A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

Sacred Meals and Invitations

This morning I slowly opened my eyes to bright sunlight. As I lay in bed, still sleepy, I reflected back on the last few days and on Thanksgiving, just hours before.

A dear friend arrived on Tuesday from Ghana to stay with us. The first time she ever came to the United States was as an 18-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, here to attend college in Western Massachusetts. She arrived just days after the 9/11 attacks that sent the world into a spin and redefined wars and border crossings. Mariam has now lived in multiple countries with her family, and writes well on what it is to be globally mobile. She is the epitome of what it looks like to learn and grow across cultures and communicate across boundaries.

Her arrival sparked stories and conversations that have been lying dormant in my heart. These global connections are more than friendships – they are opportunities to share stories, they are ways to promote understanding, they are journeys into our hearts and what is really going on. Every morning we have curled up on my couch with homemade lattes, savoring the sweetness and time. These hidden stories don’t make sense to everyone, but they do to Mariam.

Yesterday we worked together to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. Traditional turkey and stuffing blended with Palak Paneer and parathas with a goal to make sure every guest was suitably full to the brim with food and thanks.

It was an eclectic group of us around the table. In today’s climate, some may consider it a dangerous Thanksgiving. An American raised in Pakistan and an American raised in the military feasted with friends from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Iran. There were no walls and there was no talk of walls.

There were stories topped with cranberry sauce, thankful hearts accompanied by whipped cream. There were linguistic comparisons and nostalgia over favorite foods from passport countries, there were missed references and laughter to make your stomach hurt.

There is something sacred about sharing a meal. In the liturgy of our faith tradition we experience the bread and the wine, the body and the blood in remembrance of a meal. But the sacred act of sharing a meal continues when we, equipped through the liturgy, go out into the world. That is why the meals that Christ shared while on earth feel so important. As humans, our need for food and water, the reaching across a table to share these with simple words like “please pass the bread” bind us together in mysterious and hopeful ways. Author Leslie Verner says “A meal equalizes, for as we dine together, we lift the same utensils to our lips and touch the same bread to our tongues.”

There are times when I lose hope for this country, land of my birth and my passport. I wonder how a place with so many resources and such abundance can collectively operate without generosity, with an ethos of scarcity instead of abundance. I think about the lessons I have learned about hospitality and invitations, living out of abundance from the land of my childhood, and the lands that I have loved and lived in as an adult. I lose hope for myself, for how quickly I get caught up in the pervading attitude of “me first” and others last. I feel anger toward the fact that in a worldwide crisis of displacement and refugees, a nation with room to spare has stalled resettlement.

But when I think about yesterday, about a room full of people from around the world who gathered with laughter and joy for a shared meal, I know that’s not the whole story. I know there is more. I know that there are many opening up their homes and making room for more; many who hate walls and want to build bridges.

And I am convinced that inviting others into our homes is one of the most hopeful acts of resistance possible.

We are going into a season of excess and abundance – my prayer is that we – that I – channel that abundance into loving well and serving more, that I channel it into invitations and hospitality.

The ending paragraph of the book Invited is nothing less than inspired. Throughout the book we see an invitation to a different way of living and being, a way of living out of abundance not scarcity. So I close with her words on this day after thanksgiving, inviting all of us into another way to live.

Lord, pry the film from our eyes, the scales from our skin, the shield and sword from our hands. Equip us to notice the stranger and the strange. Embolden us to be the stranger and the strange. Pull us into the flow of your Spirit at work in the world, infusing our ordinary days with your extraordinary presence. Hold open our eyes to to admire your wonders and delight in your mysteries. Fill us with gratitude for the paths you’ve paved for us, and all the ways you’ve proven that you are Emmanuel, God with us.

Motivate us to always invite, because you never stop inviting. Inspire us to welcome, because you lavish generosity on us and promise to refill the gifts we give away.

Come Lord Jesus.

