Georgian Police Detain Opposition Leader as Political Crisis Deepens

Police stormed the party offices of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him Tuesday, deepening a political crisis that prompted the prime minister to resign last week.
 
Melia’s supporters had barricaded themselves in the offices, using furniture to block the doors. Scores of police surged into the building during the early morning raid, including using firefighting ladders to gain access via the roof.  
 
Seventeen people were hurt in the scuffles between police and activists, the Interfax news agency reported. Some activists were coughing and suffered eye irritation after police sprayed gas towards them from hand-held canisters.
 
Melia, the United National Movement (UNM) party’s chairman in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
 
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “deeply troubled” by Melia’s arrest, urging the Georgian government to avoid actions that could further escalate tensions. A State Department spokesman added that recent developments in the country were in contravention of its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
 
A new prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, was chosen by parliament late on Monday to replace Giorgi Gakharia, who resigned last week after a court ordered the detention of Melia, a move Gakharia said would cause political turmoil.
 
In a video posted on Facebook late on Tuesday, the new prime minister called for “all the political forces to which our country is dear to start a true dialogue.” 
Hundreds protest
 
Hundreds of people massed outside parliament to protest Melia’s detention and pitched two tents in the capital, Tbilisi. One protester held up a sign calling for a snap election, the government’s resignation and freedom for “political prisoners.” A UNM party member called for a large-scale protest march on Friday, the Rustavi 2 media outlet reported.
 
The Interior Ministry said it had no option but to use coercive measures at Melia’s party offices as activists had ignored numerous warnings not to obstruct their work.
 
“Polarizing rhetoric, force and aggression are not the solution to Georgia’s political differences,” Blinken said in a statement. “We call on all sides to avoid actions that could further escalate tensions and to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve the current political crisis,” he said.
 
The U.S. Embassy earlier expressed regret that its call for restraint and dialogue had been ignored.
 
Britain’s ambassador, Mark Clayton, urged restraint from all sides. The European Union’s ambassador called for efforts to find common ground.
 
“The logic of escalation is getting the upper hand. The political crisis is deepening,” the EU diplomat, Carl Hartzell, wrote on Twitter.
 
Zygimantas Pavilionis, a special envoy from the Lithuanian parliament who returned on Monday from a mediating mission to Georgia, said the authorities had been seeking support from Western diplomats for a crackdown.
 
“They were asking for green light from me, from the EU ambassador, from the American ambassador. I said, no way,” he said. “Now democracy is dying there.”
 
Last week, a court ordered Melia to be detained for allegedly failing to post bail. Gakharia abruptly resigned on Thursday, citing disagreement with his own team over the arrest order. The Interior Ministry initially held off on detaining Melia because of Gakharia’s resignation.
 
The new prime minister, Garibashvili, served as prime minister from 2013 to 2015. His candidacy was put forward by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

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Tiger Woods Awake and Responsive After Crash, Police Investigating Cause

Police on Wednesday sought to determine what caused Tiger Woods to swerve off a Southern California road in his sport utility vehicle, colliding with a tree and rolling down a hillside in a crash that left the golf great seriously injured.
 
Woods, 45, was pried from the wreckage by rescue crews and rushed by ambulance from the scene of the Tuesday morning crash outside Los Angeles to nearby Harbor-UCLA Medical Center suffering what his agent described as “multiple leg injuries.”
 
A statement posted on Woods’ official Twitter account on Tuesday night said he had undergone a “long surgical procedure” to his lower right leg and ankle and was “awake, responsive and recovering in his hospital room.”
 pic.twitter.com/vZitnFV0YA— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) February 24, 2021Compound fractures of his tibia and fibula – the two bones of his leg below the knee – were stabilized with a rod, and screws and pins were used to stabilize additional injuries to his foot and ankle, Dr. Anish Mahajan, chief medical officer of Harbor-UCLA, said in the tweet.
 
Mahajan also said that trauma to the muscle and other soft tissue of the leg “required surgical release of the covering of the muscles to relieve pressure due to swelling.”
 
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies responding to the wreck found no immediate indication that Woods had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs before losing control of his vehicle shortly after 7 a.m.
 
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, however, said the golf star, who was “lucid” following the accident, appeared to have been going faster than normal for a downhill, curving stretch of road known by locals to be hazardous. Weather was not considered a factor.
 
Video footage from the scene showed Woods’ dark gray 2021 Genesis sport utility vehicle badly crumpled and lying on its side near the bottom of the hillside, its windows smashed.
 The damaged car of Tiger Woods is towed away after he was involved in a car crash, near Los Angeles, California, Feb. 23, 2021.Woods’ injuries were not life-threatening, the sheriff said, but sports commentators were already speculating that the crash could end the career of the greatest golfer of his generation.
 
