A Life Overseas – Living Borrowed Lives

“A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.” Stephanie Saldaña as quoted in Plough Magazine

I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.

Stephanie Saldaña

I curl up on the couch, reading an old letter from a friend. We were friends during our Cairo days years ago. We saw each other regularly, went to Bible Studies together, had coffee dates, traded ideas on how to adapt recipes with substitutions. How to make a cranberry-orange salad with no cranberries? What is the right proportion of molasses to sugar to create a brown sugar substitute? We arranged play dates and talked to each other about our family members who were far away.

I’m lost in memories as I read her letter. I left Cairo years ago. She left much later, but we both left. A good description of our lives as expatriates is that we lived borrowed lives. The maps of our lives have had to be redrawn as the places have changed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about borrowed lives as I continue to face my own transition. I thought about this recently as I heard about someone who had to leave her adopted country. She did not want, much less plan, to leave. But like my own story in Iraq, governmental decisions sometimes dictate the time when our borrowed lives end.

In the past few months I have heard of over 25 families having to unexpectedly leave their adopted countries. Just now, as I opened my email, I read yet another story of a family unexpectedly repatriated.

These are hard, hard stories. Each story has different details but the common thread is that it is not their choice. Their choice, indeed my choice, would be to stay. They have forged relationships and created homes in places far from their passport countries. Sometimes they have lived for years in a place, only to arrive at an airport and be refused entry.

Admitting our expat lives are borrowed is a difficult thing to do. We often fight this, imagining perhaps that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. But with admission comes great, great freedom.

As I thought more about our borrowed lives, I realized that we can apply some of the same principles of borrowing things to our borrowed lives.

A borrowed life may be borrowed, but it is still a life. When I borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it may have been my neighbor’s but it was still a vacuum cleaner, and actually a far better one than I had ever owned! And what do we do in life? We live – we don’t fear what might happen. God doesn’t give us grace for our imagination, he gives us grace for what actually happens. We plant gardens and hang up pictures. We buy furniture and we create homes. We make friends and we find coffee shops. We seek the welfare of the cities where we live. Our life may be borrowed, but it’s still a life.

We respect and care well for the things we borrow. We know we don’t own them and some day we will need to return them, so we take good care of these things. We treat them with respect. This same principle applies to our expat lives. We treat these lives with the respect they deserve. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest into another country or home – yet often we act like they are the people lucky to have us. We may come with specific skills, but we are not God’s gift to any country or place. God is the gift, not us. God has been at work in places far before we arrived, he will continue to be at work once we leave, so we treat our borrowed lives as the gifts that they are.

We borrow things we need. The reality is that we need this expat life more than we admit. We have come to rely on the rhythms, though they be difficult. We reach a level of comfort living between and we don’t want to lose that. We are also often more comfortable with our economic status in our adopted countries. Often our residence comes with a government stipend that we would never have in our home countries. Other times, the currency of our passport countries yields a good return on exchange, putting us into places where we don’t have to worry about money in the same way. The cost of living in Kurdistan for my husband and I was a fraction of what our current Boston life costs us. Yes, there were hard things about living in Kurdistan – but I think we needed Kurdistan far more than Kurdistan needed us. I’m still trying to process that one.

Sometimes borrowed things get lost or damaged. The mature person will admit this and make proper restitution. So it is with our borrowed lives – sometimes we don’t treat them with care. Sometimes we take relationships for granted. Sometimes we assume our lives hold greater value simply because of the color of our skin or our passport. While this is rarely an open admission, this attitude subtly works its way into our work and relationships. Confession, repentance, and restitution are the only healthy ways forward.

Everyone has a borrowed life, we are just more aware of this fact. Here’s the truth – every breath, every step, every word – it’s all borrowed. We have been given this life for such a time as this, but none of us – whether expat or not – know when this life will be over. Job loss, health loss, death – all of these things are part of our journey. The worker or expat can be in a much healthier position to realize this than many of their peers in their passport countries.

The question remains, what happens when I lose my borrowed life? How do I move forward? How do we move forward? We grieve. We cry. We pray. We praise. We redraw our maps with the One who created us. We continue our borrowed life in another place, trusting that one day this will all make sense.

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.  

When Your Soul is in Chaos, Chop Vegetables!

It’s a rainy fall day here in Boston. The bells at the church across the street just chimed five times, telling me it’s almost evening.

