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I’m married!

September 30, 2015


My Version of our Story

I came to Antakya, Turkey on Good Friday April 18, 2014, just before Easter. On Monday, I met Hussein Al Ali, the senior engineer on the environmental health (EH) team. He sat a few meters away from my new desk. There was a window with a mountain view next to my desk in that office, and in that first week, I noticed Hussein sometimes came to the window to look at the mountain. He said it made him feel free to know there was something so much bigger and stronger than himself.

One day as the work day finished in the first week, Hussein was looking to the mountain through a window open to the spring air. He invited me to take a walk downtown along the river. I was eager to explore my new city, enjoy the weather, and get my blood flowing. We walked and talked non-stop, along the river, past the main circle, through Antakya park, and back along the other side of the river, ending at Hatay Kunefe in the center of town by the river. By then, we were hungry for dinner, so we enjoyed a meal there. Hussein said repeatedly at the end of each topic we covered, “Really it is so nice to meet you.” Which I thought was funny since this is usually only said once at the initial meeting. He was genuine, kind, and joyful. I appreciated his hospitality to introduce me to Antakya.

My birthday came a couple weeks after I arrived, before I’d made any close friends, but a colleague was kind enough to invite some of the ex-pats and the environmental health team out for dinner at Avlu. I remember I was asked how I was settling in, and I related to them how sweet my introduction to the city was with Hussein. One colleague joked, “Sounds like you’ve already had a wonderful first date!” I laughed and assured her it was nothing like that – just friendly hospitality, and it truly was. Suddenly during dinner, Ezzat and Hussein came storming in with a cake set with sparklers and singing happy birthday! It was a wonderful gesture to welcome me to the family of the EH team and made me feel special and hopeful for good friends.

In early May, I planned to hike to the top of the mountain in Antakya with a young Turkish couple. Most of you know this as the time when I broke my toe! And Hussein was my hero that day. I had invited a few people from the office to hike the mountain. Hussein was surprised and excited to hear that there was a way to the top! The four of us met up downtown, bought a quick lunch and headed up from town, all the way to the top. Along the way, Hussein was a gentleman by watching my footing, and lending me a hand in steep places. It felt special to accomplish something together, to be looked after, and I’ll admit, there was a sweet feeling being with the young couple, as if we were on a double date. But I dismissed those feelings as being the result of the circumstances. At the top, we climbed to the highest point, at the top of the old ruins. We felt free and triumphant! Which is why I wanted to swing in the archway, which is when the mortar gave way and a big stone crushed my toe! The three friends rushed to me. I knew my toe was broken and the only way to get down from the mountain was to walk along the fort wall to the next mountain peak where there is a tea house and access road. As I was in shock from the pain, Hussein held my chin, bringing my face close to his, locking my eyes to his, and he said, calm and steady with a smile and honest, hopeful eyes, “Everything will be good.” He had to do that multiple times until we got to a resting place by the road where I collapsed, laying on the ground. Hussein found a large rock and a random piece of laminate tile and set them up under my leg to elevate it comfortably. Then he sat with me while we waited for a car to pass; the young couple pranced off alone. My mind was filled with pain without any linear thought, while Hussein took my hand, started to touch it gently, and asked, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I rolled my eyes at my past and my heart smiled at his assumption of my innocence. Then I became annoyed that he was being sweet and touching my hand and asking me this question while I was in such a state! I replied, “Yes” annoyed at him and pulled my hand away. After that day, I tried to understand why he did that and looked for any sign that he was more than friendly, but I didn’t feel that he was.

