzenbach came out to speak with them. Dvorsky insisted that it was not possible to get Obama on the phone.

"We are here to listen to you. We are not trying to ignore you," Dvorsky said to the protesters, many of whom had actively campaigned for Obama in 2008. "But we don't know what you want," she added, expressing frustration that her offer to meet with protesters who had been arrested 10 days before at the headquarters had gone unheeded.

Michele Bachmann's Iowa campaign had a different response to the prospect of protests. When asked earlier in the week about potentially planned actions at various candidates' campaign headquarters, Bachmann's Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson said it would be "terribly disrespectful".

"They have the right to express their opinions, but they shouldn't step on my right to express my opinion," Woolson said, continuing with, "No 1 per cent here."

But one candidate took a different approach and even seemed to support the activists' right to protest.

When several members of Occupy Iowa Caucus began chanting at a recent Ron Paul Veterans Rally as the candidate took the stage, the Republican responded along the lines of "Isn't it great that we live in a country where we can express our opinions?"

But he did not invite the activists on stage with him, nor did he make plans to visit with them afterward. He also did not summon security. It was his supporters - many of whom tried to reason with the protesters - that responded negatively.

"He's for everyone. He's not for Wall Street; the lobbyists don't even visit him because they know you can't buy the man," said John Kurr, a Des Moines resident who has been a supporter of Paul's since 2007.

The local reaction

For the most part, many Iowans - especially Occupy Iowa Caucus' neighbours - seem to have taken a "live and let live" approach to the week's events, with the occasional critique.

Jennifer Mitchard, a graphic artist at the popular Raygun Clothing Store, who is still uncommitted, said she was once somewhat involved, but cited difficulties with being able to attend Occupy meetings and actions because she had a 9 to 5 job. She also said she felt very few solutions were being offered, and she disagreed that arrests were a step in the right direction or that occupying space near the capitol was very effective.

"The camping part takes away from the movement, because you're sort of homeless. It's difficult to listen to homeless people," she explained.

Ultimately, though, Mitchard - who said she is still uncommitted but will most likely vote for whoever is lowest in the polls - said she agrees with several of the issues raised by the Occupy movement, including removing money from the big banks.

"I think it's great what they're doing and I'm glad that it's growing," she said. 

Another form of success?

While many will be looking to the actual day to see whether Occupy Iowa Caucus has had a significant impact on the caucuses themselves, some activists felt the movement's success could be seen in a different way.

For Ross Grooter, a Des Moines resident who both campaigned for Obama and then was arrested at the Democratic Party headquarters earlier in the week, the actions' main achievement was opening up new channels of conversation. When colleagues and friends have discovered that he is involved with the movement, they have come up to him to purposely discuss politics-something, which was much more rare before, he explained to Al Jazeera.

"It's already been a success because it's drawn attention to the issues."

Somali inspiration battles against the odds

Al Jazeera English

(Addis Ababa) "It was the happiest moment we ever had because we took our flag. We raised our flag. We felt like we were very important people."

The 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies hold much more sentimentality for Somalia's Samia Yusuf Omar, but it was her performance in a single 200-metre heat that sealed people's memories of her.

Crouching at the starting line beside the fastest women in the world, Samia Yusuf Omar had three things on her mind: winning, helping her family and bringing honour to her country.

She was dressed in knee-length spandex, a baggy t-shirt and shoes recently donated by the Sudanese female track team. Her wiry frame, which exposed her simple diet of mainly sugary bread and pasta, was a stark contrast to the muscular sprinters beside her.

Feeling confident at the beginning of the race, her distraught face at the end told a different story.

Brief encounter

It has been almost three years since the unknown runner flashed onto the world stage to just as quickly disappear.

Her time was a disappointing 32 seconds - eight seconds behind her competitors - but her finish arguably got her more applause than the first place winner.

The initial flurry of interest about this tiny unknown runner from war-stricken Somalia died just as quickly due to the language barrier and Samia's indifference toward the media. As a result, few articles exist on this remarkable young lady.

Spectators and readers were left wondering, 'Who is this girl? How did she make it here?' and 'When will we see her next?'

Not much has changed.

Indeed, in many ways her athletic career has regressed. Somalia, a failed nation that has not seen an effective central government in 20 years, continues to become increasingly volatile and unstable.