Let us live like invited ones.

Epilogue of Invited by Leslie Verner

Amen

Decision Making and Transition

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space “

Emily Freeman

The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort.

I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night.

For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues.

During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making.

When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision.

One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.”

Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions.

Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”

Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing

Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant.

Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” all the while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?

Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways.

“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place. 

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision.

I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming.

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us. 

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.”

In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow.

Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.

“What is it, to Live Between?”

There was a giant chasm between worlds, a chasm separated by more than an ocean. It was a chasm of culture and food and people and faith, and I was suspended somewhere in the middle of the chasm.

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

When I began writing, I never set out to write about living between. I found however that it was impossible. When you have lived between for so long, of course it will come out in your writing. If we are are going to be honest writers, our earned fact and lived experience can’t help but make its way onto the page. And in sharing this lived experience, I’ve found others – whether writers or readers – who share this earned fact of living between.

I recently posed a question to some of those writers and readers. I asked them to describe what it was for them to live between worlds. The answers didn’t surprise me, but they did encourage me and offer insight that I needed. They made me feel like I was not alone.

To you who this day may be feeling alone, read what some others have said, and know that we are on this journey together.


It’s a Privilege…

It’s a rare and precious privilege for us to be able to live ‘between’ worlds, but I think that the price we pay is to forever surrender the option of utterly belonging – completely and without question – in a single place ever again. I think it’s a price most of us would willingly pay if asked in advance, but it’s often unanticipated. (Thinking a lot about ‘belonging’ today as I spend my first birthday in a new country just 6 days after arrival – my husband’s at work and I’ve not had a chance to build a new community yet. So thankful this isn’t my first international move and I can see past the fog of these early days to the inevitable lovely ones to come!) – Carolyn

It’s Exhausting…

“I find that in living between worlds I am forever focused on fitting in wherever I am, I have to struggle to define who I am anymore. As I age, I find I tire of this constant dance between cultures and tongues and I finally start to use and be thankful for my mother tongue English more, embrace my sloppier American way of dressing and eat my heart food of dahl bhat at least once a week – no matter what anyone says.” – Lizzy

It’s Lonely….

“Honestly, it’s lonely. People in your host country don’t understand what you have come from, your culture etc and people at home don’t understand where you are and your new life, And living between the two, is lonely. Not saying life is bad and lonely etc. I feel so privileged to live where we do, and I love my home country a lot and miss it, but living between the two worlds – it can be lonely.” – Ally

It’s the Best and It’s the Worst!

“Sometimes its the best of both worlds, sometimes the worst of both. And for the worst bit, I uses to try to explain it but I don’t anymore.” – Katherine

It’s Missing Pieces of My Heart…

Never having all the pieces of my heart in one place. Always feeling like a piece was missing. – Chrissy

I Feel Foreign Where I Don’t Look Strange

“I feel at home where I look like a stranger and I feel foreign where I don’t look strange – am homesick no matter where. And on top of that – grateful for the privilege to be where and who I am” – Jutta

It’s Like Being an Amphibian…

“It feels like, you’re an amphibian. You feel like you belong in those two worlds.” – Adella

It takes Humility and Humor….

“Visiting and having friends between worlds is exciting and wonderful if you can constantly remember to have humility and humor. Working between worlds is a lot harder and requires the same ingredients plus very careful, intentional, and polite communication about absolutely everything.” – Julie

Only Happy on an Airplane…

“I was told as a young missionary that missionaries are only really happy on an airplane.  I don’t think that’s true any more, but there’s an element of anticipation in the “in between” where you’re so looking forward to those elements and people that you have been missing that you forget about all the things you’ll miss.” – Marianne

What it Takes from us in Roots, It Gives Back in Perspective….

