Cappuccino with Barzan: Friendship and Betrayal in Kurdistan

The Beginning

Around eleven o’clock every morning, Barzan would look through the door of my office and say “Come! Let’s have cappuccino!” I would look up at him and respond enthusiastically “Yes!” Five minutes later I would find myself seated at a chair by his desk, stirring a cup of instant cappuccino made in Turkey and readily available in the Kurdish market. That was when our conversation would begin.

It began in early May. May in Kurdistan is when you begin to feel the change in weather. Spring with its rain and lush green fields is gone, but the high temperatures of summer have not yet arrived. The days get longer, and you feel the joy of a season’s change. This May however, the holy month of Ramadan had just begun, and that changed things. The days were long and the nights even longer. For Muslims around the world, the month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer. From sunup until sundown, strict Muslims abstain from food, liquid, smoking, and sex.

Instead of a normal May, Ramadan overlaid it with spiritual highs and physical lows. The latter seemed to far outweigh the former. Everyone was grumpy. Everyone was self-righteous. Everyone had a headache, and everyone claimed they were feeling the best they’d ever felt.

As an outsider, I too was feeling the change in temperament and temper, so the first time Barzan invited me, I looked at him in complete surprise.

“But it’s Ramadan!” I said, shock evident in my voice.

“Yes, and sometimes we need to have cappuccino during Ramadan!” His answer was priest-like in its authority and conviction.

I looked at him with joy and amazement. Here was someone who I could relate with, who worked out his faith practically with room for questioning, and perhaps going against the crowd.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is an autonomous zone in Northern Iraq. Unlike the surrounding countries of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, Kurds in this region have carved out a semblance of autonomy. Kurds consider this area to be Southern Kurdistan, one of four parts of Kurdistan, the other parts being Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey), Eastern Kurdistan (northwestern Iran), and Western Kurdistan (northern Syria). Kurds themselves are divided as to what would be best for the people of the region. One more nation state, or more independence within the boundaries of their existing countries? Talk to one person and you’ll get one thought, another and you’ll get a completely different opinion.

For Kurds in Northern Iraq, carving out this autonomous region was not easy, and it continues to have significant challenges. An uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, a United Nations Security Council Resolution establishing a safe haven for Kurdish refugees, and a “No Fly Zone” established by the United States and Coalition forces all worked toward a common purpose and in October of 1991, the Iraqi government finally left, allowing Kurds in the region to begin to live and govern independently. This is a simplistic overview of a much more complex political reality, but it helps outsiders to understand a little of the fierce independence and pride that characterize the area.

The Kurdish Region of Iraq is home to approximately five million Kurds. The solidarity shared with Kurds in the surrounding countries is important to understand. Just like family, I can criticize my family, but you have no right to because you don’t belong, is much the way I experienced Kurds solidarity with each other. They may fight within, but when faced with outside threats, the solidarity and unity is profound. The fight against D’aesh (the Islamic State) was symbolic of Kurds being willing to put aside their differences and come together to fight against an external threat. They did so bravely and selflessly, ridding the region of terror and allowing families to return home after long exiles.

This is what I have been thinking about as I read and react with tears to the recent invasion of Syria by Turkey. Kurds are feeling this acutely. If you’ve watched any recent news, you don’t need me to tell you this. Far more learned and qualified people are writing extensive articles and opinion pieces.

So why does my voice matter?

Maybe because of cappuccino with Barzan.

First Encounters

We first visited the region in 2015 at the height of the crisis with D’aesh. Massive movement had taken place in Northern Iraq. Arab Christians from Mosul and Qaraqosh had left homes, factories, businesses, and restaurants to get their families to safety, away from the tyranny of the Islamic State. Churches and businesses in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, opened their doors to people who had arrived in crisis.  Unfinished malls and apartment buildings were quickly equipped with particle board and moveable walls to create rooms for families. At one building we visited, 120 people shared the same kitchen and bathroom. Families left most everything behind as they moved to the area for safety. And Kurds welcomed them – welcomed them with jobs, food packets, and homes. The stories we heard during that time will remain with me forever, stories of hope and horror, humanity at its best and worst. My husband and I left after ten days in the region with only one thought: We wanted to return. We wanted to move to Northern Iraq. Specifically, we wanted to move to Kurdistan.

Some dreams become reality while others remain silent and still, occupying our hearts and minds in quiet moments, but unable to be voiced because they hurt too much. Our dream became a reality and in September of last year, my husband and I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. To say we left everything is true. We left excellent jobs at health departments and universities in Boston. We gave away everything except our car, which we sold to an eccentric lady who belonged in a novel. We packed up our lives and our faith and we moved. We didn’t really know how long we would be gone, but we expected to live in the region for at least two years. In one year, you barely begin to understand a new country and culture and cultural adjustments occupy a good amount of your time and energy. You need at least two years, and after that – who knew?

That’s why cappuccino with Barzan was so significant. In the space of a half hour we would talk about everything. Politics (Kurdish, Iraqi, and American), faith, friendship, the profession of nursing, nursing students, marriage, differing cultures, worldviews, and even Wanda, Barzan’s hostess during a time when he lived in the United States. Wanda was an unseen part of every conversation. Barzan and I didn’t always agree – we didn’t have to. Cappuccino made our disagreements sweet and palatable.