Woods is the only modern professional to win all four major golf titles in succession, taking the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in 2000 and the Masters title in 2001, a feat that became known as the ‘Tiger Slam’.
 
But he has suffered years of injuries and undergone multiple surgeries on both his back and knees.
 Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 6 MB480p | 8 MB540p | 11 MB720p | 24 MB1080p | 44 MBOriginal | 123 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioWoods, one of the world’s most celebrated sports figures, was the sole occupant of the car when it crashed near the suburban communities of Rolling Hills Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes, the sheriff’s department said.
 
The vehicle veered across the center divider of the road into an opposite traffic lane, striking a roadside curb, and a tree as it careened over an embankment, and “there were several rollovers” before the SUV came to rest, Villanueva said.
 
Woods hosted the PGA tour’s Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club over the weekend but did not compete due to his back injuries. The wrecked sport utility vehicle bore the Genesis Invitational name on its doors.
 
He was seen at the Rolling Hills Country Club on Monday with actress Jada Pinkett Smith, retired basketball star Dwyane Wade and comedian David Spade.
 
Golf Digest reported Woods had been shooting a TV show segment in which he was giving on-course instruction to the three celebrities and was due to resume filming on Tuesday.
 
Woods held the top spot in golf’s world rankings for a record total of 683 weeks, winning 14 major championship titles from 1997 to 2008. His 15 major titles stand second only to the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus.

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German Court Convicts Assad Official

A German court has convicted a former member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s secret police of accessory to crimes against humanity for facilitating the torture of prisoners.
 
The court in Koblenz sentenced Eyad Al-Gharib to 4 1/2 years in prison.
 
Prosecutors accused him of being part of a unit that arrested protesters and delivered them to a detention center where they were tortured.
 
The conviction marked the first time a court outside of Syria ruled in a case alleging members of Assad’s government committed crimes against humanity.   
 
The court is also holding a trial for a second person who is accused of directly committing crimes against humanity.  That trial is expected to last until late this year.
 
Prosecutors are invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring charges of crimes against humanity in a German court.

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US Will Seek Seat on UN Human Rights Council

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the United States will seek to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council when elections are held later this year.
 
Blinken said in a video address to the council Wednesday, “We humbly ask for the support of all U.N. member states in our bid to return to a seat in this body.”
 
Seats on the 47-member council are held for a three-year term, and Blinken said the United States would seek to occupy one for 2022-24.
 
The United States withdrew from the body under the administration of former President Donald Trump with arguments that the council unfairly targeted Israel and included among its membership a number of countries with poor human rights records.
 
“As the United States re-engages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel,” Blinken said.

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US to Scrutinize Beijing Commitments Under EU-China Investment Deal 

