Before the Crisis, There was a Crisis

South Lebanon January 2016 working with Syrian Refugees

Afghanistan. The land that has mystified and defeated would-be colonizers and conquerers for centuries, now on every social media account known to our current world. Suddenly, everyone has a friend in Afghanistan. It’s uncanny and a bit unnerving. They join others who have a friend of a friend of a friend in Afghanistan, creating an outraged public calling for compassion, open borders, and funding. Memes slap us in the face with their “Let all who want to leave, leave!” “Make room for all!” One does not need to ponder long the impossibility of that idea, yet I’ve not seen many challenge publicly the impossibility of it.

I’d like to spend a bit of time getting a perspective on all of this. Please hear at the outset that I am deeply sad and angry about the current situation in Afghanistan. From friendships with Afghans and those who have spent years living and working with Afghans (yes- I too am guilty of mentioning this…) to memories of vacations and school trips, Afghanistan has long been on my heart. After 20 years, one could argue that we should have known it was always going to be a messy leave taking. The question then becomes: “Did it have to be this messy?” But discussing our complicated foreign policy in Afghanistan is not my area of expertise. In addition, writing about the messiness feels singulary disrespectful to those remarkable people who have risked and lost their lives, and the many who have worked tirelessly to bring people to safety. For them alone I daren’t comment publicly. They are true heroes and know a courage of which I have little understanding. What I want to do is to give some perspective, something I work toward every day, so that is my desire here.

Perspective

There has been an Afghan refugee crisis for many years with little attention paid to the problem, and even less accomplished in finding sustainable solutions. There is also a Venezuelan refugee crisis, a Syrian refugee crisis, and a Myanmar Crisis. Before the crisis, there was a crisis, and before that crisis, there was a crisis. It brings to mind the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This applies to Haiti and Afghanistan equally well, both nations crippled in crisis after crisis, both desperately needing stability and peace. This does not mean we should not pay attention – we should. And we should also recognize that this makes an already difficult crisis even worse.

As of June of this year, over 82.4 million people in the world had to flee their homes because of conflict and violence. Of those 82.4 million, 26.4 are refugees. Half of them are under 18 years old. In addition, there are millions of stateless people with no nationality, no border security, and no rights. When I say no rights, I mean no freedom to move, no access to healthcare or education, and no legal employment.

1 out of every 95 people has had to flee their home.

68% of refugees orginate from five countries: Syria – 6.7 million; Venezuela – 4 million; Afghanistan – 2.6 million; South Sudan – 2.2 million; Myanmar – 1.1 million. There are five countries who have been the major hosts of refugees: Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany. Geographically this makes sense – these are bordering countries and borders become more porous during major conflicts and disruptions. The majority of the world’s refugees (86%) are hosted in developing countries. Only 14% are hosted in developed countries. It really makes one question the words developing and developed, doesn’t it? If developed means decreased hospitality, inflated sense of self, and living out of scarcity instead of abundance, no wonder so many of us find the developing world so attractive.

So what of all this? Prior to all of this, those who work with refugees and displaced people were already working hard to serve and care for people. Resources have been limited for a long time and sustainable solutions were already difficult to come by. This current crisis will soon die down for most of us and a new season of outrage will be upon us, begging us to do our our part in performing for the crowd. But there are many who do this work year in and out, with limited funds and a lot of heart.

There are a couple thoughts I have on what we can do:

  • We can give. Many of us have the ability to give, if even a small amount. I will list some organizations at the end of this post for you to check out. Remember to weigh all of them through Charity Navigator to ensure accountability. As wonderful as your friend’s gofundme may seem – it is likely not a sustainable solution. So give to the gofundme, but also find a place where you can give regularly to a program that is ongoing.
  • We can write our elected officials. America is quite simply not doing enough to help in the current crisis. Both the last administration and the current administration err on the side of doing too little, too late. Those of us who are lay people can make noise through an email or a letter. The time is perfect as every September the President sets the number of refugees that are allowed entrance for the next fiscal year. Click here to send an email or call your representative.
  • We can pray. This high form of empathy helps us to recognize that we are small, and God is big. Through prayer we can discern our part in an ongoing crisis.
  • We can volunteer. This is tricky during a pandemic that continues to stretch on. But check out the organizations I have listed as most of them can use volunteers.
  • We can educate ourselves. It is not helpful to pass on incorrect information. It is not helpful to make situations worse than they are for the sake of sensation. What is helpful is to find good sources and recognize that even good sources have their limits. What is helpful is to remain humble as we learn. The refugee crisis is ever changing and what is true today may have changed by tomorrow. There is no quick answer and there is no simple answer. Refugee and immigration issues are complicated. But there are sources and places where you can find out more. I’ve linked some at the end.
  • We can remove ourselves from outrage and ground ourselves in facts and truth. Outrage limits our ability to function. Outrage creates massive inner conflict. Outrage does not and cannot last. Grounding ourselves in facts and truth helps us discern the voices that reflect the same.
  • We can be part of the chain of goodness that makes a difference for all those around us.