I woke up restless and sad, a soul in chaos. The gloom outside found its way inside and I struggled to find a rhythm. The news has not helped. As you who read this blog know, I’ve long loved the Kurds.

Three years before we moved to the Kurdish Region of Iraq (Kurdistan) we had the opportunity to visit. It was at the height of the ISIS crisis, and displaced people and refugees had altered the landscape of the area. ⠀

Even before that time, we had always been interested in Kurds and the Kurdish story. ⠀

Having the opportunity to live and work in Kurdistan last year was one of the great privileges of our lives. And by all accounts, it ended too soon. We grieve the loss of community and miss the deep friendships we formed every day.

Kurdish people face challenges, threats, and obstacles from within and without. From their own leaders making rash and ludicrous decisions about finances, pay checks, jobs, and governance to outside forces making tragic decisions on invasions and non-interventionist decisions when they have already intervened, Kurdish people in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria suffer. ⠀

Despite this, resilience, hospitality, and sheer joy are hallmarks of who they are as people. This group that spans man-made divisions and borders needs your prayers and help. ⠀

The news of the attacks in Syria have deeply affected the community where we lived and worked in Rania. Our friends are sad, but they are also angry. They feel betrayed. I feel betrayed with them and I have felt it in my soul.

But I am many miles away, and my restless, chaotic spirit is not helping anyone.

I learned long ago that there are some antidotes to restless, fractured souls, so if you are feeling as I was today, here are some ideas.

  • Bake bread. The measuring, mixing, kneading, and baking will go from your arms to your heart to your soul.
  • Chop fresh vegetables for a soup or stew.
  • Clean the house. Scrubbing, scouring, mopping, and dusting – cleaning out the dirt that accumulates can satisfy in immeasurable ways.
  • Write a letter to someone. The old fashioned kind that will have them shocked and deeply pleased. Taking pen to paper and writing news or a note of encouragement is a way to take your mind off yourself and focus it on someone else.
  • Donate time or money to a local charity. There are so many organizations doing good work in our world. It just takes intentionality to find them.
  • Light candles and listen to music. There is something about light and music that pushes against the darkness we sometimes feel in our souls.
  • Phone or text someone. There is someone out there who is feeling as chaotic, lonely, or sad as you are. Reach out and offer friendship through your phone.
  • Read the Psalms. Even if you are not from a Christian tradition, the Psalms can offer extraordinary comfort. King David who wrote many of the Psalms was up against some bad guys. He regularly cried out to God, begging him to destroy the wicked. His words resonate to this day , offering us a blue print of prayer and communication to God.
  • Read a book about someone who made a difference. Right now, I’m reading the book Stronger than Death by my friend, Rachel Pieh Jones. It is an a remarkable story about a woman who broke boundaries and rules to love those at the margins of society. It takes me out of my current chaos and reminds me that loving others is a costly calling that I know little about.
  • Dance. Just put on that music and go for it. Besides being good exercise, your body will pour forth endorphins in gratitude.
  • Call one of your friends who has a baby and go hold that baby. Blow on its belly and listen to that baby laugh. “A baby is God’s opinion that the world must go on”*
  • Read The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman. This book has nuggets of wisdom that surprise and delight. At one point she encourages the reader to look at doing the next right thing for the next ten minutes. It’s an exercise that continues to stay with me.
  • Love someone well. “Ordinary love, anonymous and unnoticed as it is, is the substance of peace on earth, the currency of God’s grace in our daily lives.” (Liturgy of the Ordinary, pp 79)

This list is not exhaustive and it’s not extraordinary, but today, as I chopped vegetables for soup, kneaded bread, and scrubbed the dirt off the floors of this little red house, my soul rested and I felt an incomparable peace.

*Carl Sandburg

On Needing Grace During Transition

We have been back for 10 days and it’s already beginning to feel like Kurdistan was a dream that never really happened. A dream with a few nightmare like qualities, but a dream nevertheless.

The last time we went through a period of transition of this magnitude was when we returned from Egypt with five children, 26 suitcases, and a gorgeous Egyptian Siamese cat called Pharaoh. It was not an easy transition and it was months before we felt settled. I am trying to see this as a different time and situation, but the memories of how incredibly difficult that season of our lives was tend to pop up. I push them down, reminding myself that this is not then, we are not the same people.

