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.

International Women’s Day 2018

Every year I write about International Women’s Day – the day set aside to honor women, to highlight the critical role they play in all of life. From nurturing life at its earliest stages to nurturing families, communities, and countries, women are critical to human survival. Not only do women change the world within homes and communities, but they also change the world in their workplaces. But there are still huge changes that need to happen so that women can not only survive, but thrive.

The very first International Women’s Day took place in New York City in 1909 on February 28th. In 1917, the Soviet Union declared March 8th a national holiday. It is interesting that the first countries to embrace International Women’s Day were socialist and communist countries. (That, my friends, is an observation, not an opinion.)

Though I believe implicitly in the importance of this day at every level, this year I find it more difficult to write about. I feel curiously uninspired and not a little discouraged. It seems that we can’t even agree on Women’s Day, let alone anything else. Sometimes we women are our own worst enemies.

As I was thinking about this, I decided that today I would highlight a project that I have been involved in this past year and introduce some of the unique women who have participated in the project.

Let me give you a little history: I began my job working for a state department of public health nine years ago. I began in a consultant role, and three months later I was hired as a full-time employee. The program I work for is a federally funded women’s health program that focuses on breast and cervical cancer screening in underserved communities. Two years after I started I began asking aloud if we might think about doing a project with the Muslim community in Massachusetts. It’s a big, diverse community and I believed we had a lot to learn about the community. Every year I brought it up. Like a record that is scratched and broken repeating the same thing over and over I would say “What about the foreign-born Muslim community? What can we learn in this community?

A year and a half ago, we received funding to do an assessment on attitudes toward breast and cervical cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community. I was over the moon.

We finished the assessment this fall, and our next steps are working side by side with the community and taking what we have learned to develop community and health provider trainings.

This project has been a gift. In an era where Muslims are seen as ‘other’ and therefore suspect, I have had the privilege of meeting with Muslim women from many parts of the world. All of them were born elsewhere and most came here as refugees. I have met doctors from Syria, Algeria, and Iran. I have met public health professionals. I have met housewives and many in the service industry. Every one of them has experienced untold loss, and many can never go back to their countries of origin; many cannot go home.

There’s Heba, a brilliant doctor from Syria. She has embraced this project and opened her heart. She is a gifted teacher and watching her speak to her community is amazing. Besides this, she has a new baby boy and a four-year old daughter.

There’s Afsaneh. Afsaneh is from Iran and she is also a doctor. She too has welcomed the project, leading dynamic focus groups so that we can learn from her community.

There’s Houria from Algeria; Saida and Naima from Somalia; and Annam from Pakistan. All of them have offered their unique perspective and stamp on the project. They are diverse in age, culture, and views of Islam, but all of them care deeply about their communities and their faith.

Those of us who are working on the project have been received into the broader Muslim community with uncommon generosity and grace, sharing meals and conversation, brainstorming sessions and ideas. Although we could easily have been viewed suspiciously, we weren’t. Instead we were welcomed with arms and hearts wide open.

And we have learned so much. Women shared honestly and openly about their views towards women’s health in particular, and the health care system in general.

I’ve learned a lot in this project, but one of the biggest things I keep coming back to is that change takes time. For me, being bold for change meant being persistent in my request for time and funds to do this project. Being bold for change means humbly going to a community and saying “I don’t know enough. Please help me understand more.” Being bold for change means going out of your comfort zone and hearing another point of view, another side of an issue. Being bold for change means building bridges that connect, not walls that divide. All of this takes time.

Today on International Women’s Day, I celebrate this project even as I remember the bigger picture that shows me so much more needs to be done. Happy International Women’s Day 2018 – All is not lost. 

Building bridges means moving beyond my enclave of cultural comfort to a place of cultural humility and willingness to learn.”*

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*from Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging

International Women’s Day 2016 – Bringing All Voices to the Table

“What, Sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce.”

Mark Twain

Every year I write about International Women’s Day. This is the one day a year when the focus is solely on women and the issues that are most important to them.

In some ways I struggle with this day,  not because I don’t support women, but because I feel the focus is always too much on Western, white women. I don’t believe it is purposefully exclusive, but I believe that too often the deciding voices are those who are at a general advantage racially, economically, and socially. The voices speaking for women are privileged. Those voices do not include women of color, the poor, the refugee, or the disabled. 

