Thursday, April 25, 2013

Iraq Continued - Sulaymaniyah

It's hard for me to describe what all we experienced in Iraqi Kurdistan because so much of the Kurds' experience is so foreign to our experience as Americans. There, it's very common for someone to be mid-conversation and casually mention "yeah, so then I was in the 3rd grade...and that's when my father was buried alive by Saddam...and then we went to fourth grade..." They don't miss a beat, it's so common of an experience there to have lost one or both parents, or to have been imprisoned or been tortured. Just in our short time there, we had the following occur (along with many other similar encounters):

1. While we were in mid-conversation with a Christian pastor in his living room, our host stopped him and said "well, *Pastor X [I'm not using actual names in these posts because many people there could be in danger, either for their beliefs or because they fled another country, etc.] weren't you put in prison as well?" And he laughs and says "oh yes! It was a wonderful time in my ministry because so many people in Iraq end up in prison at some point so I had a captive audience!" 

The fact that he was in prison didn't even cross his mind though. That's how normal it is.

2. While we were hanging out with Arab youth studying English in a park at the site of one of Saddam's old torture centers, we found out that the most gregarious kid of them all, one who happily told us of his plans to go to America and be in the creative arts, had had a brother shot and killed inside the torture center we toured a couple days beforehand.

3. The owners of the English learning center where these kids attended, casually mentioned that they give discounts to families in need and "martyrs." I later asked our host what they considered a martyr and she said it meant they helped anyone whose parents had been murdered by Saddam. They had a discount for that, it was so prevalent.

4. During a church service, where you'd normally hear prayer requests like "oh, I'm thinking of switching jobs so pray for wisdom" or "oh I'm having car problems, pray for that," we literally heard requests (translated for us) for things like "pray for church member X whose father was just kidnapped and held for ransom," "pray for all those across Iraq who are in prison with no justifiable cause." Such an eye-opener....

But the resiliency of the people there. 


Part of the reason I was so excited to come on this trip was because I've struggled with my own faith the last few years and I really wanted to hear from people who would inspire me again. 
And I know a lot of people who read this blog do not subscribe to faith in Jesus, but ya'll know I do and I was visiting with fellow "believers" most of the time I was in Iraq so a lot of my stories will be about them. Deal with it. :) No, in all seriousness, I hope you keep reading anyway. If not, I'll come find you....  
Anyway, I actually think the U.S. might be a more difficult place at times than other countries to have a true, meaningful Christian faith because we are so spoiled, or because Christianity is so well-known and played off as simple-minded, or because many people feel like it's enough to just go to church once a year or say you "believe in a higher power" and that's it. I think true belief in God/Jesus/The Bible requires discipline and some sacrifice and permeates your whole life, not just enters it every now and then when it's convenient. It's tough to live that way, and to find a ton of other people who also live that way, but in some African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, etc. cultures, I've seen such an intense awe of God, such a raw belief that I start craving that again and end up travelling again every few years to find it. I was searching for that when I headed to Iraq and I definitely found it. We heard many stories of people from all backgrounds explaining that they'd had visions or recurring dreams or experiences that for whatever reason made them know Jesus is real and that they needed to believe in God's sovereignty. Stuff that you can't just chalk up to coincidence or influence from someone else. Things that happened to them that they just couldn't deny.

We also heard stories about visions people had about just general life decisions that they believed were from God. One couple told me that they had a dream even about what house they were to buy for their family. Long story short:

The couple was struggling to find a house big enough, within their budget, that would be ready to move in quickly (It's common there for people to sell their house but then continue to live there for up to 6 more months). The wife in the couple had a vivid dream about how all the houses on this block were a certain finished siding but there was one house that was painted a different color. A young man dressed in traditional Kurdish attire was there with them.  In real life, she and her husband were talking to a Realtor who ended up showing them this one painted house that was different from the rest of the houses on its block. But the man showing the house was older and wearing Western clothes. So the wife felt like it sort of fit the vision, but not entirely...
 Later, when they decided to look at the house again, the original man couldn't get away to show it but he sent his nephew instead. Sure enough, the nephew ended up being a young man - dressed in traditional Kurdish clothes. The house ended up being bigger than they even needed, for less money than it should've been, and it was available within weeks.  They were even able to give the bottom portion of it to a lady they work with who also needed housing.

There were stories after stories like that and even more poignant was the raw faith in God and sense of hope these people had after going through so many horrific things. There’s no indication of bitterness or loss of faith in a “good God” because of what they’ve experienced. I find that remarkable and feel like that’s a supernaturally-given strength and peace that I could use myself sometimes. Even though my situations where I question God pale so much in comparison to theirs.

In that same city, we heard a first-hand account of someone’s torture experience in one of Saddam’s old prison/torture centers. I’ll tell you about that next post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Running For Boston

I’m putting off my Iraq posts yet again to talk about running.

