Fighting the Syrian Regime from a Chicago Office

By David Lepeska

Yaser Tabbara may live half a world away from Syria, where he grew up. But as the uprising there continues, the Chicago lawyer has mounted a one-man legal and diplomatic assault against the Syrian regime to highlight the brutality of its response and help depose President Bashar al-Assad.

In recent weeks, Mr. Tabbara, 35, attended opposition conferences in Turkey and Belgium, and spoke at policy forums in Qatar and Washington. He also built a case for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to charge the Syrian government with crimes against humanity, and he helped draft a letter to the United Nations Security Council calling for urgent action — all while communicating with protesters inside Syria and occasionally representing his law firm’s clients in Chicago courts.

Few people would seem better qualified to lend external support to the uprising. A human rights lawyer born in Chicago and raised in Damascus, Mr. Tabbara has a long history of activism and is practiced in Western justice as well as in the ways of international courts and Syrian politics.

Since mid-March, Mr. Assad has turned his security and military forces loose on the protesters; activists say some 1,400 Syrians have been killed. Watching from afar, Mr. Tabbara said he had been motivated by “a very objective sense of outrage and a sense of responsibility that this country cannot be led by this Mafia-esque gang.”

Such views represent a shift for a man who last year worked with an international organization to improve Syria’s judicial and legal systems. Just months ago, he had been scheduled to meet with Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, to discuss the creation of a Syrian version of Teach for America, which trains prospective teachers who commit to spending two years in classrooms in cities and rural communities.

That meeting was canceled after the protests began, and Mr. Tabbara said he had changed his mind about trying to reform the system after he saw Syrian security forces shoot peaceful protesters and listened to the “insulting, conspiracy-minded” speeches of Mr. Assad.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that democracy doesn’t happen overnight,” Mr. Tabbara said. But the uprising in Syria, coming on the heels of the more peaceful regime-toppling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, has convinced him that the process can be expedited.

“A lot of these gradual reforms, which had never been fulfilled, now have a chance,” he said.

Ammar Bayrakdar, a Syrian physician who moved to the United States in 1990 and has been active in the sizable Chicago-area Syrian community, approves of the shift.

“Now he’s trying to organize the opposition effort, and we support him,” Dr. Bayrakdar said. “He’s very knowledgeable and eloquent, and a sincere individual.”

Local Syrian groups have organized forums, protests and rallies, and have backed e-mail campaigns to the White House, the Syrian ambassador and representatives in Congress.

Such activism is old hat for Mr. Tabbara, who moved back to the United States to attend college in the mid-’90s. After earning his law degree from DePaul University, he provided legal representation to Chicago-area Muslim and Arab communities after 9/11. He also spent a year teaching international human rights law at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus and working with local organizations to improve education in Syria.

Back in Chicago, in 2008, Mr. Tabbara was a founder of Zarzour, Khalil & Tabbara, a law firm started with fellow DePaul alumni that mainly assists nonprofit organizations and immigrants with legal issues. Last year he rolled out Project Mobilize, an organization that supports Muslim political candidates in the Chicago area.

Since the antigovernment protest began in Syria on March 15, the movement has spread across the country and has faced increasingly bloody suppression. Mr. Tabbara said he had been in regular contact with the leaders of groups organizing protests, as well as with friends, family and former students. Some among the latter three groups have been wary about supporting the movement, in part because many middle-class families have long relied on the regime for their welfare.

But that may be changing. “These groups will join the movement in large numbers soon,” Mr. Tabbara predicted. “I know people that belong to that class who have been working very hard trying to mobilize people.”

Some analysts believe that with dwindling financial resources and increasing international pressure, the Assad regime may be teetering.

At a news conference on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “It is absolutely clear that the Syrian government is running out of time.”

Mr. Tabbara said he is confident the rebels will succeed. “These are not people willing to back down,” he said. “They will not accept anything but a complete regime change.”

He added that he is unsure of the impact he and others have had on the movement for change in Syria but that the effort is nonetheless worthwhile.

