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Obama's Speech; Brush Fire Out of Control in Southern California; Iraqis Who Aided Americans Seek U.S. Asylum

Aired January 16, 2014 - 12:00   ET



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On being born into wealth or privilege. It depends on effort and merit. You can be born into nothing and work your way into something extraordinary. And to a kid that goes to college, maybe like Michelle, the first in his or her family, that means everything. And the fact is, if we hadn't made a commitment as a country to send more of our people to college, Michelle, me, maybe a few of you would not be here today.

My grandfather wasn't rich, but when he came home from the war, he got the chance to study on the G.I. Bill. I grew up with a single mom. She had me when she was 18 years old. There are a lot of circumstances where that might have waylaid her education for good. But there were structures in place that allowed her then to go on and get a Ph.D. Michelle's dad was a shift worker at the city water plant. Her mom worked as a secretary. They didn't go to college. But there were structures in place that allowed Michelle to take advantage of those opportunities.

As Michelle mentioned, our parents and grandparents made sure we knew that we'd have to work for it, that nobody was going to hand us something. That education was not a passive enterprise. You just tip your head over and somebody pours education into your ear. You've got to work for it.

And I've told the story of my mother, when I was living overseas, she'd wake me up before dawn to do a correspondence courses in English before I went to the other school. I wasn't that happy about it. But with her hard work, but also with scholarships, also with student loans and with support programs in place, we were able to go to some of the best colleges in the country, even though we didn't have a lot of money.

Every child in America should have the same chance. So over the last five years, we've worked hard in a variety of ways to improve these -- these, you know, mechanisms to get young people where they need to be and to knock down barriers that are preventing them from getting better prepared for the economies that they're going to face.

We've called for clearer, higher standards in our schools. And 45 states and the District of Columbia have answered that call so far. We've set a goal of training 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next 10 years. And the private sector has already committed to help train 40,000.

We've taken new steps to help students stay in school. And today the high school dropout rate is the lowest it's been in 40 years. Something that's rarely advertised. The dropout rate among Hispanic students, by the way, has been cut in half over the last decade.

But we still have to hire more good teachers and pay them better. We still have to do more training and development and ensure that the curriculums are ones that maximize the chances for students' success. When young people are properly prepared in high school, we've got to make sure that they can afford to go to college.

So we took on a student loan system that was giving billions of dollars of taxpayer dollars to big banks and we said, let's give that money directly to students. As a consequence, we were able to double the grant aid that goes to millions of students. And today, more young people are earning college degrees than ever before.

So we made progress there, but as I've discussed with some of you, we're still going to have to make sure that rising tuition doesn't price middle class out of a college education. The government's not going to be able to continually subsidize a system in which higher education inflation's going up faster than health care inflation. So I've laid out a plan to bring down costs and make sure that students are not saddled with debt before they even start out in life.

Even after all these steps that we've taken over the last five years, we still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower income Americans. We're going to have to make sure they're ready to walk through those doors. The added value of a college diploma has nearly doubled since Michelle and I were undergraduates.

Unfortunately, today, only 30 percent of low-income students enroll in college right after high school. And far worse by their mid-20s, only 9 percent earn a bachelor's degree. So if we, as a nation, can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect. There's this huge cohort of talent that we're not tapping.

Now, what this meeting today tells me is, we've got dedicated citizens across the country who are ready to stand up and meet this challenge. And what I want to really do is highlight some of the commitments that have been made here today. So we know that not enough low income students are taking the steps required to prepare for college.

That's why I'm glad the University of Chicago, my neighbor, and the place where Michelle and I both worked in the past, is announcing a $10 million college success initiative that will reach 10,000 high schools over the next five years. It's why I Mentor, a mentoring program that began 15 years ago with just 49 students in the south Bronx, has committed to matching 20,000 new students with mentoring in more than 20 states over the next five years.

We also know that too many students don't apply to the schools that are right for them. They may sometimes underestimate where they could succeed, where they could go. There may be a mismatch in terms of what their aspirations are and the nature of what's offered at the school that's close by and they kind of assume, well, that's my only option. So UVA, for example, is going to experiment with new ways to contact high achieving low income students directly, encourage them to apply.