The United States is looking to scrutinize China’s commitments under an investment deal that was signed in late December between the European Union and China, a senior State Department official told VOA Tuesday.   It comes as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is working closely with European allies to push back on what American officials describe as China’s undermining activities to shared values and the rules based international order.   “If China did make additional concessions in that agreement on things like market access, on forced labor, we certainly welcome that, although we really would look to the Chinese to prove that that’s not just cheap talk, and that they’re going to implement those commitments,” said Molly Montgomery, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs.   The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment is seen as a geopolitical win for China, and a blow to transatlantic relations despite concerns over the deal in the European Parliament.   US-brokered Serbia-Kosovo talks unlikely In a recent interview with VOA, Montgomery also said the United States is committed to working with the European Union, which facilitates the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Her comments come as Kosovo’s Vetevendosje party leader Albin Kurti is set to become prime minister after the February 14 elections.   Kurti has said that forming a negotiating team for dialogue with Serbia would not be a priority for his government.   When asked about the possibility of a U.S.-brokered dialogue, Montgomery told VOA: “We certainly continue to support the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and to look toward a comprehensive agreement, a normalization agreement that would lead to mutual recognition, or on the basis of mutual recognition.”   The following are excerpts from the interview. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.   VOA: What is the top policy priority of Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs in coming years?   Montgomery: I think the president has made it very clear beginning with his inaugural address that our priority really is to rebuild our relationships with our allies and partners in Europe.  We believe that they are the cornerstone of everything that we are trying to do, whether that is fighting COVID-19, or climate change, or pushing back against malign activities from Russia and China. We want to be working with our European partners. But we also, I will say, continue to believe that our goal for Europe is really a Europe whole, free, prosperous and at peace. So we’ll be working toward that goal for the next four years.   VOA: As China is competing with the U.S. for vaccine distribution and post-pandemic recovery in Europe, what is your takeaway on the recent China-CEEC group, also known as “17 plus 1,” virtual summit between China and Central and Eastern Europe countries?   Montgomery: I think all countries, whether it’s the United States or Europe, have a multifaceted and very complex relationship with China. There are parts of that relationship that are adversarial. Some of it is competitive and there are also areas where we want to cooperate with China. And so, I think our focus really is working on a multilateral basis with our allies and partners to strengthen our cooperation, and to look at areas where we can cooperate with China, such as on climate change, but also to be aware that there are economic activities that we want to push back on. There are threats to our values and there are human rights violations, such as we’ve seen in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong. And particularly the genocide — [about which] the U.S. government has been very clear — has been committed against mostly Muslim Uighurs in China. And so we’re really focused on working with our allies and our partners to develop an affirmative agenda as we look at this complex relationship with China, and to defend our values and our shared interests as well.   VOA: We are hearing voices from European countries doubting the U.S. is wavering in its position on the policy determination that genocide has been committed against Uighurs in Xinjiang. Is the U.S. wavering in its position?   Montgomery: The United States has been very clear — Secretary Blinken has been very clear — that we believe that what has happened in Xinjiang is genocide, that we have seen crimes against humanity committed against the Uighurs. And we’ve been very clear that these are very serious crimes and that there needs to be accountability. We have condemned these activities, these crimes — and we have made it clear that we need to see a stop to these human rights violations, to forced sterilizations, to torture, to other crimes that have been perpetrated primarily against mostly Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, especially.   VOA: Moving on to vaccine distribution. Serbia and Hungary have become the first European countries to use China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, many European countries rely on vaccines produced by American company Pfizer. Is there a divide? Is the United States pressing European countries to choose between Washington and Beijing?   Montgomery: No. You know, we are not asking countries to make a choice between the United States and China. At the same time, we believe that we are strongest when we work together to promote and to protect our shared values and interests. And so that’s why you see that … this administration has engaged very actively in the first month in multilateral fora [to work] with allies and partners, as well as with countries like China, to promote global health security. We want to work together to see an end to this pandemic.   But at the same time, we also know that China uses the multilateral system to promote its own interests to undermine some of our shared values, and so we want to work very closely with our partners and our allies to protect those interests, and to push back where we see that China is trying to undermine the rules based international order.   VOA: How confident is the U.S. to work with its European allies on a unified approach towards China after the EU-China investment deal? Was the U.S. caught by surprise by this deal?   Montgomery: We really look forward to having early consultations with the EU on this investment agreement. I think you’ve heard from Secretary Blinken and from others — our allies have certainly heard that we’re eager to look for areas where we can cooperate on China, on the basis of our shared values, and to promote our mutual interests.   Listen, if China did make additional concessions in that agreement on things like market access, on forced labor, we certainly welcome that. Although we really would look to the Chinese to prove that that’s not just cheap talk, and that they’re going to implement those commitments. And so we really look forward to having conversations moving forward with the EU and with our European allies and partners about working together on these issues.    VOA: On recent Kosovo elections: what is your takeaway? Is the prospect for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue dimmer?   Montgomery: We certainly continue to support the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and to look toward a comprehensive agreement, a normalization agreement that would lead to mutual recognition, or on the basis of mutual recognition. And so that will be our goal moving forward.   VOA: Do you envision a U.S.-brokered Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, independent of a parallel EU effort, under the Biden administration?   Montgomery: We’re really committed to working with the EU, which facilitates the dialogue, and with our partners in tandem. This is, I think, a very important principle for our engagement in the Western Balkans. We know that we have been most successful there when we have worked hand in glove, or shoulder to shoulder with our European allies and partners, and so that’s going to be our approach.   VOA: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Visegrád Group (V4). How does the U.S. envision its cooperation with the V4 in coming years?   Montgomery: Well, you’ve seen that we have congratulated the V4, the countries of the the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, on 30 years of cooperation in the Visegrád Group format. We really look forward to partnering with them on shared challenges, everything from COVID-19 to climate to things like strengthening our democracies and independent media.   VOA: Thank you for talking to VOA.   Montgomery: Great to be with you. 