Before leaving, we had decided to take July off to debrief and reconnect with family and friends. While it is a good decision, the current reality of no jobs and not knowing where we will be living next is heavy. We live in a culture where your worth is measured against what you do, not who you are. This is an inescapable fact and we have much empathy for those whose circumstances have put them into a place where they are unable to work. Work is a gift, but it should not be an all encompassing identity.

Many people are well meaning but somewhat clueless as to our circumstances. “So glad you are safe!” Said in slightly breathless tones is the default comment. It is kind and it is also somewhat irritating. Particularly because it usually comes from people whose daily lives hardly revolve around our safety. The second comment is “So glad you are home!” Strangely, though in the past this comment would have unnerved me, in this season of transition it feels deeply comforting. Before I left for Kurdistan, I realized that Cambridge had indeed become home and I was grateful. It took such a long time to be willing to attach myself that once I finally let go of my fears and hung my heart in place, a backpack of “where is home” baggage fell off of me and I experienced deep peace.

The back pack is filling once again. Cambridge is no longer home. We packed it up a year ago. Can a place be home when you make a conscious choice to leave it in its entirety? These philosophical questions are hardly useful in the midst of transition, but I ask them anyway.

In all of this I want to beg people to give us grace, to be patient with us during this transition period but I lack the words.

A friend who is transitioning back to the U.S. from Bangladesh recently wrote this and I am grateful to use her words:

It’s the small things about being in America again that feel weird. Enormous stores and all the options in the world.

People saying things like, “it feels like you never left” and feeling totally misunderstood because it feels like a whole new foreign world to you, not like you never left.

There are a ton of little things that give us joy…But there are also just as many things that should feel like home but don’t and that feels disorienting, it hurts.

Please, give grace to the people in your life in transition (of any kind). It feels like living on another planet. We don’t mean to offend or to act strange or cry for no apparent reason. We aren’t sure where the new normal is. But we will get there eventually.” Nicole Walters

Like Nicole, I too ask for grace. We will get there, but we don’t know when.

During this transition time of decisions and indecision, our Rockport cottage is welcoming us with the joy of ocean walks and the beauty of Rockport gardens, to slow days of grandchildren and long evenings of connecting with adult kids.

There is much to decide, and much that needs to happen. We will be in transition mode for a while. After last summer’s major uprooting it will take time to reroot. It will take time to find jobs and a place to live, time to reorient to life on what sometimes feels like a different planet. ⠀

For now, there is the ocean, Rockport, friendship, family, and our marriage. Jobs seem trivial in comparison. We are too fortunate. ⠀

As the End Begins

We began packing yesterday morning. Before coffee or tea, before breakfast, before we had a chance to breathe and then catch our breath, we were removing books from shelves and pictures from the walls. “And so it begins” I thought. Compared to what we had to do to come here and the dismantling of our homes and lives in Boston, this is nothing. But it is still hard. It still hurts. I still prefer creating a home to deconstructing one.

The weekend was full of travel and play with 23 Kurdish students and young adults who are volunteers at a local NGO. We piled into a bus with questionable shocks and took to the roads of Kurdistan. We saw rivers and mountains, hiked to Neanderthal Caves and drove through the city of the three wise men. We ate good food and danced to Kurdish music. We had discussions on goals and why we are here and played games. Laughter was the background to every event and meal. It was the perfect way to spend our last weekend in Kurdistan. All together we traveled over 15 hours in a bus across Kurdistan and all of us are richer for it.

We never expected to form these close friendships. We did not know how much we would laugh, that we would find our people among the younger generation in Kurdistan. We did not know that they would support us by bringing medicine when we were sick; heaters when we were cold; invitations when we were lonely; and laughter when we most needed it.

The future in Kurdistan is bright because of these people. They are men and women who are smart, funny, wise beyond their years, and compassionate. They recognize the hypocrisy in their government and in their institutions, and they are fighting to change first themselves, and then their community. We could not be more honored that they have chosen us to be their friends. We could not be more grateful for their willingness to enter into our lives with so much generosity and joy.

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine and the tasks at hand: sorting, distributing, packing. We walked up and down stairs to pack a truck to deliver to one friend who is getting married, another friend who is Iranian and far from her own home comforts, and a local NGO. With every picture taken down and every piece of furniture given away we know that the end has begun.

How do you measure ten months?

In picnics,

In sunsets,

In calls to prayer,

In cups of chai,

In centimeters, in kilometers, in laughter, in strife.