Leaving Kurdistan

It was after having cappuccino with Barzan one morning that I found out a decision had been made by the Kurdish Government that dramatically altered our lives. The Minister of Finance had passed down a decree to the Minister of Education that affected all contract employees. Anyone with Bachelor’s Degrees would lose their job; anyone with a Master’s or PhD would lose half their salary. We were summoned to the university president’s office and were given the news. We left the meeting in shock.

We did not want to leave. We wanted to stay in the small city where we had carved out not only morning cappuccino, but also significant community through friendships. My husband taught swimming every Tuesday at a local pool to men who had never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. I was beginning to work with a group of women to teach health classes in the community. We had connected with an NGO and begun game nights every Thursday, and Fridays saw us at an English Talk Club participating with a group of Kurds who we had formed deep friendships with through discussions on many topics all conducted in English. Leave? How could we leave? We had to stay!

A tumultuous month followed, where rumor and fact collided and the truth of the edict was difficult to uncover. But by the end of June we had resigned ourselves to the idea that we would be leaving Kurdistan. The decision was irreversible.

We felt betrayed. Though it was a non-personal decision made at a high governmental level, it felt personal. We watched as Iranian colleagues packed their bags and moved back across the border to Iran. We heard from Kurdish colleagues who were also contract employees and had lost their jobs as well. It was a decision that couldn’t be fought and could take months or years to be reversed.

Our hearts broke. Tears flowed at odd times, our grieving was raw and real. We arrived back in the United States right before the fourth of July and the release of Stranger Things. We had lived our own version of Stranger Things, and it was a relief to binge watch something that took our mind off our transition and grief.

No Friends But the Mountains

The Kurds have a proverb, rightfully born of being surrounded by countries that don’t want an independent nation of Kurdistan to exist. “We have no friends but the mountains” was something we heard from our Kurdish friends over and over during our time in the KRG. We would hear the proverb as we were walking and talking with friends or sitting with them eating a delicious meal and sipping hot tea from glasses.

When I found out that the current administration had made the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, an area that was being controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, I thought of the proverb and how Kurds would be feeling and talking about this as they learned of the decision. I felt betrayed with my Kurdish friends by my own government. Had I still lived in Kurdistan, our cappuccino time would be spent grieving the decision.  Instead, it was my husband and me, cursing and grieving the short sightedness of this move. Generally able to look at a decision from multiple angles, this one was political and personal. Destabilization of a fragile area; abandoning loyal allies and paving a path for ISIS to re-emerge are just a couple of the potential outcomes, but largely not understood by many was the ethnic cleansing tragedy waiting to happen. How could America do this? How could we abandon allies that helped defeat D’aesh and be able to sleep at night? How could we not know that the area would create another massive displacement of Kurds and Christian minorities in the region? How could thoughtless leaders not understand the repercussions of this in a world that is so deeply interconnected?

And then there was the sense of personal attack! How could they do this to the Kurds, our friends, people that treated us like family for ten months? Ten months of extravagant invitations to tea and meals. Ten months of learning the history of the region, the horrors experienced during the time of Saddam Hussein and the extraordinary resilience and generosity that characterized the community. Ten months of friendship forged through time, food, and laughter. It didn’t matter that this was not the community where we had lived and worked – these were their Kurdish brothers and sisters, and blood lines are not easily severed in the region. The how coulds got lost in my fury of feeling.

If only we were there. If only we were there to sit with our friends and get angry with them. If only we were there to walk beside them, to show them that the world had not left them. If only we could sit with them and let them see that they do have friends beyond the mountains. But we weren’t there because of the Kurdish government, not the American government. Two governmental decisions. Two betrayals. But one with far more devastating effects than job loss.

But instead of drinking cappuccino with Barzan, tea with Yassin, and eating ghormeh sabzi with Behnaz, we were in a city oceans and continents away.  

Who is My Neighbor?

The feelings of sadness come over me regularly, and I try not to monitor the news 24/7. And I pray. I pray for the Kurds I don’t know, and the ones I know – the ones who opened their homes and lives to us – strangers and Americans.

Many years ago, a man came to Jesus and asked him a question about neighbors; specifically, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with a story. I learned a lot about being a good neighbor this past year and I didn’t learn it from people who looked like me. I learned it from my Kurdish, Muslim friends. I learned it from Yassin, who offered friendship through time, invitations to dinner, and helping us understand Kurdistan and Kurds. I learned it from Behnaz, a young Iranian Kurdish woman who offered me laughter, joy, and an artist’s eye for beauty. I learned it from Zana and Karwan who taught me how to heat my home and where to buy items in the bazaar. I learned it from Dr. Sanaa who passionately led the university department where I worked. I learned it from Rania who was a patient cultural broker and my fashion consultant.  I learned it from so many people that I can’t even name them all.

And I learned it from Barzan, who invited a foreigner into his office every day during Ramadan to drink cappuccino.  

When Your Soul is in Chaos, Chop Vegetables!

It’s a rainy fall day here in Boston. The bells at the church across the street just chimed five times, telling me it’s almost evening.

I woke up restless and sad, a soul in chaos. The gloom outside found its way inside and I struggled to find a rhythm. The news has not helped. As you who read this blog know, I’ve long loved the Kurds.

