Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

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

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

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

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

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

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

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

And now this.

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

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

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

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

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communicating Across Boundaries

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

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

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Sometimes You Choose to Feed the Kittens

Sometimes all you can do is feed the kittens….

Just before we head to bed, we hear the echoing mew of a kitten. It is pitiful and anxious, a mournful sound on a cold night. The sound reverberates through the hallway, as if to voice all the sadness and loss of the world.

My husband steps out into the cold hallway and there on the landing is one of the family of kittens that we had fed earlier in December. While we were away during Christmas break the mama cat found another place for her babies. This kitten wandered back to the first home she knew, and there, lost without her family, all she could do was cry.

He fixes some bread and milk and takes it to the stairwell. He comes back inside and asks me if we have a spare towel. We do, and with it he creates a bed of sorts in an upstairs area for this wandering kitten.

The kitten is pure black with yellow eyes and reminds me of the cats we had while growing up in Pakistan. There were several – favorite family pets through the years. Soon after the kitten is joined by her sibling, a golden/black mixture of fluff.

Sometimes all you can do is feed two kittens whose mother is nowhere in sight. Everything else is too big, too hard, too complicated. Everything else will take years for you to see results, but feeding kittens doesn’t seem impossible. So many other things are so far outside of our capability.

We can’t cure the cancer that is slowly taking the life of a friend’s family member. We can’t move the process of grant funders to get them to make a quicker decision about funding that we have requested. We can’t finish building the hospital that sits, less than a mile from us, desperately needed but sitting unfinished because of lack of money. We can’t change some of the societal values that hurt women. We can’t heal the sick, bring sight to the blind, and restore the lame.

But we can feed kittens. And sometimes that is enough. At least for that kitten.

The cynic might scoff: “Don’t be a white savior!” The realist might chide: “It’s a bandaid on an ulcer!” The social justice warrior might shake their head in disbelief: “But what about the really important things?” The idealist might challenge: “Dream bigger!”

But for us, for today – it’s our choice. And so we feed the kittens.

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!”

Peeling Pomegranates in Rania

pomegranate

I wake to a sun-filled room in Kurdistan. It is Friday and we have slept late, still catching up from hours of lost sleep in the last couple weeks of packing and moving. Friday begins our weekend in this part of the world, and the mosque behind our apartment reminds us that it is a day of worship and rest for Muslims.

Our kitchen is mostly set up and I quickly navigate it, the unfamiliar space already showing signs of home.

We have enjoyed extravagant hospitality and I have not yet had to cook a full meal. This is extraordinary. I know visitors to the United States who have never been invited to an American’s home, yet every night we have been invited to enjoy amazing food, laughter, and conversation.

I head to the refrigerator. A bag of fruit was kindly purchased for us before we arrived. I look inside and pull out a small, perfect pomegranate.

Without a thought I cut it in half and begin peeling it. Peeling pomegranates is a skill I have had since I was a child and we would put fresh pomegranate seeds into fruit salad. It’s one of those invisible skills, seemingly unimportant. But once you begin to do it again, it feels like a gift from the past.

I chop it across the middle and all the seeds are intact. I slowly pull back and peel off the thin membrane, popping dozens of seeds into the bowl. The sun shines on my face, the work feels holy and reverent, peeling a pomegranate and popping the bright, red seeds into a bowl. As I peel I think about culture, about the past and the present converging together in a pomegranate. Most TCKs acquire skills that are useful in their childhood but often end up as hidden parts of their lives when they are older and living in their passport countries. Suddenly this ability to peel pomegranates feels important. Growing up in Pakistan and acquiring the skills that were not needed in the U.S. has uniquely prepared me for living here.

I think of the rich fruit, full of antioxidants, bright red, vitamin C laden – a gift to food, like different cultures are a gift to life.

I think about God and his creation – from pomegranates to people, his stamp on all of it. The beauty and wonder of peeling a pomegranate and the beauty and wonder of learning about a new culture intertwine in my kitchen in bright red seeds of hope.

