I am in the airport waiting to return to Antakya after 12 amazing days of holiday. I am so grateful for the time off and the truly blessed experiences. My life is so so blessed and I go from glory to glory. I pray that my life glorifies God immensely. Sometimes I really wonder if I should be suffering more for Christ…? In any case, it is a pleasure to see Him in so many places, people, and cultures. The best thing to share about this vacation is that though I did not travel with anyone, I shared every beautiful moment with beautiful people who truly appreciated being with me in that moment. We experienced life in these days with eyes and hearts wide open. In Psalm 133, David remarked “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
The first week of my holiday was spent on the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea where 22 others joined together for a “holistic holiday” at Skyros Centre. Most of them came alone, and there were 3 couples. I took the art class while others took a writing class and a few took a class on presentation. Most of us shared a room with a complete stranger, and my complete stranger was a feminist Muslim Pakistani-British lady whom I came to respect greatly. There was also a Brazilian who’d been in the UK since the late 80s, a tattooed biker Brit, a sweet and hilarious Irish teacher, a South African-British novelist, a British actress, a British commercial producer, and a few others. In my art class was a South African who’d lived in the UK since the 70s, and 2 Russian young ladies in banking who went to school together, now living in London and New York City. Our teacher was the talented and successful Scottish artist Michael Gahagan. We started with sketching, then oil pastels, which I hated, then watercolors and chalk pastels. I learned a lot and enjoyed the practice. Michael’s approach placed importance on learning through the journey, not on the final product, and on being present in the moment, noticing the beauty all around us. Of course there really is more beauty to notice on Skyros than most places! We had 45 minutes of yoga each morning, followed by breakfast, then personal time, then 3 hours of class, then lunch, and afternoons were free, then we usually went into town for some delicious dinners! In the afternoons, I went to the beach to sunbathe, swim, kayak, sketch, and watercolor. I also took a day to wander around the narrow streets winding up and down the mountain. I went to the Manos Faltaits history and relics museum, too. I ate a lot of veggies and seafood, and drank a lot of iced cappuccinos and alcohol. The island had everything that I love and wished for on a holiday.
At the end of the week, we had a gallery viewing of the artists work, a closing ceremony, and a cabaret night where anyone in our group could perform a talent. I was proud to show my work alongside the other artists. (Last 6 in this album.) For the cabaret, I read a poem that I wrote about the Skyrian landscape, below, and sang a duet (with my roomie) of Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep”. I practiced this song at least a hundred times this past winter for my singing lessons with Jeremy Ragsdale in Annapolis and reluctantly took this as an opportunity to perform it. We sounded great together!
What surprised and delighted me the most was how close I became with the others. I actually teared up at the airport! It felt ridiculous because it was only one week! But in that one week, I opened up and fell in love with them more than I have with my current colleagues over the past 3 months. The contrast was so clear in my mind and my heart, and I really didn’t want to leave that love and unity, nor the wonderful life-style we had on the island.
The next stop was Istanbul where I met up with 2 of my Syrian colleagues, both kind-hearted engineers. They prepared an itinerary for my 4 days in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and led me around to all the most fantastic sights! We went to Hagia Sophia, built in 537AD as a church, and in 1453 was converted to a mosque, and finally in 1931 was converted to a museum that opened in 1935. We also went to the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans where I supposedly saw with my own eyes Moses’ staff and David’s sword. (It’s hard for me to believe those were the real items…) It was quite a beautiful estate! We also spent a day on one of the Prince Islands, where we biked, swam in the Sea of Marmara, ate ice cream, walked in the car-less streets, and ate the most amazing seafood dinner on the water at sunset. The dinner included pickled fish, fried mussels, shrimp, little fried fish, and a really big baked fish. It was a fantastic tour of the city with sweet gentlemen.
All in all, an amazing holiday!!!
Out of the earth,
high and lofty
dignified wise men
tattered by storms but standing
wrinkled under age
speckled with bushes
split wide by miniscule seeds
caves of refuge
altars of hope
hundreds of corners
straight, crisp lines
icy shades of white
plans and dreams
devised and fulfilled
hollow windows into deep souls
a staircase to the blue heavens
a Babylonian city building higher and higher
crooked teeth taking a bite out of the sky.
