A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 4

We are enjoying spring in this part of the world. The rain has tapered off and with it the large puddle that forms in my kitchen. I am so happy to see that puddle gone. I love the sun and I love light so with these days of 60 degree weather, a joy comes over me that it unashamedly connected to sunlight and warmth. Spring here is stunning – high above green fields of wheat are the Kewa-Rash (Black Mountains) and beyond that the snow-capped mountains of Kurdistan and our neighboring country. All day long the light changes creating dramatic effects on the ridges of the mountains. It is magnificent.

International Women’s Day…

For the first year since I began blogging I did not write about International Women’s Day. My guilt threatened to overwhelm me until my husband looked at me and said “Why are you feeling guilty? You’ve been too busy meeting with women and planning an important symposium on women’s rights to actually write about it!” It’s true. With a group of Kurdish women and men colleagues, we worked hard to put together an International Symposium focused on women’s rights and gender based violence. We held it yesterday and were so grateful and pleased with the response. Guests included Kurdish women activists talking about politics, governance, and law as well as international speakers from the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United States. It coincided with National Kurdish Clothes Day so the conference hall was full of color and sparkle. It was amazing.

The symposium planning reminded me of the need for cultural humility and tested my cultural competence at many levels. In other words, it was really humbling and good for me. Plan with, not for, a community, at every level involve people from the community, slow down, listen, clarify, drink tea, drink more tea, drink ten cups of tea and other key principles were critical in the success of the symposium. One of the things I learned during this time is that there is no future tense in the Kurdish language. This made so much sense to me as I wanted to plan far ahead and I learned that culturally, you don’t plan that far ahead. You do things right before the actual event, because who knows what might disrupt your plans. For a region that has been through as much trauma and displacement as this area, it makes complete sense. It’s easy to want to fight against what we don’t understand.

The Kurdish speakers were brave and honest as they spoke about divorce, female genital mutilation, and gender-based violence. I have so much to learn from these women. Among other things, I’ve learned that the rates of FGM and honor killings in this area are high. Many Kurdish women want to change this and we are in conversation at the College of Nursing about what change might look like. I am honored to be a part of these important conversations. While every culture in the world has aspects that are beautiful and can be appreciated, every culture also bears the scars of a broken world and system. When you enter into a place and become a part of it, you learn more about the beautiful and the broken. Yesterday included both.

I’ve posted some pictures to give you a sense of the day and give you a glimpse of the rich colors and beauty of traditional Kurdish clothes.

Dear friends – Yassin and Mohammad, and Rania – my dear friend and Cliff’s colleague
Four of our beautiful students at the College of Nursing
Group Photo of Planning Committee, University Officials, and Speakers

Korek Mountain…

On Friday, our holiday, we were invited to join the staff of a local NGO to go on a trip to Korek Mountain. This mountain is around 2000 meters and you get there by way of a four kilometer cable car called a “teleferic”. This was a new word for me…you?

There were around 30 of us so we took a tour-type of bus and traveled two and a half hours over sometimes smooth, sometimes rough roads through amazing scenery. Rolling hills, rugged mountains and mountain waterfalls were all part of the landscape. We ate lunch in the city of Soran just a half hour from Korek Mountain. We then went on to the base of the mountain and waited in a loud and fun line to catch the cable car up the mountain. It was the longest cable car I’ve ever been on, and I have to admit to some stomach knotting moments as I looked down at the earth so far beneath and eight of us chatting happily in Kurdish and English. “Be careful of the ‘whatifs’ child” says the author Shel Silvlerstein. It was good advice as I stopped myself from imagining the cable breaking, or the electricity going off (a not unlikely case scenario I might add….)!

The highlight of the trip was not the beauty, but the people. We laughed until our stomachs ached. We danced to Kurdish music. We listened to Kurdish Karaoke. We ate Kurdish food at a restaurant that our Kurdish friends would tell you was “not so delicious” but we thought was great. It was an amazing time of getting to know people better and realizing yet again how much we love Kurds and Kurdistan. It is times like this that make leaving all we left behind worthwhile.

Lent Begins….