As I have thought about all of this in the last few weeks, the words of the prophet Micah have often come to mind. Micah was one of the original and true social justice champions, a prophet who cared about oppression, who cared about injustice to the poor, who cared about women and children cast out of homes. His was not an activism of social media, but a true heart for those who were hurt by false righteousness. He had harsh words of judgment, but those harsh words were always followed by faith that was practical and down to earth, by faith that invoked the beauty of a God of mercy. The people and the world Micah wrote to and about are not so different from the one we face every day. It is Micah that writes words that are heard through the centuries:

He has shown you O Man, what is good, but what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

And that, my friends is perspective. May we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God – only then will we have the wisdom to respond to any crisis, be it a refugee crisis or another that comes our way. Amen and Amen.

To make it easier to see the magnitude of this problem, I’m including a series of photographs.

Note: Primary source for all statistics is as stated on photographs – UNHCR

The Fragility of Goodness – Part 2

From my window seat, I look out on bright red geraniums and a bird feeder that brings different types of birds from all over the neighborhood into my yard. A red headed finch, blue jay, male and female cardinals, swallows, chickadees – all colors and types jabbering over this food source like it is manna come from Heaven. Perhaps, in a bird-like way, it has. Today I sighed as I looked out. The scene that greets me is so far from the reality of the tragedies on the world stage that I cringe. The question I ask is asked by many: How can I live in so much safety and peace when those around the globe are struggling so much?

From explosions in Lebanon, to an earthquake killing thousands in Haiti, to frantic news of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, we are assaulted on all sides. It is not only information overload, it is also tragedy overload. I think many of us are feeling this, feeling the unfairness of life, and the helplessness in the face of all of these global events.

In the midst of this are our own trials, whether large or small. Some are facing seemingly insurmountable personal tragedies that leave no room for paying attention to larger, global tragedies. What is world shaking to the individual or family unit is often hidden from the wider world and cataloguing and comparing degrees of grief and loss is unhelpful. Though my bird feeder/geranium view is beautiful, I have my own deep pain and struggles during this season.

Where is goodness and grace in the midst of personal and gloabl tragedy? Or more personally – how can I contribute to goodness and grace in the midst of all that is going on?

A few months ago I wrote a piece called The Fragility of Goodness. In it I referenced a story from World War 2 that took place in Bulgaria, a story about small acts of courage that made a stunning difference for Bulgarian Jews. While some of the people who stood up for the Jews were leaders, others were ordinary people, people who would not be considered influencers in today’s social media economy. They were people who decided to do the right thing, even if it seemed small. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews – people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, their community members – was a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity.The author of the account I read said “None of this would have happened without what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.” Todorov contrasts this goodness with evil, saying that once evil is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile.

Perhaps from a philosopher’s perspective, he sees this as true, but I disagree. Despite all the evil and sadness present in our world, there is goodness and it is not as fragile as he would have us believe. The mystery is that were are invited to be a part of that goodness, no matter how small. Goodness will never make the kind of headlines that evil makes, it will never create a show, instead goodness is content being a silent but persistent force. While evil is focused only on itself, goodness focuses on others. Goodness happens quietly, while evil is loud.