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Ghana Receives First Shipment of COVID-19 Vaccine Secured Through Global Sharing Initiative

Ghana has received the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines through the World Health Organization’s global vaccine-sharing program. A flight carrying 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine arrived Wednesday in the capital, Accra, according to a joint statement from WHO and UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. The vaccines were manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.  The vaccines sent to Ghana were purchased through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, or COVAX, an initiative launched by WHO in cooperation with  Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, an organization founded by philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates to vaccinate children in the world’s poorest countries. The project purchases vaccines with the help of wealthier countries and distributes them equitably to all countries. U.S. President Joe Biden pledged $4 billion to the COVAX program last week.  WHO announced in December that COVAX has secured agreements for nearly two billion doses of several “promising” vaccine candidates.A pack of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines is seen as the country receives its first batch of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines under COVAX scheme, in Accra, Feb. 24, 2021.A new variant of the novel coronavirus recently discovered in the western U.S. state of California is more contagious than other versions, according to two new preliminary studies. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco discovered the new variant, called B.1.427/B.1.429, as they were tracking the possible spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in Britain last year.  The team found B.1.427/B.1.429  had become the predominant variant in the state after testing virus samples collected from across the state between September of last year and January.  The UCSF team says people infected with the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant produced a viral load twice as large as that of other variants, which may make them more contagious to others. The new variant is also more likely to cause severe illness, “including increased risk of high oxygen requirement,” and is at least partially resistant to antibodies that could combat and neutralize it.   In the other study, researchers found the variant has spread rapidly throughout San Francisco’s historic Mission District neighborhood, increasing from 16% of all confirmed COVID-19 infections tracked in November to 53% of infections by January.   Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist who led the UCSF study, said the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant should be designated “a variant of concern” that merited further investigation.   As more Americans are vaccinated, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says new guidelines for vaccinated people will be coming “soon” from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Jan.21, 2021.“I believe you’re going to be hearing more of the recommendations of how you can relax the stringency of some of the things, particularly when you’re dealing with something like your own personal family when people have been vaccinated,” Fauci told CNN.    Some changes for those vaccinated have already been published. For example, people who have been vaccinated do not need to quarantine if they come in contact with an infected person.  The supply of vaccines is expected to grow as manufacturers say they will increase production, the U.S. based cable news network CNBC reported.    In written congressional testimony, Pfizer’s Chief Business Officer John Young said the company plans to double its output to 13 million doses per week by mid-March.  Moderna hopes to deliver 40 million doses per month by April.  The supply could be further bolstered by Johnson & Johnson’s new one-shot vaccine, which is expected to be reviewed Thursday.  

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Why S. Korea, Pandemic Poster Child, Is Only Now Starting Vaccines

After carrying out one of the world’s most successful initial coronavirus responses, South Korea this week begins COVID-19 vaccinations, making it one of the last developed countries to start mass inoculations. Beginning Friday, South Korea will give the AstraZeneca vaccine to staff and some patients at nursing homes and similar facilities. A day later, it will begin administering the Pfizer vaccine to medical staff treating coronavirus patients.  That is about two and a half months after vaccinations began in countries such as Britain and the United States.  Unlike some nations, the virus has never spread out of control in South Korea, giving the government more time and tools to combat the pandemic. “Vaccines are important for disease prevention, but vaccines alone are not enough. South Korea’s strategy involves more than this,” says Ki Mo-ran, an epidemiologist who has advised the South Korean government on its coronavirus response.  A look at the numbers helps explain the situation. The United States has suffered more than half a million COVID-19 deaths. The number of COVID-related deaths in Britain has exceeded 120,000. By contrast, a little more than 1,500 South Koreans have died from the disease.  Though South Korea has seen small infection spikes in recent months, it’s been able to manage the outbreaks by adjusting social distancing guidelines.  As a result, the pandemic has rarely felt dire in South Korea. Restaurants and bars in Seoul, where most South Koreans live, now stay open until 11:00pm. Buses and trains are packed. Street demonstrations, which in normal times are omni-present, have also begun to re-emerge. Still, the vaccine delay has prompted accusations that the government didn’t act quickly enough to purchase vaccines, the one tool that would allow the country to permanently leave the pandemic behind. “(The government) should have been more aggressive in securing the vaccine and more cautious about the vaccine campaign after talking with medical experts and citizens. But they did the opposite,” said Choi Jae-wook of the Korean Medical Association, speaking to foreign media in Seoul last week. Herd immunity  South Korea has ambitious vaccination goals. It hopes to vaccinate 10 million high-risk individuals by July and to achieve herd immunity by November.  But many experts say those timelines are unrealistic. According to an estimate by the Economist Intelligence Unit, South Korea is among the countries that will not achieve widespread vaccination until mid-2022.Nurses take part in the coronavirus disease vaccination mock drill at a first aid facility of the COVID-19 vaccination center in Seoul, Feb. 9, 2021.South Korean officials in part have blamed manufacturing and logistic delays, which have disrupted vaccination plans around the world. But Ki says focusing on herd immunity misses the point. More important, she says, is preventing deaths, which South Korea has been able to do.  “And even if we reach 70% of group immunity, it does not mean that COVID-19 will disappear magically,” she told VOA.  Vaccine fears According to an opinion poll this week, less than half of South Koreans plan to receive the vaccine immediately after becoming eligible for the shots.  Some of that skepticism appears to stem from the South Korean government’s decision to withhold approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine for those over the age of 65 pending further clinical trials. Lee Min-chan, a 41-year-old Seoul business owner, said he feels unsure about the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying he read several news reports alleging the British vaccine was “flawed.” “I think it’d be better to get a vaccine other than the AstraZeneca one,” he told VOA.  South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun last week tried to assure the public about the vaccine, saying it had been approved in 50 countries and causes no serious side effects. “I repeat, there is no issue with safety,” he said.  Domestic vaccine? After a flurry of recent agreements with several vaccine makers, South Korea says it has secured more than enough doses for its entire population, though it isn’t clear when the imported vaccines will arrive.  Eventually, the government hopes to supplement those imports with a domestically produced vaccine, which experts say would be cheaper and easier to quickly distribute. Having domestic vaccine production capability could also make it easier for South Korea to produce modified vaccines in response to COVID-19 variants, says Justin Fendos, a professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University, writing in the Diplomat.“In fact, I would predict, despite South Korea’s slow start to vaccination, that the country will still be one of the first to be fully vaccinated,” he says. “The speed at which this result is achieved will likely be tied intimately to the speed at which its domestic infrastructure becomes operational.” Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