Perhaps the best theme for International Women’s Day would be “Bringing ALL voices to the table.”  Because until we have all these voices, we have a false narrative.

The women that I meet in my work and in my traveling rarely know about International Women’s Day. They don’t necessarily worry about the themes of this day. They worry about their finances and kids. They often work two jobs to support their families. Many of them have grown old before their time, wearing the battle scars of daily life on their skin. These women are still worrying about food, security, and safety. Gender parity does not figure into the conversaton. Most of these women are marginalized by society because of the color of their skin or their life circumstances. But they know how to laugh and face each day.These women are examples of resilience and strength. They are women of worth, made in the image of God.

These women are true champions and they need a seat at the table. 

That’s what I think about today on this day set aside for women. I think about these women and I honor them. And with apologies to the planners of International Women’s Day, I’ll keep my own theme this year: “Bringing All Voices to the Table.” 

After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.

Mark Twain

International Woman’s Day 2015 – “Make it Happen”

Today is International Woman’s Day. Yearly a day is set aside to honor women around the world, but also to bring attention to areas where changed needs to happen. This year the theme is broad and wide.

“Make it Happen” 

Is it sports? Bring more attention to women in sports and the amazing,strong women athletes. Open up the world of sports for girls all over the world.

Is it the arts? Encourage women in this area, stressing what women can bring to poetry, acting, visual arts, and music.

Is it leadership? How can women be encouraged to both take more leadership roles and empowered with help to be able to both care for a family and exercise leadership outside the home?

Is it medicine? Science? Business? Engineering? Financial independence? In each area there is opportunity for growth and change.

And I agree with all those. But none of those things can happen without women feeling safer and stronger.

It’s like the International Women’s Day planners have skipped over Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They’ve gone to the top – self actualization, when so many women in the world today have not even reached first two bars of the hierarchy: physiological and safety. If a woman doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, it’s highly unlikely that she’ll be looking to start her own business. If a woman fears her community or her home, she will not be able to create, to learn, to grow.

In Iraq, Yezidi women have been systematically targeted by ISIS, kidnapped and taken from their families and communities. In Syria women flee over the border trying to escape the chaos and violence of their home country. In India women fight against rape culture and the distorted views of women. I could mention hundreds of other situations where anything like sports, art, leadership is far from the minds of the women who wake up every day to a reality I can’t even imagine.

So yes – let’s make it happen! Let’s make safety happen. Let’s make food security happen. Let’s make clean water availability happen. Let’s make security of body and mind happen.

Let’s make International Women’s Day not about a privileged few, but about the marginalized majority!

International Women’s Day 2014 – “Remember the Ladies!”

Today is International Women’s Day – a day set aside worldwide to “Remember the Ladies.” The theme this year is “Inspiring Change – for greater awareness of women’s equality” and today we celebrate – we celebrate the economic, social and educational achievements of women even as we remember – we have a long way to go! 

I wrote the following post 3 years ago, just 2 months after I began blogging. I re-post it today to celebrate women worldwide! 

…in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.” Abigail Adams‘ letter to her husband john Adams, March 31, 1776

A fitting quote for International Women’s Day with the resounding cry “Remember the Ladies!”.  Its time to pause, take a look at history and celebrate Women. Thousands of events around the globe will be held for the sole purpose of inspiring women and celebrating women’s achievements. It has been 103 years since the first International Women’s Day celebration held in 1911.  World-wide, women and men are gathering for events to honor this day.

In the myriad of blogs, online news articles and other media stories you will find much news on the day and the issue of women – work for women, equality, fair wages, childcare, places to breastfeed without feeling like you’re committing an indecent act and more. But the story I want to relay is a story you won’t hear in mainstream media sources and as I think of the purpose of International Women’s Day, I think on this women as a picture of persistence, entrepreneurship and hope. She is a symbol of someone who inspires change. 

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Day two of flood relief in Pakistan saw us at a Baloch village. Maybe it was because it was day two and the excitement was now coupled with exhaustion and recognition of how limited our skills were within our current context, but everything felt a bit more difficult. As we were packing up after a busy morning of multiple cases of malaria and malnutrition a woman arrived at the village where we had set up camp. She was accompanied by two other women and after walking over a mile in one hundred degree heat approached the men in our group unafraid to voice the need at her village. “We’re just a short distance away! Why can’t you come to our village?” She was indignant as she looked around and said”We have needs there too!” And so we went. The coldest of hearts could not have refused her persuasive words and our hearts were warm.