Organizations like The College Board are going to work with colleges to make it easier for students to apply to more schools for free. I know sometimes for those of you, you know, in the university administrations, the perception may be that, you know, $100 application fees is not a big deal. But for a lot of these students, that's enough of a barrier that they just don't end up applying.

Number three, we know that when it comes to college advising and preparing for tests like the ACT and the SAT, low-income kids are not on a level playing field. You know, we call these standardized tests. They're not standardized. Malia and Sasha, by the time they're in seventh grade at Sidwell School here, are already getting all kinds of advice and this and that and the other. The degree of preparation that many of our kids here are getting in advance of actually taking this test tilts the playing field. It's not fair. And it's gotten worse.

I was telling Michelle, you know, when I was taking the SAT, I just barely remembered to bring a pencil. I mean, that's how much preparation I did. But, you know, the truth of the matter is, is that we don't have a level playing field when it comes to so-called standardized tests.

So we've got a young man here today named Lawrence Harris, who knows this better than most. Lawrence went to the University of Georgia. And, like a lot of first-generation college students, it wasn't easy for him. He had to take remedial classes. He had to work two part-time jobs to make ends meet. At one point he had to leave school for a year while he helped support his mom and his baby brother. Now, those are the kinds of just day-to-day challenges that a lot of these young people with enormous talent are having to overcome.

Now, he stuck with it. He graduated. But now he's giving back. He's made it his mission to help other young people like him graduate as a college advisor at Clark Central High School in Athens, Georgia. And today the National College Advising Corps, the program that placed Lawrence in Clark Central, is announcing plans to add 129 more advisor who will serve more than 80,000 students over the next three years.

Now, finally, we know that once low-income students arrive on campus, Michelle I think spoke eloquently to her own personal experience on this, they often learn that even if they were at the top of their high school class, they still have a lot of catching up to do with respect to some of their peers in the classroom. Bunker Hill Community College is addressing this by giving more incoming students the chance to start catching up over the summer before their freshman year. And we've got 22 states and the District of Columbia who have joined together in a commitment to dramatically increase the number of students who complete college level math and English their first year.

So these are just a sampling of the more than 100 commitments that your organizations and colleges are making here today. And that's an extraordinary first step. But we've got more colleges and universities than this around the country. We got more business leaders around the country and philanthropies around the country. And so we have to think of this as just the beginning. We want to do something like this again and we want even more colleges and universities and businesses and non for profits to take part.

For folk who are watching this who were not able to be here today, we want you here next time. Start thinking about your commitments now. We want you to join us. For those who were able to make commitments today, I want to thank you for doing your part to make better the life of our country. Because what you're doing here today means that there are a bunch of young people, like Troy, and like Michelle, and like me, who suddenly may be able to see a whole new world open up before them that they didn't realize was there.

So I'll end with a great story that I think speaks to this. There's a former teacher here today named Nick Airman (ph). Where's Nick? All right, so here's Nick right here. Five years ago, Nick founded a New York City nonprofit called Blue Engine. And they recruit recent college graduates to work as teaching assistants in public high schools that serve low-income communities, teaming up to help students build the skills they need to enter college ready for college. The first group of students to work with those teaching assistants are seniors now.

One of them, Estefan Rodriguez (ph), where -- who also is here. Where is he? There he is. Good looking young guy right here. Could not speak a word of English when he moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age of nine. Didn't speak much more English by the time he entered sixth grade. Today, with the support of a tightly knit school community, he's one of the top students in his senior class at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning Schools, or WHELS.

Last month he and his classmates put on their WHELS sweatshirts, unfurled a banner, waved flags and marched down the streets of Washington Heights in New York City through cheering crowds. You would have thought it was the Macy's Parade. But the crowds on the sidewalk were parents and teachers and neighbors. The flags were college pennants. The march was to the post office where they mailed in their college applications. And Estafan just heard back. This son of a factory worker who didn't speak much English just six years ago won a competitive scholarship to attend Dickinson College this fall.