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Federal Aid Offered to Some International Students

International students are not often eligible for federal student aid, and typically pay full tuition and fees for their college and university education that can cost more than $100,000 a year.  “The fact that I most likely will not be able to go to university because only two of the ones I’m applying to offer financial aid to international students and I can’t afford to go otherwise, literally kills me, like it’s breaking my heart,” tweeted Isabella Romanov, a British citizen who told VOA she plans to study in the U.S.the fact that i most likely will not be able to go to university bc only 2 of the ones i’m applying to offer financial aid to international students and i can’t afford to go otherwise literally kills me like it’s breaking my heart— ♡ izzy ♡ (@sixofjosten) In this June 18, 2020, photo, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students celebrate in front of the Supreme Court after the Supreme Court rejected President Donald Trump’s effort to end legal protections for young immigrants in Washington.In some cases, DACA recipients may be asked to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to receive aid from their institution or their state of residence. FAFSA is an official federal application for all eligible students to apply for financial aid — like grants and loans — from the U.S. government. A parent’s citizenship or immigration status will not affect a student’s eligibility for financial aid.  If a student’s permanent residence status has expired, they are no longer eligible for federal student aid. Students whose green cards have expired are encouraged to check their status as a legal permanent resident and if they are able to renew the card, if necessary.  That being said, if they are a Cuban Haitian entrant, they are still an eligible noncitizen, even if the expiration date has passed.  Students are not considered eligible non-citizens and not eligible to receive federal student aid if they:  Are studying in the U.S. on an F-1 or F-2 nonimmigrant student visa, or on a J-1 or J-2 nonimmigrant Exchange Visitor Visa. According to the U.S. State Department’s EducationUSA — a U.S. Department of State network of more than 430 international student advising centers around the world — the F-1 visa is used for those who wish to study at an accredited college or university, or to study English at an English language institution, while F-2 is the visa for the spouses and children of those who use the F-1 visa.    The J-1 visa is used for participation in a high school or university exchange program. Like the F-2 visa, the J-2 visa is for the spouses and children of J-1 visa holders.  Hold a G series visa. To have a G visa, “you must be traveling to attend meetings at, visit, or work at a designated international organization,” according to the U.S. Department of State.Have been given a “Notice of Approval to Apply for Permanent Residence” (I-171 or I-464).  For those who may not qualify for federal student aid, there are still ways to help fund their education, like scholarships and private loans. The Federal Student Aid (FSA) website encourages students to check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s online scholarship search, as well as EducationUSA. An international student’s college or own government — including the country’s embassy or consulate in the U.S. — may provide funding resources for study in the U.S. About 60% of international students pay for their U.S. college or university education through self or family funding. Some receive funding from their native governments, the U.S. university they attend, or private loans and grants.  

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