Three years before we moved to the Kurdish Region of Iraq (Kurdistan) we had the opportunity to visit. It was at the height of the ISIS crisis, and displaced people and refugees had altered the landscape of the area. ⠀

Even before that time, we had always been interested in Kurds and the Kurdish story. ⠀

Having the opportunity to live and work in Kurdistan last year was one of the great privileges of our lives. And by all accounts, it ended too soon. We grieve the loss of community and miss the deep friendships we formed every day.

Kurdish people face challenges, threats, and obstacles from within and without. From their own leaders making rash and ludicrous decisions about finances, pay checks, jobs, and governance to outside forces making tragic decisions on invasions and non-interventionist decisions when they have already intervened, Kurdish people in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria suffer. ⠀

Despite this, resilience, hospitality, and sheer joy are hallmarks of who they are as people. This group that spans man-made divisions and borders needs your prayers and help. ⠀

The news of the attacks in Syria have deeply affected the community where we lived and worked in Rania. Our friends are sad, but they are also angry. They feel betrayed. I feel betrayed with them and I have felt it in my soul.

But I am many miles away, and my restless, chaotic spirit is not helping anyone.

I learned long ago that there are some antidotes to restless, fractured souls, so if you are feeling as I was today, here are some ideas.

  • Bake bread. The measuring, mixing, kneading, and baking will go from your arms to your heart to your soul.
  • Chop fresh vegetables for a soup or stew.
  • Clean the house. Scrubbing, scouring, mopping, and dusting – cleaning out the dirt that accumulates can satisfy in immeasurable ways.
  • Write a letter to someone. The old fashioned kind that will have them shocked and deeply pleased. Taking pen to paper and writing news or a note of encouragement is a way to take your mind off yourself and focus it on someone else.
  • Donate time or money to a local charity. There are so many organizations doing good work in our world. It just takes intentionality to find them.
  • Light candles and listen to music. There is something about light and music that pushes against the darkness we sometimes feel in our souls.
  • Phone or text someone. There is someone out there who is feeling as chaotic, lonely, or sad as you are. Reach out and offer friendship through your phone.
  • Read the Psalms. Even if you are not from a Christian tradition, the Psalms can offer extraordinary comfort. King David who wrote many of the Psalms was up against some bad guys. He regularly cried out to God, begging him to destroy the wicked. His words resonate to this day , offering us a blue print of prayer and communication to God.
  • Read a book about someone who made a difference. Right now, I’m reading the book Stronger than Death by my friend, Rachel Pieh Jones. It is an a remarkable story about a woman who broke boundaries and rules to love those at the margins of society. It takes me out of my current chaos and reminds me that loving others is a costly calling that I know little about.
  • Dance. Just put on that music and go for it. Besides being good exercise, your body will pour forth endorphins in gratitude.
  • Call one of your friends who has a baby and go hold that baby. Blow on its belly and listen to that baby laugh. “A baby is God’s opinion that the world must go on”*
  • Read The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman. This book has nuggets of wisdom that surprise and delight. At one point she encourages the reader to look at doing the next right thing for the next ten minutes. It’s an exercise that continues to stay with me.
  • Love someone well. “Ordinary love, anonymous and unnoticed as it is, is the substance of peace on earth, the currency of God’s grace in our daily lives.” (Liturgy of the Ordinary, pp 79)

This list is not exhaustive and it’s not extraordinary, but today, as I chopped vegetables for soup, kneaded bread, and scrubbed the dirt off the floors of this little red house, my soul rested and I felt an incomparable peace.

*Carl Sandburg

The Importance of Goodbyes

I’m surrounded by suitcases. Each of them are partially full, unfinished puzzles waiting for the right piece to go into the vacant spot. I look at my husband in awe. He does this so well. It’s not just about years of practice – if that was it I would be a master. It’s about the way his mind works, creating order out of chaos and organizing the seemingly unorganizable.

There have been many tears. As opposed to making this decision ourselves and gently removing the bandaid of loss, we are forced into this decision by powers much larger and stronger than we are. The bandaid is ripped off too soon leaving tender skin and a wound.

Making it worse is that no one at the university knows all we gave up to come here. In tears yesterday I called a friend. I could barely talk. “You gave up so much to go,” she said.

“We gave up everything!” I replied. Amazing jobs, an apartment in the perfect location, a car, a church, friendships, retirement funds… the list goes on and on. And we won’t get all of those things back.

In the midst of it, I’m reminded that part of building a raft to get us through this is saying our goodbyes.

We grieve as we say goodbye because we are losing places and people that we love. Each goodbye is a little like death, it’s saying goodbye to permanence and the relationships as we know them. They will change, they have to change. Comfort and hope will have their place, and they are part of the process, but sometimes we need to just sit with the grief before being forced to move on. The global transnational family has developed an amazing capacity to adapt, to move forward, but sometimes we need to just stop where we are and honor that moment.”

From “Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye”

And so we are and we have. On Saturday we invited friends to join us for ice cream at our favorite ice cream shop. 25 people gathered and we talked, laughed, told stories and took many, many photos.

Yesterday my husband, who has been going to a local pool every Sunday to informally teach guys to swim, got together for one last time of swimming. The pictures tell an unforgettable story of friendship and fun. These guys have bonded in the water, learning skills and forging cross-cultural friendships. It has been an amazing time for my husband.

