Symbol of Strength

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Gloucester, Massachusetts is a fishing town. It is one of the oldest settlements in what became Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Through the years, life in this fishing town has not been easy. The town has seen more than its share of loss and pain, of lives disrupted. The fishing industry would rise and fall like the tide, one year providing a living wage, the next year leaving a family with barely any money. Storms would take fishermen when they were too young, leaving young widows with small children to make their way alone.

The ocean, beautiful to tourists and residents alike, cannot be tamed or controlled. It is master over fishermen and their families.

Along the waterfront on Stacy Boulevard is a statue called the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, paying tribute to all those who died at sea. It was built in 1925 and is famous throughout the area.

But the statue I love best has not been there for very long. It is a statue a few yards away from the Fishermen’s statue. The statue shows a woman looking out to the sea and pays tribute to those left behind: The wives and children of fishermen. I love the strength of the statue. I love how the woman is carrying one child, while another holds onto her dress, a gesture that women around the world understand. I love everything about this statue.

Most of all, I love that it honors these women and children, recognizing that the sacrifice of families is great.

Yesterday, as we passed the statue, I thought of all the women and children who are refugees or displaced because of the war in Syria. I thought of the many women that I met in Iraq, the stories I have heard that are barely a page in the volumes of stories that are present from the Syrian war and the disruption of family and community by ISIS. I thought of the women and children I have met who teach me what it is to be strong.

The statue is a symbol of the strength of women, of grief being pushed aside as they move forward with stubborn endurance.

Today I think of these women and children – and I thank God for their strength and pray for grace to move forward.

See A Practical Response to the Syrian Crisis for ideas of how to help.

Hope in Exile: Rooftop Prayer

  
“Every evening at sundown we go on the roof and we pray.”

When I heard this, I was sitting with Anees and Shatha in their tiny room. They had told me about leaving their city, about losing two factories, about how their two daughters had immigrated to Canada.

Yet every evening at sundown, they paused. They went on the roof to pray. The sincere faith humbled me. Here was a couple who had lost everything that our world sees as important. They no longer had jobs or houses. Security in retirement? Who has security when all the banks are ransacked and billions taken by the enemy? Home renovations or equity? Impossible when your home has been taken.

But their response was not one of bitterness or anger. Rather, they were grateful to be alive, to have a roof over their heads, to have each other. And so every evening at sundown, they went on the roof to pray.

As I asked permission to leave, Shatha took me by the arm. “Come with me,” she said urgently. “Come to the rooftop! We’re praying right now!”

We walked single file on the narrow balcony and turned into the hallway. She led me past a communal kitchen and bathrooms, onto the rooftop. There, a group of 15 women were gathered in a circle. In the middle of the circle, a small table held a prayer-book, a rosary, and a glow in the dark statue of the Theotokos – Mary, the God-bearer. Many were in black, a symbol of mourning. The women were chanting a prayer in Syriac, a prayer of protection and hope. I knelt with them in a holy moment, fully humbled in the company of women who had lost so much, yet understood the power of prayer to give and sustain life.

And here’s the thing: That’s what ISIS can never take away. They can take away factories and churches; they can take away orchards and farms; they can split up families and cause untold pain. But they cannot take away prayer. In the big story of life, they have lost and they are scrambling. Because in the big story, factories and retirement security mean nothing – and prayer means everything.

Note: This is why I grow tired of the rhetoric that says “All the Christians have left Iraq.” Because not only have they not left, but their faith sustains them in ways that I have not yet experienced. They know “the power of His Resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings,”* in ways we in the West, with all of our trappings and security blankets, can’t begin to understand.

*Philippians 3:10 KJV

“Who Among You can Put Christina Back in the Arms of Her Mother?”


  
Sometimes a story emerges that captures all other stories. It becomes the iconic story, the one that explains everything. And everyone knows the story.

Everyone from Qaraqosh knows the story of Christina.

Christina was three and a half years old when she was literally snatched from her mother’s arms as they were fleeing ISIS. This was one year ago on August 6, 2014.

On the first evening I was in Iraq, we had the opportunity to see a play. The play was about the exodus of people from this city and was directed and acted by a group of actors from Qaraqosh.

At one point in the play, a little girl skips out on stage with a doll. The music is light as she skips around, safe in her world. As quickly as she comes, she vanishes, and only the doll is left on stage. The actor’s pain is acute as he shouts her name, and then asks the question: “Who among you can put Christina back in the arms of her mother?”

The agony of the audience is palpable. This is their city, and she has become their Christina. Who will put Christina back in the arms of her mother? Who will redeem this situation? Who will right the wrong? Who will defeat evil?

There are hundreds of questions wrapped up in the one.

It’s been a year and how much longer will the people of Qaraqosh have to wait?