In July, I took an amazing holiday on the Greek island of Skyros. Before returning to work, I’d planned to spend a few days in Istanbul and Hussein and a field engineer, Firas, would be there at the same time so we decided to tour around together. Firas had lived there previously while Hussein and I had everything to discover. I took the bus into Istanbul from the airport where the two gentlemen met me, took my bag and led me directly to my hotel. They had already found my hotel on the map in relation to the bus stop, visited it to be sure they knew where it was, and then came to for me! We enjoyed traipsing around Istanbul, tasting, touching, and doing everything in sight. In the evenings, they brought me back to my hotel. It was most obvious to me in saying goodnight that I was beginning to feel something for Hussein because I wanted Firas to leave while Hussein and I could continue speaking into the morning hours. But that didn’t happen. Sitting on the bus, I wanted to rest my head on Hussein’s shoulder, and walking through the parks, I wanted to hold his hand. But we did none of these things. The feeling billowed inside us until it burst forth in the Aquarium!

On the last day, we went to the Aquarium. In the lobby, there was a tornado machine that blew winds inside a human-sized clear plastic tube for one lyra. Hussein excitedly dragged me over to the machine without telling me what it was, and pulled me inside with him. Before I knew it, we were being blasted with air, swept away in a special moment, on display for all to see (and believe me, there was a crowd of Turkish children and their parents all around, laughing at our hair and clothes flapping around)! Hussein was beaming with excitement that his body could hardly contain while I looked at him, wondering how this man is so joyful, and feeling my heart playing with the idea of loving him. At the entrance to the aquarium, we presented our tickets where they ushered the three of us in a line to take a photo in front of a fake underwater scene. We tried to just enter the museum but they practically shouted at us, “It’s free! You must take a photo! It’s free!” We now often use this to joke about anything coercive. Now we come to the bursting part. We were closely examining a sea anemone and I was trying to describe how they open and close to catch their food. I used my upper body and arms to close myself and blossom open. Well, Hussein’s adoration was completely uncontainable and he hugged me! I was shocked! Because I know the regional culture, and how men and women do not often even touch outside the family. And because it meant that he was truly feeling what I was feeling. I pulled away, and he thought he’d offended me. Now my heart started on a journey down a rushing river.

Over the next several months, Hussein and I spent time together, having picnics in the pavilions on the mountain side, hiking, going to breakfast in the village, to Arsuz beach, swimming in the pool, geocacheing for my dad, going to church, going to “American dinners”, taking evening walks downtown and through the park, cooking, biking to work, walking home from work, sharing lunch times, and of course still working together every day. It became even easier to spend time together when Hussein and Firas moved into the apartment complex across the street from my apartment! My parents visited Turkey in late October and they met Hussein in Antakya, knowing he was someone special to me. They love him. In the end of January, I went to Gaziantep to meet his family – his loving, wise, strong mother, his 4 sweet sisters, and one of 2 brothers. I saw the love and respect they have for Hussein, and the harmony they have together as a family. They love me.

Hussein and I are comfortable to share our inner thoughts and desires, and small musings to one another. Over the months, we remarked several times about how he and I are from such different contexts – different nationality, different cultures, different types of families, through peace and war, etc. and yet… BUT GOD… We are so similar and adhere to so many of the same values and have many mutual particular interests. From giving to the needy, showing love, respect, and compassion, showing others God, trusting God in all things, thanking God for all things, and then down to both loving the way things look in a microscope, loving wood, having an interest in “converted container homes”, loving to experience everything by touch, and loving the expanse of the sea and mountains.

He is so kind and gentle, a gentleman, responsible for those around him, servant-hearted. He comforts me and prays with me and for me. I have seen even how he works with the engineers he supervises. They have friendship and professional respect for him. He values excellence and quality. He teaches them and makes plans and efforts to teach and lead them. He is so patient and slow to anger, and in the rare times he is angry, he is still calm and without any trace of malice. When something is done against him, he says thanks to God that he is not like that person. He says that when things are good, praise God; when things are bad, praise God; when someone is bad to you, praise God and pray for them. He is a beautiful example to me. He makes me a better person, and he says the same of me.

We love being together, we love working together, traveling together, and doing any adventure or new thing together, and especially eating! :) We have set our life goals to build the kingdom of God by displaying God’s love through acts of service, encouraging others to see, know, and love God, and to know God personally more and more.