Because I am who I am, and culture is what it is, there may soon come a day when all this doesn’t feel as wonderful; where culture clashes and peeling pomegranates feels like hard, hard work. But today I am not there. Today I feel hope and beauty in this act.

The pomegranate is ready and I add it to our fruit salad, an extravagant addition of memories, grace, and hope.

#WorldRefugeeDay 2018

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“you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land” 

“Home,” by Warsan Shire

In the past few years I have had the privilege of meeting and hearing stories from many refugees and displaced people in different parts of the world. From the Sindh region of Pakistan to Northern Iraq, these are people who live out a stubborn resilience and will to not only survive, but thrive.

Brave.Resilient.Fierce.Tenacious.Creative.Strong. These are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe the people who I’ve met. The stories I have heard include tragedy, humor, and everything in between. It’s a tapestry of the human spirit and a representation of the image of God in each woman, man, and child.

In the midst of the world wide crises another refugee/migrant crisis has been created on the borders of the United States. Children are being separated from their parents due to a ‘zero tolerance’ policy put in place on 4/6/2018. The policy was created by John Kelly and Stephen Miller to serve as a deterrent for undocumented immigration. It was approved by Trump and adopted by Sessions. While previous administrations detained migrant families, they did not have a practice of forcibly separating parents and children unless the adults were deemed unfit and unsuitable to care for their children.

Make no mistake – when voices on the left and the right all agree, then truth has risen above politics. That truth is this: This ‘zero tolerance’ policy that has been implemented at the U.S./Mexico border is immoral and evil. It separates families in unthinkable ways and punishes those who are desperate.

Consider these words released today by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on World Refugee Day: “The United States will continue to be a world leader in providing humanitarian assistance and working to forge political solutions to the underlying conflicts that drive displacement.” 

And yet, recordings of children sobbing at detentions centers go viral while in the background an agent is heard joking with the words: “We have an orchestra here.”

This, my friends, is cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Most of us have little influence when it comes to big policy decisions, but truth challenges all of us to seek justice and a better way, and what better day to do that than the day set aside for #WorldRefugeeDay?

Can we ask ourselves these questions today:

  • How can we combat the cognitive dissonance that we see in ourselves and many around us?
  • What can we do to overcome apathy or fear?
  • What do you specifically need to do to avoid compassion fatigue and information overload so that you can care about what matters? What prayers need to be a part of our daily life? How do we need to start the day in order to face, with wisdom and grace, our life and the news around us?
  • What specific things in your community could you do to welcome refugees?
    • ESL Classes
    • Boston Area volunteer opportunities to teach English
    • Invite refugees and immigrants into your home or church.
    • Employ refugees – whether it’s for short or long term, if you have the ability to employ someone, do it.
    • Volunteer your skills – Are you a nurse? Social worker? Coach? Artist? Teacher? Use what you do well – don’t try to do something you are not good at!
    • Take this free online course on refugee rights.
  • How can we change some of the common myths and narratives, that are not based on fact, that marginalize refugees?

Lastly, will you take a moment on this day and pray this prayer:

Prayer for refugees from Catholic Relief Services

God of our Wandering Ancestors,
Long have we known
That your heart is with the refugee:
That you were born into time
In a family of refugees
Fleeing violence in their homeland,
Who then gathered up their hungry child
And fled into alien country.

Their cry, your cry, resounds through the ages:
“Will you let me in?”

Give us hearts that break open
When our brothers and sisters turn to us
with that same cry.
Then surely all these things will follow:
Ears will no longer turn deaf to their voices.
Eyes will see a moment for grace instead of a threat.
Tongues will not be silenced but will instead advocate.
And hands will reach out—
working for peace in their homeland,
working for justice in the lands where they seek safe haven.

Lord, protect all refugees in their travels.
May they find a friend in me
And so make me worthy
Of the refuge I have found in you.

Amen.


Friends – I am also incredibly excited to invite you to participate in the GoFundMe to help a country that has faced more than its share of war and displacement. Would you consider helping?