The cry of the people of Qaraqosh is the cry of people through the centuries who have been victims to terrible evil. It is the cry of the exile, the cry of every mother who has lost a child.

It’s the cry of the Psalmist How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me? Consider and hear me, O LORD my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved.” Psalm 13

But the play didn’t end on those words. Like the Psalmist, who says “But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation,”  the play ended with olive branches, a symbol of peace. The play ended with hope for return. The play ended with resurrection

The play represents much of what I saw during my short time, and I am challenged daily by the hope I saw in those displaced in Iraq.

For even as they wonder who will put Christina back in the arms of her mother, they continue living day by day, in hope of return.

 

Hope in Exile: A Broken Ankle

This is the first of a few stories from my time in Iraq. Thank you for reading. 

I met Anees in the management office of Al Amal, an unfinished building that houses internally displaced people from the Nineveh Plain in Iraq. Al Amal literally means “The Hope,” and indeed, the people here embody hope. All together, Al Amal houses around 650 people on four floors. There are no permanent walls, instead prefab walls have been fashioned, giving a bit of privacy and small living spaces for each family. Over a hundred and twenty people share a kitchen and bathrooms on each floor.

Anees looks to be in his sixties, but it is difficult to tell. Prior to being displaced from the only home he had ever known, he owned two factories. One produced ceramics and the other machinery. He is a skilled electrical engineer and obviously a good businessman. Although Anees is Chaldean Catholic, he hired people who were Muslims, Christians and Yezidis, not discriminating between groups. All that changed on August 6 of last year, when the city of Qaraqosh fell to the Islamic State. Overnight, Anees and his lovely wife, Shatha, had to flee to the city of Erbil.

I met Anees because he had broken his ankle while walking up the stairs into the building. The stairs are rough and uneven with jagged pieces sometimes tripping the unsuspecting. Anees had been one of those, resulting in a bad break. To complicate the injury, it happened on his right leg, the same leg he broke two years ago in Qaraqosh. At that time, a rod was placed in his leg and this break had done damage to the rod. The ankle bone was misshapen, badly bruised and swollen. Anees was in a great deal of pain.

I took a look at the ankle, checked his circulation, and realized there was nothing I could do but give pain medication and encourage him to see a doctor. He told me he had gone to see the same surgeon who had placed the rod in the leg and that the recommendation was for him to have two complicated surgeries. The cost? $1500 – a mere pittance by standards in the United States, but a huge amount of money for a man who had lost two factories and now lived in a room the size of my work cubicle. We talked for a bit and I promised I would bring pain medication back that evening.

I returned in the late afternoon, when the hot sun of the morning had turned into a pre-evening glow. I was armed with a skilled interpreter and pain medication. The couple welcomed us into their space without hesitation. The room was tiny and immaculate. Two beds lined the walls and shelves on one side stored clothing, bedding, and food. A rosary and picture of the Theotokos were the only decorations on the wall.

A small table was set up in front of us and we sat, talking, laughing and drinking hot, sweet tea. Shatha fed us grapes and flat bread with a cheesy topping that she had made earlier in the week. The room and the hospitality were both warm and I felt my cheeks flushing with the joy of it.

The couple talked about their children, two grown daughters who had left Qaraqosh with their husbands and were now in Canada. They have a grandchild who looks out from a photograph smiling, unaware of the depth to which his grandparents miss him. “Every time we talke to our daughters, my husband cries!” says Shatha with a sweet smile. “He misses them so much.”

We talked about his leg, how he cannot afford surgery because work is so limited in this new world they inhabit. We talked about faith. “Every night at sundown we go outside and pray,” they say. “You should come!” The invitation was completely genuine and I feel deeply honored. We talked and drank tea and felt time stop for a few moments.

I realized that I don’t know how long I’ve been there, and I’m expected upstairs at the art therapy session. Before I go, I ask if I can pray with them. They don’t hesitate with their yes. We pray and it is a holy moment, holy space in this unfinished building, set apart for those exiled from their homes.

Before I leave, Anees looks at me and says this: “What do you in America hope for Iraq?” The weight of the question is heavy. He, like most Iraqis, is so aware that our foreign policy has an impact on the everyday life of people in this region.

I hear both desperation and hope in his voice. I pause and pray the Jesus Prayer before I answer. I know that how I respond is critically important.

“I don’t know what the government hopes for you,” I say. “But I know what I hope for you, and that is for you to return to your home and live out your faith in peace.” 

“Al-ḥamdu lillāh!” he says. And he is satisfied. 

Note: If you would like to donate funds to pay for surgery for Anees, please contact me. We are hoping to do this through Conscience International. Here is the link: Conscience International Iraq Crisis. If you choose to send a check, please write Surgery for Anees in the memo line. 

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

Hearts Made Larger

We returned from Iraq yesterday, touching down at Logan Airport’s international terminal late afternoon.

