Return to Transcripts main page
Syrians Flee Battle for Aleppo; Brazil Finds Zika Virus in Saliva and Urine; Assange Feels "Vindicated" by U.N. Panel's Ruling; Pope to Meet Head of Russian Orthodox Church; Militants Attack U.S. Base in Mali; Clinton, Sanders Spar in First One-on-One Debate; U.S. Athlete to Compete in Hijab at Olympics. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired February 5, 2016 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ROBYN CURNOW, CNN HOST: Ahead at the INTERNATIONAL DESK, thousands of Syrians flee the fighting in Aleppo.
Can the Zika virus be spread through saliva?
And a religious meeting 1,000 years in the making.
CURNOW: Hi, there, and welcome, I'm Robyn Curnow.
We begin with a mass exodus of civilians from one of Syria's biggest cities. Government forces and their allies are gaining ground around
Aleppo and thousands of people are trying to get out, desperately attempting to cross into Turkey fewer than 100 kilometers away. CNN's Nick
Paton Walsh brings us the scene.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A new exodus of Syrians aiming for Turkey and maybe beyond. These images,
which we can't verify, seem to show thousands of refugees fleeing late Thursday for the Turkish border, north of the city of Aleppo, one serious
You can sense the panic here. They're fleeing what could be one of the worst fights yet, the battle for Aleppo.
A key move in that fight came Wednesday, when regime fighters broke the long siege of Nubl (ph) and Al-Zahraa (ph), just to the city's north.
Russian airpower key to this long-desired tactical advance. The rebels left in retreat.
The onslaught here, claimed by opposition members in Geneva, where the peace talks collapsed. The change is now in Northern Syria towns. The two
key Shia towns were reached by the regime through cutting the rebels' main supply route east of Aleppo. That could isolate hundreds of thousands of
Further north, the Kurds are moving in two directions, potentially cutting ISIS off from the Turkish border.
Aleppo itself, a skeleton of a city, where hundreds of thousands live among the bones, the smell of burning plastic strong in the air when we were
there 18 months ago.
And for those civilians trapped inside, it will be little comfort that these men are to the rescue. Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda in Syria, pouring
here, they claim, into the city to defend it.
Many rebels in Aleppo and moderate activists insist that it is Nusra making the call to fight.
WALSH: "Today is the epic day, the historical day of the Aleppo war," this fighter says.
"God willing, it will be the cemetery for invaders who came from Russia and Iran."
As with most atrocities in this war, nothing is really new. It's all happened before. Aleppo has been bombed and besieged for three years. It
is just, like most atrocities in this war, remarkable that each hell could get still worse -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Beirut.
CURNOW: CNN's Nic Robertson has more on the diplomacy. First, though, let's go to Arwa Damon, who's along the Syrian-Turkish border.
You heard our other Nick there, talking about hell.
What are you seeing and hearing on the ground now?
These -- really, these images startling of people literally running for their lives.
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the issue, Robyn, has been that there hasn't been any real help at all that has reached these
We understand anywhere between 10,000, possibly 20,000, the numbers are a bit all over the place at this stage, but have reached the border with
But as you can see from what is behind me, that border is closed. And these families, who have managed to flee, are around 2 kilometers on the
other side of that, still waiting for Turkish authorities to let them through.
Now we do understand that those who have sustained severe injuries were brought through quite some time ago. There was a small NGO that was able
to go through, setting up tents on the other side but they don't have medical supplies. They don't have proper clothing to keep themselves warm.
They don't have food and they it don't have water.
It's a very difficult situation, as one cannot even begin to imagine many of those who we did speak to, describing how that Russian bombardment that
allowed the regime forces to move forward was really the most intense -- more intense than anything they say they have seen in the last five years.
The U.N. is warning that upwards of 300,000 people may be in extreme danger. These are families that are in the eastern part of Aleppo, people
that are living in the eastern part of Aleppo, and that's not --
DAMON: -- even counting those who are in the Aleppo countryside.
And those are really the people that, at this stage, are managing to make it to Turkey.
And, Robyn, we spoke to one man here. He has relatives inside, waiting to come across. And he says that, in their particular village, they are
facing Russian bombardment; Assad's troops approaching from one side and ISIS not too far away, approaching them from another direction as well.
And it has to be said that those people who are seen fleeing now, Robyn, they are people that really tried to hold out until the very last minute,
hoping that somehow the violence would come to an end. But instead it has intensified.