I really, really love my new city! I have been enjoying navigating the roads and discovering it’s treasures. I have been pretty active on the weekends, and I find myself having to force myself to rest at home. Most days I work from 8:30 to 7 with an hour lunch break. I enjoy my work and at the end of the day when the two guys in my office room have left, it gets quiet and easier to work, and if I don’t have evening plans, then I just continue to work towards completing the tasks I started throughout the day. I derive a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment from my work. There are a lot of challenges, and a lot to re-shape, but the creative process of establishing effective solutions is fun and rewarding! The senior staff member in Syria that I manage usually calls me around 9am to start the day. He always makes me laugh and I enjoy working with him very much. The 6 other staff on my team (Arabic speakers) are passionate about their work and their chief complaint is that they want support to enable their work; they need supplies and tools. That’s what I’m here for! In fact, they wrote a drama for the hygiene club in a primary school in one of the camps and filmed the students’ performance! They recreated a debate on a news show, on the topic of taking responsibility for using the water and sanitation facilities that IRC provided in the camps. Isn’t it adorable how passionate the school-girls act? And they even feature me as the “Official Global Hygiene, Lee Van” as the expert call-in on skype! I just love how creative they got and can’t wait to see what else they do!
Some days are really hard because the people I work with and for, Syrians, have been through a lot of trauma, have experienced bombings by their own government on their homes and cities, seen brutal and violent deaths, family losses, loss of country, loss of identity, ashamed to be Syrian, ashamed of the war that is happening, experiencing discrimination in Turkey, etc. Most of them are positive and really great people, but sometimes their brokenness shows and it breaks my heart.
For example, The Humanitarian Cup. This is the soccer competition between teams representing the humanitarian aid organizations with offices in Antakya. Everyone’s been pumped up about it. It brings people together. It lifts spirits. It helps get our minds off of work. It releases tensions. Until it didn’t.
All day, the buzz around the office at IRC was about the evening’s match when IRC’s team would play GOAL’s team. Our team is comprised mostly of Syrians and a Bosnian/Serbian ex-pat who holds a high management position. GOAL’s team was mostly ex-pats from what I could tell. Two of IRC’s team members are on the environmental health team with me and they’ve been rallying for my support for a few weeks. In the team spirit, I made a poster with the IRC logo saying “Go IRC”. Many people that don’t normally come together actually came to the game!
During the game, the ex-pat on our team was hit in the face pretty hard, apparently intentionally by a member of the other team. His nose started bleeding as his anger burst forth. He lunged forward and the fight erupted. At first, the rest of the players held their respective teammates back, but somehow within a few seconds everyone was fighting and spectators were rushing onto the field to stop the fight. This included a man on crutches who passionately hobbled towards the fighting and shouting and eventually dropped the crutches to go faster. While I did burst a laugh at seeing this man attempt to fight, I quickly felt my heart drop at the sight of such violence and anger among my own colleagues, my friends.
Worse, they are humanitarian aid workers, and if we can’t keep peace among ourselves and treat one another with respect and forgiveness, then is there hope for the people stuck in the middle of the conflict in Syria? In South Sudan? Those are the people we are meant to help. We get frustrated almost every day when our staff report that their work is being restricted by the people we are trying to serve and those who give themselves authority over them. One day, the news was that one “camp manager” was killed by his own cousin. This week, warning shots were fired as some of our team members left a camp after distributing kits containing hygiene items for families. It wasn’t seen as a fair distribution process so the team was first blocked from leaving, and then forced to leave. There’s a lot of tension between the Turks and the Syrians, between Syrian government supporters and faction supporters. Somehow these things erupted in the soccer game that was intended to unite us. It’s shameful and heart-breaking.
The game ended at that. The lady spectators left the stands to the street, and as we exited, police on motorcycles rolled up, then an ambulance. It had not been a quiet scene.
The next day, my colleagues were raving mad at their opponents and defending themselves for fighting. While I lost respect for the team member who got the bloody nose and didn’t just walk peacefully away, they gained respect for him for sticking up for himself. They joined the fight to defend him, thus showed him honor and respect and maintained a team spirit. In fact, one colleague said he wants to go beat the other team up again! He said, in this world, if you don’t stick up for yourself and toughen up, then you get trampled. Everything he said was the opposite of what Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount. I was telling him that the good way is peace, forgiveness, and love. He said, once the world changes to be that way, then he will change. I said, if you know it’s not the right way, but you do it anyway, and everyone else does too, how will the world ever change?? He reduced his life to a struggle of survival. He is stuck in the war mentality. It is the same that I encountered in South Sudan. It is such bondage. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” May the Lord’s spirit be released to reign in Syria! Amen.