It is difficult to find words in English to describe our trip. Amazing, interesting, challenging, joy-filled …..those adjectives are not strong enough so I’ll stick with this: The trip was extraordinary.

This was my first time to Iraq. We arrived in early morning and left a week later in early morning. I walked off the plane to the heat of the desert and my heart felt immediately at home and alive. This is a place of the heart.

The people of Iraq have experienced sanctions, war, and now displacement for years. Sanctions began in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait under the regime of Saddam Hussein. This means that the population aged 12 to 25, which was the primary group that we worked with, survived sanctions that deprived the country of critical resources. Those sanctions caused diseases from water that was not clean, widespread malnutrition, lack of proper medical care and supplies, and so much more I will devote an entire post to it. It is important to note that the sanctions did nothing to rid the country of Saddam, it merely hurt the people of Iraq.

A week is a short time to take in the enormity of the situation, but the conversations and time we were able to have made our hearts larger. The spirit and resilience of the people of Iraq are commendable, and I am humbled to have met so many and to hear just a few of the millions of stories from this area.

My heart is made larger from the people I met.

In 1923, Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher raised in Austria wrote a book called Ich und Du, which translates as I and Thou. Buber’s premise is that we find meaning in life through relationships, and we interact or engage the world in two primary ways: Through I-it or I-thou.

The I-it relationship looks at the relationship of subject to object. I-thou looks at relationship of subject to subject. How this works out practically is that if we see others through the lens of I-it, they become separate and we can detach ourselves from them. The I-it relationship focuses on a single story, reduces people to objects instead of living beings that reflect the image of God. I-it fails to see the complexity of human interaction. By contrast, I-thou enlarges the relationship. I-thou sees the whole person, encounters that person, not in relation to what the person can do for them, but as a person made in the image of God.  I-thou is a way to engage the world with a sense of honor and responsibility, with humility and desire to learn.*

My encounters with people who have been internally displaced in Iraq, who fled with the clothes on their backs, and if they were lucky, a suitcase, were I-thou encounters. My heart was deeply enlarged as I saw resilience, joy, willingness to tell their story, to accept me as an outsider, to acknowledge their own strength and hope. My heart, and I know the heart of my husband, was made larger. I can only give glory to God for this time.

In the coming week, I hope to recount several stories that I have permission to share. I will share stories of fear and hope, of prayer and resilience. I have returned, and my heart is larger.

I’ve included a couple of pictures today with actual quotes from people. Thank you for reading, for being willing to see people through the I-thou lens.

*I do great disservice to Buber’s work in this small explanation, but it is what best describes our time in Iraq so I chose to use it.

“What hope do you have for us in Iraq?” ” We have hope that you can return and live out your faith in peace and joy” “Al hamdulilah”

“You are so strong!” “We ARE strong! We surprised even ourselves!”

 

“The road may be long and full of our blood but we will go back waving olive branches. Love is stronger than hate”

Oh, the Places We Go!

I’m headed to Iraq today. With friends visiting, work, and the chaos of life it has been difficult to focus and get ready. The trip came about so quickly and is a surprise gift. But it also has me trembling – there has been too little time to prepare. So I go, knowing I have little to give, much to learn, and at heart – I am a big baby. But I’m also a willing baby. So my prayer is that I cling fast to the God I love and stay focused and willing.

In the midst of all this, I found the perfect picture to hang on my wall at work. I hang it to help me dream and then focus. It’s a balance isn’t it? That need to be fully present, and yet not forget to dream. Dr. Seuss captured the dream well in his beloved book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  As I head off to Iraq, I think of the book and I smile.   

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. but mostly they’re darked.
But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?”

To give you a sense of what is happening, our small team of four will be in the city of Erbil. I will be helping at a clinic as well as assisting with an art therapy program for teenage girls, all of them displaced from their homes and communities. It will be hot – weather forecasts are 115 degrees and full sunshine during the day, going down to around 82 at night. It’s a dry heat like Phoenix, and I’m reminding myself how much I love Phoenix. My husband has been to Erbil so has given me a briefing on what to expect, but we go knowing two things: flexibility is a must and we are visitors and learners.

On Saturday evening we received a beautiful travel blessing from our priests, Fr. Patrick and Fr. Michael. The church overwhelmed us with baby and hygiene kits, put together for us to take to refugees and internally displaced people. We feel deeply loved and supported in our journey through Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church. Though we are the ones to physically go, they are the ones who walk beside us in prayer and love. More and more, I am overwhelmed by the mystery of the Church and the community of believers within.

And so the blog will be quiet while I’m gone. I have a lovely guest post from a reader, and I hope to write a quick post at some point, but for the most part, it will be a still space and I will debrief when I return.

Thanks so much for reading and caring.