Skywalker Saga of ‘Star Wars’ a Lifelong Journey for Fans

Moviegoers in the U.S. and much of the world can now see “Star Wars, Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker.” The final installment of the “Skywalker Saga” ends a story that spawned the most successful movie franchise of all time, with more than $9 billion in global box office receipts – and counting. The film’s release is bittersweet for those who look back and see “Star Wars” woven throughout their lives. Among them is VOA’s Midwest Correspondent, Kane Farabaugh

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Croats Pick President in Tight Test for Ruling Conservatives

Voters in Croatia on Sunday cast ballots in a tight presidential election, with the ruling conservatives seeking to keep their grip on power days before the country take over the European Union’s presidency for the first time.

Some 3.8 million voters in the European Union’s newest member state can pick among 11 candidates, but only three are considered to be the front runners while the others are lagging far behind.

Conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro.

Though the post is largely ceremonial in Croatia — the president formally commands the army and represents the country abroad — keeping the presidency is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party as its government is set to assume the EU rotating chairmanship on Jan. 1 that that will include overseeing Brexit and the start of post-Brexit talks.

Analysts have predicted that a runoff vote will be held in two weeks as none of the candidates is expected to win an outright majority and they are all polling close to one another.

Grabar Kitarovic had started off stronger than other candidates but her position has weakened after the she made a series of gaffes during the campaign.

She is still believed to have a slight lead going into the election, followed closely by Milanovic. Skoro is trailing third, chipping away right-wing votes from Grabar Kitarovic.

Analysts believe that Grabar Kitarovic and Milanovic — who represent two main political options — will face each other in the Jan. 5 runoff, but they haven’t completely ruled out an upset by Skoro.

Though it has recovered since the 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, Croatia still has one of the poorest economies in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread.

Critics have blasted the government for setting the election three days before Christmas when many people travel abroad.

The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast that includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.

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Queen Elizabeth Mixes Puddings, and Sends Message of Continuity

At the end of a difficult year, Queen Elizabeth has posed for photographs with her son Prince Charles, grandson Prince William and great-grandson Prince George in an apparent message about the continuity of the British royal family.

Buckingham Palace released photographs on Saturday of the Queen and the three immediate members of the line of succession as they prepared traditional Christmas puddings.

Prince George, 6, is the focus of attention for his older relatives as he stirs pudding mixture in a bowl.

The palace said the four generations of royals represented a cross-section of people helped by a charity for serving and former members of the armed forces – the Royal British Legion – which the queen has supported since 1952.

The family scene struck a happy note for Queen Elizabeth, 93, after a difficult year.

Over the past 12 months, her husband Prince Philip got a police warning for his involvement in a car crash, grandsons Princes William and Harry publicly fell out and her second son Prince Andrew became more entangled in the furor over his links to disgraced U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein.

On Friday, 98-year-old Philip was taken to hospital for treatment of an existing condition, Buckingham Palace said.

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DC Volunteer Group Cooks Up Holiday Meals for the Needy

Since 1954, Mother Dear’s Community Center has been providing services for the needy in the Washington metropolitan area. During the holiday season, the center’s volunteers serve up meals-on-wheels, feeding homebound seniors and the homeless.

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Syria Says Possible Drone Attacks Hit 3 Oil, Gas Facilities

Near-simultaneous attacks believed to have been carried out by drones hit three government-run oil and gas installations in central Syria, state TV and the Oil Ministry said Saturday.

No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted the Homs oil refinery — one of only two in the country — as well as two natural gas facilities in different parts of Homs province.

Syria has suffered fuel shortages since earlier this year amid Western sanctions blocking imports, and because most of the country’s oil fields are controlled by Kurdish-led fighters in the country’s east.

State TV said it believes the attacks were carried out by drones and happened at the same time. It said a fire at the Homs oil refinery was soon put under control. The report said the Rayan gas facility and a third installation, also in Homs province, were hit.

Syria’s Oil Ministry said the attacks damaged some “production units” in the facilities. It said fires were being fought, and that repairs were already underway in some places.

The city of Homs and its suburbs have been fully under Syrian government control since 2017. However, some parts of the province near the border with Jordan remain in rebel hands.