During the time he was at the pool, I had my own precious goodbye picnic with nursing staff from the College of Nursing. We drove a half hour from Ranya, up and over hills and through small villages to a perfect picnic spot by a small river. Large trees shaded the area and it was ten degrees cooler than Ranya.

I’ve never known a group of people to love picnics the way Kurdish people love picnics and within minutes large mats were set up and both men and women were setting out large plates of rice and bowls of a bean and meat stew. Smaller plates held onions, bunches of parsley, and fresh green peppers. Chicken was on another plate and with all of this, the requisite huge pieces of naan. We talked, laughed, ate, and took more photos. It was a time where I was able to tell each faculty member why they were special to me and I will not soon forget it.

Now we are on our last day. The puzzle will soon be finished; the suitcases packed and ready to make the two hour trip to our hotel in Erbil. Last night we went to our favorite restaurant and said our goodbyes to our dear Iranian friends, proof that relationships between people do not have to reflect the politics and policies of their countries. Tears came as I hugged all of them. They too have been outsiders here and we have forged a beautiful friendship across what could be insurmountable cultural barriers.

After we left the restaurant, we drove to Lake Dukan a last time with our friend and watched the moonlight create a path across the river real enough to walk on. Lights from cars and houses flickered off the water, reflecting hopes, dreams, and disappointments. We were silent a good bit of the time, from tiredness and from too many thoughts swimming in our brains. Our friendship has been a safe place to land these past months and it was fitting to end the evening by the lake.

Soon our thoughts will turn to what is ahead – a trip to Istanbul to visit my brother and delight in the shadows of minarets and ancient churches. Relaxing on ferry rides and sharing our hearts with our people. Then the United States and job searches, buying a car, a million details to work through, and a wedding to plan. Seeing our kids and reconnecting with dear friends and family, going to our Parish and receiving hugs and the joy of gathering in worship. There is so much good and so much hard in all of this. But first we will say goodbye.

So if you are one of those people, one of those families that is saying goodbye this June, I offer this: Sit with your grief, let it flow, don’t try too hard to analyze, don’t push yourself or others to some ‘right’ response. Just sit with it. Because as the grief comes, so will the comfort.

Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

And for your goodbyes? Say your goodbyes. The goodbyes will hurt, they will smart. Like a wound feels when the salty ocean water washes over it you will brace yourself. But just as the salt in the ocean provides healing so will goodbyes offer healing to your mobile soul.

As the End Begins

We began packing yesterday morning. Before coffee or tea, before breakfast, before we had a chance to breathe and then catch our breath, we were removing books from shelves and pictures from the walls. “And so it begins” I thought. Compared to what we had to do to come here and the dismantling of our homes and lives in Boston, this is nothing. But it is still hard. It still hurts. I still prefer creating a home to deconstructing one.

The weekend was full of travel and play with 23 Kurdish students and young adults who are volunteers at a local NGO. We piled into a bus with questionable shocks and took to the roads of Kurdistan. We saw rivers and mountains, hiked to Neanderthal Caves and drove through the city of the three wise men. We ate good food and danced to Kurdish music. We had discussions on goals and why we are here and played games. Laughter was the background to every event and meal. It was the perfect way to spend our last weekend in Kurdistan. All together we traveled over 15 hours in a bus across Kurdistan and all of us are richer for it.

We never expected to form these close friendships. We did not know how much we would laugh, that we would find our people among the younger generation in Kurdistan. We did not know that they would support us by bringing medicine when we were sick; heaters when we were cold; invitations when we were lonely; and laughter when we most needed it.

The future in Kurdistan is bright because of these people. They are men and women who are smart, funny, wise beyond their years, and compassionate. They recognize the hypocrisy in their government and in their institutions, and they are fighting to change first themselves, and then their community. We could not be more honored that they have chosen us to be their friends. We could not be more grateful for their willingness to enter into our lives with so much generosity and joy.

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine and the tasks at hand: sorting, distributing, packing. We walked up and down stairs to pack a truck to deliver to one friend who is getting married, another friend who is Iranian and far from her own home comforts, and a local NGO. With every picture taken down and every piece of furniture given away we know that the end has begun.

How do you measure ten months?

In picnics,

In sunsets,

In calls to prayer,

In cups of chai,

In centimeters, in kilometers, in laughter, in strife.

Seasons of Love from Rent (adapted)

When we first found out that we would have to leave the cry of my heart was “Why did we only get ten months? Why?” Now, I think “We got ten months in Kurdistan. We are so fortunate.”

Ten months of laughter and joy; ten months of learning some of the challenges that Kurds work within and around. Ten months of Ranya Bazaar and Cafe 64; ten months of invitations and English talk club. Ten months of Toranj restaurant and our dear Iranian friends. Ten months of unforgettable conversations and amazing food; ten months of learning what advocacy is and is not. Ten months of some of the most challenging work interactions we have had in our many years of working in four countries and on three continents. Ten months of being offended and of causing offense. Ten months of feeling both understood and misunderstood. Ten months of this small apartment that is chilling cold in the winter and delightfully cool in the summer. Ten months of creating a home and a community.

Ten months of picnics, of sunsets, of calls to prayer, and cups of tea. Ten months of centimeters, kilometers, laughter and strife.

How do we measure our time here? It defies the metric and the imperial systems of measurement so we won’t try.

We just know that we are forever richer by Kurdistan.

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 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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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.

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.