“If a life of change has taught me nothing else, it is the truth of impermanence. How Things are now is not necessarily how things will be later. Which is a huge lesson to learn as well. Maybe what this lifestyle takes from us in roots, it gives back in perspective, just as you say- the seeing of both sides.”- Carolyn

It’s Surreal…

“The first day between places- when you have been at both places and still feel exhausted from travel, is surreal.” – Amy

It’s a Narrative, Not One Point in Time

“Our story of living between is not one point in time. Though you may meet us at one point in time, our lives are bigger than that. You may meet us at a point of sadness, of disconnect – and you assume that is who we are. That living between has made us sad. But that’s only one point of a much bigger story. Our stories are narratives of living between. The points of sadness and disconnect, of not belonging and feeling other are not the whole narrative. There’s the points of understanding displacement, of the incredible joy of discovery, the points of growing empathy from young ages, of taking that empathy and discovering that it is foundational to bridge-building, to seeing both sides. And then that glorious gift of travel that makes us feel alive, stirs us out of complacency, and ushers us into the broader world.”

It’s a narrative of privilege, of discovery, of joy, of empathy, and yes…. of loneliness. Marilyn

What are your descriptions of living between? I would love to hear them.

Reflecting on October with my Mother

My mom recently told me that the last leaves to turn are the Sugar Maples. They turn a brilliant red, an impossible color to describe. She tells me this as we meander our way through a state park on a perfect, October day.

I don’t remember growing up with brilliant Octobers, though my Pakistani childhood in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range must have had some sort of fall. As I travel back in my memories, I remember pristine snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees that whispered in the spring wind, roared in the summer monsoons, and lay heavy with snow when we left for winter vacation. Fall colors are not in my memory. Fall colors feel quintessentially New England and the October I now experience is the October of my mother.

She grew up in New England. Until she moved to Pakistan she lived in a world of seasons and colors. White, mountain laurel in the summer, golden, red, and orange leaves of the fall, cold snows of the winter, and buds peaking over picket fences in the spring. Or so I imagine.

It was a delight recently to spend time with her – not in New England, but in New York where she now makes her home. My mom is 91, a vibrant, lovely 91. She is an example of aging with an attitude of intentional flexibility. She looks and acts younger than many 75 year olds that I know.

“How are you doing?” I say to her on the phone. “A bit achy,” she replies and then goes on to tell me that she took her walk this morning, finished up a chapter of the book she is writing, and went to Bible Study. She has aged with intention, yet has made room for the inevitable change and losses that come with the word and the reality of a body that is destined for a better world than the one where it currently resides.

Her home is now with my brother and sister-in-law in Rochester, New York. Rochester has its own beauty and the recent weekend that I visited her in October was not a disappointment. We made plans to go to a state park, where miles and miles of roads and untouched beauty are there for pure pleasure.

We meandered along, stopping occasionally to look over a gorge or take pictures of the cascading trees that bent toward the road below. We had lunch at an inn, savoring the food and the time together. We looked out over a waterfall, the spray reaching high above even as the water fell far below.

It was beautiful. These days with her are slow and reflective. We spend time reading her old diaries, talking about our different current realities, and eating at least one decadent pastry during our time together.

Anyone who has walked the journey of watching a parent age knows the bittersweet realities of time together. We watch as a process beyond our control takes away too many things from the person we love. We watch, and inside we sometimes shudder. It is too close to home. It will come for us too. Though not yet, it will come. This we know. This we can count on. But to step away from the shudder, and into the beauty of an aging life is so worth it. To laugh, read old diaries, sit comfortably in the shadow of an Autumn evening, and eat pastries with more whipped cream than a cardiologist could possibly approve of – these are times that won’t be forgotten, times that we will look back on with immeasurable gratitude.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables Series who wrote that quotable phrase for all of us to use through these years. As I reflect on my October weekend with my mom, I think “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers and my mother.”