So, you know, everywhere you go you've got stories like Estefan's and you've got stories like Troy's. But we don't want these to be the exceptions. We want these to be the rule. That's what we owe our young people. And that's what we owe this country.

We all have a stake in restoring that fundamental American idea that says, it doesn't matter where you start. What matters is where you end up. And as parents and as teachers and as business and philanthropic and political leaders and as citizens, we've all got a role to play. So I'm going to spend the next three years as president playing mine. And I look forward to working with you on the same team to make this happen. Thank you very much, everybody.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: You've been watching President Obama, the first lady as well. A special summit at the White House dealing with education, trying to make it more affordable for low-income students and disadvantaged communities. The president in a rare occasion really using many different personal examples from his own life, as well as the first lady's, mentioning Sasha and Malia, as well as their grandparents and their parents and how education impacted their lives personally.

It is also a big weekend for the first lady. See how her journey from the south side of Chicago goes to the White House. An "Extraordinary Journey: Michelle Obama Turns 50." That is tomorrow night, 10:00 Eastern, right here on CNN.

Here's what we're working for AROUND THE WORLD.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): No future. There's no future for my children. My children cannot go to their schools.


MALVEAUX: He helped U.S. forces in Iraq. Well, now he is hunted by insurgents. Ahead, trying to stay alive in Iraq as violence flares.

Plus, the hunt for a tiger on the loose in India. Thousands of terrified people, they're staying inside after a man-eating tiger kills seven people.


MALVEAUX: Breaking news now, we are following this. A brush fire, this is in southern California, gotten out of control now. It is spilling down hills, it is burning homes, threatening many other homes as well, forcing people to evacuate this area.

We're looking at live pictures. This is happening in the town of Glendora, about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Officials now are calling in more helicopters. You see those aerials live just the flames licking through some of those homes. Those helicopters are going to be dropping water on the fires.

Dry conditions really helping this fire spread and spread rapidly. We're getting another look there, even a closer look at just that -- being consumed, those homes and buildings being consumed.

Our Casey Wian is near the ground there. Tell us what you know.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, I'm in Azusa, California, very near the community of Glendora, about 25 miles east of Los Angeles. You can see the flames behind me. We're at the very end of a cul-de-sac, a residential neighborhood at the top of a hill. Those flames you can see only about 150 yards or so away from homes.

This residential area has now been all but completely evacuated, just a few homeowners gathering their possessions and getting out of here. The police came up and down the street a couple times telling everyone to get out. You can see the concern, all this dry brush between these flames and where our position is.

We've seen planes, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters dropping water, fire retardant on these flames, fire officials really making an aggressive effort to go after this fire, which is only officially about 125, maybe 150 acres so far.

But the big concern as you mentioned, dry conditions and hot weather, California has been in a drought now, it's entering its third year.

We've got Santa Ana winds, very dry seasonal hot winds forecasted for today, so they want to get this fire knocked down. Still a little after 9:00 in the morning here, so still relatively cool, but this afternoon it's expected to get a lot hotter. There could be more winds, and that could make this a very, very dangerous situation.

Right now, though, it seems that fire officials in this area firefighters are having some success in stopping this fire from spreading into this neighborhood, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Casey, we're taking a look at those live pictures, those aerials in particular. It looks like these homes are spread out. There's quite a bit of brush and woods between each one of these homes in that cul-de-sac, which you are very close to.

The firefighters, do they have any sense of how much time the people have who are next door, not really close to this home but certainly in the neighborhood? How much time do they have to get that fire out before it might spread to some of those houses nearby?

WIAN: Hard to say, but in the neighborhood we're in right now, the flames are only 100 to 150 yards away from their home, so they don't have a lot of time.

Right now, the conditions are cool and, as I mentioned, not much wind. You'll be able to see our picture here, a fixed-wing aircraft approaching this fire.

You know, a lot of it depends on the weather conditions. These fires are very unpredictable. It gets hotter, the winds start blowing, they have less time.