CURNOW: Yes. Indeed, well, with that in mind, Nic Robertson, you were covering what was that faltering start to Syrian peace talks. They have
now been suspended. The conversation, the early conversation there was about sieges, about cease-fires, about not using starvation as a weapon of
war. But still it continues.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Still it continues, there are obligations under the U.N. resolution that we hear the special
envoy, Staffan de Mistura, calling for the members of the international community, who agreed to that cease-fire, who agreed, rather, to that U.N.
resolution that calls for a cease-fire, that calls for humanitarian aid, that calls for release of prisoners, all part of that resolution.
And of course, Russia, at the U.N. Security Council, signed up to that. And a lot of eyes turned to Russia at the moment because there's a very
strong understanding in Geneva that part of the reason that the talks collapsed was because there was no way that the opposition could get into
talks while Russia, allied with the Syrian government, was bombing so heavily and essentially upping the pace of the conflict in Aleppo, that
that was creating a situation whereby it was impossible to get the talks off the ground.
That's why they have been paused rather than anything else so the idea is that they can be restarted. There will be an important meeting next week
in Munich between U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, and his counterpart in Russia, Sergey Lavrov.
All the other 18 players that were involved or the other 18 countries, if you will, that were involved in Vienna to establish the U.N. Security
Council concept and therefore -- and then the resolution, they were also expected to be present in Munich next week.
So there's a potential for that logjam to be broken. But this logjam is absolutely massive. It shouldn't be underestimated. There's a huge amount
at play here and a lot of other moving pieces that surround this as well -- Robyn.
CURNOW: Indeed, there are many dimensions to this.
Nic, Arwa, thanks so much for both of your reporting.
And adding to that, there's no end as well to the acrimony between Russia and Turkey over Syria. Russian media quoted a Russian general as saying
Turkey appears to be preparing for an incursion over the Syrian border.
But it's also, then, the Turkish prime minister's office tells CNN the country is not preparing to invade. He says the allegation is made to
distract from what he calls "Moscow's crimes" in Syria.
There's some new troubling information on the Zika virus. Reuters reports Brazil's government health institute found active Zika virus in saliva and
urine samples. More on this from Sanjay Gupta.
Worrying, isn't it?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we knew that this could be in bodily fluids other than blood. That's been shown because it's
been sexually transmitted, so it's not entirely surprising that we're going to find this in other places as well.
The big question -- and we don't know the answer to this yet -- is can it be spread this way? So the simple presence of it in saliva doesn't
necessarily mean that it's still activated enough to go and cause infections somewhere else. They're going to have to find out the answer to
CURNOW: So the question is, how infectious is it?
GUPTA: Correct. How --
CURNOW: And how soon will we know that?
GUPTA: Well, this is -- you know, literally, you know, some of this is happening real-time, Robyn. They literally -- and, by the way, this needs
to be confirmed in other labs around the world as well.
CURNOW: Because this is only two specimens.
GUPTA: Two specimens and it's the Brazilian health ministry. They have done a great job, by the way, but still, you want other labs to confirm
this like you do with any science.
So my guess is, within the next few days, you would have an answer.
A, is this confirmed in other labs and, B, is it infectious enough?
Could it potentially cause infection?
CURNOW: And so then the question is, what precautions do you take, particularly if you're a pregnant woman?
I mean, it's difficult, isn't it?
GUPTA: It's having its -- I think you know, again, I always try and lead with the good news part of it, which is that 80 percent of people, it's not
going to matter still because it's not going to cause any illness whatsoever, just mild illness.
But for pregnant women, yes. I mean, right now the guidance of -- for example was that if a man -- the man has gone to one of these countries,
where Zika is spreading, you come back home, if your wife is pregnant, you must practice safe sex for the duration of the pregnancy now.
CURNOW: But now if it's -- you know, no kissing, no sneezing, there's all sorts of ways.
GUPTA: -- potentially spread that way.
GUPTA: I will tell you, it doesn't appear to be something that can be spread through the air as in the case of sneezing.
But perhaps If it's in the mucous membranes, if it's in the saliva, is that --
GUPTA: -- potentially a route?
My guess is it's probably going to be a very limited route but they are going to have to find the answer to that.
CURNOW: You've followed a lot of these epidemics. Sometimes they perhaps are overblown, overstated in terms of the global dangers.
Other times there is a deep concern about how quickly they spread.
This, because it's -- we're all working on such a day-by-day case on this, it's difficult to try and pinpoint just how the impact of this -- you
don't want to overblow it; you don't want to say, listen, cause mass panic. On the other hand, this is worrying.