Hussein’s Version of our Story

A Gift from God

18 April 2014, IRC office

Our boss, Alan Cameron, came to my office to introduce a new employee. She was so beautiful, with light skin, a little shy, and she looked so excited. She sat at her desk gently and quietly reading the IRC policies. After a few minutes, she started to look out the window of our 7th floor office to see the view and realize where she is. I looked at her, at her eyes, at her hair, and I looked at her clothes, warm colors. For me, she was just a strong, smart, and beautiful woman, but I had no idea about her.

A week earlier, the HR Officer, Khansaa, was telling us about a new employee. She said she is a young American girl; she’d seen my picture and said she is so beautiful. All the guys laughed in delight that a beautiful American girl would be working in their office. But who knew that we were speaking about my wife?!

The first night finished and Lee returned to her hotel. On the second day, she came full of power and excitement. Again, she looked out the windows. For me, Antakya was just a small city, but she was so happy when she looked at the mountain. I remember when I was looking at the mountain, and I told her, “Look at how beautiful it is!” and she agreed. I thought, “Thanks God, someone else sees this mountain as I do.” In the same day, when we finished, I invited her to walk together downtown, just to help her know the city, to see the river, to know where the mall is. I told her, we will walk a little bit and when we feel tired, we can return or take a bus. So we started walking and walking and we spoke about a lot of things. I told her I was sorry for my English. I was so happy to speak with a new person, and to introduce the city to her. I realized, Lee was a little girl, and she is so simple. She thinks like an innocent child, not with a jaded adult mind. She was excited to see everything with new eyes. We walked all the way to Hatay Kunefe, and then I told her there is a park, Antakya Park, near the river. I came before to this park by bike, but not walking. We continued to walk through the park speaking all the way. She told me about how many countries she visited. When we got to the river dam, she decided it was getting late, so we turned around, and stopped at Hatay Kunefe restaurant for dinner. This was the first meal we shared. I didn’t plan to invite her to dinner, but it was dinner time and we were both hungry. We ordered – what I love, she loves: food! When they delivered the dinner, she took a photo of the food saying that she must send it to her brother. That means I know she loves family and she is thinking of them. For the next week, we didn’t do anything but we saw each other in the office everyday.

I added her on facebook, and she started to upload some photos of her time in Antakya. I couldn’t believe that in her first few weeks, she went to the mountain, to Harbiye, and was invited for dinner at the home of a Turkish family. I’d been in Antakya for a year and I didn’t do any of these things yet! After two weeks, I asked her, how do you spend your time? And how did she get to have dinner with a Turkish family without speaking any Turkish? I asked her about her trip to the mountain, and she told me about Abdullah and Suzanne. I asked her how did you understand them? She said “google”. I told her that I love this mountain but I didn’t think it’s easy to walk there.

It seems I invited myself to her next hike with them, and that was my first trip with her. I met her and I felt so lucky. I am the only person who uses Arabic, Turkish, and English, so I really helped with their communication. I was so excited to go to that mountain which had been in my eyes for over a year. Everything was perfect until we met the stone that broke Lee’s toe. I was so sad, more than her, because it was our first trip, and she didn’t do anything wrong. We were on the top of the mountain and I didn’t know where to go. But I looked at her toe and told her, “It’s okay, no problem. It is just bruised and it just needs some time for the blood to come again. You have strong boots.” I told her it wasn’t broken but actually it turned out it was! We walked for almost an hour to get to a road and she called the IRC driver. I was sure he wouldn’t come to the mountain. I sat with Lee, waiting for any car, and she had a baby face as she was in pain and afraid. She felt pain. I tried to speak about anything to take her mind off the pain. I asked her, “do you have a boyfriend?” (I really wanted to know.) I had looked at her facebook photos and I only saw Sky, her brother. I touched her hand, to squeeze it and tell her, “you’re okay.” I looked in her eyes directly to give her power and tell her, “You’re not alone.” Finally, we found a car whose driver agreed to take us to Antakya. So I picked Lee up to carry her to the car. We took that car to the middle of the city, and again she called the IRC driver. We just sat on the sidewalk waiting again. I had two feelings at that time: my heart so sad and my face so strong. I wanted to make her feel unafraid. She left to the hotel room and I went home.