In June, sabotage attacks damaged five underwater pipelines off the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias in Tartous province.

Syria’s oil imports dropped in October 2018 and shortages began in early 2019, largely the result of tighter Western sanctions on Syria and renewed U.S. sanctions on key Syrian ally Iran.

Before the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the country exported around half of the 350,000 barrels of oil it produced per day. Now its production is down to around 24,000 barrels a day, covering only a fraction of domestic needs.

In September, a drone and missile attack in Saudi Arabia hit the world’s largest crude oil processing plant, dramatically cutting into global oil supplies. Saudi Arabia says “Iranian weaponry” was used. Iran denies its weapons were involved.

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Boutique Hotel at the Separation Wall Between Israel and Palestine

In Bethlehem, the town where Christians believe Jesus was born, a hotel designed by famed graffiti artist Banksy offers a different kind of Christmas. The Walled Off Hotel abuts the separation wall which Israel has built on its border with the Palestinian West Bank, and has now become a canvas for protest against the Israeli occupation. The hotel boasts that each room offers “the worst view in the world”. Linda Gradstein reports from Bethlehem.

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Meals Get Wheels

Mother Dear’s Community Center was founded in 1957 by the late Rev. Annie Woodridge.  Her descendants continue her legacy of giving back to the community, preparing and distributing hundreds of meals to seniors and people in need during the holidays.  

Reporter/Camera: Gabrielle Weiss

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Sculpting Chocolate

The art of making chocolate: People in America features the story of Juliana Desmond, a chocolate artist in Tucson, Arizona. She tells us how a trip to Mexico helped her find her passion and how she’s helping it thrive in her homeland.  

Executive Producer: Marsha James, Camera: Kaveh Rezai, Adapted by: Zdenko Novacki 

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Trump Says He Will Sign Defense Spending Bill

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would sign a bill into law Friday that creates a space force and gives federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the $738 billion defense policy bill on Tuesday after the Democratic-led House approved the measure last week.

The measure funds the creation of Trump’s proposed space force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military in exchange for funding the Democrats’ parental leave proposal for federal employees.   

The space force will be the first new branch of the U.S. military in more than 60 years, and two million federal workers will have 12 weeks of parental leave for the first time in American history.

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Private Sector Joins Clean Energy Drive for Africa’s Refugees 

In northern Ethiopia, tens of thousands of mostly Eritrean refugees are getting connected to families back home, partly thanks to last year’s peace deal between Addis Ababa and Asmara, but also to clean energy. 
A Spanish alliance that includes three power companies is linking refugee camps in Shire, near the border with Eritrea, to the country’s energy grid, which largely relies on hydropower. The next step is equipping refugee households with solar energy. 

Private Sector Joins Clean Energy Drive for Africa’s Refugees video player.

“It’s a catalyst,” said Javier Mazorra, partnership coordinator for the group, Alianza Shire. “You need energy for health, you need energy for education, you need energy for protection, especially for women.” 
Humanitarians hope what is happening in Shire will someday become the new normal, amounting to a game changer for refugees, 90% of whom have limited access to electricity, according to the United Nations. Indeed, energy access counted among key issues addressed this week at a global refugee forum in Geneva, with Africa considered a top priority. 

Special Climate Action advisor Andrew Harper of UNHCR, which has launched a sustainable energy strategy for its refugee camps. Lisa Bryant.jpg
Climate action special adviser Andrew Harper of UNHCR, which has launched a sustainable energy strategy for its refugee camps. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“The current situation in Africa is pretty poor, pathetic,” said Andrew Harper, climate action special adviser for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which co-hosted the meeting. 
Often refugees have a single energy solution, “which is going to surrounding forests, woodland, and cutting it down,” Harper said. 
Greening Africa’s energy 
The refugee agency has launched a four-year strategy to transition to clean energy in all of its camps, although Harper offered no fixed deadline or price tag for doing so. A UNHCR-sponsored report out this week also found renewable energy to be a cost-effective and reliable energy source for refugees.   
For Africa in particular, the stakes are high — inside and outside refugee settings. Along with Asia, it has among the world’s highest rates of reliance on charcoal and firewood. Adding in charcoal exports, that has translated into massive deforestation in parts of the continent. 
Firewood- and charcoal-based energy also carry myriad other problems, posing health risks from smoky fires and security threats for women collecting charcoal, and heightening tensions between refugees and host communities who also rely on the fast-thinning trees. 
Many of these problems can be seen in East Africa, home to some of the continent’s largest refugee communities. 