Our Orthodox Lenten journey began this morning. It is odd and not easy going on this journey without our church community. Holy Resurrection Church in Allston has been there for us each Lent and we travel this spiritual journey as a community. We have none of that here and it takes its toll. Lent is a time of joyful abstinence and preparation. We are grateful for a faith tradition that encourages fasting, special prayers and readings, highlighting the significance of the journey that takes us up to Pascha, our Jerusalem. We are planning to be with our church community for Pascha and I know it will be a celebration like no other after our long absence.

It took us years to find a church community that we would commit to; that we would grow to love and they would love us back. At the same time, we are so grateful to be a part of life in Rania. It is the paradox that anyone who has lived between worlds knows. Indeed, it is the paradox of any Christian. Always longing, never fully a part of life on this earth, always longing for that place where our hearts find their home. C.S. Lewis says something about this in his book The Problem of Pain, and I will end my slice of life with his quote.

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with out friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

May you, wherever you are in the world, find your pleasant inns even as you long for your true home.

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

Eight years ago, my friend Mary gave me a giant mug as a hostess gift. She had come from Egypt to Boston for a conference and our apartment in Cambridge provided a perfect place and easy access to the conference. The mug was not just any mug – it was from the Starbucks country collection or “You are Here” mugs, so along with being 16 ounces, it also had a picture of the pyramids and the word ‘Egypt’ in large letters across it.

It quickly became my favorite mug. Curling up every morning with a homemade latte, a journal and pen in hand, is how I have started most mornings since the week she visited. It has been my routine wherever I’ve been in the world.

It is a routine that easily transferred to my life in Kurdistan. While I can’t get the same coffee and my foam maker burnt out within a month, I’ve found substitutes and it has been a wonderful comfort as I adapt to life in Rania.

Until this morning….

As I poured the hot coffee into the mug, it began leaking out the bottom. Startled, I ran for a saucer. There above the coffee mark was the unmistakable sign of a crack, and clearly a deep one. I transferred the coffee to another cup and took a look. The crack was beyond repair. My beloved mug was finished. I would no longer be able to use it for my morning coffee.

All of Life’s Cracks….

I sighed and then I cried. The tears fell freely, as if they’d been trapped too long and they needed an excuse. In all of our lives there are items we own that represent people, places, or events that are much bigger than what you see on the surface. This mug not only reminded me of one of my favorite places – it represented my life before Massachusetts. It reminded me of a world that was hidden, visible only through photo albums and occasional retelling of old stories, told a thousand times before. It reminded me that my life in Egypt was a significant period of time – a time of birthing babies and young motherhood, a time of learning what it was to live overseas as an adult, a time of joy with a growing family. It reminded me of my friendship with Mary, the one who gave me the mug. Mary was present at the births of my two youngest children. We were nurses together in Egypt and our kids spent hours playing together while we solved a good number of the world’s problems.

To see that mug crack made me feel all of life’s cracks and broken pieces. I felt all over again the hurt of goodbyes and the long process of new hellos. I felt the intensity of starting anew and the difficulty of keeping up friendships faraway. I felt the sting of misunderstanding and cultural adjustment. I felt the sadness of living between worlds, the diaspora blues of being – “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both”*. I felt the emptiness of lost friendships and the scars of ruined relationships. All of this came over me as I surveyed the spilt coffee and the cracked mug.

I felt so, so sad.

It’s now several hours later, and I still feel myself on the brink of tears. What I wish I could do with this old, beautiful Egypt mug is to mend it with gold, the Japanese art of “kintsugi”. Instead of throwing away the object that has cracked and broken, this restores the piece, making it even more interesting and beautiful. The focus becomes the cracks and the scars. My mug deserves that sort of care, deserves to be an object of interest and pride, like a mended tea pot that I have owned for years and carried around the world. The teapot was broken into many pieces, but painstakingly mended with large metal clips and a metal bottom put on it to make it stronger.

Though broken and having little of its original beauty it is so much more interesting and represents so well the human condition.  Despite the original break, despite the cracks – it continues to be useable and stronger than if it had never been broken.

I won’t be able to do that, but I will keep the mug. Instead of using it every morning, sipping my morning coffee as I begin the day, I will put it on my desk. I will use it for pencils and pens – a re-purposed memory bank. It deserves at least that. And, like the teapot, it will serve as a continual reminder that the circumstances in life can crack and mar us, but they don’t get to destroy. They don’t, and never will, have that kind of power.