“My Easter didn’t turn out how I expected, but I did pray in the Catholic church, attend a service at the protestant church, listen to a podcast sermon, worship, walk through a park twice, and I got a great gift from the Lord, too! On my way to the meeting point to find the driver, I came across an adorable little boy who was running to his mum and she spoke English! So I ‘casually’ stopped to spy on them (it felt refreshing to hear English after struggling to communicate with hotel staff and the driver all day). She spotted me right away and struck up a conversation. She and her husband and little guy have been missionaries here for 3 years, pentecostal/apostolic, she’s traveled and ministered all over the middle east and the husband grew up a missionary kid in south pacific, but they both have a slight southern american accent. I can’t even express in words the joy and hope it brings me! I will see them later this week. They are an answer to many prayers! Praise God!”
“A Whole New Way to Think About Stress” TED talk
***Watch the video at the link above, then read below.***
The Bible gave us this key to healthier living (physically and emotionally).
1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
This gives me the belief about stress as something to be conquered and overcome, which gives me the courage to rise to the challenges of life.
Romans 8:37-39 says “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[a] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This gives me the belief that God is always with me and supporting me, which probably increases my oxytocin levels.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus advises, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
There are many strong reasons to help others that bolster following Jesus’ advice, and this is something I strive to do in my own life. This probably helps me to deal with life’s stressors, too.
Seems like God really knows how he made us and told us exactly how to manage stress and be healthy!
This video reminds me of another TED talk where the guy said that the happiest people aren’t the richest, but the ones that give more away. “How to Buy Happiness“
And the Bible advises to give away a portion of your income (goods and/or money), to share resources with those in need, and help others.
My faith in God really has made my life better!!! No less stressors. Not easier. But happier and more meaningful.
I accompanied a very ill friend on a medical evacuation by plane from Juba to Nairobi with AMREF. She was immediately admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of Nairobi Hospital.
Every system of her body was fighting a war against a host of invaders – parasites, bacteria, and fungi. The medical treatments to help fight those off cause more damage to other organs. The medical treatments equally invaded her body – chest tube through the ribs into the lung sac, breathing tube from mouth to her lungs, central line under the collar bone to a vein, catheter into her bladder, feeding tube through the skin to her stomach, tracheotomy tube through a hole in her throat, naso-gastric tube from nose to stomach, blood draws by needle into every vein in both arms, lumbar puncture needle into her spinal cord to get a sample of fluid, and it goes on. My heart asks, “Why?” What is the good in the end of this suffering?
A few months earlier, I had the privilege to stand next to this friend during a time of worship with other Christian expats in Juba. Her worship drew me close to our God with her, and God started telling me about how much he loves her and all the things he loves about her and has planned for her, her purpose in her current influential job, and how he prepared her for it. It was such a beautiful expression of love for her, and he downloaded it into my heart so that I could share in his love for her. That prepared me for loving her through a few of (what I hope to be) the darkest moments in her life, and maintaining hope for the things God told me she would accomplish.
I am forever changed by witnessing her suffering and feeling extreme compassion: caring for this sick sufferer, hearing her whimper in pain, seeing in her eyes how scared and alone she feels, struggling for breath, unable to move in weakness, tubes from everywhere, needle prick bruises all over her arms. She is naked and her hair is a greasy mess. How can I show her dignity? How can I relieve her worry, her pain, her confusion, her suffering?
The small, still voice said, “Compassion is the highest calling.” I will expend myself for her sake. I understand better what the nurse in Mozambique meant when she said she would expend herself unto death to care for the malnourished babies of HIV+ parents. She wouldn’t take a holiday because of her compassion for God’s suffering children. I thought it was foolish, and now I feel the same. If it were my choice, I could easily give up everything to stay with her through the suffering until she is well and healthy. I’d go anywhere and do anything. It feels holy but exhausting. It is what Jesus did. He stayed to the end, full of compassion for His brothers and sisters, the people of His Father’s kingdom. He expended Himself to the last breath. And He was glorified.
It was difficult to leave her there in the hospital, even knowing that others would visit her and care for her. In the airport, waiting to catch my flight to return to Juba 3 long days later, the weight of the compassion, the strength I’d had, the weight of the hope I maintained, all came crashing, collapsing, imploding into itself in my heart. I should have let it all out but I held it together through the flight, through dinner, through socializing at the team house, through the night, through the early flight in the morning to the field site in Maban County, through work, and through life. I buried it under all the other traumas I’ve sustained of witnessing evil in this world.
She is now recovering and has quite some rehabilitation ahead of her. Please pray for full recovery!
In Renk town, Renk County, Upper Nile State, November 2012: We heard a neighbor wailing in the evening, sharing her anguish, wondering who would support her now?