Seasons of Love from Rent (adapted)

When we first found out that we would have to leave the cry of my heart was “Why did we only get ten months? Why?” Now, I think “We got ten months in Kurdistan. We are so fortunate.”

Ten months of laughter and joy; ten months of learning some of the challenges that Kurds work within and around. Ten months of Ranya Bazaar and Cafe 64; ten months of invitations and English talk club. Ten months of Toranj restaurant and our dear Iranian friends. Ten months of unforgettable conversations and amazing food; ten months of learning what advocacy is and is not. Ten months of some of the most challenging work interactions we have had in our many years of working in four countries and on three continents. Ten months of being offended and of causing offense. Ten months of feeling both understood and misunderstood. Ten months of this small apartment that is chilling cold in the winter and delightfully cool in the summer. Ten months of creating a home and a community.

Ten months of picnics, of sunsets, of calls to prayer, and cups of tea. Ten months of centimeters, kilometers, laughter and strife.

How do we measure our time here? It defies the metric and the imperial systems of measurement so we won’t try.

We just know that we are forever richer by Kurdistan.

God of Loss

Just Your Faithful God of Loss

It is the time of graduations, moves, end of fiscal year budget crunching, and expatriate turnover. Sometimes moves are expected, and other times they come like a dust storm over the Sahara – with complete surprise leaving grit and dust in their wake. The grit and dust of grief and loss, of unexpected change. It’s the time when the bones of past losses that we thought we had resolved, or at least buried, come together and like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert – they come alive.

Last year at this time, my husband and I were in the middle of an interview to come to Kurdistan. It was completely unexpected but so welcome. On our return to the United States after the interview, we made the decision to leave our home in Cambridge of 10 years. We arrived in Kurdistan at the beginning of September and it has been a year of joys, challenges, trials, unexpected horrors, and equally unexpected delights. It has been a paradox.

When we left the United States we left with the plan that we would be here for two years. While we knew this was not completely in our hands, we assumed that it would be a decision made by both us and the university. It was easy to talk about holding our time here with an open hand when we felt we had control.  Now, unexpectedly, a government decision made at the beginning of May means that I no longer have my job. Additionally, my husband’s job has been reduced to half his salary. It is a decision with broad ramifications that affects some of our Kurdish colleagues and all the foreign staff, not only at our university, but at universities throughout Kurdistan. It looks like our time here will come to an end far sooner than we expected.

I am feeling this deeply. While we still don’t know specifics of when we will leave, it is 90 percent certain that we will leave. For so many years I longed to return to the Middle East. Now, it’s seemingly being taken away and at a great personal cost. I feel the loss of what I left behind to come, and I already feel the loss of the small niche we have been carving for ourselves in the city of Rania.

There are many, many losses in this life. Every relationship we have on this earth will end in loss. Every single one. Either they will die, or we will die before them. Whether you stay rooted to one place your entire life or you traverse the globe, the two things you can count on are loss and change. You might think you can control these only to have them surprise you with their insistent persistence. While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 20 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so was life itself?

I thought of this game today. I feel like I am playing this game. I have arrived at the table with the cards that say either “Job” or “Job Loss” and I have picked the wrong card. The job loss at the university feels unjust and unfair. I love my colleagues and there is so much that we want to do together at the College of Nursing. My beloved Dean, Dr. Sanaa, is not only my boss, but also my dear friend. I have learned so much from her and have grown from her vision. This decision made by an anonymous government has hit me hard. It’s like going through the game we played during freshman year of nursing school, and I am losing.

Loss is peculiar. As if it’s not enough on its own, every time we experience another loss, seemingly buried past losses and griefs are resurrected. Even if I think I’ve healed, I bear those traumas in my soul and they resurface, sometimes as monsters, sometimes as mosquitoes, but always unexpected and always difficult.

So what of this God of Loss? And what is God in all this loss? Is he the author? The creator? The healer? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites.

I come to the conclusion that I came to at a young age, away from all security, alone and crying in the early morning hours as I lay on a bunk bed in a boarding school. I felt loss then. Loss of a mom and dad. Loss of a home. Loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me.

In a song called “God of Loss” by one of my favorite bands, I hear words that tell a life story of loss. It is hauntingly beautiful and I listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The words go through my head and find a home and resting place:

Yes, we will leave here without a trace
Take a new name and an old shape
I’ll be no outlaw, no renegade
Just your faithful god of loss

Darlingside

Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

“History was a recording that played continuously, so that you did not realize it was the same song, over and over.”