Kathleen Callaghy of NGO Clean Cooking Alliance believes private sector should partner with humanitarian agency in bringing clean energy to refugees. Lisa Bryant.jpg
Kathleen Callaghy of NGO Clean Cooking Alliance believes the private sector should partner with humanitarian efforts in bringing clean energy to refugees. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“There are some energy solutions,” said Kathleen Callaghy, senior humanitarian program associate for Clean Cooking Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “But the funding, the political will and the capacity of organizations in the humanitarian community is not enough to sustain or expand these projects over time.” 
In drought-prone Ethiopia, the government launched a massive reforestation initiative that saw more than 350 million trees planted countrywide in a single day. 
Unsustainable energy practices persist for the nearly 1 million refugees Ethiopia hosts, said Fisseha Meseret Kindie, humanitarian assistance director at the country’s aid agency.  

Fisseha Meseret Kindie, of Ethopia's refugee agency, says the country needs support to develop clean energy for the refugees it hosts. Lisa Bryant.jpg
Fisseha Meseret Kindie, of Ethopia’s refugee agency, says the country needs support to develop clean energy for the refugees it hosts. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

“The energy challenge is one of the prominent challenges we have,” he said, adding host communities are facing the fallout. 
Convincing private sector 
Transitioning to green energy in Africa will mean tapping a private sector that may be wary of investing in refugees and a continent deemed risky. 
“Quite honestly, there’s very little in it for them right now,” Callagh, of the Clean Cooking Alliance, said, suggesting alliances with humanitarian agencies as the way forward. 
But for Mazorra, of Alianza Shire, the payback is more than financial. 
“There are a lot of incentives,” he said, including learning to operate in risky settings. “When you are struggling with really poor resource situations, innovation is key. And there are some innovations that could go back to Spain.” 
Harper, of UNHCR, believes there’s another, broader case to be made. 
“We’re basically saying the market for energy in Africa is not just 6, 7 million refugees,” he said. “It’s 1.2 billion people. We’ve got to look at it as much more part of the rural electrification process across the continent.” 

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Trump Shows Off Democrat Defecting to Republican Party

President Donald Trump held a triumphant White House meeting Thursday to show off a Democratic congressman defecting to his Republican party, portraying the switch as proof that his impeachment is “a hoax.”

Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey was one of a handful of Democrats who bucked the party line and opposed Trump’s impeachment Wednesday on two counts.

Trump brought Van Drew to the Oval Office, seating him in one of the armchairs typically used for visiting foreign leaders, and told reporters “Jeff will now be joining the Republican party.”

“It’s a big deal,” Trump said. “I can say I am endorsing him.”

FILE – Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey departs after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump on two charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 18, 2019.

Van Drew told Trump: “You have my undying support, always.”

Trump, clasping Van Drew’s hand, returned the pledge, saying: “Same way.”

For Trump, this stage-managed presentation of a political scalp underlined his Republican party’s total loyalty during impeachment.

Democrats were able to pass the two articles — abuse of office and obstruction of Congress — thanks to a healthy majority in the lower house.

But while Republicans were unanimous in voting against, the Democrats saw two of their members break with the party line on the first article and three on the second. Another member of the party sat out the vote.

Trump will now become only the third president in U.S. history to face a trial in the Senate, where his Republicans have the majority.

Trump once again branded the entire procedure a “hoax” and said, “I don’t feel like I am being impeached.”

Americans, he said, will still reelect him in 2020, in large part because “We have the greatest economy in the history of our country. We’ve never done so well.”

Democrats say that testimony from senior government officials and diplomats proves that Trump used a hold-up of foreign aid to Ukraine to try and force the country into opening an unnecessary, politically damaging corruption probe against one of his main 2020 challengers, Joe Biden.

He then attempted to block officials from testifying before Congress or sharing documentation on the matter.

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