A Slice of Life in Charlestown – Volume 2: Death, Debts Forgiven, and Fitting Rooms

Two years ago today my father died. There are times in life where you remember exactly where you are at a pivotal moment. I was at work, chatting with my dear friend and colleague, Suzana. My dad had been declining and we knew the end of his life was drawing closer. Still, no matter how much you expect it, you never really expect it. That thin line between life and death; between heaven and earth. It’s a mystery.

I remember him today. It’s a beautiful day here in Charlestown, and he would love where we live. It is Boston at its prettiest in our neighborhood, with gas lamps that shine their light day and night, and neighbors who say hello to each other.

So I remember my dad today and I pause in gratefulness for his life and legacy.

Debts Forgiven

I am always on the lookout for a good story. There are plenty out there, but unfortunately we don’t always hear them. But on Wednesday I heard a great story on forgiven debt.

Evidently a group of churches in Chicago have decided to help almost 6000 people pay their medical debts. The total cost? Around 5.3 million dollars. ⠀ ⠀

In the next few days, each person will receive a letter in the mail with information on the payment and these words “⁣may you have a beautiful, wonderful holiday. Your debt has been forgiven. Enjoy Thanksgiving.”⠀ ⠀

I grow weary of bad news and cruelty, of incompetent leadership and lies at high and low levels of government. I grow weary of petty meanness – in others, yes – but in myself even more. Then I hear a story like this, and I know it does not stand alone. I know there are other churches and other people doing work that matters, living out their faith in actions big and small. And I am convinced that these small acts matter in big ways. These small acts make a difference, and we may never really know of their true impact. ⠀ ⠀ ⠀

One of the ministers from one of the churches involved in the debt relief effort said this about the decision: ⁣”Well, I began to cry because I knew what it would mean for – it was exactly 5,888 people. I’ll never forget that number. I knew what this would mean for them, that it was a new start for people.”⠀ ⠀ ⠀

A new start. Your debt is forgiven. What amazing words those are! The link to the full story is here. You’ll be glad you listened.⠀

Warning: You Are Entering the Fitting Room!

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I believe that fitting rooms need a warning sign. A warning sign that says “The mirror may reflect things that surprise, shock or astound you! Please refrain from sudden outbursts!”

Here’s the back story: We head off to a family wedding in Florida today. I love weddings, I love family, and I love palm trees so I’m looking forward to it.

In thinking through what I would wear, I realized I’d like to look a little firmer. You know that thing called gravity? It creeps around and through you in the oddest ways!

I had limited time, but I was armed and ready – or so I thought. I picked up a few things from the rack of undergarments and headed toward the aptly called “fitting room.” Five minutes later, busy with Lycra and straps, I caught sight of this stranger in the mirror! I shrieked! “By God, who is that? Who is in my fitting room and what is she wearing?” Thankfully the store was short-staffed, so no one came to my aid, because the moment after I screamed I realized that the chubby, wrinkled person in the mirror was me.

How did I get to be HER?

What? How could this be? How could the beautiful, lithe, me who I thought I was be Her of the Stretch Marks and Muffin Top? I gasped in horror. Where is the me who I thought I was?

While those of us who are of a certain age have our own challenges, any female who has reached the age of being able to go to the fitting room alone knows the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” that are part of the shopping experience. Too often we women drag along men, expecting them to  make a potentially self-esteem damaging experience easier. It rarely happens and I can’t count how many couples I have watched in the same scenario.  It goes something like this:

She: You don’t like it. (in flat tones) He: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. (in defensive tones) She: But I can tell – you didn’t say anything. If you had liked it you would have said something. He: It’s not whether I like it, it’s whether you like it. She: But I need an opinion. He: Look, I don’t know women’s clothing. I guess I like it. Maybe you need something that doesn’t have stripes. She: I knew you thought I looked fat(in an accusing and hurt tone, eyes welling up). He: I did not say that. She: Let’s just go.

It’s a set-up for failure of both parties. We are desperately looking for words of  affirmation and have a completely unrealistic expectation of what those will sound like. 