GUPTA: You know, that's funny, I think you've just described my job, that balance between panic -- I think more information is certainly better. I
will tell you, Robyn, as a dad, I can't imagine what it's like for these women, who live in these communities, who are pregnant. I just cannot
imagine what the psychological toll must be for the vast majority of people.
This is not going to be something they're going to have to worry about and they're probably not going to even think about this a couple months from
now. But for these women, who have gone through this, even if there's no issues with the pregnancy and the baby is fine, the psychological toll is
real -- I have never seen anything quite like it.
I guess rubella, German measles, was sort of a similar thing. But in these situations, women may not have any symptoms at all. They may not get sick
from the infection at all and yet still have a child who has microcephaly. And that's something that obviously they have got to do -- figure out all
the best precautions for these women.
CURNOW: And we're seeing Florida now institute states of emergency as well. So --
GUPTA: They want to be ahead of it. And I think you're going to hear that in other states.
CURNOW: Sanjay, thanks so much.
GUPTA: You got it, Robyn.
CURNOW: This is the INTERNATIONAL DESK. Ahead, a first-of-its-kind meeting involving the head of the Catholic Church, who Pope Francis will
see next week in Cuba.
Plus Julian Assange speaks after a United Nations panel issues a ruling on his detention. What Swedish and British authorities have to say.
CURNOW: Take a look at the markets. There they are. Stocks are lower on Wall Street after the release of the monthly U.S. jobs report.
Earlier in the trading session, the Dow is down over 60 points there. The U.S. economy added 151,000 jobs in January, that's fewer than expected and
lower than in recent months. Unemployment did tick down to a shade below 5 percent. We'll also keep an eye on markets throughout the day.
We're also monitoring a developing story here out of New York, where a very large crane has collapsed. I want to show you the pictures.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW (voice-over): They are very dramatic. There you go. You can see that crane covering almost an entire city block in Lower Manhattan. We
know one person was killed, at least two people have been seriously injured. Wind gusts of up to 40 kilometers an hour were reported at the
time. But it's not clear if they played a role in the collapse.
Clean up will --
CURNOW: -- no doubt take some time. Dozens of firefighters and other emergency crews are on the scene. We'll bring you more information as it
Julian Assange says he feels vindicated after a U.N. panel's ruling calling his detention arbitrary. We heard from him via video link after the
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: Well, I have been detained now without charge in this country, the United Kingdom, for 5.5 years. That's 5.5
years, where I have had great difficulty seeing my family and seeing my children.
Today that detention without charge has been found by the highest organization in the United Nations that is -- has a jurisdiction for
considering the rights of detained persons to be unlawful.
CURNOW (voice-over): Assange says Sweden and the U.K. must now let him walk free from the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Swedish and British
authorities want to make it clear that the WikiLeaks founder has chosen on his own to stay at the embassy and that the ruling is not legally binding.
The U.K. says it's duty bound to arrest and extradite him to Sweden. Authorities there want to question him over a rape allegation. We turn now
to Nima Elbagir outside the embassy, the Ecuadoran embassy in London.
Hi, there, Nima. We have a shot up there at the balcony, because there are some reports that Mr. Assange might come and make a second statement today.
NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is what we understand, Robyn. All eyes are on that first floor balcony. He's expected to address the
media. But also his supporters who have gathered down beneath that balcony, singing songs of support and defense, almost a mini-vigil there
outside the embassy.
We didn't know what to expect yesterday, when Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks put out a statement, saying that if the U.N. panel didn't find in his favor
that he would walk down onto the street and deliver himself to British authorities for arrest. And of course, that didn't happen and, given that
the U.N. panel of experts (INAUDIBLE) their findings to both the Swedish and British authorities, (INAUDIBLE) an expectation that Mr. Assange would
have been aware that the panel were going to find in his favor.
Today he says he is vindicated, that this has been damning in terms of the action and the inaction of the British and (INAUDIBLE) authorities.
The panel (INAUDIBLE) very critical of (INAUDIBLE) office, saying that they had felt the lack of due diligence had allowed this investigation to drag
Mr. Assange says that this is now legally binding. Of course, it may be in terms of international humanitarian law. But in terms of actual practical
U.K. law, the U.K. is still duty bound to exercise the European arrest warrant. That supersedes anything this panel of experts has announced
This might give Mr. Assange and his supporters some moral weight. But practically here, on the ground outside the embassy, Robyn, if he steps out
onto the street, we have been reassured time and time again, we've both had reiterated there time and time again, he will be arrested.