I was just thinking about her face, about her eyes, and felt sad for her. I didn’t even think or have any idea that’s my fiancee. And the days went by. She had to do two operations for her toe. I didn’t go to the first one, but I went for the second. I felt she came closer and closer to me. The guys from the office came to her home, cooked for her, and made fun of her, just to make her happy. I loved her face. I just stared at her face. I realized I really love this face. At the same time, I thought, she’s my friend, so how did I start to love her face? I loved her eyes, her hair, and I started to feel afraid. “What am I doing? She’s just my friend.” At the second operation, I was waiting for her to emerge from the operation block with a wheelchair. She came and sat down while I called for the elevator. When the elevator doors opened, I entered, and motioned with my hands to come in. She just looked at me to tell me, “hey I’m waiting for you to push me!” I realized I never pushed a wheelchair in my life and I didn’t think that I had to do that. Of course, I laughed at myself and pushed her in. We went to her home and I brought some things from the grocery store. I cooked for her.

When I came home, I asked myself, what did I do, and why? She is so sweet and she is so special to me. I have no words to explain how friendship became love. But I was just telling myself that she’s my best friend. And we became better and better and better friends, speaking a lot and learning a lot about each other. We spoke about God, and she told me about God, but I avoided to speak about God with her because I already knew that she is Christian and I am Muslim. But she was speaking about God the same as I know my God. And I started sharing what I know about God with her. I never spoke about faith with anyone before. I avoided speaking to people about these things because recently I didn’t meet anyone who considered God as I do. Over time, we started sharing our daily plans and aligning them to share the time together. We went to the mountain many times.

But I got a new feeling when she decided to take a holiday in Greece. I started to think about what I will do while she’s away? I asked myself, “My life was without Lee, so why are you thinking about what will you do when she is away?” Here I realized that this is something more than friendship. When she left, I felt I missed her. I didn’t know if I should tell her that or to just wait to see her again to tell her “welcome back”. Lee had a few extra days on the end of her holiday, and Firas and I had planned to be in Istanbul that weekend, so we invited her to make a tour with us. I knew this was a great way to spend some time with her on a special trip. Firas and I made a schedule for the tour of Istanbul; I was so focused on making this schedule to make everything special for Lee. Before meeting her in Istanbul, we found her hotel to make it convenient for her. Then she called to let us know she arrived to Taksim. I told her to come to the flag but she told us she is under million flags but eventually she found the biggest flag at the biggest flagpole in Taksim. Finally, we met her again. I was so happy. I could only tell her “welcome back” but I couldn’t tell her “I missed you.” I really felt I needed to tell her that and give her a hug, but I didn’t. We spent 4 days in Istanbul together, and everyday she told us she needed to be in the hotel a little early (8pm) to do personal emails, but our schedule was perfect and everything was amazing, so we left at 9am and returned around midnight each day. We had a great tour in Istanbul. We tried a lot of food and I loved her for that. The best thing was that she wanted to take a nap anywhere, ANYWHERE! Even in the bus, in the grass in the park. In Istanbul, I realized “I love her. I cannot say she’s my friend. No, I love her”.