Because after what happened in Boston last week, the running community that I’ve loved has become even closer. I’ve ran with three different groups in the last week, all who were running “for Boston” and I had to share about last night’s run because it’s such a perfect example of why I love runners.

A marathoner here in D.C. decided to put together a Memorial Run for 4.09 miles, the time on the race clock in Boston when the first bomb went off. This event went viral and spread through both social and traditional media until over 300 people had RSVP’d on the event Facebook page.

I didn’t see the event until the day of and couldn’t find anyone to join me, so I went alone. Which you can do with runner groups because runners are typically happy to see other runners, no matter how slow I am you are, and you make friends by jogging together and chatting. Kinda like how I made friends with Roscoe during my marathon here.

The run was actually really well organized. They had a staging area with signs for different pace groups, veterans groups, etc. We had a group moment of silence for the attacks. They gave everyone a piece of paper with the route on it and had some “race” bibs as well.

They got the Renaissance Hotel to donate 10% of food and drink purchases to The One Fund and they had a boombox full of Boston hits like Sweet Caroline and Boston You’re My Home.

People all started talking to each other before the race and in the end, the organizer (a Bostonian and marathoner) and another man who just ran Boston in 3 hours 30 minutes joined our little 11:00 min pace group. I suppose they were trying to take it really easy. But having them with us gained us some extra t.v. exposure (a lot of journalist/bloggers covered the event) and one video was turned on us right as someone was announcing our pace. Awesome. We may now be famous for being turtle-slow.

We weren't the absolutely slowest though. There was a 12 min pace and a Walkers group as well. And we ended up catching up to the pace group ahead of ours at a stoplight later, to which someone in our group yelled “we’re comin’ for ya, 10:30!” Ah, healthy competition….

Tourists snapped photos of us along our route and other runners started cheering. One of the pace groups stopped by the Massachusetts column at the WWII memorial to take a photo. I met a nice lady named Adrienne who matched my pace and we kept each other going the whole time. As we sprinted towards the finish line, we’d pass runners who’d already finished yelling “Go Boston!” and the group at the finish were all gathered in a circle chanting and singing Sweet Caroline. They started clapping for us as we came towards them and then shortly after us, the 12 min pace group all came in in a huddle and everyone at the finish exploded into cheers for them as well.

That’s runners for you. Encouraging each other, whether you’re an 8 minute pace or a 12. Whether you’re a marathoner or a 5Ker. Whether we know each other or not.

I took photos and exchanged sweaty hugs with Adrienne, even though that may be the only time I ever see her. For that evening, we encouraged each other, and that was enough. That’s why I love running. Because it’s bigger than running. When you encourage someone at the finish line, you are encouraging them at life in general. When you push through more miles than ever before, you reach a deeper conviction about your own capableness. I remember when I was going through a horrible heartbreak a while ago, my friend Tiffani said, “You’re going to get through this…you ran a MARATHON for pete’s sake!” :) And it helped. And while there’s nothing I can do to take away what happened last week, I can show solidarity with the people at that event. And it helps.

This video was taken right before I ran in. At the end, you can hear one of the guys say "we got about 50 more people out there, let's bring 'em in!" So good, so good, so good. :)


most of the photos here came from posts on the Facebook page

Moment of Silence

Me and my new friend made it into On Tap online magazine

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Iraq Continued

We left off a couple posts ago with me heading out on my flight to Iraqi Kurdistan. The flight alone was adventurous, and included:

- us having to postpone take off because a lady who couldn't speak English -- or Turkish (which is what the flight crew spoke) -- was apparently having some sort of mysterious health issue.

-she finally got off the plane altogether, causing suspicion which created another delay while the flight crew looked in every overhead compartment during a "security check"

-during the flight - a man was caught smoking in the bathroom (seriously didn't know people actually tried to do that...)

-later, that same man YELLED across two sets of aisles -- in the middle of the flight, when everything was dark and everyone was sleeping -- because he wanted water from the flight attendant.

However, we did get to fly over "Batman," which just makes the 13 year old in my head giggle.

Our in-flight map showing us totally taking out Batman, but apparently missing a Van....

In any case, by the time we got to our layover in Turkey, the last thing we needed to hear was "oh just wait until the next flight"- but that's basically what I did hear from one of our trip leaders who had been to Kurdistan before. She wouldn't tell me what she meant, and instead said "I'll tell you once we land in Erbil."

Awesome! I'll just sit here and relax then, that doesn't sound ominous at all!

My fears of seeing some decrepit prop plane were allayed as we boarded the next flight and it seemed nice and safe. Turns out, her story had to do with weather she encountered - specifically: a sand storm.