“I’d like to think we are raising awareness, spreading correct information about the revolution, informing governments and officials about what’s taking place on the ground,” Mr. Tabbara said. “It definitely counters the diplomatic activism the regime has been engaged in.”

ran in July 3, 2011 NY Times, in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative.

Locust Souffle, Anyone? It's a Start

by David Lepeska

Grasshopper fajitas, mealworm fried rice, Bee-LT’s and similar delicacies will be on the menu for a public tasting buffet in October at the University of Chicago. The insect-dominated bill of fare is the idea of Matthew Krisiloff, a sophomore from California who last year founded Entom Foods, a start-up that seeks to make bugs a staple of the American diet.

“I really want to establish a dialogue about insects as a serious food possibility,” said Mr. Krisiloff, 19, who runs the company with four classmates. “We want to show that these are very acceptable flavors and tastes.”

The idea, Mr. Krisiloff said, came to him last fall in a course on contemporary global issues when he learned that by 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach nine billion, doubling the demand for meat.

“I remembered reading an obscure fact when I was younger that insects are extremely resource-efficient, and that they are eaten by many populations all over the world,” he said.

Some 80 percent of humanity eats insects, and raising them would cost the environment a fraction of what it does to raise pigs or cattle. Ten grams of feed produces one gram of beef or three pounds of pork, but it can yield nine grams of edible insect meat, according to Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who has been studying entomophagy, or insect consumption, since the mid-90’s.

Ten times less methane and 300 times less nitrous oxide are emitted in the breeding of many edible insects compared with livestock, Mr. van Huis said. Nutritionally, most insect meat has about the same amount of protein, iron and vitamins as beef, but less fat.

Insects can be legally raised for human consumption because the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act categorizes insects as food, if that is their intended use.

“I’m seeing a lot of people getting onto this bandwagon of eating bugs, as the environmental aspect has given it another boost,” said David George Gordon, author of “The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook,” who has advocated edible insects for 15 years.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has begun promoting edible insects around the globe and categorizes 1,700 species of them. A company near Amsterdam sells pesto-flavored bug nuggets in Dutch grocery stores, and grasshoppers and other insects, usually ground, appear in appetizers and specialty cocktails in a handful of American restaurants.

For now, Entom Foods is looking to develop insect-based animal feeds, particularly for aquaponics. But Mr. Krisiloff’s primary goal remains getting processed insect meat cutlets, or a similar product, into American grocery stores.

Mr. Gordon said: “I think there would be a small segment of the American public that would be interested in such a product, largely because of the environmental benefits. If Entom can build a case for why it’s good for you, they could find some success.”

--- ran in the Aug 21, 2011, NY Times, in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative

Negative Image Aside, Asian Carp Are a Boon

By David Lepeska

When federal and state environmental regulators spent a few days at Lake Calumet in Chicago earlier this month fishing for Asian carp with stun guns and half-mile-wide nets, their hunt seemed to underscore the carp’s status as the Midwest’s ecological enemy No. 1.

The subject of endless debate over the best control strategies, Asian carp, an invasive species, have earned a place of dread in local lore. None, however, were found in the Lake Calumet search, and some scientists say the ecological concerns may be overblown.

For many people, Asian carp are proving more boon than bane. Bolstered by government support, the Asian carp harvest has leapt thirtyfold in the past decade, creating a new industry, attracting fishermen and entrepreneurs, and feeding people all over the world.

“We’ve been ramping up for years,” said Mike Schafer, owner of Schafer Fisheries.

In 2010, the company sold some 20 million pounds of Asian carp to clients as far-flung as Turkey and Indonesia, up from two million pounds in 2006. “We’re out in front,” Mr. Schafer said, “and it’s going to get bigger.”

In the last year, Illinois has handed out nearly $6 million to increase the catch of Asian carp in the Illinois River, including a $2 million grant to the Big River Fish Corporation, of downstate Pearl, to expand operations and ship up to 50 million pounds a year to China.

A separate $3 million state program aims to further increase the harvest of bighead and silver carp, the two Asian carp species that have infested the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio Rivers and are nearing the Great Lakes. Both species reproduce quickly, gorge on plankton, a key food for native American fishes, and grow up to 100 pounds.