Arriving at the village it was a whirlwind camp set up, a quick plea for triage from the doctor, and patients, accompanied by diagnosis and treatment papers, quickly seen and sent off with the right medications. In the midst of this we learned the story of our strong woman friend. She was a widow with eight children. She was a seamstress and proudly sewed for her family and others in the village. Her livelihood had been severely compromised by loss of her sewing machine during the flood. Her story was compelling and her spirit did not call for sympathy or pity, rather it called for partnership.

And we were the ones who knew the need, had the resources and could be partners in moving her back to a place of economic freedom where she could continue her work, her parenting, and her contribution to the village. Our team leader along with the Marwari men, the organizers of all our work, located the perfect sewing machine in the Shikarpur bazaar. It was not electric so could be used despite the frequent power outages and it was shiny, bright and perfect for our entrepreneur.  The sewing machine was purchased and the task was now to find the time during our schedule to return to the village.

The perfect time came as we discussed what to do during our last day in Pakistan. We knew the work of running another medical clinic and felt it was not possible. The decision was made to return to this village with a plan to do some teaching of basic public health, relay some stories of faith in the midst of tragedy and top it off with mithai (Pakistani sweets) and delivery of the sewing machine.

I’ll never forget the corporate joy expressed both visibly and verbally by the entire village. Our lovely lady could not rip open the plastic protective covering fast enough. There it was. Shiny and perfect. A symbol of restoration, hope and resourcefulness.

The last memory we carried with us was the woman dancing, the machine balanced perfectly on her head with her smile radiating from her heart to her face, accompanied by men, women and children in the village.

Women worldwide don’t need pity but we all need partnerships and some could sure use a sewing machine,so today ‘Remember the Ladies!’

I’m celebrating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day by blogging for the #WomenInspire Campaignsponsored by USC’s masters degree in social work program. Join the blog carnival to honor a woman who has inspired you!

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No Wonder We Have Issues!

No Wonder we have issues! –a superficial exploration of this woman and her obsession with food! By Robynn

What’s with women and food?

crepes, foodWomen have a strange relationship with food. Maybe it’s not just women. Maybe
men have an odd entanglement with food too. But certainly women do. Traditionally men were the ones that killed the food and brought it home. And it seems to me that women have been in the kitchen ever since preparing it.

Is it any wonder that we have issues with food? Food is such a complicated thing.

We need food to survive. We need the nourishment that comes from the nutrients. We need the energy that comes from the calories.

In the west food is everywhere.  Advertisers appeal to our base appetites and instincts. They convince us that we deserve the most delectable treats. We’re worth it! We’re entitled to the tastiest morsels, the fanciest of feasts.  Food is sensual and supposedly satisfying.

And yet at the same time we’re served up such mixed messages.

The media tells us to diet, to become skinny, to lose weight. We’re trained to fixate on food and we’re taught to obsess on size. Supposedly we can have our cake and eat it too!

The plot and the waistline thicken when we consider all the roles food plays.

Food is a central part of celebration.

(Consider the Christmas dinner or the food at Eid; the sweets for Holi and the feast at Thanksgiving!) Food is also a reward. Side dishes of consolation are served up as comfort. Friends get together for meals. It’s part of our hospitality and included in our invitations. “Come over for dessert!”  Food is the subject of countless studies. (Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? What is the role of the family dinner in our children’s state assessment scores? ) Food and it’s production have become highly political subjects as well. High Fructose Corn Syrup sneaks into most things we eat. There are lobbyists in Washington making sure that doesn’t change! Meanwhile down the street Mrs Obama is planting a garden and encouraging us to eat better, more of this, less of that.

Food is nostalgia.

It’s childhood. It’s memories. For those of us who’ve been other places and come to love other foods it represents a deeper type of longing for a place faraway.

Boarding school further complicated my food issues. Food meant status (those who had special imported treats and those who didn’t). Food meant love and connection with home. Sharing our “feastings” was a way to share our families and the love of our families. Reunions always meant food. Mom cooked all of our favourites for each reunion. It was her way of welcoming us home. It was one of the languages she used to say, I missed you so very much. Pending separations were counted down with food. Three more days at home meant three more home cooked meals and another opportunity for mom to lavish love in three more meals of our favourites. The train trip back up to school included shoe boxes lined with wax paper and filled with food!