And thus began one of the worst flight stories I've ever heard a first-hand account of. The only reason it's not the worse is because I know someone who was actually in a plane crash....

She began telling us about how there was a giant sandstorm sweeping across the middle east and all the flights had been grounded for hours. Then, in what seemed to be a tiny break -- her flight decides to be the Brave Little Toaster and takes off.

She describes the next two hours as the worst turbulence she's ever been in and said people were bawling and expecting to die. THEN! The plane tries to land not once, but twice! to no avail!! No one could see anything, apparenlty including the runway, and each time the plane dove to try to land, the pilots realized they missed!! and would jerk the plane back up last minute and head back into the sky.

Right?!? Right?? I don't know if I could ever fly after that. She said she absolutey believed that's how she was going to be taken out of this world, but then - third time's a charm! - they finally landed.

Good. Grief.

Thankfully we had already safely arrived in Kurdistan when I heard this and we never experienced a sandstorm while we were there (although one swept through just a few days after we left).

Anyway, we get to Erbil (or "Irbil," the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq), meet some of our hosts, get a couple hours of sleep (we'd been travelling for two days straight, with both flights leaving around 1 a.m. - needless to say, I was glad this country has instant coffee everywhere) and then jump in a shuttle bus and ride 5 hours away to Sulaimaniya (or  Slemani or Sulaimaniyah or any number of other spellings. One thing we found - spelling is not the most consistent thing in Kurdistan.)

It was in the hotel there that I began my comical train of varying degrees of infrastructure failure that would continue through the trip. At different points:

-My electrical adapter would not physically fit into the outlet by my bed.

-someone else's adapter would fit near their bed... but then it shut the entire electricity off in the room

-I finally got my adapter to work in the living room, but then my phone/camera cord kept falling out of the adapter, leaving me to finally redneck-rig a strange contraption of my neck pillow on top of my backpack with tape holding all the plugs together. Even then, sometimes my phone still wouldn't charge.

-the handle was broken off the hot water side of the shower, leaving us to use the end of a spoon as a makeshift screwdriver to turn it with (which I needed help with and that help came into the shower not realizing I was standing there sans clothes. Given all my naked public bath situations, I was fine with this but they were not....sorry!)

And you remember all the glasses problems I had leaving for Japan HERE? Well, wouldn't you know, after all the shower and cord debaucles, I finally exited the shower and stepped direclty on --

you guessed it! My glasses. Which I had foolishly laid on the floor.

Un. believable.

Thank goodness they didn't break, but they did get bent out of shape a bit...as did I.

We continued to have random little issues with each new place -- electricity deciding just to shut off, various shower surprises -- which is all a part of travel adventures, but all this coupled with a horrendous cough/head cold situation I had through the entire trip made for an even train-wrecky-er Dana than usual, but it didn't matter. We were about to have some incredible experiences - that I'll launch into next post.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cherry Blossom 10 Miler

Once again, my Goldfish-Poodledom is rearing its head and I'm all distracted and interrupting my Iraq post series to tell you about my race last weekend. Because races are fun and you know there's usually something random that happens to me.

Ahem, Exhibit A:
I call my friend during a race years ago to find her in the crowd for ONE SECOND and THAT'S the photo the race people captured....

Anyway, I thought I'd share about my latest race, even though I fear all my race stories are starting to sound the same because people are getting more and more comfortable with letting their freak flag fly during any race and no longer just relegating strange costumes and behavior to theme races.

So, this past Sunday, I ran the Cherry Blossom 10-miler for I believe the first time, although the Goldfish side of my brain may just be pulling another Italian Job on me and I likely have run the race and just thought I was running it for the first time. Either way --it was fun.

Per usual, I hadn't really trained for it (bad! I have to stop doing that!) and I had been travelling and sick so I really expected to have to take a lot of walk breaks and barely end before the race closed. I ended up surprising myself and jogging the whole thing, only walking very briefly around mile 8 during a water stop. I'm not sure what exactly was spurring me on, since it sure wasn't these guys:

As they wouldn't come out and bloom until the next day, the day after I needed them to keep me distracted while my legs were cursing me.

Thanks Cherry Blossoms.

Anyway, perhaps what kept me going was the entertainment. Here's the recap:

Around mile 2, we hit an out-and-back stretch which meant we passed the runners behind us as we headed back into downtown and they were still heading towards Virginia. It was around that point where I saw:

-A man dressed like Santa
-A man juggling
-a man jump-roping

and- the clean up crew. As in, I was so close to the back of the race that I felt like I was literally being chased by the van that picks up runners too slow to finish the course before they open the roads back up.

That'll make you speed up.

Around mile 3 - I caused an accident.

Ok, it wasn't just me but we assume the driver was watching the race when he drove into the car in front of him and we all heard it. Ouch.