In the last day, in the Aquarium, I invited her to be with me in the tornado machine. She didn’t even say yes or no, but I pulled her. I just wanted to be crazy with her. While we walked through the Aquarium, we stopped in front of the sea anemone, and she started to explain how they move, but I didn’t hear any word; I just looked at her face and how she moved. I just wanted to hug her and kiss her head. And I did hug her. And then I felt I did something wrong to her so I apologized. In the next four hours until she left, I apologized and explained that I did that because she is so sweet, but not that I am in love. At first, she didn’t say anything, but then she said it is fine. She left Istanbul and I made the first prayer to God about our relationship. I prayed if this relationship will be good, then make it strong, but if the relationship is wrong, then finish it as soon as possible. I spent two more days in Istanbul thinking about her but actually I told her I wanted to spend these days with friends. When I came back to Antakya, I was just thinking about how I could tell her “I love you” because she is not only my best friend, she is my habibi. I was ready to hear anything from her. In the next few weeks, we spoke clearly about what happened in Istanbul. She felt the desire to be together in that time without Firas, and that made me happy because it was also my feeling.

After this trip, we started our relationship in a different way. I showed her clearly that I am taking care of her. We went to the mountain, to Arsuz many times, to breakfast village (Karaca), to Mersin, to Tarsus, to Istanbul again, and to Cappadocia. But the trip that changed everything, was when I went to Istanbul for an interview for a visitor visa at the US Consulate. We had planned to go together to the US in May when she went for her brother’s graduation. In that time, Lee told me that she accepts my million proposals to get married. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the visa, but I got a lot of messages from her family about how they are sorry I couldn’t come. I felt that a lot of people care about me. Then Lee went to the US for 2 weeks and when she came back, we started to plan for the official engagement, the wedding, applying for immigration to the states, and applying for master’s degree programs for me.

A few weeks ago, on July 10, I asked Lee to marry me, on my knee, with a ring, and she accepted me! The happiest day was when we shared our relationship to all people. And now we are preparing the wedding for the 12th of September. And that’s my story.

So, thanks God for this gift.


Holistic Holiday

August 2, 2014

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!!!

Skyros Island

Out of the earth,
high and lofty
mighty mountains
standing proud
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

geometric shapes
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.

The Humanitarian Cup

June 15, 2014

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 was about the evening’s match when our team would play against another organization’s team. Our team is comprised mostly of Syrians and a Bosnian/Serbian ex-pat who holds a high management position. The opponent’s team was mostly ex-pats from what I could tell. Two of our 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 fan poster with the our logo. 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.


A New Chapter in Antakya, Turkey

April 20, 2014
Happy Easter, from Antioch/Antakya, Hatay Province, Turkey, where Christians started to form their own identity and gained a name!
I am here working for an international humanitarian aid organization as Environmental Health Manager focusing on hygiene promotion and community mobilization in the Syrian crisis, at least til the end of 2014.  My first day at work is tomorrow!
My first few days here have felt like a rollercoaster, but I’m trying to keep myself level.
I wrote the following this morning in response to a friend:
“I am feeling out of place. I’m just in an awkward phase when I am not yet integrated. I’ve met 3/22 expats on the team. I am staying in a hotel. I think they wanted me to rest well and adjust to the time zone but when you’re alone in a new city in a hotel room, it’s amazing how much time there is and how loneliness creeps in. I am venturing out to the local Protestant church today for Easter on my own. Well the staff driver will take me there. To me it seems Christianity is so absent here. The receptionist didn’t know about Easter. Maybe I feel like Peter did when he first went out to share the gospel. The weird thing is, this is where it started to gain an identity, spread, and grow. And how sad that it is so lost now. What I fear a bit is that though this all seems to be great, it is void of meaning. I could have everything in this world that I want – a job, apartment, salary, hills to climb, and a beach nearby, but without family, friends, deep relationship and human connection, without a community centered in Christ and full of love, none of it would satisfy. But I trust in The Lord and cling to him.”
By evening, this is how I feel:

“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!”

Even though the people here have a wide variety of skin and eye colors, I still manage to attract attention as a foreigner.  I double checked with the hotel receptionist if I was dressed inappropriately and she said it has nothing to do with anything I have done, just that I am foreign.  So much for blending in.

My Way of Life

February 5, 2014

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.


Compassion for the Sufferer

September 11, 2013

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!


September 11, 2013

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.


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