That travel food was prepared with tears and consumed by little brave travelers trying not to drench cinnamon buns and elephant ear pastries with more tears.

And yet now food becomes practical, and real and down to earth every day. I have to think about it. I have to plan for it. I have to go get it. I push my cart through the shop, load it up, empty it out at the check out, bag it, load it into the car, unload it into the house, put it away and then bring it out again, cut it, chop it, stir it, cook it and serve it!

Food is universal.

Everywhere, every day, we wake up and we think about food. This is true for the rich and for the poor; for the full and for the hungry.

There are those who are sick because of food and the power it wields. Those who eat too little or eat too much. Those trying to drown their souls in their stomaches. Those trying to hold on to a bit of control in a world wild with chaos.

But in a way I think I’m sick with food too. As my metabolism slows and the emotions of yesteryear begin to simmer up inside food somehow grounds me….or at least it pretends too. I realize my reasons for eating are as complex as the personality I’ve been given or the story I’ve been living.

I find food too oppressive. I’m weary of the obsession. I try not to weigh my emotions or my convictions about food as I stand on the scale, naked, vulnerable, weary.

I tried to give it all up for Lent….not food itself…but the longing and love of food. It’s not working.

But today, on International Day of the Woman, I will put aside the obsession and celebrate – celebrate that at the very least food does serve to connect me with women across the globe. Food ties our stories and struggles together. binds us tight with spices and tastes. And that I can and will celebrate.

My Favorite Feminist

patronsaintsmidwivessynchroblogI published this post last year, but in honor of Sarah Bessey’s Synchroblog on Patron Saints & Spiritual Midwives I want to repost My Favorite Feminist who is also my favorite Spiritual Midwife.

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Pauline Brown with baby girl Marilyn en route to Pakistan, 1960

A 50 year-old picture from an album shows a woman complete with white gloves and pearl earnings holding a baby in her arms. She is standing on the deck of a ship with a slight smile on her face. Her name is Pauline Brown and she is my favorite feminist.

Raised in a small town where few went on for higher education, she knew early in life that she wanted to go to college. Her father, a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant who had arrived at Ellis island as a child, dismissed the idea of education for girls. The emphatic words “What do girls need with college” from the dad she deeply loved, instead of discouraging, gave her more purpose. At her college graduation he was the proudest man in the room.

The ship shown in the picture documented one of several journeys she took with her family to her adopted home in Pakistan. Picture a young woman from Massachusetts, who had independently driven throughout Catholic New England as a traveling Bible teacher just a couple of years before, adjusting to a newly formed Muslim state, the country of Pakistan. Veiled women became dear friends and curry and chapatis a staple. Redirecting her independence to fit cultural norms but never losing a bit of spirit were all part of  the life of my favorite feminist, as she settled into life  in the Sindh region of Pakistan.

Pauline (Polly to friends) was not content to know how to read herself, she taught other women to read through adult literacy methods at her kitchen table, often in the midst of skinning a chicken, boiling milk, going over bills with the cook, and yelling at the chawkidar (guard).

She was, and is, a model of a strong woman. She is smart, strong, and articulate. She gave birth to 5 children reading to them before they had finished breast-feeding. She helped produce two PhD’s, two masters degrees, and another feminist who never, despite being raised in a primarily male-dominated society, doubted that women were amazing and could do anything. She wrote one book and co-authored a second, an introductory course on learning to speak Sindhi, a first of its kind.

The great thing is that Pauline never drank the Koolaid that would brainwash her into a mold of what women should or should not be.

As the matriarch in a clan of many, she believes in fulfilling her God-given role as a strong woman, living out the words of Deborah, my hero from the book of Judges, “March on my soul, Be strong” (Judges 5:21)

Pauline advocates for women, and I have occasionally been a spectator to passionate arguments with her beloved husband Ralph about women: their role in the holy scriptures and the church, their ability to do jobs as well or better than men, and their right and need to be heard in all spheres of society.

My favorite feminist may never have a book written about her but she has a lasting influence on two generations of women that include daughter, daughter-in-laws, nieces, nieces-in-law, and a boat-load of feisty smart granddaughters. She will probably live long enough to influence a third generation. I will call it third wave feminism. So – here’s to you Mom! You are indeed my favorite.

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