But back to my experience looking for undergarments. As I laughed at the stranger in the mirror, I thought about our bodies and our souls. How one can be revived daily, and one is daily losing something. What if I spent as much time on my soul as my body? There is so much to think about in that statement. But I’m not going to unpack it here and now. I’m going to leave you with the vision of me screaming at the me in the mirror. “By God, who is she and what is she wearing?” The person in the mirror started laughing, and strangely – so did I.

Routines & Nesting

We are settling into something of a routine here. Though there are boxes in our cellar, this has become a good place to call home and nest for awhile, and we are loving the neighborhood and this little red house. We have begun family dinners with my daughter, son-in-law, and nephew and we have already had a couple of overnight guests. This is a true joy for us. The neighborhood provides beautiful walks, sunrises, and sunsets in a truly historic area of the city. What a gift!

Kurdistan is close to our hearts but far from our bodies and in moments of honesty we confess to each other how difficult that is. We pray and talk about our friends and Kurdistan all the time, and we are with them in spirit during this difficult time of history.

If you’d like to read more on the Kurds, this is an excellent site: The Time of the Kurds.

I began this post with death, and I will end it with the same by leaving you with a quote from the highly acclaimed novel – Laurus.

“⁣Each of us repeats Adam’s journey and acknowledges, with the loss of innocence, that he is mortal. Weep and pray, O Arseny. And do not fear death, for death is not just the bitterness of parting. It is also the joy of liberation.”

Laurus

Cappuccino with Barzan: Friendship and Betrayal in Kurdistan

The Beginning

Around eleven o’clock every morning, Barzan would look through the door of my office and say “Come! Let’s have cappuccino!” I would look up at him and respond enthusiastically “Yes!” Five minutes later I would find myself seated at a chair by his desk, stirring a cup of instant cappuccino made in Turkey and readily available in the Kurdish market. That was when our conversation would begin.

It began in early May. May in Kurdistan is when you begin to feel the change in weather. Spring with its rain and lush green fields is gone, but the high temperatures of summer have not yet arrived. The days get longer, and you feel the joy of a season’s change. This May however, the holy month of Ramadan had just begun, and that changed things. The days were long and the nights even longer. For Muslims around the world, the month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer. From sunup until sundown, strict Muslims abstain from food, liquid, smoking, and sex.

Instead of a normal May, Ramadan overlaid it with spiritual highs and physical lows. The latter seemed to far outweigh the former. Everyone was grumpy. Everyone was self-righteous. Everyone had a headache, and everyone claimed they were feeling the best they’d ever felt.

As an outsider, I too was feeling the change in temperament and temper, so the first time Barzan invited me, I looked at him in complete surprise.

“But it’s Ramadan!” I said, shock evident in my voice.

“Yes, and sometimes we need to have cappuccino during Ramadan!” His answer was priest-like in its authority and conviction.

I looked at him with joy and amazement. Here was someone who I could relate with, who worked out his faith practically with room for questioning, and perhaps going against the crowd.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is an autonomous zone in Northern Iraq. Unlike the surrounding countries of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, Kurds in this region have carved out a semblance of autonomy. Kurds consider this area to be Southern Kurdistan, one of four parts of Kurdistan, the other parts being Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey), Eastern Kurdistan (northwestern Iran), and Western Kurdistan (northern Syria). Kurds themselves are divided as to what would be best for the people of the region. One more nation state, or more independence within the boundaries of their existing countries? Talk to one person and you’ll get one thought, another and you’ll get a completely different opinion.

For Kurds in Northern Iraq, carving out this autonomous region was not easy, and it continues to have significant challenges. An uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, a United Nations Security Council Resolution establishing a safe haven for Kurdish refugees, and a “No Fly Zone” established by the United States and Coalition forces all worked toward a common purpose and in October of 1991, the Iraqi government finally left, allowing Kurds in the region to begin to live and govern independently. This is a simplistic overview of a much more complex political reality, but it helps outsiders to understand a little of the fierce independence and pride that characterize the area.

