Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

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.

Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

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

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

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

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

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

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

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

And now this.

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

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

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

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

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communicating Across Boundaries

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

Hard Goodbyes; Sweet Hellos

Sometimes I think my writing flows best when I am at the airport. It is here where my thoughts and feelings find a space in my brain, and the words come naturally.

They are not forced but rather, like a pianist who knows her keyboard so well that her fingers fly, so do my words trip over each other just wanting to get out on the page.

We are in Istanbul’s new airport waiting for our flight to Erbil. It has been a busy two weeks. Hard on the body, but good for the soul. I have been in seven cities and taken eight flights; my ninth boards shortly.

I saw my beloved mom, celebrated Pascha, saw our beloved Priest and Poppadia, reconnected with best friends, enjoyed seeing four of our five children, hugged and played with two grandchildren, saw our godson, celebrated the quiet, significant life of my father-in-law, and had countless meaningful conversations in English. It was a gift.

Goodbyes are never easy. A sign high above me at the Istanbul Airport states it bluntly under three airplane windows: Hard to say goodbye. Living on the other side of the world you say hard goodbyes on both sides of the globe. In saying hello to one set of loves and lives you say goodbye to another. We have only been gone two weeks but we have missed our Kurdish friends greatly.

There is anonymous solidarity here at the airport. I join countless others who have said goodbye to those they love. Some said goodbye in early morning hours, just after breaking the newly begun Ramadan fast. Others said goodbye in the mid afternoon with the sun shining brightly high above them, church bells echoing the noon hour. Still more hugged goodbye after the last call to prayer, heading off on journeys unknown. Now we wander through airport malls, browsing here, picking up something there, grabbing coffee in the in between spaces of our lives.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders.

We who spend many hours in airports are both richer and poorer through our travel. Richer in experiences, but perhaps poorer in settled spirits. For one thing this life does to you is place you on a path of always being between and there is an inherent restlessness in that space.

As hard as these goodbyes are, it is such an honor to live in a place that is not your own, to be welcomed by a group of strangers and invited to share their lives. This is the mystery of travel and cross-cultural living. The mystery of learning more about communicating across boundaries; the mystery of living in the spaces between.

So I acknowledge the sign high above me in the airport even as I press forward to the joy of what awaits. Hard goodbyes and sweet hellos are hallmarks of the journey. At this moment I wouldn’t trade this. There is so much grace in the space between.

Evil and a Challenge

There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’.” Laurie Penny

I arrived in the country of Oman one day ago for a short vacation. Right now I am sitting in a small slice of heaven on earth. I am surrounded by incredible beauty – palm trees and blue sky are above me and a pristine beach surrounded by a slate-blue sea is in front of me.

Waves from an infinity pool splash behind me and there is just a touch of a breeze, enough to create a perfect 78 degrees.

The ocean is far below me, down some steep steps. It’s a small lagoon surrounded by craggy rocks. Palm trees are scattered across the landscape. There are no flies, no ants, no bugs of any sort. It is as near perfect as life on this earth will ever get.

I am sickeningly aware of the sharp contrast between this landscape and that of the carnage in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a community is grieving after being targeted in a terrorist attack. They were targeted as being unworthy to live. Because that’s essentially what terrorists do – they decide that a group of people are not worthy to live. True, they have their own skewed ideology that tells them this is okay, but that doesn’t make it any less evil. And that’s what it is. Evil. They destroy life, deciding to eliminate that which God created and called “good”.

I spend all day every day with Muslims. They are my colleagues, my friends, my cultural brokers, my students, my community in Kurdistan. Five times a day the Call to Prayer goes off at this mosque behind our apartment. Five times a day I’m reminded of my own faith because of the faith of others.

And so I am deeply saddened by what happened in New Zealand.

If you are as well, challenge yourself to reach out to those who don’t look like you, believe like you, think like you, and behave like you.

Ask a Muslim co-worker how they are doing.

Find out if there is a mosque in your area and call them, expressing your sorrow over what happened in New Zealand.

Call out evil when you see it. Commit to kindness and giving others a chance. Embrace beauty, create beauty, look for the beauty in others.

Communicate across boundaries. It’s not easy, but it will change you and challenge you. You will be better for it.

It’s not enough to write a meme or cover your social media profile with a statement. We must do more.

And remember, evil won’t win.

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.

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.

Beauty in the Ordinary

The light was just going over the mountains and shades of purple, blue, rose, and orange all melded together into an ordinary sunset. Miraculously ordinary.