In Gosfami, Geiger County, Upper Nile State, 2012: One of my team’s Hygiene Promoters, a young woman, motivated and smart, died in childbirth.
In Renk town, Renk County, Upper Nile State, February 2013: A neighbor drew a crowd by wailing in the street for an hour on a Sunday. She was hysterical and some thought she was crazy.
In Gainesville, FL, USA, April 2013: My uncle Byron died after a difficult battle with cancer only a few years after retiring.
In Bunj, Maban County, Upper Nile State, August, 2013: A friend and I found a quiet, dark place in the compound to talk privately under the stars. We heard an explosion, out of the darkness in the direction of the nearest village. My heart leapt. Was it a bomb? Is there fighting nearby? Did a child just loose a leg or his life on a mine? In the morning, the cooks said it was a man we’d employed for translation and data collection temporarily. He had a dispute with another man. One of them held the grenade and pulled the pin, killing them both. What we heard wasn’t just a grenade, it was the sound of death.
This week, at least 4 of our national staff are grieving a death in their family, and this is not unusual.
Death in South Sudan is more frequent among the young than the elderly. The life expectancy is 45 years.
I don’t really mentally understand it and find it difficult to emotionally process. I’m sure I’m supposed to feel more, but it’s not that it doesn’t affect me. I think I am hiding the grief like lava somewhere deep and one day it might erupt.
My friend has tried to explain to me several times how important it is to him to preserve his culture, in his own life and especially in the lives of his children. Culture, to him, is nearly inextricably linked to identity. He believes that in order for his children to have a healthy sense of identity, they must be brought up understanding the culture of their people, and its importance, despite the location of their upbringing.
Another friend explained to me that her parents instilled in her a Texan culture in order to provide stability and identity to their children as they moved from country to country working for the US Foreign Service. She is very grateful for her parents’ wisdom in this.
Living and working in a multi-national team causes constant confrontations with culture which cause offense or insult. These confrontations include offending colleagues by sending emails without greetings and salutations, smelling the food before serving it to my plate, and making comments about the unsanitary living conditions in the town. To me, none of these things are inappropriate, but I have been told not to do them again to avoid offending my colleagues.
I have made many changes to my lifestyle to live and work in South Sudan with an international team. When I was asked to make more changes, it put me in a mental struggle. The questions that have been rattling in my mind are, “How much should I change myself (or my culture) to please others?” and “How much should I expect others to have grace for me and respect for my culture?” I can make compromises on my daily habits and interactions only so much before I begin changing the very essence of who I am. This is something that I cannot do and do not think should be done or expected of me.
This prompted me to ponder, “What is my culture? What are the components of culture? What is it that makes me, me?” Language, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, practices and behaviors, perception of social hierarchies, political views, nationality, work ethic, communication style, values, moral codes, worldview? Let me reflect on my identity in each one.
My language is English. I grew up speaking American English, but the more I spend time with English speakers from around the world, my English has become less and less unique. A friend even remarked recently that my accent sounds British! I have adopted unique phrases from other cultures (like saying “half seven” for 7:30), but I also have my own American English phrases and slang that differentiate my English from others’. Nonetheless, speaking English seems to put me into a category of people with nearly infinite opportunities for “success” (in career, material possessions, and fulfillment), which is the effect that acquiring English has on many individuals in many developing nations.
Somewhat different to language, but related is communication style. I seem to have a different communication style than many of my colleagues. They find my text messages and emails to be abrupt with little room for feedback. My communications are to the point and down to business, often lacking formalities of greetings and salutations. At the same time, in my verbal communication, I was told by a national staff member that I talk too much and I should try to make my communications with him as concise as possible. I think for him, the more I explained, the more insulted he got that I thought he couldn’t understand what I was saying or that I thought he was incompetent to do the work correctly. For me, I felt that I needed to explain the task fully and in detail so that there was no misunderstanding or lack of clarity of my expectations of how to do the task. This is especially because there is somewhat of a language barrier (I speak American English and for him, English is a second or third language, learned in Africa). To me, I felt that I was doing us both a favor by taking the time and effort to fully explain, and he felt insulted and annoyed with me for the same thing.
My religion is Christianity. I did not grow up in a particular religion, so in this aspect of culture, I created my own culture, apart from my family; or rather, I joined another aspect of culture apart from them. I wouldn’t define Christianity as having a culture unto itself, but different cultures within Christianity can be found, within a denomination spreading across the globe, or down to a specific church’s community culture. I don’t feel that I want to, or even should, belong to a specific culture within Christianity, as my religion is a relationship rather than a ritual, though it does influence my behavior. Primarily, it influences me to act in compassion and mercy, and should enable me to love everyone that I encounter.