Right now in the neighborhood we're in, everyone has been asked to evacuate. It appears that everyone almost has done so. They've got sprinklers running in the neighborhood as a line of defense, but it's a very, I would say, tenuous situation right now, and it seems where we are, though, firefighters have the upper hand. MALVEAUX: Yeah, that's a good thing. We see the smoke right behind you, Casey. We appreciate it. We're going to get back to you as soon as there's more information.

Breaking news, that fire is spreading very quickly, and, of course, Casey is all over this, looking at the evacuations and just making sure that people are safe.

We're also working on this for AROUND THE WORLD.

This search, this is a man-eating tiger. I kid you not. It has killed seven people in India. It is on the loose. There are thousands of villagers that are remaining indoors while the hunt is going on.


MALVEAUX: In Iraq today, more innocent people died. Violence there is just spinning out of control.

We're talking about Fallujah. This is just west of Baghdad. Two mortar shells landed on this girl's school today, killing two people, wounding two others.

Just in the past 24 hours, imagine this, more than 60 people died violently across Iraq, bombings, shootings targeting Iraqi security forces as well as civilians.

One Iraqi man who fears for his life, he is asking for a safer life here in the United States. He says it's only fair because he helped save American lives during the Iraq war.

My colleague and co-worker Michael Holmes has the story.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Back in 2004 as the insurgency in Iraq grew, al-Qaeda fighters in Fallujah were striking American forces daily, IEDs their favorite weapon.

Omar Hameed was a local cop in Fallujah back then, but he hated what the extremists were doing to his city and his people, so he decided to help the Americans.

Even now he does not regret what he did.

OMAR HAMEED (via translator): Yes, of course, fighting against al Qaeda is right because they're killing civilians, soldiers, police, innocent people, and those who work with the U.S. Marines.

HOLMES: He shows us photographs with his American colleagues and letters of commendation from several U.S. offices praising his intelligence work describing how he saved Iraqi and American lives.

The insurgents were less pleased with his work, but they were patient and got their revenge in 2009. HAMEED (via translator): I left my home in the morning to get some shopping. And when I was driving, suddenly blew up. I lost my legs and got major damage in my wrist.

HOLMES: In the years that followed, Omar steered clear of Fallujah, returning every month or so in secret to see his family for a day or two.

It worked until those al-Qaeda-linked fighters came back in numbers and locals started to flee.

On January 4 when the militants were back in Fallujah, Omar risked a trip to the city to get his family out. The gunmen caught him. Omar thought he was a dead man.

HAMEED (via translator): They told me, You are Omar, you are working with the American troops and Iraq police.

They tied my hands to my back and took me to a mosque they controlled.

HOLMES: Omar says the militants were pleased with the results of the bombing that maimed him, but it wasn't until his tribal leaders made some calls that they eventually let him go saying life with his injuries was a fitting punishment for his work with the Americans.

Today, still fearful, Omar and his family move from house to house, well away from Fallujah. He has his application in for U.S. asylum because of his work with the Americans and the clear risk to his life. As with many other Iraqis though, the paperwork has stalled. He's heard nothing in a year.

HAMEED (via translator): No future. There's no future for my children. My children cannot go to their schools. I cannot work in Fallujah. I also cannot work in Baghdad because of the militia.


MALVEAUX: That's a very powerful story, Michael. Thank you for bringing that to us from Baghdad.

Michael, you look at him and you see his situation. Are there many Omars in Iraq who essentially are in danger, helped the Americans, saved lives and are held up by paperwork?

HOLM ES: Hey, Suzanne. Well, sadly, yes. The answer is yes.

Thousands of Iraqis who worked with American troops during the war have gotten their visas, have their green cards and living lives in the United States. I know probably half a dozen of them, but there are thousands of others in Omar's position where the paperwork has stalled, thousands of them.

And, you know, I remember coming here during the war, the many times I came here, being out on patrols with American troops and the translators who were there. For example, they wore masks back then so they weren't recognized in their community, The risks they took really were putting their lives on the line.

But it wasn't just them, it was other workers, administrative. It could have been in any numbers of roles and, yeah, thousands of them, still waiting. Omar hasn't heard for a year. I spoke to a guy hasn't heard anything for 18 months.