I wanted to capture it, even though I know that there will be another one tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after. Beautiful sunsets are a part of ordinary life here in Rania.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ordinary things of life. The cooking, cleaning, working, eating, sleeping things that make up the majority of our days wherever we live in the world.

My life in Cambridge was radically different than my life here in many ways. In other ways, it is strikingly similar. Both places were made up of a good amount of ordinary. The ordinary sleeping, waking, cooking, cleaning, praying, writing moments.

To be sure, the tools that make up these moments have changed. A mosque next door is our alarm clock, an oven that is difficult to light is one of the ways I cook, a sun-filled sky in Kurdistan greets me in the morning quiet, and my view is of stark mountains instead of my Cambridge neighbors. Yet still, those ordinary moments are related, because I’m the one within them and because life is made of ordinary moments.

And the question is the same – how do I live well in the miraculous ordinary?

I honor it.

I take those moments and recognize them as miraculous.

I write about them.

Baking bread, whether it be at 5 Newton Street or in my small apartment at the university.

Drinking tea while curled up reading a book in Rockport, or in the busy cha-khana at Rania bazaar.

Watching the sun set, whether it be over the Charles River in Cambridge, looking toward Boston and Watertown, over the mountains in Rania, or over the Atlantic Ocean by Andrew’s Point in Rockport.

There is so much beauty in the ordinary of life.

Where do you find beauty in your ordinary, everyday world?

Rania – Reflections on Place, Work, and Travel

I walk up the three flights of stairs to our apartment and unlock the door. I step inside and breathe a sigh of gratitude. No matter where you live, you need a home base. This is why the displacement and refugee crisis of our time is so important to care about. We are created for place. What happens to us when place is disrupted, creating fear and insecurity? This is the question trauma experts will be called on to answer for decades.

This one bedroom apartment has quickly become our place and haven. The apartment is on the third floor and has a bedroom, living room, large kitchen, sunroom and balcony. With high ceilings and a chipped marble floor, it is built for a hot, dry climate. It is cooled by a desert cooler, a system of cooling that works best in dry places and is far more economical than air conditioning. The electricity is based on a local and national system that we don’t yet understand. When the local electricity goes off, the national comes on. We’ve only been without electricity a couple of times.

We brought a few touches of home but have also gone to the local bazaar and purchased some household goods. Pictures of our family and friends stand on a large window sill, reminders that movement has a cost, but also surrounding us with love, our grandson claiming his prominent place in the line up.

The work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday afternoon. We are reminded at every turn that the culture we have moved to is relational above all. Any question we have is met with a “I can take you!” Or “Let me show you!” Or “Come to our house and my mother will help you.” Coming from Boston, this is a shock! We have a joke in Boston that the reason people don’t use their turn signals is because it’s none of your damn business where they are going! Here? Here it is everyone’s business. We are not alone. We have help at every corner and beyond!

I am reminded of desires today, and the years of longing that have led me here. There are frustrations for sure, but above all, we are so grateful. We are so lucky that we get to do this, to have our world turned inside out and upside down; to be in a place where we need people to explain everything to us; to grow and learn and be changed.

As I finish this week and head into another adventure this weekend, I am reminded of the oft quoted and beloved words of Pico Iyer. Perhaps you too know them and love them:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

In Rania, I have fallen in love once more.

Peeling Pomegranates in Rania

pomegranate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Stop Kurdistan

We head to the airport in Doha Qatar early in the morning. Already the air is heavy with heat. Humidity is high and my husband’s glasses fog up as soon as he steps outside.

The majority of Qatar is not Qataris but those in Qatar for work or travel. It feels like a fascinating and sometimes depressing convergence of worlds. We talk to guest workers and find out some of the stories behind their work. Most go home only once every two years. Their longing for home and family does not have the luxury of tears and emotional paralysis; instead it is submerged into working many hours a day and sending as much money as they can back to those families.

I look out the window to barren desert and palm trees, those trees that are so symbolic to me of home. I’ve had no time to process, and suddenly we are almost to our new home.

We go through a special transit line and are quickly through security.

Though early, the airport is busy with travelers, some bright and ready, others bleary-eyed and travel worn. Airports are the bridges and we travelers are the bridge builders, connecting worlds by traversing through them, sometimes settling and other times moving on.

We are in the second leg of our journey to Kurdistan, the place we will lay our heads for awhile.

There has been so much to do in the past weeks – packing up a Life is not for the faint hearted. We have experienced many grace-filled moments, always when we most needed them. There has not been time for feeling and emoting; instead, it’s been doing and acting.

But at the airport as I hugged my younger daughter, the one of our five who has always lived bed close, the feelings found a place of release in tears. We hugged tight, not wanting to let go. There will be so many miles between us and I am not ready. No matter how many fancy communication tools we have, nothing takes the place of face to face conversation and wrap around hugs.

And now, because of modern air travel I am already thousands of miles away.

This is not a forced displacement, yet it still comes with a cost, and that cost has names and faces. It’s those names and faces that made us think carefully about the move; those names and faces that keep us praying and looking for creative ways to communicate.

We grab a coffee at the airport and wait to board. It is surreal. For many years I have longed to return to the Middle East, and I shake my head in disbelief. I get to do this. I get to live in Iraq, specifically Kurdistan. Despite the tiredness, the emotional impact, the fact that those I love most are far away, I am filled with gratitude.

Palestinian Christians and a Prayer for Healed Eyesight

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“The perseverance of small, powerless drops of water dripping on the same rock, in the same place, ends by breaking the rock. In the same way, the power of faith with perseverance can break walls of hatred, of rejection, and of violent injustice.”*

The book sits on our book shelf, old and dusty with pages breaking out of the binding. The inscription on the first page says only this:

God does not kill! 

It is signed by Elias Chacour – the author of this small paperback.

The book is titled Blood Brothers and I read it in 1990. Some books influence you for a week, some for a year, others for a lifetime. This book is in the last category.

Blood Brothers healed my eyesight.

Prior to reading it I had sympathy for Palestinians but held to my minimally researched view that saw things quite simply. The Jews, as the chosen people set apart for God, had a right to their land. It was the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, whatever they did to protect their country, their land was okay – the ends justifying the means and all that. Not completely okay – I would have twinges of doubt when I read news reports on the plight of Palestinians but in the big, eternal scheme of things okay. To think otherwise would be disloyal.

Or would it be disloyal? Was the situation for Palestinians really okay? 

Blood Brothers tells the story of one Palestinian Christian and his struggle to reconcile what happened to his family in 1947 – 1948, a time when they were exiled from their home of generations. It captures his struggle as a Palestinian Christian and Israeli citizen who loved God and the word of God, and struggled with how to live at peace in the midst of conflict.

At the time I read the book we were living and working in Egypt and felt close to the conflict. I wrestled mightily with my feelings. Was I blinded by my surroundings? What about “chosen people?” What about covenants? It was during this time that my husband took a new job in Cairo starting a brand new Middle East Studies Program for American Christian students who wanted to learn about the Middle East. In directing this first ever program, he was tasked with several things. One of them was to give students a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the one narrative that they knew. He began to travel regularly to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights. Each time he returned he had more stories of the conflict, more tales of meeting with both Israelis and Palestinians. With each story I heard and each book I read, my eyes began to open and my vision began to heal.

A Short History

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back years ago. Contrary to what many think, the conflict is not religious. It began, and continues, over land. The land that both Jews and Arabs claimed was called Palestine until 1948. Between 1948-1949, the land was divided into three parts: The State of Israel, West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The West Bank and Gaza Strip were separate territories and movement between the two was difficult. Until that time Palestinians were in the majority and had lived peacefully, owning land, houses, olive groves, and vineyards for centuries.

As Israel became a nation, over a 2-year period they carried out a mass eviction, driving over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. Over 85% of Palestinians were evicted from what then became the state of Israel. Palestinians call the 1948 event “alnakba” literally meaning “the catastrophe.” Refugees by the thousands had to leave homes, families were separated and many lost their lives. To this day, the displacement of Palestinians has created a massive and near forgotten refugee crisis. In fact, Gaza is considered one of the worst places to live in the world. It is an overpopulated food desert with 60 percent of the water undrinkable, purposely kept this way by the state of Israel. In the years following al-nakba, laws were created that denied citizenship and previously owned land to Palestinians.

Common Beliefs

Many Christians have historically held to a belief in Israel as a blessed land, a land that has a unique place in history. They see the modern-day state of Israel as being much like the ancient land of Israel. I was much like one of those Christians. Yet, the modern day state of Israel is a secular state, and could hardly be described as a godly nation. It is not an example of biblical righteousness. In holding to this viewpoint, Western Christians have ignored what scripture says about the aliens and strangers in the land, they have ignored the breaking of a covenant relationship, and they have not questioned Israel’s policies and history.

In believing this way, Christians ignore the bigger story. We forget about Palestinian Christians – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. We forget about justice and peace and do  not hold the nation of Israel accountable to a history of wrongs committed against Palestinians. The prophet Isaiah had strong words for a people who cared more about a nation than loving God and pursuing justice.  

A Challenge

In Blood Brothers, Chacour challenges these beliefs, gently and patiently pointing to a way of justice. While he begins with his own story, he moves on to talk about the bigger picture. In his words, Western Christians visit Israel to see holy stones and holy sands, all the while ignoring the living stones – Palestinian Christians. His call is not to demonize Israel or Israelis, but rather a call to reconciliation, peace, and non violence.

Five years after I read Blood Brothers, I had my own opportunity to travel to Israel and Palestine with the group of students in the Middle East Studies Program. It was my husband’s 8th trip to the region and I got to experience first hand the stories I had read and heard. One day we would be sitting in a synagogue eating a Shabbat meal with Israeli Jews, the next day we would be in the home of Palestinians hearing their stories. The conflict became even more difficult because it now had faces and names. We visited ancient churches and we met those living stones that Elias Chacour talked about – Palestinian Christians. Despite all they had experienced, they still hoped for justice. They still hoped and longed for others to see what the Israeli Occupation was doing to Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian. They still hoped to live as equals in the land of Israel. I was deeply moved by the faith, resilience, and perseverance of these people of God. I began to see why Father Elias Chacour says to people “Don’t choose sides! Learn what it means to be a common friend to both Arabs and Jews!”

I began to see that true justice and peace is to believe that both Jews and Palestinians should be able to live side by side in safety and freedom, with Palestinians enjoying all the rights of citizenship including homes, land, jobs, freedom of movement, education, and hope. Demonizing either side was not the answer. I began to pray that this would become reality.

A Prayer for Justice

The contradictions between biblical nationhood and the modern state of Israel are profound. Human rights abuses, an exclusivist state, arrests and detentions, destroying homes, stealing land are just a few of those contradictions detailed by Dr. Gary Burge in his book Whose Land? Whose Promise? And whether we be Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant Christians, we need our eyesight healed and our vision restored. We need to see the nation of Israel for what it is – a nation deeply in need of grace, forgiveness, and restoration; Jews for who they are – a people who have experienced unconscionable genocide and should not have to fear suicide bombers and rocket attacks; Palestinian Muslims for who they are – a people who are rightly angry at living conditions and past and present injustice, some who have committed inconceivable acts of terror that do not help the cause of peace; and Palestinian Christians for who they are – people saved by grace, living in oppression and injustice, yet continuing to love the Lord their God and seek His peace – our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I don’t know much about politics, but I do know that God cares more about those living stones than he does about nationhood. He cares about reconciliation and weeps at oppression and injustice.  I do know that he cares deeply about us being agents of peace. From the ancient words of Isaiah we hear this:

“A bruised reed He will not break
         And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
         He will faithfully bring forth justice.

“He will not be disheartened or crushed
         Until He has established justice in the earth;
         And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.”

Today is the 70th anniversary of El Nakba. It is a day to remember and to think about the importance of looking at history, remembering an injustice that continues daily in the lives of Palestinians. It is a day to pray for peace and justice. It is a day to ask that our eyesight be healed. 


*We Belong to the Land p.207

Reading List: 

Also, take a listen to this beautiful, poignant video sent to me by an Israeli friend:

A Life Overseas – Saint Photini: Missionary, Martyr, and Beloved One

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I’m at a A Life Overseas today! I would love it if you joined me there to talk about a story familiar to many. 


One of the best-known yet least known stories in the Gospel of John is about a woman known simply as the “Samaritan Woman.” The familiar story tells us that Jesus had left Judaea and was returning to Galilee. The trip took him through the region known as Samaria where, tired and thirsty, he sits down by a well. A Samaritan woman comes to the well in the middle of the day to get water.

Jesus, breaking every cultural rule possible, engages her and asks her for water.   As the conversation unfolds, we learn that this woman has a past. She is an outcast who comes to the well in the middle of the day instead of in the cool, early morning hours when the other women come. She has had many husbands, and who knows how all that came about. Plus, she is from Samaria and Samaritans and Jews did not mix. The Samaritan/Jewish conflict was centuries old and, like many old conflicts, it was likely people did not even know how it all began. Never one to be put off by a past, Jesus keeps the conversation going and finds the woman a willing, if a bit evasive, participant. From living water to husbands to the Resurrection, Jesus speaks to her heart and her conscience.

The story ends with the disciples coming. It turns out that they are none too pleased about a woman with a past speaking to their respected teacher. The woman leaves her water jar and runs back to the town. There she utters some of the most beautiful and terrifying words written in the Gospel: “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did!” 

For much of my life, that is all I knew about the story of the Samaritan woman. She had no name, just this one story. Despite the fact that Jesus wasn’t put off by her past, many Christians know her purely because she had a past.

Church tradition reveals much more about this extraordinary woman, and it is a beautiful picture of redemption, faith, and missions. The woman’s name is Photini, meaning “the enlightened one.” She was baptized at Pentecost, and went on to join this early Christian movement. Photini is considered a leader in the missionary movement, going to North Africa and preaching a message of love and redemption. While there, she had a dream that she should return to Rome and confront Nero. It didn’t go well, as was the case with most Christians and Emperor Nero.

Most of the accounts of Photini end with her martyrdom. She, who learned the true meaning of “living water”, died by being thrown into a dry well.

Photini knew what it was to encounter Jesus. Her heart had the ability to both hear and respond to truth. She knew what it was to be fully known, and fully loved. It was this that compelled her to tell others. It was this that was foundational to her faith. It was this that gave her a voice in that initial missionary movement that spread Christianity so long ago. In the Orthodox Church, Photini is not only known as a Saint, but also as equal to the Apostles.

Photini is not someone without a name. Photini is a beloved one

Join me at A Life Overseas for the rest of the article!

Persecution of Christians: Real and Stable


I speak up for refugees, immigrants, and Muslims on this blog. It’s right that I do so. I see, read, and hear fear about all of these groups from a variety of people. 

But today, I am speaking up for those from my own faith tradition who face persecution: Christians

An organization called Open Doors releases an annual list that examines religious freedoms for Christians worldwide in five areas. The five areas are private, family, community, national and church. 

Open Doors has been monitoring persecution for 25 years and claim that this past year, 2016, was the worst year yet for Christians. Indeed Islamic extremism, often a primary cause of persecution now has a rival: Ethnic nationalism. 

“Persecution” is defined as hostility experienced as a result of identifying with Christ.

Here is the list of the top ten countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: 

  1. North Korea
  2. Somalia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Iraq
  8. Iran
  9. Yemen
  10. Eritrea

It is critical to remember that this list is not about people being made fun of for their beliefs, or people feeling like they are not allowed to express political leanings. Many in the west erroneously believe that social media attacks on newsfeeds are “persecution.” Reading the report on persecution is both important and sobering. It also reveals those newsfeed attacks to be exactly what they are: petty, childish demonstrations of anger and dislike of opinions, NOT persecution. 

The persecution that these Christians face is real and it has been going on for many years. In fact, it shows no signs of stopping and is concerningly stable. I have highlighted a few significant findings. 

  1. A total of 27 Christian leaders in Mexico and Colombia (23 in Mexico and four in Colombia) were killed for speaking out against drug lords. 
  2. Pakistan rose to number four on the list, with great concern over the increase in violence. 
  3. Ethnic nationalism is deeply concerning as a growing cause of persecution 
  4. The most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is North Korea. For 14 years, this country has topped the list. 

There are many more important findings and you can access the full list here. 

But all is not lost! The end of the article gives a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern Christians reclaiming their place. 

1. Christians looking forward to going back to historic homes in northern Iraq 

The days of an Islamic State-run caliphate in Northern Iraq and Syria are numbered. Since an August 2016 offensive, the Islamic militants have been pushed back by a coalition of Iraqi and foreign-backed forces. Some of the towns and villages, such as Qaraqosh – which were once completely Christian – have been liberated. Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul – will soon be in the hands of Iraqi forces. Over 80,000 Christians fled their homes in 2014 and have been refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan since. “We can’t wait to go back,” said one, in Erbil. “But we will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended.”
2. ‘Exodus’ of Middle East Christians slows 

Most Christians in the Middle East may have crossed a border within the region, but the majority have not yet left the region as a whole. The number of Christians exiting the region has slowed. Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey at currently 16.5 million, including migrant and expatriate Christians in the Gulf States.*

I will be honest. I am writing this while in complete comfort. I am at home in my living room and I’m slowly drinking a cup of coffee. I am far removed from the persecution and stress of so many who share my faith.  How do I reconcile my reality with what I’ve read, what I’ve heard, and what I’ve occasionally seen?

I think the first thing I need to do is be honest about my own circumstances and have a clear view of what persecution is, honoring those who struggle and not seeing persecution when it’s not there. The second thing I need to do is not shy away from the difficult. If it’s a story that is difficult for me to read, how much more difficult must it be for those who go through it? 

Next, I need to identify with those who are suffering through prayer and giving when and where I can. If that means giving of time and finances, then I need to move forward and give in those areas. 

But lastly, perhaps the biggest thing I can do is seek to love God and my neighbor, to remain faithful where God has placed me, to seek to be worthy of identifying with those who lose all that this world offers, deciding that their faith was worth it all. Amen and Amen.  

[Source:https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/news/4812440/4812457/4837468%5D

1500 Olive Trees

Friends, I wrote this back in January, but I know many of us have been hurting over what is going on in Aleppo, so I am reposting.

There comes a time on any trip where you feel overwhelmed, when tiredness and lack of control of your surroundings can creep into the journey. I think it is particularly true of any kind of refugee or humanitarian work.

Yesterday was my day to feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and inadequate with the needs I have seen and the stories I have heard.

To summarize, anything you have ever heard or seen about the refugee crusis is true, but worse. The stories of losing everything, people watching relatives killed, babies born to moms who can’t breastfeed because of inadequate diet, losing factories, businesses, and livelihood. All of it is true.

Two days ago, we sat across from a farmer who had 1500 olive trees in a village near Aleppo. ISIS has taken over his land and cut most of the olive trees down for firewood. It is a literal loss of generations of family’s work. It is symbolic of everything else they have lost.

I have met widows and new moms struggling, men who can’t find work and mothers who lost their sons, men who are being pressured to sell their kidneys just to get money to feed their families. The collective loss is unimaginable.

I have learned that ISIS is one kind of evil–and the other evil is the people that would profit from a crisis. Those who would buy children from a desperate parent; scheme to traffic vital organs; and charge thousands of dollars so people can drown in a poorly made boat.

When people are left without hope, we must hope for them. 

It is a privilege to sit with people and hear their stories and I am so grateful for this time. It is a gift to laugh in the midst of pain; to drink strong cups of Arab coffee while sitting in tents; to ask people how we can pray.

But I also have an obligation to pass on what I have seen and learned and to ask you to remember this crisis, remember Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Don’t forget them – and pray for peace to come to these lands.

The following information comes from this site:

Preemptive Love Coalition has been working for over 10 years in the Middle East. They serve families in both Iraq and Syria. You can take a look at their website for information and ways to make a difference for refugees.

Questscope has been giving at-risk people in the Middle East “a second chance” for over three decades. Now they are first-responders, providing critical and long term assistance for thousands of families literally on the run for their lives in Syria. Just this week, Questscope is rescuing 4000 women and children from Homs, Syria. You can give desperately needed funds for those families here.

World Relief works through churches in the US as well as throughout the Middle East and Europe to provide emergency and long-term assistance for refugees. Check out their website to see how your church can get involved.

Refugee Sunday – A Day of Sharing

Each year, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America set aside the Sunday before Thanksgiving as a time to specifically remember refugees and highlight the humanitarian  work that they do through International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Today is the day set aside for 2016.

It is hard to get our heads around the magnitude of the problem. The numbers get larger every day.

The Syrian Crisis is a humanitarian nightmare. On Friday this past week, an area housing several hospitals was bombed. The news reports write of nurses and doctors scurrying to get babies and small children to safety amidst the chaos of bombing. As of today, the few hospitals and health care facilities left in Aleppo closed due to ongoing attacks.

Along with the crisis of Syria are the ongoing challenges that come from people without homes and countries. Around 34,000 people are displaced every day and if we think that we are immune, that it could never happen to us, then we are living in a fantasy world. It takes one crisis to lose a home. One storm. One bomb. One fire. Our lives could change in a fraction of a second.

It’s easy to give up. When we are miles away from the heart of a struggle, it is much easier to ignore it. Perhaps that is why every single refugee we met in the past two years has left us with the same plea: “Don’t forget about us!”

I’ve written before about ways to help, and those ways continue to be useful and effective. It’s a bandaid to be sure, but in my experience God does to bandaids what he did to the loaves and fishes – he multiplies them times thousands.

Another way to give is by purchasing Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. During the rest of November and all of December, all royalties will go toward refugees.  You can purchase the book here. 

I want to end with a reminder of three challenges that I have given before, but I believe they are worth repeating:  

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”Luke 6: 26-31

Click here for more articles on refugees.

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Aleppo – History, Horror, and Cry for Help

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In early September, main stream news sources and  all of social media were  alive with indignation when the Libertarian candidate for president – Gary Johnson – asked the question “What is Aleppo?”

Indeed – What is Aleppo? 

Aleppo is History.

For hundreds of years Aleppo was the largest city in Syria and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Aleppo was called the “Jewel of Syria.” In a recent NPR interview, Charles Wilkins, professor of Middle Eastern History at Wake Forest University recalls entering Aleppo:  “You would enter the ancient city through the walls, usually from the west. And as you enter it, you immediately smell spices. Walking further in, you encounter shops selling soap, olive oil. Aleppo is famed for its soap. And further on you might even find heavy wool cloaks to wear in the cold Aleppan winters.” Aleppo was in a geographically unique position acting as a “caravan city” or a hub connecting other cities to each other through people and through trade.  Before the war, the city had a population of approximately 2 million.

Aleppo is Horror.

Short of the use of biological and nuclear weapons, Syria has seen the full spectrum of human destructiveness and Aleppo is currently in the centre of the storm.*

In the last five years, Aleppo has been on the front page of many newspapers world-wide more times than we can count. Since 2012, Aleppo has been in a battle between the Syrian government and the many forces that are fighting against that government.  Before and after pictures of Aleppo show a beautiful building in a vibrant community side by side with concrete buildings that are bombed out ghost streets. There is no resemblance to what it once was.

Aleppo is a case study of a massive refugee problem;  a problem that has humanitarian aid workers shaking their heads in disbelief and begging the world to act. But Aleppo is more than that – it is a symbol of what is wrong with our world. It is a symbol of disconnect between east and west, a symbol of what happens when a leader destroys its country, a symbol of war in all its horror.

“I heard a story recently that is emblematic of all of the suffering in Aleppo right now. A gravely wounded man arrived in a hospital, and there were no more spaces on the floor for new patients. The doctor told the nurse: “This man will only live for two more hours. Take him out of the hospital so that we can admit those who can possibly be saved.” The man was put in a body bag while he was still alive, and placed in the street to be buried. This is the horror that we face in Aleppo.” From NYTimes Opinion piece 10/21/2016

Aleppo is a Cry for Help.  

Aleppo is complicated – it is much easier to ignore something when there are no easy answers, when it takes an effort to educate ourselves on what is going on. We watch buildings bombed out on television, we scroll through news that gives us more body counts and describes more destruction. We watch and we have to turn away because it is too much to bear. We also turn away because we wish we had answers, and we don’t.  Aleppo calls out in her suffering, begging the world for answers that it cannot give.

Aleppo is bigger than a war, bigger than a historical place in Syria. Aleppo is symbolic of so many problems in our world today — problems that are too big and seemingly have no solutions. Aleppo is apathy and denial; turning our faces away from need and focusing on that which is easy. Aleppo is disparity between rich and poor, injustice, and enmity between people.

So the question “What is Aleppo?” is not just a political one – it’s a spiritual one.

As Christians in the United States, we watch suffering from far away, often from a comfortable couch with a favorite drink in our hands. The Aleppo problem is theoretical rather than personal. It is something that is happening “over there” and many feel the important piece is making sure that it doesn’t “come here.”

But as a Christian, the question “What is Aleppo?” encompasses all the other questions I have that have no answers. Why suffering? Why injustice? Why do the evil thrive?

The questions have been asked by millions through the ages and they will be asked again until the end of time.

So what is Aleppo?  I find the answer in the verses of a Psalm written long ago.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous;
your laws are rejected by[b] him;
he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.”
He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”

His mouth is full of lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
    like a lion in cover he lies in wait.
He lies in wait to catch the helpless;
he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
10 His victims are crushed, they collapse;
they fall under his strength.
11 He says to himself, “God will never notice;
he covers his face and never sees.”

12 Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
    Do not forget the helpless.
13 Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
“He won’t call me to account”?
14 But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
    you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
    you are the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked man;
    call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
    that would not otherwise be found out.

Mosul and Aleppo: A Tale of Two Cities

[Picture Source – Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/city-view-quote-elle-aleppo-772778/%5D

For Sale Cheap: Kidneys and Children

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“An entire criminal infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow.”

Brian Donald, Europol Chief of Staff to Observer

 

It was five in the evening and we had just returned from South Lebanon. We had an hour before our evening appointment and so we collapsed on the bed, drained.

I wanted to punch the walls and scream so that the roof fell in. Anger rose like bile in the back of my throat.

Only a couple of hours before, we had met with a lovely family.  They were refugees from Syria and were living in a small shack in South Lebanon. The family had two little boys, and the mom had just given birth to twins – a boy and a girl. As I sat holding the baby girl, she told me about her husband. A man had been pressuring him to sell one of his kidneys. He had refused, but the man kept on coming back, kept on pressuring. She didn’t want him to sell a kidney, but she was afraid. Afraid that the man would come back, afraid that her husband would break under the pressure. She knew it was dangerous. She knew it wasn’t a good idea. She also knew that her husband was worried. He had no job, no income, and the family needed to eat. She was breastfeeding the baby girl but didn’t have enough milk to breast feed both babies, so was formula feeding her baby boy.

As heavy as all of this sounds, our time with them was joyful and fun. I was so struck by the general sweetness of this family, their spirit of peace and joy evident despite their circumstances. It was a stark contrast to the visit we had just had with a woman across town, whose circumstances had engulfed her with sorrow and despair.

It was afterwards, as we drove back to Beirut that I could not shake my rage.

ISIS is only a part of the evil that is going on in the refugee crisis. There is a whole other side, a “lazy evil” my friend calls it. It’s the evil of exploitation and gain from another’s misery. It’s the criminal underworld of trafficking children and organs; of charging $50,000 for a leaky boat ride where passengers are only fifty percent likely to make it to the safety of shore. The evil of exploitation has found a billion dollar business in the world of refugees.

Consider this:

  • 10,000 refugee children missing in Europe – thought to be kidnapped or sold.
  • In Jordan, 46% of Syrian refugee boys and 14% of girls aged 14 or over are working more than 44 hours a week.
  • Refugees are pressured to sell kidneys to middle men who then sell those kidneys to rich people who need transplants.
  • In July, a diabetic child dies on a migrant transport boat after traffickers throw her insulin overboard.
  • In August, a 27 year old is found asphyxiated in luggage on a ferry.
  • In February, 9 people (including 2 children) drowned, while only 2 people were saved, when a boat sank off the coast of the Turkish provice Izmir.
  • Women and girls are consistently placed in vulnerable positions, harassed, threatened, and pressured for sexual favors in exchange for safe passage.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection.” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response director

It seems like there is nothing I can do to stop this evil from happening. I have nothing to offer.

And yet, in a way, perhaps I do have something to offer. Any time I make a decision to willfully ignore my fellow man, I am adding to the problem. Any time I choose to ignore my relationship to God, and therein my connection to humans, I too am participating in “lazy evil.” I can argue and deny it all I want. I can say, “I’m nothing like those who exploit the refugees. I would never do anything like that! I’m better than that!” But am I?

Somehow, we are all connected in this journey. Not in a sappy, “We are the world” way – but in a vigorous, mystical way. The decisions that I make do not just affect me, but others around the world. We are integrally connected, and until I take responsibility for that connection, I am only partially human.

This is why the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me” makes so much sense. Now, suddenly, the me is we. None of us lives in isolation but in a connected mystery that takes a lifetime to figure out. I am connected to these refugees. I am connected to the entire refugee crisis. I am even connected to those who exploit.

I cannot live my life as though they do not exist.

As I write this, I am in the midst of reading a book called The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns. I received it from my son, Jonathan, on my birthday. It’s a small volume, easily carried in a purse. It is an appropriate book for me at this time, as I think about the refugee trips that I have been on and attempt to make sense of what that means in the future.

This book is a precious gem in a sea of cheap, glass baubles. It’s deep and thick reading and the truth is, I am not smart enough to read it quickly. I find myself reading almost every sentence three times before I fully understand it. But it’s worth the time that it is taking.

It’s in this volume that I am learning more of Christ’s decision to enter into our suffering; to enter into the suffering of the refugee; of the exploited one. I’ll end what has felt like the hardest piece I have ever written with words from the book:

The thief being crucified beside Christ was not simply baiting Jesus when he asked of Him, ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us’; he was probably thinking that if this bloodied man hanging beside him were truly God’s annointed, then any reasonable, self-respecting Christ would do just that – save Himself….which was why He did not save Himself, but rather gave Himself. 

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival – in Himself.* 

*From The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns pages 108-109

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