“By God! I don’t Know!” – A Post on Aging


We were sitting Kurdish style on the floor, a kerosene stove pumping out heat to keep us warm in the solid concrete building, when the subject of age came up. We were all in good spirits after enjoying a hearty meal of Yaprak, assorted vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and cooked in a lemon sauce, and had begun to drink hot, sweet tea. In Kurdistan, it is not rude to ask someone their age. First it was our host telling us how old he was, then it came to my husband and myself. The younger members of the family all chimed in – 18, 21, 23, 33, 28 – the numbers were called out like a Bingo game at a Catholic Church hall. Finally it was the mom of the house. “How old are you?” said one of her sons. We all looked at her, waiting expectantly.

“By God! I don’t know!” She said. We burst out laughing. I repeated the words after her in Kurdish, marveling at them and wanting to memorize the phrase. The conversation quickly turned to much more important things, like the weather and when the pregnant daughter-in-law would give birth, but I kept on thinking about her response.

What a great response to the question of age! Age is so fickle and so contrary. Time is already a cruel dictator, why must age also be? This woman might not have known her age, but she sure knew that it didn’t matter. “By God! I don’t know!” So many things were said in that one statement!

It doesn’t matter!

Let’s get on with it!

Who cares?

Let’s talk about something else!

It’s just age!

There are a million ways to interpret that one statement!

I turned 59 years old yesterday. Unlike my new friend, I do know how many years I’ve lived. 59 years around the sun. 59 years of trying to figure out what this life is all about. 59 years of growing and hurting and laughing and loving. 59 years of eating, sleeping, and participating in the mundane of life, only to learn that none of it is really mundane – it’s all sacred.

59 years of learning to forgive and working to live at peace. 59 years of learning that discontentment creates far more wrinkles than the sun and envy rots the soul. 59 years of learning the value of friendship and family. 59 years of learning how to live out of abundance not scarcity. 59 years of laughter and joy, 59 years of sadness and tears.

I have birthed five babies on three continents and watched them grow into young adults with their own dreams and sadness and joy. I have lived in four different countries and learned to count to ten and bargain in several different languages. I have hurt people and people have hurt me. I have loved people and people have loved me. I have had days where my stomach ached with laughter and other days where my heart ached with tears. And the days have turned into years and they have both slipped away – sometimes with a lot of drama and other times quietly, like a background person in a television show. You see them, and then they’re gone.

Last night, after birthday cake and a sweet offering of presents from my husband, we watched a couple of episodes of a television show that we have been following during this rainy, Kurdish winter. During a dream sequence, the grandmother in the show is talking to the mom who died two years previously. She is talking about getting older. As they sit companionably on a twin bed in the grandmother’s bedroom, she contemplates aging.

The days slip under the closet and disappear.

Shtisel

These words describe so well the journey of aging. You blink and the days have gone under the closet, never to be retrieved. Unlike dust balls that gather unwanted but always present, the days turn into years and disappear. They slip under the closet and into the memories that each us have, creating tapestries of people, events, and conversations, each tapestry as unique as its owner’s fingerprints.

This past year has taught me much about faith, advocacy, resilience, hope, and joy. I have learned and I have grown. And then just like that, it slipped under the closet and disappeared.  

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.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan

“Write more about Kurdistan! I want to hear more about your life!”

This text came from my younger daughter recently. I realize I haven’t written much about my new normal. Perhaps it’s because my new normal sometimes seems so far beyond what I ever imagined that I can’t find words. Other times it feels so similar to my past lives in Pakistan and Egypt that I feel I have stepped back in time.

My work at the college of nursing is difficult to describe. Every day is different and every day I learn something new. The route to my office is changing as the weather changes. These past few days as I walk to work I don’t revel in the crunchy, golden leaves of fall in Boston. Instead I see mums, a cactus, and a palm by our plant store along with an open fire boiling tea for students and faculty as they pass by.

Yesterday I went with the 4th level nursing students to the village. I have spent a good deal of time with the community health teachers, as that is my specialty, and this is the second trip I have taken with the group. The first was to one of the primary care centers in the city of Rania. Like the United States, Kurdistan has worked hard to strengthen its primary care infrastructure. The result is that every district has several primary care centers. This takes the strain of preventive and regular care off of a hospital system, and puts non-emergent care into clinics. Vaccines, sick visits, well-child visits, physiotherapy, tuberculosis care, and more are all done in out patient settings. The students visited the center and had an introduction to everything the center does. They then split into groups to observe a specific area of the center. Yesterday, continuing in the vein of community health, we went to one of the villages outside of Rania to do home visits.

We traveled by bus along a winding road that, if taken far enough, would eventually lead to Iran. The weather was cloudy and the mountains surrounding us have ground coverings of green from the recent rains. On the way we passed orchards of pomegranates and figs, the pomegranates bright red as it is late in the season. You could see people going about their daily lives in every village we passed. Two women in Kurdish house dresses chatting at the side of a road, men sitting and eating sunflower seeds and drinking steaming cups of tea, children on their way to school – all normal activities for this time of the morning.

About 25 minutes from the university, our bus driver found a gravel area to park off the side of the road, and faculty and students got off the bus.