Understandably, opportunities and resources to train have understandably decreased.

After the Olympics, she folded quietly back into Mogadishu. Her family and neighbours received her with pride, but there was little other fanfare. Her race had taken place around midnight local time, and because no radio or television station in Somalia had carried the event, no one - including her family - had seen her compete.

Poor training facilities

Before the Olympics, Samia had primarily practiced at Mogadishu's Coni Stadium.

It was little more than a bombed-out shell whose so-called track was full of potholes, but it served as the best option for Samia and her fellow teammates.

Several times a week they would attempt to meet with volunteer coaches here to improve times and form.

Harassment from rotating militia groups or pockets of violence in one neighborhood would often prevent Samia from either attending practice or returning home afterward.

Meanwhile, Samia - who dropped out of school in the eighth grade after the death of her father - was caring for her five younger siblings so that her mother could earn a small income as a produce vendor.

Soon after Samia returned from China, however, she had to begin hiding the fact that she was a runner.

A life-threatening encounter with al-Shabaab instilled a lasting fear in her, and she began publicly denying that she was an athlete when asked.

While living in an internally displaced camp monitored by Hizbul-Islam about 20 km outside the capital in December 2009, Samia lived side-by-side other Somalis who were never the wiser that they had an Olympian in their midst.

The changing political atmosphere not only made it difficult for women to train, but it also became dangerous for all athletes.

Al-Shabaab banned all Somalis from participating - or even watching - sports or wearing sports jerseys. The stadium became a base for the organisation, and heart-stopping phone calls forced many of Samia's friends to flee to other parts of Africa and even Europe.

Despite the best intentions of members of the Somalia Olympic Committee, little remains of the organisation but its name and legacy.

In a devastating blow in early December 2009, Suleiman Olad Roble - the visionary Minister of Sports and Youth - was injured and later killed as a result of a suicide bombing at a medical students graduation.

Currently, plans for a facility in Puntland, in central Somalia, have yet to be realised, and many of the key members of the Somalia Olympic Committee live abroad.


In an act of determination and desperation, this young woman has left her family behind to move to Ethiopia - not just a bordering country, but also one that has long been renowned for the calibre of its runners.

After verbally defending her home country for years, Samia admitted that she no longer has any desire to return to Somalia - at least not in its present condition. She is hopeful that Addis will give her the opportunities that Mogadishu cannot.

In late April 2011, Samia meets with Eshetu Tura, a former Ethiopian Olympian.

He had been suggested by two Somalis developing the sports program in Qatar: Coach Jama Aden - a heavyweight in the track world who put Sudanese male runners on the map - and Mohamed Suleiman, Qatar's first Olympic medalist.

Upon the initial meeting, Tura admits that he had never heard of the young athlete.

Because of his deep respect for Mohamed and Jama, however, he patiently listens to her explain why she had arrived in Addis.

"God willing," Samia plans to run in the 2012 Olympics, but desperately needs a coach. 

She doesn't admit it, but her fairly secure position is also based partly on the fact that Somalia does not have the capacity to recruit and train new athletes.

The question of whether she will compete hinges more on access to resources than anything else.

Tura seems a little hesitant at first. A combination of Samia being a non-Ethiopian and a middle-distance runner is only the beginning. (Samia switched distances after realising her mistake at the Olympics.)

She will also need funds for various activities that the Ethiopian Athletic Federation covers for its members.

Another concern is that Samia has been unable to train in the last two months due to a number of reasons.

Her cheeks emphasise this fact.

Finding a safe place to run is no longer an obstacle, but she has still struggled to find the necessary facilities and other resources to improve. It is obvious her longing for consistency.

After much discussion, Tura finally agrees to consider allowing her to do endurance training three times a week with his men's and women's long distance teams outside the city.

If it's possible, he will see about tailoring some middle range exercises for her. In order for her to train an additional three days a week - at Addis's Stadium - she must be granted permission from the Federation. At the very least, she will need a letter from the Somalia embassy to begin this process.

Assuming she is allowed to train with Tura's teams, she will have to depart at 6 a.m. in order to catch the three buses for the 7:30 a.m. practice. Since moving to Addis seven months ago, she has become more hopeful.

Her body is less tense and her eyes are considerably less suspicious. She has set new goals - including relocating her family once she earns enough money through her running - and she is overall more hopeful.