CURNOW: Why doesn't Mr. Assange just face justice in Sweden?
The British and the Swedes saying he chose to walk into that embassy and that this ruling isn't legally binding and that he should face justice and
let this matter get over and done with.
ELBAGIR: Julian Assange, of course, had always said from the beginning, Robyn, that this is politically framed, as he and his lawyers have
characterized it, that if he goes to Sweden, that he believes he will be deported to the U.S. to face charges that have not actually publicly been
brought against him.
But that he believes would be brought against him for that WikiLeaks document release. But (INAUDIBLE) prosecutors say that they have sought
Ecuadoran permission to enter that embassy and to question him inside the embassy and that that permission has not been granted and it has not been
granted for so long.
That actually few of those charges against him have had to be dropped because the statutes of limitations in those cases has expired. The five-
year statute of limitations, and in fact, the rape charge itself, Robyn, not only has a 10-year statute of limitations and given that it was first
brought in 2010, in four years, Julian Assange could just walk out.
But he and his lawyer both say that there is no merit to these charges. They deny the Swedish prosecution's office allegation that they are running
down the clock. But we're waiting to see what has actually changed here today -- Robyn.
CURNOW: Indeed. We're keeping an eye on that balcony. Nima, thanks so much.
You're at the INTERNATIONAL DESK. The churches --
CURNOW: -- split 1,000 years ago. Now the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox leaders are set to meet for the first time ever. A live report
from Rome -- that's next.
CURNOW: Welcome back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW (voice-over): Now look at that. An active volcano in Japan has begun erupting and the images are spectacular. This is Sakurajima volcano
in Southern Japan. You can see fountains of hot magma shooting into the sky. About 4,000 people live nearby. The alert level has been raised but
no one is being asked to evacuate.
And there are no reports of damage or injuries at this point. The volcano has been erupting regularly for more than 60 years.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW: The Vatican says an unprecedented meeting of church leaders will take place next Friday in Cuba. Pope Francis will meet the head of the
Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Cyril (ph).
The heads of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have never met since they split into Eastern and Western Christianity almost 1,000 years
ago. The leaders will sit down together at Havana's airport and sign a joint declaration.
Well, CNN contributor Barbie Nadeau joins me now from Russia.
And I mean, we can say historic but this meeting really is.
BARBIE NADEAU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, it's very historic, especially given the fact that both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II tried in vain to
set up this sort of a meeting.
The fact that Pope Francis has been able to do it is really a feather in his cap. He's proving himself to quite the global diplomat. It's also
curious that they have chosen to go to Cuba. Obviously logistically it makes sense.
The pope is on his way to Mexico next week. As it is, it makes sense logistically but it's also important because it brings Cuba a little bit
back into the diplomatic fold as well. And it makes sense on a lot of different levels. The pope is doing what he says he's going to do, which
is spread his message, spread peace and no one seems to stop him really -- Robyn.
CURNOW: And they have many common things to talk about, persecution of Christians around the world. And this is also a common theme with the
Is there some symmetry as well in terms of growing relationship between the Kremlin and the Vatican?
NADEAU: Well, I think you can really read into that. Of course, they have 1,000 years worth of catching up to do. There are many, many things, I
suspect, on that agenda, especially from the side of the Holy See and the side of Pope Francis.
We'll know a lot more, I think, as the days get closer but it's interesting. This was a surprise announcement that the Vatican actually
was able to produce their press release in Russian, which is not one of their official languages. So you might think they probably had this in
their back pocket a couple of days before they made the announcement.
They made the announcement before they laid out the final plans of his trip to Mexico, which is going to be seen as a very, very important trip, as
well he's giving a mass on the U.S.-Mexican border and things like that. This won't overshadow that trip to Mexico but this is an interesting way to
start it -- Robyn.
CURNOW: Indeed. This is a meeting that many popes before, as you said, have been trying to engineer for decades now.
What is interesting, then, is do you think we'll see a papal visit to Moscow anytime soon?
NADEAU: Well, we understand that something like that is in the works. Of course, this pope has --
NADEAU: -- a very long list of places he wants to visit. Going to Moscow has been on that list for quite some time. This very well may be the
groundwork for that if he's extended an invitation. I'm sure he won't say no to that -- Robyn.
CURNOW: Barbie, thanks so much.