After that, we continued on and enjoyed the people on the sidelines cheering, ringing cow bells, playing in drum circles (yes), and holding signs like "Worst. Parade. Ever" and "Smile if you aren't wearing underwear...."

At some point I passed two Statues of Liberty running with a man wearing a colorful pancho, who I could only deduce was representing...immigration-? Later I saw another Statue of Liberty running with -

A giant banana.

I got nothin' for that.

But it was fun to run near the banana just to hear all the cheers from the sidelines. "Oh yay, go banana!" "There's a banana!" "Look at the banana!" I nearly sarcastically told a guy running next to me "hey, you think there's a banana behind us?" but I wasn't sure he'd enjoy that so I just kept running in silence, amusing myself with thoughts like "I want a banana. You should be offering me a banana, I'm the one running this thing...."

You think of strange things while you're running for long periods of time. When I talked to a friend later who also ran the race, she admitted that at one point, she found herself thinking -- "you know, having a Kenyan friend would be the best brunch partner for these things because they'd finish so much faster than me and they could go hold a table...."
If you run at all, you know everyone jokes about Kenyans always winning races. It's like the whole country is predisposed to be superior in speed to the rest of the world. I ran behind a white guy wearing a shirt that said "Run like a Kenyan" during another out-and-back stretch and on the other side of the road -- the side filled with the runners who were beating us -- was a girl who saw the shirt and happily yelled she was Kenyan. Ha! Races bring people together...

Anyway, at some point I overheard two females runners behind me and it sounded like one said "well do you think you're over it?" and the other one saying "....well, you know, when you've shared a life with someone...." and for a second I thought her voice was cracking.

That'll make you speed up too. Yeesh, I don't need an Oprah episode during my run, thanks. I think I'll go find that banana again...

Around mile 9, I couldn't take the heat anymore and decided I had to take off my outer layer. But I feel stupid with a jacket tied around my waist so I tied it diagonally across my chest so it fit more like the strap of a side satchel, because that's acceptable, right? A couple days later I got an email with the official race photos and realized in horror that in tying it that way, and being in forward motion, it just looked like --

a cape


Whatever -- I survived! After I picked up my medal, I got a more official photo:

and was walking back to the metro when a man stopped me and asked "did you have to pay extra for the medal?"

And I was like "Pshaw - no! You earn the medal by running the race, silly...."


I later talked to the friend who also ran it and she confirmed that yes, you actually do have to pay extra for the medal in this particular race. Which meant that man wasn't crazy. Or joking. And it also meant...I had chosen that option willingly when I signed up several months before.

Which means my brain is still just as Goldfishy as ever and that I'll likely forget I ran this race. Next year, I'll probably go through this whole experience again ...for the first time....

I'll be sure to let you know about it.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

That time I up and went to Iraq

So yes, I neglected to mention that a few months ago, I committed to join my church’s “exploratory team” heading to Northern Iraq.

Long story short, I’ve been interested in Iraq ever since I worked at the White House and the Administration was sending people over there left and right. At the time, I let my fear of killing my parents stop me from looking into the opportunity. But now that I’m in my 30’s, I figure they’re just going to have to get over my life choices. …and even so, I still waited to tell some of my family until like the day before I left. Baby steps…

The trip was basically to send a small team to visit with folks on the ground and see how we can start partnering with them longer term. We weren’t entirely sure what all we’d get to help with, be it refugees, helping to further middle east and western relationships, or simply working alongside our friends in the Christian community there who are trying to meet various needs around them and also hold onto their faith in a sometimes dangerous environment. Turns out, we got to help with all of the above in tiny ways, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Per usual, the adventures started before I even left.

I go to a travel medicine doctor to find out what random vaccine I need this time. And my confidence in the doctor steadily decreases as this unfolds:

1. She shows me a map and indicates shaded areas, telling me “oh, looks like you’ll be in places with high malaria risk!”

Then shortly after… “oh wait! That’s not a risk map, that’s an elevation map!”

*Jaw drop*

So I nearly got injected with something because Kurdistan has mountains? Awesome…

2. She read my chart wrong and casually said something about me being treated for tuberculosis. (See back story to the TB situation here ). She ran off onto other things when I finally piped up with an “Um…wait, I think that piece of paper actually said I did not go through treatment. I definitely don’t recall experiencing a 9 month treatment in the past and I think I would’ve remembered that….”

“Oh you’re right! It’s says here you actually declined that! Let me just change that on your yellow card then….”

* Face-palm*

3. She comes in to give me a typhoid shot and looks down and says “woops! Wrong needle tip!”

*takes off running* (just kidding, I stayed put. And prayed. Hard.)

So in the end, who knows what all was swirling in my blood stream as I finally boarded the plane and headed into Turkey for our layover. 

Next stop, Istanbul.