This news means only one thing to her: she finally has a coach.

Training begins

I arrive early enough to watch the internationally renowned Ethiopian men's and women's teams practice.The next day, we agree to meet at the Addis Ababa Stadium.

Dozens of athletes cool down along the track or lounge in the stands chatting and laughing.

Many of them sport the official 'Ethiopia' green and yellow jackets.

The camaraderie between the genders is obvious, and many of them hug upon meeting the other. While it is clear that the athletes take their sport seriously, there is a refreshingly relaxed air surrounding the place.

The track is a worn red color, but otherwise in good condition.

Parking is limited for the 35,000 spectator seats, but otherwise the facilities are relatively well maintained.

In fact, the stadium is so highly regarded, it has been the site of many international competitions. Samia herself competed here three years ago at the African Athletics Championships.

Fantu Megiso, a short distance sprinter, comes over to praise the Ethiopian program.

She speaks of her recent performance at the European Indoor Championships in Paris and lists off several countries she plans to compete in this summer.

Her best time in the 200 metre is an even 23 seconds. Had she performed similarly in Samia's heat, she would have vied for first place at the Olympics.

On average, the Somali team is invited to only one regional competition per year. Samia last competed in August 2010 in Nairobi, Kenya, where she placed poorly but set a new personal record.

Today, Omar finally arrives in the middle of several Addis clubs' trainings.

The national team has since departed and the country's next generation of hopefuls has begun running.

Samia is coming from across town, where she lives with her aunt and cousins. Because other family members live nearby, she has fortunately been able to land in a secure support group.

She immediately meets with Dr. Yilma Berta, the head coach for the Federation.

Berta explains how the top 250 track athletes from around Ethiopia are selected to train with the national team.

From this number, the top three in each event are chosen for the Olympics and other international competitions. Four or five coaches are provided for each athletic event.

In addition to formal training, the coach details how members are also provided with access to all facilities, clothing, transportation, food, camps and often accommodation.

Doctors are also always on hand. The clubs often take some of the financial burden as well.

While the Ethiopian government assists with major events - both internally and abroad - the federation is largely self-funded through donations, sponsorships and properties.

When prompted, Berta says that he doesn't see major differences between what is offered to Ethiopian athletes and other countries' professional athletes.

As the meeting closes, Berta finally turns to Samia to ask her specific questions about her training and times for the 1500 metres.

"Five flat? You'll need to make at least 4:20. That's a big difference," Berta explains, not unkindly to Samia.

He stresses that regardless of her ability to train with his teams, she must run with other women and in her distance range. Unfortunately, neither have always been options for her.

Berta reiterates the need for Samia to gather the necessary paperwork to obtain permission to train in the stadium.

He hesitates to give false hope, but at the same time he refrains from being dismissive. Perhaps with better coaching she could make up some ground in her performance.


After the meeting, Samia takes a seat in the stands to watch the local clubs practice. Her skirt and jacket cover her track pants, and her shoes are safely tucked away in a small bag. Her hand softly clutches the area between her chest and neck.

"I am very fearful of the national team," she breathes.

"Last time [at the 2008 African Athletics Championships] I was not afraid. Now I am very afraid."

More than once she whispers this fear as she watches Ethiopia's next generation of hopefuls improve their skills.

Up until this point, she has only shown her signature humor and resilient strength.

Despite her eagerness to meet with her potential coach, she had played it cool: occasionally bursting into lyrics from pop songs and smacking her gum.

Even after having survived the most dangerous city in the world, the death of her father at a young age and consistent lack of resources, she trembles at the sight of Ethiopia's amateur runners.

Off to the side, several energetic deaf athletes from a local club chat with one another. They notice the young lady in the hijab watching them, so two of them come over to invite her to lunch. A third athlete joins them soon afterward.

Through a combination of English and basic American Sign Language, they cheerfully brag about medals and running and ask several questions of Samia.

They're currently training for a major competition scheduled to take place at the stadium in two days and hope that Samia can come.

Within minutes, her laughter takes over. By the time the boys slip away for food, her heavy breathing has subsided.

The 2012 Summer Olympics are still a long way off for this Somali athlete in more than one way. Similar to her beloved country, she is working with what she has: pursuing short-term fixes in hopes that long-term solutions will evolve.

Like every athlete, come competition day Samia too will be looking for the gold.

No one trains in hopes of taking last place. But perhaps her worth as a runner won't need to be determined by the final results.

The Olympics are based on a tradition that celebrates the struggle as well as the triumphs. For someone who has overcome so much at such a young age, there seems to be no greater testament to this spirit than Samia Yusuf Omar.

Editor's Note: It is believed that Samia Yusuf Omar died in a boating accident in April 2012 while traveling from Libya to Italy.

Grieving for Somali Olympian Samia Omar

Al Jazeera English

The first time I met Somali Olympian Samia Yusuf Omar was two years ago in Hargeisa, Somaliland, where she had agreed to be interviewed. I remember she stepped off the plane from Mogadishu in a new royal-blue dress and headscarf, track trousers tucked underneath.

In April, a boat carrying Omar from Libya to Italy ran out of petrol and the Italian navy ship which came to rescue passengers threw ropes over the side. Omar tried to grab the rope, missed, fell into the water and drowned. News about her death emerged during the London Olympics and was later picked up by Italian newspapers. She made the trip to Italy to search for a coach.

The first week I spent with Omar, back in 2010, she was noticeably reserved, yet stubborn. She ran the 200 meters race at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and was still shy when speaking to reporters. She would respond to my constant inquiries into how she was doing with a simple, fine. And then, frustratingly, refuse to answer too many personal questions about herself.

Not that she was ever a fan of speaking to the media. The BBC had called her in 2008 soon after she arrived in Beijing for the Olympics, in hopes that she would share her experience with them. But Omar wasn't interested in being interviewed, so she pretended she couldn't hear the journalist and hung up.

Opening up

"I love Somalia, but there is no peace. If Somalia had peace, it would be the best place to live in the world. I prefer to live in Somalia instead of other places" - Samia Yusuf Omar

But slowly, toward the end of the week, her personality began to reveal itself. In the evenings she would avoid talking about herself by inquiring into intimate details of my life. As Omar listened to our translator repeat each question to me, she would fixate her gaze on me, one eyebrow raised and a smug grin on her face as she waited for the end of the delivery. Her questions were mostly about boys.

When the answers came, she would laugh.

A year later, she greeted me eagerly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Her English had improved enough to have small conversation. She was frustrated when she couldn't express herself properly, but I was thrilled to hear her speak the same language as me in almost perfect grammar.

She was still on her quest to find a coach somewhere, anywhere.

But at least she was in an environment where she was visibly more relaxed. Where she didn't have to worry about death visiting her every time she walked outside. She could be more casual in her dress if she liked, and she could be open about the fact that she was an athlete.

Omar had always defended Somalia. It was her home, where her friends and family lived.

I love Somalia, but there is no peace. If Somalia had peace, it would be the best place to live in the world. I prefer to live in Somalia instead of other places, she told me that first week I met her.

Now she was now talking about how she could move her mother and younger siblings to Ethiopia as well.

She invited me to stay at her aunt's home, and together we worked out steps that included her passion, running, but also could transition her into becoming an adult.

We parted with every intention of meeting up again.


Then, in mid-August, I found out that Omar had died. In a video passed to me, I watched as the legendary Somali athlete Abdi Bile became emotional as he explained the details “... a boat headed for Italy... an unsuccessful rescue”.

Hoping Bile was mistaken, Omar had gone missing on more than one occasion. I tweeted the news to my very small number of followers and went to bed.

My cousin, bless her, retweeted it.

And that was it for several days.

I kept the news quiet, even from mutual friends, until her sister gave me confirmation. I went a little numb, not sure how to process the information.

At just 21 years of age, after all Omar had pushed through and over, she was gone.

Not only had she died, but she had died last April. I couldn't fight the feeling that I had been robbed of a last goodbye and chance for a eulogy and funeral. I was expected to just deal with the news thousands of miles away and months later.

No more would I watch her call or text her mother and younger siblings more often in one day than I did in weeks. (She had assumed momâ responsibilities at the age of 15 when her mother had needed to become a produce seller following the death of Omarâ's father.)

I would no longer catch her playing football or basketball with teenage boys, a big taboo at a local Hargeisa boarding school.

Nor would she ever loop her arm through mine, call me Teresa Waalo, which translates into Crazy Teresa, a reference to my insistence that we maintain an interview schedule, and then tilt her head to the side and laugh. Or sing the name a few more times, much to her delight.