We dismiss small acts of goodness and kindness, opting instead to despair over our inability to do something big. We forget that any noble acts of goodness and courage started as acts that were seemingly insignificant. Tish Harrison Warren says in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, that peace on earth begins with forgiving and living at peace with people in your household, your parish or church, and your neighborhood. I would extend that to say goodness begins with at home, it extends to my neighbors – knowing some of their struggles and joys, offering cookies or help with taking out the garbage – and then moves on to my wider world. I might long to offer relief and goodness in Haiti, Lebanon, or Afghanistan but that is not where I am. I’m in Boston and it won’t help any of those countries for me to get on a plane and fly in as a naive do-gooder.

What can we do when we feel helpless? When we want to do more? I don’t think it is a stretch to say that a decision to be kind to the check out person who is always mean to you matters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that frail prayers and faith like a mustard seed are large in the Kingdom of God. I don’t think it’s off base to say that a donation, no matter how small, matters.

Goodness is not as fragile as we think. It’s a strong thread in what becomes the tapestry of “the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.”

Just a bit ago I read the following from an email from Christianity Today, and I offer it here as both challenge and encouragement:

Your calling may not be to humanitarian work, disaster relief, or medical care. But whatever your profession may be, you can take a moment to remember the God of compassion, consider the needs of a hurting world, and give your prayers, time, resources, or expertise to alleviate suffering…however large or small, public or private your act of compassion, you are joining with the body of Christ to display God’s love in the world…

CT Women – August 18, 2021

“Go forth and do good” are the words I hear. I don’t yet know what that means today, but in the intricate, delicate chain of goodness that is part of God’s vast and mysterious economy, it matters.

We Aren’t All Okay

You know those signs that appear on pretty suburban lawns? The ones that say “It’s all going to be okay!” or “Everything will be okay!” in cheery colors? Well guess what!?

We aren’t all okay. We are far from okay. I learned today that gun sales in Massachusetts, the hardest state in the nation to buy a gun, have gone up by 85% compared to a year ago. I learned that overdoses and suicides are up. And we all know that unemployment is a rocking 20% in the United States.

And guess what? All the posts on social media moralizing everything we are doing – whether it be wearing or not wearing masks, or opening up the economy – none of that is helping. It’s like watching kids bickering and finally saying “Enough! Go to your rooms RIGHT THIS MINUTE! I don’t want to hear another word from you!”

So don’t tell us we are all going to be okay. We are not in the same boat. If you have a regular pay check, then you may want the country to stay closed. If you don’t have a pay check – you may want it to open so that you can feed your family and pay your rent. If you are a recovering addict, desperately needing your support group, then you may want the country to open. If you have diabetes and other co-morbidities that make you more at risk for COVID-19, then you may want it to stay closed. You may think keeping an economy closed is a moral issue, but the person who just learned that their family member struggling with depression committed suicide, a result of severe depression and loneliness, may think that opening the country is a moral issue. We all have things we’d like to moralize about. GIVE EACH OTHER A BREAK and stop this nonsense.

None of this is easy and we are not okay.

So what? What is my solution?

The only thing I have is to lean into your discomfort. Lean deep into it. Scream. Cry. Rage. Bite your pillow. I promise you it will help.

“Lean into your discomfort” – face the sadness, the madness, the anger, and the hard.

Lean into your discomfort.

But how? How do I lean into my discomfort so that I can come out the other side?

Google the phrase and you get about 7,090,000 results in .45 seconds. This is a phrase that people use a lot. It is the social worker’s mantra – Lean into your discomfort. Don’t deny the pain, the grief, the anger, the frustration.

There are times when leaning into my discomfort is less complicated than others. Today is a perfect example. I just had to do it, I had to navigate the feelings, the tears, the email system that didn’t work, the powerpoint that I had not yet completed, the things that are making me angry – all of it. Other times leaning into my discomfort is so painful I want to anesthetize the process with whatever I can, whether it be sleep, or food, or denial, or putting so much distraction into my life that I don’t have to think about the discomfort.

But ultimately, I have to do it.

“Lean into your discomfort” is a phrase that works for me. It doesn’t deny the process, it doesn’t diminish the pain. Instead it challenges me that in leaning into the pain, the discomfort, the confusion, the grief, we learn to walk. First in baby steps, then in regular steps, finally in giant steps.

The steps are like playing the childhood game of  “Mother May I?”