I stood there for a moment looking at my surroundings and found the whole situation surreal. It was quiet and you could hear birds chirping, whether in Kurdish or English – who could know? Here I stood in a village in Northern Iraq with thirty some nursing students and three other teachers. I was surrounded by mountains, winding roads, Kurds, and Kurdish. I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to comprehend my life. I couldn’t. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be in this position, I don’t think I would have believed them! I think I would have said “In my dreams, maybe, but not in reality.” Yet here I am.

The students divided into groups of four and headed off to complete questionnaires through home visits in the village. I followed along with one group and another teacher. We stood on a balcony overlooking the street while the students sat and asked questions of a mother and her daughter. Culturally, this is not easy for the students. To go to a stranger and invite yourself into their space, to ask questions about their family, to find out things about their health and their living situation – none of this is easy. But it is part of learning about a community, part of learning about the health of the community. In what I have learned is typical of Kurdish people, we were all invited inside – Come for tea, come for a meal, come stay! But the students came with a specific purpose, so we refused all but the tea. The tea was most welcome, served hot, strong, and sweet in small, decorative glasses with saucers that matched.

Soon after we hugged goodbye, but not without promising to return. We headed back to the bus but first had our prerequisite group picture, standing on an incline near the village school.

That’s just as small snapshot of my life. As I said, It feels at some points unbelievable, and at other points unbelievably normal. That’s what strikes me each day.

I get up every day and I sit in my living room to reflect and wonder and pray. I sit and watch the sun’s light grow brighter on the mountains that I can see from our living room window. I drink my coffee and think about life, what it means to live, to redefine success from my narrow view; what it means to live here in Kurdistan.

I think about how my life has changed and what it is like to continue living in a paradox, my worlds so far apart. I think about living between worlds, how hard and yet how rich it is. I think about how I am an outsider here, and yet sometimes it’s easier to live as an outsider here than it is for me to live as a supposed insider in the United States. I think about the dilemmas that we between worlds people feel and face, how the complexity of these feelings never really ends, but we learn to be content within them. We learn to be satisfied with life in the in between.

I think about all those things, but most of all, I think about what it means to love God and love people a little more each day.

So that’s my slice of life today. Who knows what tomorrow may hold? 

The Rain Came

The rain came. One minute it was the hot, dry sun of a high desert and rays of light spread across my living room and peeked into the darkened hallway. I took a quick walk to our plant store nearby – we call it our arboretum – and walked back with a green treasure, its large leaves nodding to my step.

And then, the sky darkened, the sun hid, and the rain came.

It came in torrents over the mountain. Flashes of lightening lit up the sky in a diagonal angle. The raindrops beat against our window. The dry clay land filled with deep puddles and rain poured through a small hole in our window, flooding the glassed in balcony.

It came with fury and vengeance, as if to say “I will conquer this dry space and fill it with water! I will win!”

The rain came, and for a while I thought it would never stop. It felt impossibly strong. And then, just as suddenly, it stopped

One of my favorite Indian movies is the movie Lagaan. It is set in a small village in India in the late 1800s when India is occupied by the British. A British captain has imposed an outrageous land tax on the people of the village. It is a tax that is impossible to pay, partially because of a long drought causing huge economic losses for the villagers.  A young man in the village (Bhuvan) decides to rally the villagers to advocate for themselves. As they approach the palace, they observe a cricket match in play. Bhuvan mocks the game, and the British Captain offers a wager. If the villagers can defeat the British occupying forces in a game of cricket, they won’t have to pay taxes for three years. But, if they lose, they will have to pay three times the current taxes.

Bhuvan basically accepts the wager without the village’s consent and then has to rally villagers to create a team of people who know nothing about cricket with the hopes of winning a game against seasoned players. Throughout the film, there is a longing expressed for rain. No matter what happens, the villagers need this drought to end. People are suffering and the only thing that will change that is being able to bring in a harvest. At one point, black clouds roll in and a dance scene suggests that this is it, this is the moment. Rain is coming and no matter what happens with cricket or the British, this will be their salvation.

But it is a false hope. It doesn’t come. Then, at the very end of the film, after the drama of cricket and occupiers being defeated by the occupied, the rain comes. The rain comes in glorious, monsoon force while villagers dance in the downpour. The rain came. The game is over. The innocent are vindicated and there will be no tax.

The rain came on that village much the same way it came today. With a mighty force that can’t be stopped, with vengeance and sound that you can’t ignore; like an unexpected outpouring of grace when you think there is no hope, the rain came.

The prophet Isaiah talks about rain coming this way. In vivid poetry he says: Drip down, O heavens, from above, And let the clouds pour down righteousness; Let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit, And righteousness spring up with it. I, the Lord, have created it.* In Lagaan, that is what the rain represented. Vindication. A wrong confronted and made right. Justice finally came, and with it the rain.

Today, the rain came. And it makes me both tremble and hope – for justice, for wrong to be made right, for people who have suffered to be healed, for clouds to pour down righteousness, for grace to cover this hard, broken earth.

Today the rain came, and with it came life.

“Why?” – On One ‘Why’ Question a Day

“Really?”

I raised my eyebrows as I looked at my husband. “You’re going to waste your one ‘why’ question on this?”

“Doesn’t count!” he said emphatically!

“Does too!” I replied.

“Does not!”

We stood there like two children in the middle of the dusty road in back of our apartment, the afternoon shadows of the mountains creating shade despite no vegetation of any kind. A lone chicken had begun to cross the road toward us, only to confront my husband midway, squawk indignantly, and turn back to the other side.