Omar loved giving nicknames to people.

All her siblings had at least one.

She had six.

My intention when meeting her was to use her narrative to walk people through the last two decades in Somalia. Give people a personal account of what it was like for Mogadishu-based Somalis to lose a parent at an early age, have to drop out of school, be displaced and develop an increasing amount of fear as warring authorities took it out on your neighbors and family.

But because she had gone to the Olympics, maybe people would care.

I let the story fall to the side as Omar continued to live, travelling through the Sudans up to Libya, from where she had told me she wanted to eventually reach Italy, where she believed she might find a coach.

Her family and I both tried to dissuade her from going. The Somali Olympic Committee was planning to develop a camp in Addis, where Omar was at that time, and there was no guarantee of a better athletic life elsewhere.

Eventually, when she had settled, I planned to see whether she was ready to share her life with more people.

Sadly, she never had that chance. But the world did.

Amazing woman

A few days after I learned of her death, the news hit the Italian newspapers and lit a spark across western Europe, then the rest of the world.

Media requests came in and people began tweeting their shock. A Youtube video posted in 2010 of her 200-metre race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics jumped from a couple hundred views to a quarter of a million in less than a week. People from around the globe commented about the sadness of her passing.

People were recognising what I and others in her life had known all along. Omar was nothing short of amazing.

More family and friends, many who had met and come to love her, stumbled upon reports about her death and asked how I was.


And I was, and still am. I have my life. A job. Opportunities.

But I wasn't really. I was moving through different emotions: denial that I'd never see her again, anger that I hadn't done more to help her, or that the media, members of my profession only cared now that she was gone... until I finally broke down and cried the other night.

Work distracted me during the day, but in quiet moments I focused on her childhood stories of her sprinting away from madrasa to surprisingly end up at a stranger's wedding down the street. Or of beating up girls with too much make-up or throwing small rockets at older kids she thought she could outrun.

I also conjured up an image of fear she would have had when she realised that this risk, finally, was the one that did her in. This would be the end.

And I realised I was haunted. I was full of the stories she had entrusted to me. There was tremendous pressure to give her life dignity, to allow others to picture her as truthfully as possible. To not just honour, but protect every precise detail, as she would no longer be able to defend herself.

And so I sat down and began writing this.

But as I dug through my notes, I realised that preserving each moment exactly as it happened was something that mattered to me. This was never something that Omar really worried about.

And most likely it wouldn't concern her that much now.

What mattered to her was being able to run. Through it, she had hoped to find success for herself, help for her family and pride for her country.

Sharing Some with Those Who Have None

My first Eid, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, began as a passenger lodged between an elderly gentleman to my left and a hard window on my right. I was smashed into the backseat of a minibus leaving Ethiopia, with a suggested number of 10 to 14 passengers. I twisted my body to accommodate the many suitcases and overstuffed plastic bags and braced myself each time the bus swung around potholes and oncoming traffic.

And yet, I had the best seat on the bus. With the most potential legroom and fewer bodies to crowd into, the others had taken notice of my contrasting skin color and single status and insisted that I take it.

The bus bounced and swung as the driver avoided potholes and oncoming traffic.

I was returning to my adopted home of Somaliland after a two-week trip through South Africa that took me into Addis Ababa: a wonderful but exhausting journey that did a number on my bank account. Though I had signed a contract for a new job in Qatar, the start date was continually being pushed back. To say that I was counting my last dollar, shilling and birr was an understatement. So to keep expenses low, I was looking forward to a friend's couch just outside Hargeisa.

My life in Somaliland internationally recognized as northern Somalia was relatively vibrant and I had considered it home for the past year. I had a lovely group of friends, and my now former students had kept me entertained with their humor and curiosity.
It had become such a home for me that I had fought several obstacles, jobs, deportation, limited independence and constant threats to foreigners in order to stay.

I'd come to Somaliland to teach and give, but I had also been given so much in return. From the waiters and guards to the members of Parliament, I had been treated kindly and warmly, protectively even.

This night on the bus was going to be no different.

As we headed for the Somaliland border, the passengers settled into a quiet chatter. Women rearranged their headscarves and calmed their children while jokes were exchanged between everyone. We were all eager to get home. The border posts were closing soon, but I was running on inflated optimism that inshallah I'd be able to get across.