When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.


http://www.iskandar.com/waleed911/griefwalterstorff.html

*https://www.theijeoma.com/

Success Redefined

It has not been an easy week.

From difficulty with websites to difficulty with people, there are times when I would like life to be easier.

I’m sitting now at one of the two coffee shops in Rania, listening to Adele on repeat. Adele is easy on the ears, and I find myself gradually relaxing. Just before I left the university today, I spoke with two colleagues. “I don’t know how you do it” I said. “You face barriers in every single thing you do, and yet you don’t give up. You continue to face life with hope, joy, and laughter.”

This is the honest truth. Most of our Kurdish friends have life circumstances that are much more difficult than ours. Yet, I don’t hear them complaining. They face every day with far more joy and hope than I have. This is remarkable.

Much of what my husband and I face here is learning to redefine success. Success at our jobs in the United States was easy to define. We had deliverables and performance reviews. We had deadlines and targets. Our lives were both dictated by grants and all that goes into them: problem statements, proposed plan, graphs, evidence, tables, objectives, outcomes, conclusions, and attachments. All of it wove together to create a fairly concrete system of success. It was easy to know if we were doing our jobs well.

We have entered into a system where none of that exists; where we search and search and search to find grants that our university is eligible to apply for. Once we find those proverbial needles in haystacks, we search and search to see if they fit with our universities capability. The amounts of money are tiny. I was used to dealing in hundreds of thousands to a couple million dollars while my husband was used to dealing in millions. Now, we get excited when we see a grant for five thousand dollars. The smaller the grant, the more the funder seems to want in terms of paper work. So we end up spending as much time on writing a grant for five thousand dollars as we used to for a million.

There are times when we are convinced it is a losing battle. We set up our ‘to do’ lists, only to be outdone by lack of electricity, no internet and hard to describe infrastructure challenges.

Lately I’ve come to not try to redefine it. I’ve come to realize that success is an arbitrary losing battle. But faithfulness – that feels possible.

Success is defined by performance. Faithfulness is defined by constancy.

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

Success is defined by attaining a goal. Faithfulness by being true to a promise.

As long as we posed the question “How do we redefine success?” we were still coming out as losing. We felt like failures. But changing it to “Are we being faithful?” This feels helpful.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us. Maybe there are others out there that are defining their lives by success when that leaves way too many people out of the equation. Maybe changing the paradigm to faithfulness would change society in indescribable ways. The person who is considered “mentally challenged”, the refugee with no job, the elderly who struggles to move in the morning, the one who is chronically ill, the child, the newborn…. how do they fit into our paradigms of success? How can our world be changed to include faithfulness or mere existence as markers of value?

So what does faithfulness mean to me at this moment? It means that I’ll not complain about lack of resources. That I will learn to love across cultural differences. That I will not rage about no internet. It means that I will be kind and honor others, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  

“Just be faithful.”

Just be faithful – it’s something I’ve written about before, and so I’ll close with some words I wrote some time ago:

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” There is now a heavy rain falling and those of us on our way to work are leaving the subway. There is a puddle three inches deep on the platform right before the stairs, just deep enough to seep into shoes before going up to dark clouds and rain. I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

On Scarcity and Abundance

On Scarcity & Abundance

I’m sitting on my couch, feet stretched out. The mosque next door has just begun their Friday sermon, and it is broadcast loud in a language that is still unfamiliar to me. The electricity is on and I am trying to be grateful instead of fearful that it will go off.

I have thought a great deal about scarcity in recent weeks. I began thinking about it after a conversation with one of my sons in Greece, where he described someone as living and loving out of scarcity instead of abundance. This stayed with me and I find myself deeply challenged.

Until moving to Kurdistan, I didn’t think much about electricity, heat, or hot water. Now, these are regular thoughts on my mind. Will the electricity be on? Will it be cold in my office? Will it be cold in my apartment? (The answer is Yes – it will be extremely cold.) Will there be enough hot water to have a shower? To wash my hair? To wash dishes? I find that I want to horde what I have, to try and capture it so it won’t go away. I think about this all the time. I am living out of fear that there will not be enough – I am living from a mindset of scarcity, not abundance.