“Mother may I take three giant steps” says the child. And the one who is ‘Mother’ says “No but you can take three baby steps” or “No but you can take one scissor step”. The goal is to reach ‘mother’ who is at the end of the court. When ‘Mother’ isn’t looking, the child on the court tries to sneak a couple more steps in, wanting to reach the goal faster. Leaning into our discomfort is sometimes like asking for giant steps and getting baby steps; or asking for baby steps and being told we have to take a giant step — only our legs are short and our giant steps feel small.

It is a long process. But the more we lean, the less we try to gloss over and pretend it’s all okay; the less we sit defeated, mourning the life we find ourselves in. The more we face our feelings and circumstances, the quicker we arrive at a place of understanding, at a place that is more comfortable. The more we lean, the taller we stand and the braver we become – and the kinder we can be to each other.

That’s all I have. That’s it. Because it really isn’t all okay right now.

[Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/atlanta-background-brick-city-5065797/]

On Viruses

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Arundhati Roy

I opened my email this morning to find a message from a friend who I’ve known and worked with for over ten years. The message was asking me to weigh in on a public service announcement (PSA). The subject of the email said just this:

“Anti-racism campaign PSA ideas – need your feedback by the end of today.”

In the body of the email were three scenarios. My job was to read them and comment on which one I thought would be most effective in reaching the public. She had asked for a quick turn around time so before I did anything else, I responded.

It was after I responded that the weight of the email hit me. My friend is from Taiwan. She has lived here for years and is an amazing community member and activist for Asian women’s health. We’ve worked on some extraordinary projects together through the years, projects that don’t make the news but have a powerful effect on the community.

In the midst of a pandemic crisis, my friend is having to worry about and work on an anti-racism campaign. She holds the dual burden of protecting her family and community’s health along with the weighty burden of protecting their safety

I know the excuses. I know the fear that is gripping people. I know what I do when I fear, when I’m insecure, when I want to blame – and I’m quite sure that what I feel is symptomatic of the rest of us. But it is so wrong.

I appeal to all of us, but especially those of us who are white and may have friends that are crafting and spreading memes and messages that spread laughter and racism. We must open our mouths, our keyboards, and whatever other ways we communicate to speak up and out against this racism.

The focus on anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment comes from the myth that the corona virus is a Chinese virus.

Here are the facts: This corona virus was unknown until an outbreak in Wuhan, China in late 2019. “Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. The resulting genomic sequence data has shown that Chinese authorities rapidly detected the epidemic and that the number of COVID-19 cases have been increasing because of human to human transmission after a single introduction into the human population.” [Source: Scripps Research Institute]

Rather than blaming China, we need to begin thanking them for identifying the virus and going to massive lengths to quarantine a huge population. Yes, their government had missteps (just as most governments did and are daily facing the consequences of those missteps.) This piece is not about government action or inaction. It’s about the wrongs that are being committed against a group of people under the guise of a virus.

Here are some truths about racism: It is a virus. It has to find a host. It cannot be spread without people -it lacks the ability to thrive and reproduce outside of a host body. Racism can mutate. It takes root in a willing host, then it mutates and changes, depending on the particular issue or people group. The racism virus is also like other viruses in that it is unsophisticated. It lacks the ability to live independently. It can be invisible, but it manifests itself in outward, visible symptoms.

The outward symptoms we are seeing of this virus are many. Spitting on people, physical violence, racial slurs, yelling ‘there’s a corona’ as they pass by someone who appears to be Asian, memes that attack a specific group, hate mail, invisible blame that comes out in subtle ways are a few of this disease.

And here’s the thing – Corona virus will eventually go away. But the virus of racism? That’s a lot harder. It takes root and stays in its host a long, long time. It can’t be treated with traditional cures and medicine. Instead, it needs to be rooted out with repentance and healed in relationship.

So here is my plea to all of us: May we not be willing hosts to this virus. May we see it before it takes root and run far away. May we examine our hearts and souls. May we refuse to pass on memes and cartoons that can damage others. May we learn the facts about the illness. May we call or email our friends who are from Chinese or other Asian families and check up on them because let’s face it – the American public are not good at distinguishing where people are from – right now, if you even look remotely Asian, you can be a target. May we always be ready to speak up and speak out in support of someone who is facing racism in a store, on a street, or in a public place.