Well, to Mali now, where militants stormed a U.N. police base in Timbuktu early Friday. Now they blew their way in with a car bomb, sparking a gun
battle. One Malian soldier was killed, along with four suspected jihadis.
A spokesman says the fighting is over and the base has been retaken. No word on who was behind the attack. The U.N. established a peacekeeping
mission to stabilize Mali in 2013 after fighting between rebels and Islamists.
And this just into CNN. Police in Dublin, Ireland, are responding to what they call a serious incident at the Regency Hotel there. Witnesses say
gunmen entered the hotel during a boxing weigh-in and started firing. Police haven't confirmed that yet. But we are keeping a close eye on the
story. We'll update you if we get any more details.
Moving on, investigators looking into an explosion on a Somali airline. They think the cause was a bomb that was inside a laptop computer. That
comes after we got word from a source on Wednesday that initial tests on residue from the aircraft revealed a military grade TNT. One passenger was
killed after the explosion.
And Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster over a severe drought. More than 16,000 cattle have died across the country and now about 2.5 million
Zimbabweans are considered food insecure. An El Nino weather pattern has contributed to the drought that is hitting several nations in the region
However, some critics charge President Robert Mugabe's policy set up -- have set up their conditions that made Zimbabwe most vulnerable, including
politicizing farm ownership, which some believe has negatively impacted the country's agriculture sector for years.
Now this disaster declaration will make it easier for international donors to raise money and send aid more quickly.
Still ahead, harsh words at the first one-on-one debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. What's at stake as they head into the next big
test of their campaigns.
CURNOW: Welcome back. This is the INTERNATIONAL DESK. I'm Robyn Curnow. Here's a check of the headlines.
CURNOW: To U.S. politics now, where the gloves have come off as Hillary Clinton battles Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW (voice-over): The two met for their first one-on-one debate last night in the key primary state of New Hampshire. This was the last matchup
for the Democrats before primary voters in that state head to the polls on Tuesday and opinion polls show it's a tight race.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly.
SANDERS: All right. Let's talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated.
Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided to spend billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions?
CLINTON: But if we're going to get into labels, I don't think it was particularly progressive to vote against the Brady bill five times.
SANDERS: She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her. That's a fact.
CLINTON: I am the strongest candidate to take it to the Republicans.
SANDERS: We can create an enormous amount enthusiasm from working people, from young people on our worst days. I think it is fair to say we are 100
times better than any Republican candidate.
CLINTON: That's true.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW: Well, I want to bring in the executive editor of CNN politics, Mark Preston, who joins us live from Manchester, New Hampshire.
Hi, there, Mark, looks a bit chilly there. But I do see Secretary Clinton really hammering home Bernie Sanders' policies, saying they might be nice
but they are unworkable. That seems to be her message.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. And that's her main argument. And we saw her put that on full display last night on that debate stage.
This is the first time these two candidates have been on the stage alone. They were right next to each other.
What I found interesting about last night's debate, as she was turning her fire on to Bernie Sanders, is that when she said it, she was not looking
out at the audience, she turned to him directly as to try to stare him down.
Now internally, the Clinton campaign has been wondering whether they should just go directly at Bernie Sanders and try to take him out early. They had
not done so until we've seen the last few days. And last night on that debate stage here in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton went right after
CURNOW: She did indeed. Let's also look, though, at the Republican race. That also provides us with much to talk about. We're seeing a big push
from the second tier -- so-called second-tier candidates, in particular, Jeb Bush, who is pulling in his famous family. Listen to this ad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The first job of the president is to protect America. Our next president must be prepared
to lead. I know Jeb. I know his good heart and his strong backbone.
Jeb will unite our country. He knows how to bring the world together against terror and he knows when tough measures must be taken. Experience
and judgment count in the Oval Office. Jeb Bush is a leader who will keep our country safe.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW: OK. So Jeb Bush has brought in not only his brother, former president, George W. Bush but he's also unleashed his mummy as well.
I mean, is this helpful or hindering?
PRESTON: Well, no, it's certainly helpful and the question is why didn't he bring his brother in a little bit earlier?
And for our viewers around the world, who look at George W. Bush toward the end of his presidency -- and he had very low favorable ratings. You know,
we had the economy collapsing around towards the end of his presidency.
But if people remember back to 2001, when we had the terrorist attacks, George W. Bush was highly praised for how he handled that and protected the
PRESTON: -- as well as with Republican voters here in the United States. Now George W. Bush, again, not seen highly by Democrats, certainly, and
However with Republican voters, he has still been held in favorable terms.