The ‘why’ question was the age old question with a Kurdish twist: “Why did the Kurdish chicken cross the road?”

It was this that I responded to.

We moved here six weeks ago. After a whirlwind of closing the doors, windows, and chapters on one life, we traveled thousands of miles to a completely new one with little that links it to the old besides us.

We could not be more delighted to be making our home here in Kurdistan. We are in a small city that has welcomed us in wholly and completely and we are grateful. But because we wear our own cultures like body suits, tightly fitted to our form, there are times when we are assaulted by cultural differences, some big and some small.

In an essay “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong” writer Joann Pittman walks through a series of tips for expats who are learning to live well in their adopted countries. It is an excellent article, and well worth keeping bookmarked, but the best advice of all is unforgettable. She gives a numeric limit to the number of ‘why’ questions you are allowed to ask a day. The number is one. That’s right. One ‘why’ question per day. And I will tell you – it is a life saver. It is a marriage saver. It is a friendship saver. And it is genius advice.

She says this: “One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) ‘WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?’ Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one ‘why’ question per day.”

One ‘why’ question a day.

Think of how many times you ask why in your home culture. Chances are that it is far more than you are aware of. Now think about being removed thousands and thousands of miles from your home culture, and being in a culture where you don’t know the language, the rules, or the culture. Yet still – one ‘why’ a day.

So if I use it poorly, I’m done. Like “Why did it take us three weeks to get our residence permit, and it only took that other expat one day?” No. NO. NO. Bad why question. Bad. Because who knows? And does it really matter? These governmental procedures are way, way out of our control.

It just happened that way, and don’t worry about it. We now have our residence permits. We have our passports. We are happy.

Here’s another ‘why’ question with no answer: “Why did they put our western toilet over a Turkish toilet so it rocks back and forth?” Also not a good ‘why’ question. We will never learn the answer to this.

“Why are you charging us an extra five thousand dinar for our mint lemonade?”

Answer: “Because you had the nuts.”

“But we didn’t ask for the nuts.”

“Okay. Then we won’t charge you the extra money.”

Now that question was a good why question! That question had an answer.

“Why are all the tire stores together?”

Bad. They just are. You might just as well say “Why aren’t the tire stores together in our home country?”

The good ‘why’ questions are the ones that help you better understand your host culture, and thus be able to enjoy and adapt and live effectively within that host culture.

The not so good ‘why’ questions are the ones that are often based on cultural superiority. The ‘we do things better where I come from, so why don’t you change your ways to be like ours?’. This may be painting broad strokes on why questions, but my experience tells me that it is not. When we learn what is behind a particular way of doing things, we are better able to understand it, even if we don’t agree with it.

If we limit ourselves to one ‘why’ question a day, we take ourselves away from constantly questioning and instead put ourselves into a posture of learning.

Let’s face it – there are some places and situations where we could ask ‘why’ all day long. I just left government service in Massachusetts. Believe me, government and state institutions around the world are not that different. There are always too many employees to be efficient. There is always too much bureaucracy, and there are always too many leaders who don’t care. This was true in Massachusetts, and it’s true here. I wasted a lot of time at my job in Massachusetts asking ‘why’. Why, for ten years, did I have no support to go to continuing education events? Why was there so much bureaucracy? Why. Why. Why. I should have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day while I was there.

Instead I waited until I came to Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan I am enjoying life so much – partly because I have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day.

So people – One ‘why’ a day! If you’ve crossed cultures it’s a necessity. If you haven’t crossed cultures, try it anyway! I guarantee that your life will change!

Physical Well-being and Cross-Cultural Adjustment

I was sick yesterday. Not laid flat in bed with a high fever sick, but a low grade fever, aches, and general feelings of misery.

I was scheduled to visit the maternal child hospital with the Maternal Child Health Professor- Mamusta Renas. I had been looking forward to this visit, and I was not going to miss it. We arrived at the hospital around nine in the morning. It was already full of patients – younger, pregnant women, children, older women with gynecological problems, and babies. We headed straight to the delivery room, where several nurses were working with patients. One woman was obviously in labor, and flashbacks to my own laboring days brought on waves of empathy. I wished I could coach her through the process and tell her how amazing she was, but “How are you?” and “Stop the mini bus!” and “That’s way too expensive!” is the extent of my Kurdish.

It was as we were heading upstairs to the pediatric ward that I suddenly knew I was going to faint. I leaned against the wall, where a poster warning of the dangerous impact of violence in hospitals to patient care was hung. I thought I would slip to the ground and be completely out but I rallied enough to get to a room. I felt like the woman depicted in the poster – fearful and overwhelmed.

I sat down and drank some cold water, then put my head down. An overwhelming sense of failure added to my nausea and light head. It was awful.

Suddenly I questioned everything. Why did I think I had the capacity to make an international move? Who was I kidding? I was no use to anybody in my passport country, let alone a new place, new people, new job, new language. Plus, I was in the land of Nineveh, where fig trees dry up and wither. Isn’t that what happened to Jonah?

Here I was, sitting in a hospital two hours from the nearest airport, interrupting the learning process of bright and lovely Kurdish students, while one of their teachers sat with me.

Why did I think I could do this?