Most of all, may our inner examination of heart and soul continue – where does racism find a willing host and what am I going to do about it?


“We’ve all been exposed. Not necessarily to the virus (maybe…who even knows). We’ve all been exposed BY the virus. Corona is exposing us. Exposing our weak sides. Exposing our dark sides. Exposing what normally lays far beneath the surface of our souls, hidden by the invisible masks we wear. Now exposed by the paper masks we can’t hide far enough behind. Corona is exposing our addiction to comfort. Our obsession with control. Our compulsion to hoard. Our protection of self. Corona is peeling back our layers. Tearing down our walls. Revealing our illusions. Leveling our best-laid plans. Corona is exposing the gods we worship: Our health Our hurry Our sense of security. Our favorite lies. Our secret lusts. Our misplaced trust. Corona is calling everything into question: What is the church without a building? What is my worth without an income? How do we plan without certainty? How do we love despite risk? Corona is exposing me. My mindless numbing. My endless scrolling. My careless words. My fragile nerves. We’ve all been exposed. Our junk laid bare. Our fears made known. The band-aid torn. The masquerade done. So what now? What’s left? “

Clean hands Clear eyes Tender hearts. What Corona reveals, God can heal. Come Lord Jesus. Have mercy on us. As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.


*I do not know the author of what I have printed. If any of you do, please contact me and I will give credit where credit is due.

A Salute to All of Us

Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Here’s to the moms, homeschooling when they always said “I’ll homeschool when it snows in Djibouti… or Miami … or Chiang Mai.” In other words “Never” and never has suddenly become now.

Here’s to the restaurant worker, who is suddenly furloughed from an eighty hour work week.

Here’s to the teachers turning their carefully thought out lesson plans into online classes.

Here’s to the young woman who just got a job at Target excited for her first paycheck only to find out there will be no more.

Here’s to the nurse, carefully isolating herself from her family to keep them safe.

Here’s to the student, lonely and feeling trapped.

Here’s to the graduate who will not be able to walk.

Here’s to the bride, who tearfully postponed her wedding Unsure of when it can be rescheduled.

Here’s to the women and men setting up home offices and new systems, trying to continue their jobs.

Here’s to the grocery store employee, wiping down carts and checkout counters with bleach.

Here’s to the healthcare workers, on the frontlines of care.

Here’s to the priest and the pastor, the imam and the rabbi, praying for congregations in crisis.

Here’s to the homeless, fighting one more difficult day, one more crisis in a long list.

Here’s to the families trapped on three sides of the globe, to the third culture kid trying to get home, to the parents and siblings, brothers and sisters separated.

Here’s to the family grieving with no funeral, the community rallying with no physical contact, the church seeking to function while apart.

Here’s to the poor and the refugee – those whose reality has changed little, but whose hope looks even bleaker.

Here’s to the helpers, the doers, the prayers, the seekers, the scholars, the researchers, the neighbors, the givers, the comforters, the organizers, the activists, the optimists, the pessimists, the realists, the pragmatists, the lonely, the sad, the fearful, and the angry.

Here’s to our collective humanity and image bearing. May we reach across what divides us and open our hearts wide to the God who loves us. May we be willing to give of our abundance and receive from our need. May we have patience and resilience, may our eyes be open wide to the world and our small part in that world.

And may God be with us and comfort us.


Advice from a friend in Shanghai:

Since we got a head start with the COVID-19 over here in China, some friends have asked me for advice in navigating this time. Take only what’s helpful for you!