In the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives the authors say this: “Scarcity captures the mind…when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.  The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food…For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent…Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little.  It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.” Similarly, Michael Beckwith says:

There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

I fear this is how I have begun to live.

 And yet, I am surrounded by people who are extraordinarily generous with their time, their food, their homes, and their help. I am surrounded by people who live with this scarcity but don’t let it affect their daily lives.

Years ago while living in Pakistan, I had a secret stash of special food. Ironically, the food I stored I no longer care for, but at the time cake mixes, taco mix, and chocolate chips were special and unavailable where we lived. I never let anyone know that I had these special, uniquely American food items. Chocolate chip cookies would appear, as if by magic, baked when no one was around to see what treasures I had hidden deep within my cupboard. I was obsessive about my secret stash.

One day, I went to the cupboard anticipating baking with some of my special supplies. I gasped in dismay. There were the unmistakable sharp marks of a rat’s teeth. I looked farther, holding my breath in hope that my beautiful, secret, special stash of food would be salvageable. It was not to be. There were rat droppings everywhere, teeth marks on bags that had been chewed through – all of it totally destroyed. I pictured the rats having their midnight feasts, an abundant feast sponsored by an unwilling, silent me in my bed. I was furious. I cried tears of anger and persecution. What had I ever done to deserve this?

My stash was gone. In those moments, I realized how tightly I held to those food items. They had become a security, a secret way to cope with what I found difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized it was symbolic of the way I lived my life. I lived as one who operated out of scarcity and secret food stashes. I didn’t live out of the abundance of the joy and goodness that surrounded me. Whether it was money, food, time, or emotional capacity my subconscious mindset was one of “not enough”.

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
There was never enough. I was not enough. I did not have enough. And God was not enough. My mindset was one of scarcity and it affected all of my life.

It has been a long time since that food stash, and in truth, after the rat incident I never again tried to store up treasures that would be eaten by rats. But I find myself thinking about that time during these long days where electricity is scarce, where heat is scarce, where I live far from the abundance I have been used to. Because even though I am not hoarding food, I am well aware that I am operating out of scarcity.


If scarcity is a mindset, then so is abundance. I recently wrote about my friend Betsy, a friend who lived her life out of abundance not out of scarcity. “Scarcity was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She lived her life extravagantly and radiated the joy of giving.” I ended the post by saying that I want to live like this. I want to live out of abundance.

As I write this I’m sitting in one of two coffee shops in Rania, and the electricity has just come on. Adele plays on repeat, her beautiful voice burrowed into my mind. I want to capture this moment because I am content, I am warm. And the electricity is on. But capturing the moment is yet again acting out of scarcity. So I sigh. I breathe. And Adele says “Hello!”

A Christmas Story about Advocacy and Failure and Kittens

A cat had kittens in our building about a month ago. We were alerted to this by our neighbor. The cat is fiercely protective, constantly foraging for food and growling lest one of us gets too close to her precious offspring. There are three kittens – two jet black and one with some orange stripes in the black mix. They are as cute as you can imagine. They have begun to roam the hallways and scratch at our door. We sneak food to them when their mom isn’t looking- small bits of chicken, bread crumbs soaked in milk. They are resilient, they are cute, and they are fun – Kurdish all the way.

I find myself feeling a fierce protection toward this mother cat and her kittens. I want them to survive, I want them to thrive. It’s symbolic of a story I want to share with you. It’s a long story of disappointment and frustration and falling down and trying again. It’s a small story of what it takes for Kurdish students to succeed and the barriers that stand in their way. It is my story and it is their story, and I am so privileged to tell it.


It was in early June that I first found out about a group of Kurdish nursing students who had submitted a research paper to a conference in South Africa. The paper had been accepted and they were invited to attend the conference. After speaking with others at the University of Raparin, I set up a fundraiser.

I naively thought that this was just about fundraising. We would get the money, the students would go and have an opportunity to speak with other students and faculty from around the world. They would come back encouraged and share what they had learned. In my head it was all so easy. In my head I was also probably a bit of the story’s hero. I saw a need, I did something. Small in the big scheme, but big in the lives of three students and a faculty member.