Kirby Marsden, former president of the Illinois Commercial Fishermen’s Association and a part-time consultant for Big River Fish, estimates that the carp harvest, less than half a million pounds in 2000, could grow to an annual catch of 100 million pounds that creates up to 200 new jobs in the next few years.

“It’s a chance to get rid of this invasive fish, boost the local economy and increase employment in this area,” Mr. Marsden said.

Imported in the 1970’s by fish farmers and government agencies to keep Southern fish ponds clean, bighead and silver carp escaped their enclosures during flooding and migrated to the Mississippi River, then on to the Illinois and Ohio River basins.

Though they now represent 8 out of every 10 fish in some stretches of the Illinois River, said Greg Sass, director of the Illinois River Biological Survey at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, scientific research has yet to establish a direct connection between the Asian carp proliferation and the decline of any native species.

While scientists debate whether Asian carp could spawn in the Great Lakes and imperil the lakes’ $7 billion fishing industries, environmental groups and politicians from six states have called for re-separating Chicago area waterways from the Mississippi River.

The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, a task force of more than 20 state, federal and regional officials, is exploring a less drastic measure: increasing the harvest on the Illinois River in sufficient quantities to slow the carp’s advance toward Lake Michigan.

“It’s no panacea,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “But in the short run it makes sense. Getting those fish out of the water reduces that northward pressure on Lake Michigan and buys us some time to come up with a permanent solution.”

Jim Garvey, director of the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at Southern Illinois University, runs the $3 million state program to increase the carp harvest and develop commercial markets. He says Asian carp, though a hard sell for human appetites in the United States, are among the most widely consumed fish in the world, with China the biggest market.

“It would be silly for our country to have us spend taxpayer dollars to eradicate these things and throw them in a landfill,” Mr. Garvey said. “We might as well make some money out of them.”

Orion Briney, a third-generation Illinois River fisherman, agrees. While Mr. Briney hauls in up to 20,000 pounds of Asian carp six days a week, the fish industry has shrunk from a few decades ago, when hundreds of commercial fishermen fished the Illinois. Today, maybe a couple dozen fishermen work full-time.

Mr. Garvey and his team are hoping to double that number with a pilot program set to begin next month. After as many as 25 fishermen are trained to properly catch and handle Asian carp, the state will pay cash awards to those who haul in a certain amount.

A few hundred yards from the Mississippi River, in Thomson, Ill., Schafer Fisheries had dealt solely in catfish for most of its 55 years. Now, Asian carp represent 80 percent of the company’s business, Mr. Schafer said.

Schafer ships frozen, filleted, and minced carp mostly to international markets and Asian communities in the United States. It also offers Asian carp jerky, hot dogs and bouillabaisse, and converts waste material into liquid organic fertilizer.

One of Mr. Schafer’s main competitors, Stoller Fisheries of Spirit Lake, Iowa, ships about two million pounds of Asian carp each year. The owner, Larry Stoller, says he hopes to increase that number by half next year.

Inland Processing, a start-up in Grafton, Ill., is pitching the state and investors on plans for a plant to process up to 15 million pounds of Asian carp a year.

Big River Fish, meanwhile, is using its state grant to build an 80,000-square-foot plant to open this fall and increase its processing capacity to 2.5 million pounds a month by 2013 from the current 180,000 pounds a month.

Competitors have questioned the state award to Big River Fish because the company’s director of international marketing, Ross Harano, was state director of trade from 2003 to 2005. A state official said Mr. Harano’s background with the state did not influence the grant decision.

Select Logistics Network of Clinton, Ill., recently won its own state contract: $1 million to remove about three million pounds of Asian carp from the Illinois River and process it into fish meal. Heartland Processing, a start-up in Havana, Ill., is looking to turn carp waste into Omega 3-rich fish oil.

Demand and processing capacity are growing so fast that the Asian carp industry may be working toward its own demise. A state-backed study, to be published at year’s end, should reveal whether the increased harvest is reducing carp numbers.

“We want to crash the population,” said Kevin Irons, aquaculture and aquatic nuisance manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “We’re not trying to find a sustainable yield.”

--- ran in the Aug 12, 2011, NY Times, in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative.