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

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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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.