That was almost seven months ago and my naiveté has been trampled under the boots of bureaucracy, my role as a hero has evaporated, and my eyes have been opened to some important truths.  I want to write about it, because it has taught me so much. As I write, I hope I can help give you a glimpse of what it has been like to fight, fail, and fight again.

About the students….

The students are delightful. They are new graduate nurses having graduated in October at a ceremony held at a large stadium here in Rania. Their names are Sima, Didar, and Sarhang – two young women and a young man. The women are beautiful, and smart. Sarhang is a handsome and engaging young man.It can be difficult to find jobs here in Rania as nurses so they all work at pharmacies, a common occupation for nursing graduates.  They are joined by Bewar who is an amazing staff member at the University of Raparin. Bewar is beautiful, fluent in English, and a tireless advocate for anyone who has a need. Bewar has helped me through many things these past few months as I learn to navigate life in Rania and in Kurdistan.

About the process….

There are only 21 countries where Iraqis can travel without visas, among them Malaysia, Ecuador, and Haiti. All other countries require visas. Although Kurdistan is an autonomous region in Iraq, they are considered as from Iraq on the world stage and by other governments. All laws and policies that apply to Iraqis apply to Kurds. If you have ever had to apply for a visa, you know that even in seemingly easy situations, it is not easy. You need pictures, you need to fill out the application with exact information, you need to have documents and letters and reasons for why you need the visa, and you need buckets full of patience. Kurds need even more patience.

South Africa and disappointments…

The first disappointment was South Africa. By the time the students had the required university and family permissions, they could not get the visa. The conference came and went, even though the paper and presentation had been accepted and the registration fees paid. I met with all of them and with Bewar. Could we submit the abstract somewhere else? Was there another conference that they could go to? We worked together and developed an abstract that we submitted to a nursing conference in Lisbon, Portugal. At the same time, we began the process of getting visas for the students to travel to Portugal. It was a long, tedious process. Finally all the documents were in order and they traveled to Erbil. Because Portugal does not have a consulate in Kurdistan, the Dubai Consulate in Erbil handles all the requests for Kurdistan and the applications are sent to the Portuguese Embassy in the United Arab Emirates.

Portugal and disappointments…

First we heard from the conference – the abstract was accepted and they were invited to do a poster presentation at the conference in early December. The conference wrote a letter on behalf of the students letting the Portuguese Embassy know that the students were presenting a poster. We waited anxiously to hear from the Embassy. We finally received a call that the passports had been sent back to Erbil but we did not know whether the visas had been granted. Late afternoon in early November I received a call from Bewar. The visas were refused.

I was so angry and I was so sad. I couldn’t believe a country would reject visas for students who were going for an academic conference. Bewar and I spoke later that evening. “Let’s appeal!” we said. We have nothing to lose. So I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter and I began calling the Portuguese Embassy in U.A.E. Each time I spoke with Habib. First they wanted more information from the University of Raparin. Then they wanted more information about finances. Then they wanted a bank statement. The requests seemed endless. Finally, after ten phone calls and multiple emails I convinced them to send in the appeal.

At this point I was no longer in Kurdistan. I was in the United States to be with my daughter for the birth of our grandson. Each day I checked email. I called U.A.E some more and spoke with Habib. Had he heard anything? Would he let us know as soon as he heard? No, he hadn’t. Yes, he would.

On November 28 at 5:40 in the morning I couldn’t sleep. I had terrible jet lag and was tossing and turning when I decided to check my work email. I had to read the message three times before I believed it:

The Embassy has the pleasure to inform you that the VISA for the 4 students are approved.

The Embassy needs the original passports to stamp the VISA.

Kind regards,

Embaixada de Portugal em Abu Dhabi

The appeal worked! The visas were granted! Glory to God! I could hardly contain myself. At this point, the work day in Kurdistan was over. I texted my husband and emailed Bewar and the Director of International Relations at University of Raparin.

“The visas are granted! You need to get the passports to the embassy in UAE immediately! The conference is on December 3rd. We have only a couple of days.”

We were frantic in our emailing back and forth. Could this actually be happening? Could they actually get to go? 