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

The messages began early yesterday.
“Are you okay? Will you be leaving?” “What are your thoughts on the news? When are you all coming back?” “Hey! What’s going on over there?”

At this point, I was involved in a totally different crisis, seemingly unrelated to the one that was being broadcast by all major media outlets in the United States and evidently, around the world.

A message from my amazing nephew who works at the State Department gave me more information, and I began responding to the messages that we received. Evidently the United States had called for all non-emergency government personnel to leave Iraq and the Kurdish Region of Iraq citing tensions with Iran as the reason. Rumors of war had begun and the news was everywhere.

Everyone knows this, but it’s really important to repeat: Behind the clean yet oh-so-dirty fingers of every politician that supports war there are real people who get caught in the middle and lose. They lose every, single time. People in the middle are caught between and never win. They lose. They lose security. They lose jobs. They lose peace of mind. They lose hope.

We live in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the rumors of war involve Iraq because the tensions are rising between the United States and Iran. Geographically Iraq is next to Iran; politically Iraq is caught between. Our region is finally feeling a measure of hope after a massive financial crisis and the chaos of D’aesh, or ISIS. People are beginning to feel more settled, more secure. They are receiving salaries regularly after a long time of not being paid.

And now this.

I am not a political analyst but I do suspect that wars are sometimes started to detract from real life problems. What better way to distract people then to go to war? Suddenly all the news and focus is not on poor national policy, or the latest tweets, but instead on what is happening the other side of the world.

I just finished reading a book by David Ignatius, a prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post who covered the Middle East for many years. Bloodmoney is a spy thriller that is set between Los Angeles, Pakistan, and London. It’s fast paced and interesting, a book that seems made to be a movie. At the very end of the book, Ignatius talks about how the book is about how wars end. Though he spends some time toward the end of the book discussing this, from a reader perspective, I wish he had spent more time on this.

One of the dynamic characters in the book is a Pashtun from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan called “the Professor.” At one point he is thinking about the tribal code of revenge. He thinks about how often wars end just because people get tired. They lose people and money, and suddenly both sides are done, exhausted by the bloodshed, unable to even remember what the war was really about to begin with. But, he surmises, wars that end that way don’t bring about “good peace.” Instead, they bring “dishonor, shame, and a shimmering desire for revenge.” This is something that the Professor feels the Western world doesn’t know or understand. “The victor in the war must find a way to salve the dignity of the vanquished; otherwise, there would just be another war.” (page 348, Bloodmoney)

The tribal code for restoring harmony was called nanawatay in the Pashto language. That was how wars ended among honorable men. The vanquished party would go to the house of the victor, into the very heart of his enemy, and look that man in the eye and request forgiveness and peace. The defeated man was seeking asylum, and the victor could not but grant him this request. To refuse would be dishonorable and unmanly. When a man is asked to be generous, he can unburden himself of his rage toward his enemy. He can be patient in forgiveness and let go of the past.

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

A couple of pages later, our professor is on a plane, ready to fall asleep: “He fell asleep thinking of his favorite word in the Pashto language, melmastia, which meant “hospitality.” That was the way wars ended.”

I read these words yesterday afternoon, after I had responded to many messages and written an email off to family and friends.

Hospitality. Communication. Communicating Across Boundaries. Backing down. Forgiveness. Generosity. Looking people in the eye and requesting forgiveness and peace.

Yes – this may be the way wars end. More importantly, this is how they never start. This is prevention at its best.

When will we learn? If we can’t have a conversation with someone who thinks differently then us, then there is no hope that wars will ever end. When I look in the mirror, I see someone looking back at me who is just as culpable in the little picture as the war mongers of the world are in the big picture. Everyone of us is probably at war with someone in our lives. Though the outcomes may seem different, on a small scale they are the same. Are we tired yet? When will it end?

And to our leaders I say the same: Are you tired yet? When will it end? When will you get tired enough to have bad peace, or smart enough to forgive, extend hospitality and have good peace?

If wars end with hospitality, surely with true hospitality they should never begin.

Communicating Across Boundaries

As for us, we are staying – at least for the time being. We are continuing to enjoy the love and hospitality that surrounds us. We are in the month of Ramadan, where all of day life slows down and the evenings light up with food and joy at the breaking of the fast. What happens next, only God knows.