The bus continued to rock back and forth, and a light sprinkle began. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the driver slowed and pulled the bus over.

All the men departed through the side door to prostrate themselves in the fourth prayer of the day, Maghrib.

They returned just as night took over and rain began to pound on us. The interior lights came on and the chatter exploded. Food was produced from the bags and passed around. The month of fasting was over, and it was time to celebrate.

The gentleman beside me insisted on my taking his banana. A woman in the seat ahead of me turned around to offer dates. Here were people, exemplary of their fellow countrymen and women, who had most likely suffered through many more trying situations than me. And yet, no matter the familial relation or individual's ability to contribute, everyone was encouraged to eat.

I have some, and you have none. Therefore I will share with you. Of all the lessons I took from my year in northern Somalia, this one has left the strongest impression. It was never communicated to me verbally or shoved down my throat; it was simply commonplace almost everywhere I went.

Two years later, I am looking forward to Eid once again. Although I do not practice Islam, I've come to appreciate the celebration that concludes a month of reflection and devotion to something other than myself.

I use it as a time to be mindful of the similarities between people of all faiths and the beauty that comes with sharing what I have with others. I have been so very blessed and it has been through no solo act. We all must rely upon others sometimes.

So to everyone out there, most especially those breaking fast this weekend, I wish you a very Eid Mubarak. Thank you for allowing me to partake in it.

Teresa Krug spent a year in Somaliland as a teacher and freelance photographer/writer from 2009-2010; she now works as a journalist in Qatar.

Occupiers take on the Iowa Caucuses

Al Jazeera English
As presidential candidates and journalists descend upon Iowa once again for the US' first set of caucuses, another group of individuals are hoping to grab attention.

Occupy Iowa Caucus, a splinter group of Occupy Des Moines, has been busy organising activities that they hope will have a greater impact on the rest of the 2012 presidential campaign season.

Similar to the broader Occupy Wall Street movement that began in September 2011, organisers of Occupy Iowa Caucus have been "occupying" streets, parks and financial districts to have their voices heard. This time, however, protesters are targeting presidential candidates at the beginning of their election and re-election campaigns.

Protesters have already begun staging sit-ins at party headquarters in Des Moines. On Monday, eight protesters were arrested at the Democratic Party headquarters after occupying President Barack Obama's re-election headquarters on Saturday. According to local newspapers, protesters said they refused to leave until Obama vetoed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which allows US citizens to be detained without cause, and began prioritizing communities over corporations.

More sit-ins are planned at the end of the month to target Republican candidates.

"It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative... we are coming after you", chuckled Jessica Reznicek, one of the organisers who also heads Occupy Des Moines, explaining that all candidates, regardless of political affiliation, need to be held accountable.

"Our goal is to reshape the political and social discourse. We demand that they start talking about the things that need to be talked about."
- Jessica Reznicek, organiser of Occupy Des Moines

"Our goal is to reshape the political and social discourse. We demand that they start talking about the things that need to be talked about," Reznicek explained.

For her, these things include a number of issues, including allocating more funds to social programmes and decreasing money to the military and international monetary fund. While Reznicek acknowledged that different issues may take priority for other people, she says what ties protesters together is not the same political ideology but a desire for change.

Impression on caucus-goers

While sit-ins and other activities are ongoing, organisers said their big push would occur the last week of the month - a crucial time for candidates wishing to make a favourable impression on caucus-goers.

Organisers are calling for a "People's Caucus" on December 27, where protesters will break into affinity groups to compile key grievances they want addressed by a particular candidate. The plan is for these groups to then visit and hopefully discuss the petitions with the respective politician's Iowa headquarters for the next several days. If protesters are barred from entering, organisers said they are prepared to stage sit-ins for three days.

"It's a creative spin on the whole caucus process", said Ed Fallon, a former Iowa legislator and gubernatorial candidate, who is heavily involved in Occupy Iowa Caucus and has chaired several caucuses over the years.

The Iowa caucuses, which became the nation's first major step of the presidential nomination process in 1972, serve multiple purposes. Unlike primaries, caucus-goers gather at a set location - usually a church, school, public library or private home - in one of 1,784 precincts where they throw support behind a particular candidate and develop platforms.