Articles from right to left: 

#FamiliesBelongTogether

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Updated – June 15,2018 – A doctor observing says she has never seen anything like it – a toddler pounding her fists on the ground, inconsolable with longing for a mom from who she was separated. Breastfeeding infants, screaming in emotional and physical pain. God have mercy on the souls of those who sanctioned this; God have mercy on our souls for allowing this government sanctioned child abuse. My friend Laura reminds me of this verse:

“The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.”*

And then she says “Call the midwives!” Amen and Amen.

Exodus 1:17


In late February, a woman named Miriam G. from Honduras walked across the border from Mexico to Texas seeking politial asylum. She had all her papers and her 18-month old son with her.

She told immigration officers her story: She was fleeing danger in her home country. Every day more people disappeared and when her home was tear gassed, she packed up her 18-month-old and headed across the border.

Immigration officials took all her documents, including a birth certificate and birth record for her son as well as her own identity card. She spent that night in a detention facility on the border. The next day, two cars waited outside the facility: one for her, and one for her child. She was told to strap her child into the car seat and then the officer shut the door. Her last view was that of her child screaming as he was driven away to a federally sponsored foster home.


There is a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings that is affecting even those like Miriam who are seeking asylum. Due to increased violence in Central America, people are fleeing in record numbers. Many are showing up at U.S. borders with their documents, essentially begging for mercy. Instead, they are criminally charged and their children are taken from them and put into federally sponsored care. In the first 14 days since this policy, over 600 children have been forcibly separated from their parents. This is cruel. There is no other word for it.

Regardless of what your view of immigration policy is or is not,  the forcible removing of children from parents is unconscionable and must be stopped. We must do better.

Root Causes:

Take a moment to ask yourself why a parent would flee to a border that they know has become unfriendly. You have to be completely desperate and fearful to make this journey leaving home, family, friends, jobs and more behind. Those arriving are beyond desperate. They have run out of choices.  Any policy has to address root causes to be effective, but while researching and looking to change root causes, temporary solutions and asylum are essential. We must do better.

Refugee Resettlement:

The United States will only receive 22% of the number of refugees that were resettled in 2016. Refugee programs throughout the United States have seen a dramatic decrease to their numbers. Fully functioning programs with robust volunteer programs do not have enough to do. The United States, with its many resources, can do better. We can do better.

Myths on Refugees:

How many of us have heard over and over of the “refugee burden”? But in fact, the “burden” appears to be only a short-term burden.

From Denmark to Uganda to Cleveland, studies have found that welcoming refugees has a positive or at least a neutral effect on a host community’s economy and wages…beyond the upfront costs of processing and settling refugees, the perceived burden of refugees on a host economy may not be as significant as it seems. “There’s not any credible research that I know of that in the medium and long term that refugees are anything but a hugely profitable investment,” says Michael Clemens, a senior fellow who leads the Migration and Development Initiative at the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank.

Clemens cites a study by Kalena Cortes, a Texas A&M professor who followed refugee and non-refugee immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the late 1970s. Cortes found that it took the refugees a few years to get on their feet. But soon the refugees were out-earning non-refugee immigrants, and adding more value to the economy each year than the entire original cost of receiving and resettling them. [Source:The Big Myth about Refugees] 

The Punishment of Removal:

Make no mistake, the forcible removal of children is being used as a punishment to parents, and today I stand against this. I stand against this as a mom; I stand against this as a human being; and I stand against this as an Orthodox Christian. The words of scripture sometimes whisper softly and gently; other times they shout from the pages of those who wrote so long ago.

Today, those words are shouting. Today those words are crying out from the pages of scripture, crying out from a God who welcomed children; a God whose hand stretches wide for justice, whose heart beats with compassion for those who deserve compassion and for those who do not; a God who calls out nations and leaders and turns around what the world sees as great; a God who asks that we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him as our guide. Will we listen? 

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” Luke 9:46-47 (also Mark 9:35-37)

Though Christians will disagree on immigration policy, let’s not disagree on this: forcibly separating children from their parents, except in cases of abuse or neglect, is inhumane and intolerable.Jen Pollock Michel

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