I had to let it go. It was now in the hands of my husband and University of Raparin staff. I would eagerly check my email whenever possible, but at this point the Portuguese Embassy and the University were both closed. I slept fitfully, and woke up to the news that Cliff and Araz had both been calling the Portuguese Embassy repeatedly only to find that the Portuguese Embassy would be closed because of a UAE holiday until December 3rd.  The conference began on December 3rd and would be over by December 4th. There was no way we could get the passports to UAE, visas stamped, sent back to Erbil and have them attend.

I felt physically sick to my stomach. So many people working on this and thwarted because of a holiday? It felt so wrong, but I realized this is what Kurds go through all the time. This is only one example of hundreds of disappointments that the Kurds have felt for many, many years. I was so angry and hurt. How could this be?

Bewar and I communicated by email a day later. We would send the passports anyway and get the visas stamped in. We would look for another way for the students to go to Portugal and share their research.

It was unbelievably complicated. We couldn’t even get DHL to pick up the visas in UAE. I will spare you the nightmare, but finally the passports arrived, the visas stamped in them. The visa expiration date was on January 3rd. That was a few days ago. At this point over $2000 had been spent on visas, travel, registration, and translation to get to events that the students didn’t get to attend with no refunds given. It was a dark, dark comedy.

When do you give up and say “this is not meant to be.” I was at that point. All the work, all the minute details, all the ups and downs and disappointments – it all felt like way too much. We needed to just give up.

Bewar and I talked. I would try one more thing. If a group in Portugal was willing to sponsor and meet with them, then maybe this could still happen. But there was also the matter of money. We only had a bit over $3000 to cover airfare to Portugal and hotels while there. There was no way we could do this. The students don’t have money, and we had no more money in the fund.

And then we received a lovely message from a group in Portugal. They would love to meet with the students. They would love to hear about their research. They would love to share ideas. We began working on the necessary documents from the university and I began searching for tickets.

It all feels like a miracle but we were able to find affordable tickets and a basic hotel where they will be able to stay. All the necessary documents are obtained and tickets are booked. It all feels a bit anticlimactic because I’m so, so tired. But the reality is that this is a miracle. From acceptance to funding to denials to appeals to the granting of visas to the flexibility of the students to the advocacy of Bewar to the invitation from the Platform fo Women’s Rights to the unbelievable price of tickets to the cheap bed and breakfast in Lisbon to the upcoming trip – it’s all a miracle. Life in Kurdistan is hard. I can attest to this at the core level because of the last few months. From lack of infrastructure to lack of basic amenities to lack of university funds – it is all hard. This difficulty is met with resilience that is recognized worldwide, with hospitality to strangers, and with incredible laughter and joy in living. So this miracle is not just about these students – it’s about the University of Raparin and Kurdistan.

The University of Raparin is home to some of the brightest best students we have ever met. Rania is home to some of the brightest and best people we have ever had the privilege to meet. The opportunities are so few and it gets so discouraging that people stop trying. This situation is a witness to not stop trying, to continue fighting and advocating, to not give up….and to expect miracles.

Learning and more learning…..

What have I learned? I have learned about barriers beyond my (or the students) control. I have learned more than I thought possible about perseverance and about wanting something so desperately for someone and something completely unrelated to my well-being. I have learned about visas and appeals and belonging to a country that is not welcome in most countries of the world. I have learned about my own privilege and my own sense of entitlement, I have learned that I am not the hero in any story – nor do I want to be. I have learned about advocacy and trying and failing and appealing and succeeding, and trying again and failing. I have walked only a few steps in the shoes of a group of people who face this at every, single level. Whether it’s through Baghdad, the United States, or the Portuguese Embassy, there are forces that are so far above and beyond our control.

I’ve learned about trying and trying again and I have learned about miracles.


As I write this, I hear the kittens running through our outside hallway. They are oblivious to miracles, to Christmas, and to how much they represent survival and joy. But they are there and they remind me that in a few days, I will celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation, the miracle that is Christmas.

Merry Christmas and may miracles abound in your life.

If you would like to donate to other projects at University of Raparin College of Nursing, here is the link – and thank you!

Support Nurses in Kurdistan! 

Some Ramblings on Life, Loss of Ideals, and Culture Stripping

I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.

It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.

I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.

Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.

The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.

Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.

Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.

Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level. 

What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort. 

As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.

So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.

I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.