The Kurdish Region of Iraq is home to approximately five million Kurds. The solidarity shared with Kurds in the surrounding countries is important to understand. Just like family, I can criticize my family, but you have no right to because you don’t belong, is much the way I experienced Kurds solidarity with each other. They may fight within, but when faced with outside threats, the solidarity and unity is profound. The fight against D’aesh (the Islamic State) was symbolic of Kurds being willing to put aside their differences and come together to fight against an external threat. They did so bravely and selflessly, ridding the region of terror and allowing families to return home after long exiles.

This is what I have been thinking about as I read and react with tears to the recent invasion of Syria by Turkey. Kurds are feeling this acutely. If you’ve watched any recent news, you don’t need me to tell you this. Far more learned and qualified people are writing extensive articles and opinion pieces.

So why does my voice matter?

Maybe because of cappuccino with Barzan.

First Encounters

We first visited the region in 2015 at the height of the crisis with D’aesh. Massive movement had taken place in Northern Iraq. Arab Christians from Mosul and Qaraqosh had left homes, factories, businesses, and restaurants to get their families to safety, away from the tyranny of the Islamic State. Churches and businesses in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, opened their doors to people who had arrived in crisis.  Unfinished malls and apartment buildings were quickly equipped with particle board and moveable walls to create rooms for families. At one building we visited, 120 people shared the same kitchen and bathroom. Families left most everything behind as they moved to the area for safety. And Kurds welcomed them – welcomed them with jobs, food packets, and homes. The stories we heard during that time will remain with me forever, stories of hope and horror, humanity at its best and worst. My husband and I left after ten days in the region with only one thought: We wanted to return. We wanted to move to Northern Iraq. Specifically, we wanted to move to Kurdistan.

Some dreams become reality while others remain silent and still, occupying our hearts and minds in quiet moments, but unable to be voiced because they hurt too much. Our dream became a reality and in September of last year, my husband and I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. To say we left everything is true. We left excellent jobs at health departments and universities in Boston. We gave away everything except our car, which we sold to an eccentric lady who belonged in a novel. We packed up our lives and our faith and we moved. We didn’t really know how long we would be gone, but we expected to live in the region for at least two years. In one year, you barely begin to understand a new country and culture and cultural adjustments occupy a good amount of your time and energy. You need at least two years, and after that – who knew?

That’s why cappuccino with Barzan was so significant. In the space of a half hour we would talk about everything. Politics (Kurdish, Iraqi, and American), faith, friendship, the profession of nursing, nursing students, marriage, differing cultures, worldviews, and even Wanda, Barzan’s hostess during a time when he lived in the United States. Wanda was an unseen part of every conversation. Barzan and I didn’t always agree – we didn’t have to. Cappuccino made our disagreements sweet and palatable.

Leaving Kurdistan

It was after having cappuccino with Barzan one morning that I found out a decision had been made by the Kurdish Government that dramatically altered our lives. The Minister of Finance had passed down a decree to the Minister of Education that affected all contract employees. Anyone with Bachelor’s Degrees would lose their job; anyone with a Master’s or PhD would lose half their salary. We were summoned to the university president’s office and were given the news. We left the meeting in shock.

We did not want to leave. We wanted to stay in the small city where we had carved out not only morning cappuccino, but also significant community through friendships. My husband taught swimming every Tuesday at a local pool to men who had never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. I was beginning to work with a group of women to teach health classes in the community. We had connected with an NGO and begun game nights every Thursday, and Fridays saw us at an English Talk Club participating with a group of Kurds who we had formed deep friendships with through discussions on many topics all conducted in English. Leave? How could we leave? We had to stay!

A tumultuous month followed, where rumor and fact collided and the truth of the edict was difficult to uncover. But by the end of June we had resigned ourselves to the idea that we would be leaving Kurdistan. The decision was irreversible.