The Democrat caucuses involve many more rounds of caucusing and caucus-goers publicly stand in support of a candidate. Candidates must receive at least 15 per cent of support in each precinct or supporters must pledge support for another candidate in subsequent rounds. In the case of too few votes, supporters of less popular candidates must either choose to throw their support behind another candidate or abstain. In some cases, supporters of less popular candidates will choose to throw all their support behind one in hopes that at least one of the candidates survives.

Community-oriented event

Caucusing - meaning debate over candidates and platforms - occur with both political parties, but Republicans usually opt for silent voting. In both cases, delegates are elected to vote on behalf of the precincts for candidates at a much later date.

But Fallon said that even the caucuses no longer serve the original intended goal.In other words, caucusing in Iowa is a much more community-oriented event than in the case of subsequent primaries.

"The people's voices aren't even being heard at that point", Fallon said.

After decades of being in politics, he said the political system is "salvageable", but requires a grassroots operation to improve government's accountability to the people.

"My goal is that people will make the connection between the corrupt corporate culture and the corrupt political culture in DC", said Fallon

.Although the results are non-binding, the Iowa caucuses are widely seen as an indication of how a certain candidate will fare throughout the rest of the campaign. The first place winners of the Iowa caucuses have only gone on to win their party's nomination about half the time, but can be an excellent opportunity for lesser-known candidates - such as former President Jimmy Carter - to gain some traction.

'Leaderless movement'

Many of this year's Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Iowa native Michele Bachmann, have campaigned heavily in the Midwestern state; Rick Perry has also stepped up efforts this month. Others - like Newt Gingrich, who just reopened an office last week after his staff deserted him last summer and Mitt Romney, who quietly opened an office in November after taking an expensive second place in his 2008 presidential bid - have kept a lower profile. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has chosen not to formally campaign in Iowa at all.

Not every resident of Iowa is optimistic that Occupy Iowa Caucus will achieve its mission.

"I think it's going to blow up in their faces", said David Peterson, an associate political science professor at Iowa State. "This is not the kind of thing that most folks find attractive. As a general rule, people aren't going to like people upsetting the electoral process".

Peterson said he also thinks candidates - none who could be reached for this article - will respond negatively to the protesters, using it as a "rally cry" against those involved, and as a chance to "mock and scorn" the movement.

"[Protesters are] not going to be able to convince any potential caucus goers of anything," Peterson said.

Steffen Schmidt, also a political science professor at Iowa State, agreed that caucus-goers are protective of the democratic political process.

"Occupy has made the mistake of being against but having no plan to support anything political. A leaderless movement is doomed", Schmidt told Al Jazeera.

Still, the organisers are hopeful that more people will become involved as well. They insist that no plans are scheduled for January 3. In fact, Fallon said the plan is for protesters not to disrupt the actual caucuses. He said he, as well as many other protesters, will attend the Republican caucuses. He plans to introduce some of the resolutions the People's Caucus discussed and support the least "offensive" Republican candidate.

Scepticism has not deterred Occupiers from other parts of the country from coming to Iowa. Reznicek said protesters from Chicago and New York's Zuccotti Park have confirmed that they will be arriving in the last week of December to show solidarity with Iowan Occupiers. She said numbers could be anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand.

Local business support

Occupy is also likely to have the support of at least a few local businesses, like Des Moines-based Ritual Cafe, which have supported the ongoing Occupy Des Moines movement.
Ritual Cafe co-owner Denise Diaz has supported the Occupiers by providing coffee since their beginning in Stewart Park in the central part of the capital. The cafe used to provide coffee every day to the Occupiers, but now only does so twice a week.

"The local, independent businesses definitely are empathetic to the cause", Diaz said, stressing that she thinks that lots of other businesses are afraid to show support as openly as she does.

"We are the little people in the big corporate world of businesses."

She said she hadn't thought much about the Occupy Iowa Caucus previously, but that she will support them in her own way if she can't physically attend.

"I plan on being busy. I probably won't be able to occupy, but I certainly plan on serving all those that come to visit", she said.

As for what will happen past January's caucuses, organisers said they aren't sure, but feel a responsibility to do what they can now.

Fallon said that while he would support similar Occupy movements in subsequent primary states, his focus is on Iowa. Reznicek agreed, emphasising the significance the outcomes of these caucuses could have.

"We really feel we're launching and shaping the rest of the way the campaign is going to go."