My ethnicity is Caucasian. That hardly means anything in relation to describing my culture. My ancestors are from the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, and Palestine, but all of my grandparents spent their lives on the east coast of the U.S. In my lifetime, I had the influence of my two grandmothers, neither of whom seemed to reflect any particular ethnic culture.
My nationality is American. Since America is the melting pot, what does this add to the description of my culture? That I have the tendency to be arrogant, loud, and ignorant of the world? I don’t believe these things are true. To many in the world, it means I was born into privilege, which is true, but there are many Americans who were not. Does it mean that I am superficial and lack moral character? I don’t believe so. Does it mean I have courage to stand up for equal rights and for freedom? Yes. Being American also means that I relate to stereotypes of different regions of the US, particularly the south and New England. It also means I love Mexican food. For me, being American means I’ve been influenced by many cultures, I was born into privilege, I have courage to stand up for equal rights and for freedom, and I have an identity in the history of the development of my country (like the end of slavery and immigration of Latinos).
My highest education level is a Master’s degree in Public Health. Throughout my life, I’ve had access to and attended high quality educational institutions. This causes me to fit in and interact best with people who possess strong analytical skills, dream big and achieve their dreams, and focus on solving problems.
My perception of social hierarchies seems to be very relaxed in comparison to many of my friends. I do respect my elders, those more experienced, more educated, and in higher positions, but I also feel that I have something to offer or teach everyone around me, as I also have something to gain and learn from them. “God is no respecter of persons,” comes to mind. We are all equal in that we are all uniquely created, wonderfully and fearfully made. We are all in various stages of coming into our full potential, to be all that we are created to be. I believe I should treat everyone according to that potential, rather than the current reality.
Politics… My relationship with politics is not healthy. I despise thinking about politics. I don’t think I can make a good judgement of a person and his/her ability to run a country (a job which I have no idea what it entails) without having met the person. I recognize the privilege of living under a democracy that gives me a voice in the matter, as well as the hard-earned right to vote as a woman. It is not my interest, but I know that it is in my interest to pay attention. I took a politics test once to assess where I fall on the spectrum, and like most of my family, I lean towards the liberal democratic party. But I do not identify myself with this party because I don’t agree completely with all the essentials of the party. Nor do I feel that American politics defines any part of who I am. I call myself a-political (without politics). My beliefs about how to live in community tend toward socialism, that we should share resources so that no one is in need. But I fully believe that all should work according to his/her ability to contribute to the community’s collective and individual needs. As far as how government should play a part in society? I haven’t a clue.
My work ethic is rooted in doing the best I can do to complete the task effectively and efficiently. I don’t like laziness and idleness, or goofing off too much on things that do not add value to one’s own or others’ lives. My employer’s values are integrity, accountability, faith, hope, compassion, and dignity. I whole-heartedly agree with this work ethic.
I value people more than things. I try to treat everyone according to the way I want to be treated, with love. I try not to do wrong or harm to anyone. I believe that it is not my place to take revenge. I believe in “fair” and loving treatment of all people, regardless of anything they have done or said or believe.
This is who I am and who I strive to be. This is my identity. And it is influenced by many cultures.
[kuhl-cher] noun, verb, cul·tured, cul·tur·ing.
1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
2. that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.
3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
4. development or improvement of the mind by education or training.
5. the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
There are certain aspects of the components of my culture that I consider to be “excellent” but I can’t say that my culture is the most excellent way. I value aspects of many cultures, though they are not my own, nor would I choose to make them my own. But I can see the beauty and value in them.
If I strive to live the way God desires, to look to Jesus as my model, then I am moving towards forming my worldly culture to Kingdom culture. I wish to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, as a member of His family, and thus will refine my culture to His. What does that look like? It looks like love and freedom from the influences of evil for all! It is honor towards one another. It is peace among all men and brotherly kindness. It is patience and hope for good in everything and everyone. It is joy in all circumstances as I trust in a loving God. It is faithfulness to God and to each other. It is gentleness in all interactions. It is exercising self-control to protect self and others. It is the harvest of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is having no envy towards others and not boasting of self. It is not being arrogant or rude. It means rejoicing in truth. There is no injustice. It is believing in one another to be good, always hoping for good, and enduring through all hardships in that hope. It is endless love in the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 13). This is what I want my culture to be.