We felt betrayed. Though it was a non-personal decision made at a high governmental level, it felt personal. We watched as Iranian colleagues packed their bags and moved back across the border to Iran. We heard from Kurdish colleagues who were also contract employees and had lost their jobs as well. It was a decision that couldn’t be fought and could take months or years to be reversed.

Our hearts broke. Tears flowed at odd times, our grieving was raw and real. We arrived back in the United States right before the fourth of July and the release of Stranger Things. We had lived our own version of Stranger Things, and it was a relief to binge watch something that took our mind off our transition and grief.

No Friends But the Mountains

The Kurds have a proverb, rightfully born of being surrounded by countries that don’t want an independent nation of Kurdistan to exist. “We have no friends but the mountains” was something we heard from our Kurdish friends over and over during our time in the KRG. We would hear the proverb as we were walking and talking with friends or sitting with them eating a delicious meal and sipping hot tea from glasses.

When I found out that the current administration had made the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, an area that was being controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, I thought of the proverb and how Kurds would be feeling and talking about this as they learned of the decision. I felt betrayed with my Kurdish friends by my own government. Had I still lived in Kurdistan, our cappuccino time would be spent grieving the decision.  Instead, it was my husband and me, cursing and grieving the short sightedness of this move. Generally able to look at a decision from multiple angles, this one was political and personal. Destabilization of a fragile area; abandoning loyal allies and paving a path for ISIS to re-emerge are just a couple of the potential outcomes, but largely not understood by many was the ethnic cleansing tragedy waiting to happen. How could America do this? How could we abandon allies that helped defeat D’aesh and be able to sleep at night? How could we not know that the area would create another massive displacement of Kurds and Christian minorities in the region? How could thoughtless leaders not understand the repercussions of this in a world that is so deeply interconnected?

And then there was the sense of personal attack! How could they do this to the Kurds, our friends, people that treated us like family for ten months? Ten months of extravagant invitations to tea and meals. Ten months of learning the history of the region, the horrors experienced during the time of Saddam Hussein and the extraordinary resilience and generosity that characterized the community. Ten months of friendship forged through time, food, and laughter. It didn’t matter that this was not the community where we had lived and worked – these were their Kurdish brothers and sisters, and blood lines are not easily severed in the region. The how coulds got lost in my fury of feeling.

If only we were there. If only we were there to sit with our friends and get angry with them. If only we were there to walk beside them, to show them that the world had not left them. If only we could sit with them and let them see that they do have friends beyond the mountains. But we weren’t there because of the Kurdish government, not the American government. Two governmental decisions. Two betrayals. But one with far more devastating effects than job loss.

But instead of drinking cappuccino with Barzan, tea with Yassin, and eating ghormeh sabzi with Behnaz, we were in a city oceans and continents away.  

Who is My Neighbor?

The feelings of sadness come over me regularly, and I try not to monitor the news 24/7. And I pray. I pray for the Kurds I don’t know, and the ones I know – the ones who opened their homes and lives to us – strangers and Americans.

Many years ago, a man came to Jesus and asked him a question about neighbors; specifically, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with a story. I learned a lot about being a good neighbor this past year and I didn’t learn it from people who looked like me. I learned it from my Kurdish, Muslim friends. I learned it from Yassin, who offered friendship through time, invitations to dinner, and helping us understand Kurdistan and Kurds. I learned it from Behnaz, a young Iranian Kurdish woman who offered me laughter, joy, and an artist’s eye for beauty. I learned it from Zana and Karwan who taught me how to heat my home and where to buy items in the bazaar. I learned it from Dr. Sanaa who passionately led the university department where I worked. I learned it from Rania who was a patient cultural broker and my fashion consultant.  I learned it from so many people that I can’t even name them all.

And I learned it from Barzan, who invited a foreigner into his office every day during Ramadan to drink cappuccino.