Physical well-being has a massive impact on our ability to adjust. I remember years ago in Pakistan someone talking to me about how she didn’t know what was wrong. Why was she failing at everything she did? Why was she always tired? Why couldn’t she keep up with even the small things of life? It turned out that my friend had a silent but deadly amoebae wreaking havoc with her body. She was not well. It had nothing to do with ability, or stamina, or resilience. It had everything to do with her physical state. She was diagnosed, given a prescription of that awful and necessary drug we call flagyl, and within one month she was a different person.

As a nurse, I know the importance of paying attention to my body. I also know the importance of not immediately googling my symptoms. I did it anyway. At a minimum I had the flu, with the most serious of my findings pointing to Hepatitis. Ridiculous? Yes, but sometimes we find ourselves giving in to these things.

Last night as tears began to fall over my fruit at dinner time, I didn’t remember anything. I felt like a failure at every level.

So here are some tips for me to remember and maybe they will help you as well!

  • If you’re eating right, sleeping enough, and you still feel tired and that you can’t cope – there may be something physically wrong. Get checked!
  • You are not a failure. You are human, made of flesh and blood, cells and vessels. Sometimes you get sick. This happens in countries where you know the language perfectly, and in countries where you don’t know the language at all. Take extra time to rest and get well.
  • Everything is harder when you are sick. Language, understanding culture cues, figuring out food and food substitutes, even making a decent cup of tea feels harder.
  • Give yourself space and a break. Cry. Sleep. Drink tea. Mourn and lament the world. Ask for help – such a difficult thing to do! Sleep some more.
  • Sometimes it takes only a day to feel better…. other times it takes longer. I woke up this morning feeling so much better. I’m not at my full capacity, but I no longer feel like I’m going to faint. I don’t have a fever. I see the world through a different lens and I clearly don’t have the flu or hepatitis.

I’m in a different place today, but this will come again because of the ‘flesh and blood, broken world, our bodies don’t always cooperate’ reality. And Grace enters this reality.

Grace – that space between failure and success, that space where cross-cultural workers are always invited into, a space that makes a burden light and a yoke easy.

Speak Out Loud

Keep in mind to speak out loud the works of God! As you transition with your soul mate it will be good to hear your voices remembering what God has done…*

One month ago we left the United States with 8 suitcases, two carry on bags, and two hearts that were open to whatever awaited us. We arrived in Kurdistan two days later and since that time have been creating home in the small city of Rania. Many of the words I have used in the past fail me as I begin learning to live and love in this part of the world.

Our move is an unexpected answer to a heart desire that I have had for many years. The longing that I have had to return to the Middle East has never completely gone away. It was like Baba Gurgur, the eternal flames of Kirkuk, always there just above the ground. “Just two more years!” I would write in my journal. Just give me two more years. “Why just two?” my husband asked at one point. I don’t know. All I know is that’s what I’ve been asking for. Anything more felt like it was audacious.

As I think about all that went into our move it strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. The fact that we were both offered jobs at the same institution; that our landlord responded graciously to our leaving; that the timing coincided with me being able to take retirement from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; that our friends and family were supportive even as they expressed their sadness that we would not be a daily part of their lives; that we were able to sort and pack up ten and twenty years of stuff without going insane; mostly that God was so present in and through all of it.

And though I speak of writing in my journal “just two more years”, I will confess that it has been years since I have truly brought my desires to God. What’s the use of speaking your desires? How does it help? My every day thoughts most resembled a slightly optimistic fatalism, an “oh well, it doesn’t really matter what I long for, because it won’t happen” thinking. It was my sister-in-law, Carol, who gently confronted me on this, and when she did, I knew the unmistakable feel of hot tears on my cheeks. I had begun to cry. I remember hanging up the phone and crying and crying, tears brought about by the realization that I had held my desires in a tight fist, subconsciously believing that they didn’t matter and that God didn’t care.

It was one year ago when this happened. I remember crying for what seemed like a long time. In reality, it was probably only a short hour. At the end of my tears I was exhausted. I also had determined some things. I had determined that Cambridge was a good, actually great, place to live, that if I never went overseas again it really would be okay, and that my fist was tired, so very tired. I was tired of holding all of this in. Tired of not believing. Tired of being tired. Tired of thinking there was some magical formula that only existed overseas.

My life changed in ways outsiders would never have seen, but I saw and I knew. I had one of the best work years that I have had in a long time. Friendships were strengthened, I was more active, and I drank deeply from the well of orthodoxy through my parish at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church.

And now, a year later, I wake up every day in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. I am learning to live again in a part of the world I love. I am reviving invisible skills that lay dormant for many years while in the United States — things like finding substitutes for recipes, peeling pomegranates, putting the flour in the freezer to kill the bugs, bargaining at the market, and trying to grasp the nuances of a new language. I am center stage to the most hospitable people on the planet. I pick pomegranates and figs off of trees at a friend’s garden. I laugh and learn from Kurds who have opened their lives and homes to us. I stretch my legs and muscles as I sit on the floor for hours of talk, food, and tea. I eat savory kebabs wrapped in bread with raw onions and tomatoes. I wake up every day to sunshine and the call to prayer.

And everyday I realize anew the need to speak out loud what God has done, speak out loud what it took to get us here, speak out loud thanksgiving.

Speak out loud the miracles that happened so quietly it might be easy to forget.

*from Carol Brown – my sister-in-law in Istanbul.