So the question remains, why did they decide to bring him in so late?
It almost seems like a last-ditch effort. I will tell you this, once we move beyond New Hampshire and head into South Carolina, George W. Bush is
very well liked down in South Carolina. And I do believe the hope is, from Jeb's campaign, that George W. Bush can help him down there as well.
CURNOW: Mark Preston, thanks so much. Always great talking to you.
Now a U.S. fencer is on track to make history for more than her athletic ability. Coming up, we'll speak with an athlete who will be the first
American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.
CURNOW: Welcome back.
A U.S. fencer heading for the Olympics is already making history. Ibtihaj Muhammad will be the first American athlete to compete in the games wearing
a hijab. U.S. President Barack Obama gave the New Jersey native a shoutout this week when he spoke at a U.S. mosque.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue will
be a fencing champion wearing her hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is here today.
Stand up. Come on.
OBAMA: There we go. I told her to bring home the gold.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW: Well, Ibtihaj joins me now from New York.
Talk about pressure. He told you to bring home the gold. I know you had a conversation with him afterwards.
What did you say to him?
IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, U.S. OLYMPICS ATHLETE: I mean, obviously, just in awe that the president is so supportive of me as an athlete. So I told him
that's the plan. Hopefully gold in Rio this summer.
CURNOW: You're the first U.S. Olympic athlete to wear a hijab.
How does all this attention sit with you?
You're not just competing. You're also being called on to be a leader on an issue at a sensitive time.
MUHAMMAD: I mean, it means a lot to me to be able to represent the United States and be an ambassador, not just to the sport but also to our country
and show the diversity. And one of the special things that I hold near and dear to my heart, being an American, is how diverse our community and our
CURNOW: You say that but of course all of us, no one can ignore the rhetoric coming out of the Republican presidential race particularly.
CURNOW: What did you think when you heard Donald Trump saying that the U.S. should ban all Muslims from coming into the country?
MUHAMMAD: When I first heard Donald Trump's statement, my first concern was, am I going to be able to get to my next Olympic qualifier?
And honestly, that was my major concern. Traveling and representing the United States as an athlete is something that is not something you do or I
have been doing for a few months; I've been doing it for years. And it's such a large part of my life.
And competing at the Olympic Games is like the pinnacle of elite athletes' careers. So it was really important to me to be able to not just get to my
competition and compete but also be able to get there without the fear of hatemongering or the fear of bigots or anyone feeling that they wanted to
take out their anger on me in any physical way.
CURNOW: There's that concern. I mean, you have said that you are fearful that there could be more hate crimes in the U.S., particularly because of
the very poisonous nature of this conversation.
MUHAMMAD: That's a major concern and not just with me as an athlete but I know that it's a trending theme amongst American Muslims all over the
country. People are afraid to be who they are and are afraid to live their lives, which, in most cases, are very ordinary lives.
And I think that that was addressed by the president in his speech that he made a few days ago. And as a concerned American citizen, I appreciate
CURNOW: I've read that you were inspired by the Williams sisters. You're now an inspiration to many young American Muslim children.
What would you say to them?
MUHAMMAD: To really believe in themselves and believe that they can do anything with perseverance and hard work. I remember as a kid people
telling me that black people didn't fence. I remember people telling me that Muslims didn't fence.
And without that belief and that drive in having strong athletes like Muhammad Ali or like Serena and Venus, without having strong people to look
up to when I was a kid and to really face diversity head on, I wouldn't be where I am today. So I'm really appreciative of that.
CURNOW: Beyond the U.S., the ban on wearing a hijab while playing sport has been lifted across many, many sports. I know FIFA lifted the ban, I
think, in 2007.
How much of a difference has that made?
Obviously, huge. But also I understand from literally a garment wearing perspective, there's a sports hijab and that's also made it easier.
MUHAMMAD: Yes, so I know FIFA lifted their ban. FIBA as well lifted their ban on the hijab. I know for myself I kind of sought out -- my parents
sought out fencing for me because the hijab didn't hinder me from participating in the sport in any way and also I could be fully covered
without having to alter the uniform.
I think it's definitely a step in the right direction to have large organizations like FIFA and FIBA lift their bans on hijab.
CURNOW: OK. Ibtihaj Muhammad, thanks so much for ginning us. Good luck.
MUHAMMAD: Thank you. Thank you so much.
CURNOW: Well, that's all for me, Robyn Curnow, here at the CNN Center. There'll be much more sport coming up with Christina Macfarlane after the