  1. Stay at home. Yes, I totally understand the urge to resist this, but the sooner you can accept it and stay home, the better it will be for everyone, including you.
  2. Assume that you could be the carrier. I haven’t been too worried about contracting the virus myself, but I became much more careful when I started thinking how I could potentially spread it to others.
  3. Don’t bring germs into your house. Wash your hands as soon as you come home. In Asia, we take off our shoes at the door, and this might be a good practice for everyone right now. Consider changing your outer clothes or showering if you’ve been out in a public place. Don’t forget to clean your phone and your keys!
  4. Focus on what you can control (yourself). There are too many things that are outside of your control right now. Instead, find ways you can boost your immune system and/or prevent your exposure. For many Asians, that means wearing face masks and opening the windows. I personally use essential oils to support to our immune systems and buy fruit for my family like a mad woman. Whatever strategies can strengthen you, whether it’s making grandma’s chicken soup or deep cleaning your house, I say go for it!
  5. Take care of your own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The stronger you are, the better you can survive and even thrive during this time. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise daily. Pray like crazy. Turn off the news. Watch something funny. Call a friend. Do a conference call with a group of friends. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Get e-therapy. Learn something new. Go for a walk or a drive. If you have a balcony or a yard, sit outside in the fresh air and sun.
  6. If you have faith, put it into action. Trust in God. Meditate on His promises. Listen to worship music. God is greater than our circumstances, and He provides for us even in times of uncertainty. Be a light during this dark time. Don’t give in to fear or settle for mere self-preservation; your neighbor needs the hope and the love that you give, albeit in creative ways. Look out for those who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to domestic violence.
  7. Be generous. Give a gift card to someone who is not able to work during this time. Support your church even though the services have been cancelled. Pay your employees. Order take-out. Support small businesses. Donate blood. Give a phone call to someone who is vulnerable. Send a card to someone in a nursing home. Offer to shop for someone else. Donate to a food bank. Sew cloth masks. There are endless possibilities to sow seeds of generosity during this time. [From my friend Ruth and used with permission.]

Tears in a Bottle

I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned.

Bettie Addleton

I wake to bright sunshine, a stark contrast to a couple of days ago when it rained as if it would never stop. This is our life – one day is wet and gray, drops of rain falling down like tears on the face of a mother who has lost her child. Overnight the sky changes and I wake to sunshine and glorious colors. One day is so full of grief that one’s heart feels it can no longer beat; the next day you wake up to a heart that still beats and the laughter of children.  One day there’s a party and the next day there’s a funeral. Grief and joy, coexisting under the umbrella of grace.

Our world feels full of tears. In a news article I read of an Italian family in New Jersey who has lost three members to the coronavirus in the past week – the mother died not knowing that her son and daughter died just days before her. The death toll in Italy rises, so high that it feels like numbers instead of people.

Years ago during the SARS epidemic, my sister-in-law and I were talking and she mentioned that SARS was changing the way people were able to grieve. Isolated, unable to bring family and friends together, their grieving and mourning was trapped by physical and social distancing.

This virus is causing the same difficulty, grief trapped outside an isolated hospital room, where a loved one is being cared for by capable strangers. Trapped during that intimate and difficult moment of death, unable to reach out and touch, grieving instead through heavy glass barriers as hospital staff with masks and gowns care for the person you love as they take their last breath. A heart monitor flatlines while a family watches through a window. Death is never easy, never convenient but orders for isolation, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place make it even more difficult.

Our own family is experiencing the difficulty of grieving during the time of coronavirus as last week we had to postpone my brother’s memorial service. It was the right thing to do, but I cried deep tears of mourning. Our time in Thailand was precious as we grieved as a small group, the love, tears, and laughter evident in all our interactions. But there are more family members and friends who need to grieve this man who lived well and died too soon.

Sunshine sometimes feels incongruent to the world news, as though rain better represents life during these days. Rain collecting on city streets creates a sloppy soup of cigarette butts, paper leaflets, and garbage – a broken mess of life. Rain hides the tears falling down my cheeks, gives me grace to weep tears that I don’t want seen in public, but that I can’t hold back until I am in private. But just as I think I have cried all the tears possible, that the grief will never stop, I wake up to sunshine.

A few years ago I wrote about tears and my friend Bettie responded:

Sadness, grief, pain, disappointment, pleasure, joy, happiness, and other emotions turn on the tears. We cry at weddings and we cry at funerals. Like torrents of rain or an uncontrollable flood, and even slow and haltingly, they flow, bringing cleansing and as you say redemption. I have chronic dry eyes, a condition when the eye is unable to produce tears. It is not healthy. My vision is affected. For good eyesight, the production of tears is necessary. I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned. Bring on the tears for they have redemptive quality.

Tears in a bottle, tears redeemed. Permission to mourn. Tears that renew my vision and enable me to see the marks and manifestation of God-breathed redemption.

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.