Saturday, August 31, 2013

And the Mountains Wept

Thirty minutes outside of Suli is an area called Arbat. Turn off the main road on to the gravel and dirt and slowly the tents begin to emerge. Straight rows of six that seem to reach the mountains, the UNHCR logo brightly emblazoned on the side. The summer wind whips up the dust, sometimes camouflaging them until they become one with the mountains. 

Syria is at war with itself. It's been going on for over two years and people have been fleeing to escape the destruction. An estimated one million seven hundred fifty thousand people are now refugees. I write out the figure because numbers are too easy to glance over, to add to the other statistics and factoids in our heads. These one million seven hundred fifty thousand people are spread over Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Algeria. Many of those countries themselves are dealing with their own turmoil. 

They are Christian and Muslim. They are mothers, sons, wives, fathers. They are high school teachers and oil drillers. They are children with dreams of their own. 

The four thousand refugees that arrived to the Arbat camp are no different. They are here because the other camps are full, because they fear that maybe their children would be the next ones to succumb to a chemical attack, because they have nowhere else to go. 

As I listened to each family list their possessions (4 mattress pads, 2 rugs, 1 water kettle, 1 AC unit, 2 coolers, 3 plastic tubs), I realized these were all items provided to them by a humanitarian organization. They fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

The UNHCR representatives said that this camp is a temporary one. That these people will soon be placed. I pray that is true. That schools and jobs can be found. That no child has to call that place home for more than a few months. 

Winter is on its way, and this far North the temperatures plummet. Snow caps the mountains that hover over the camp. I wonder if many will wish they had remained in Syria rather than be at the mercy of an unknown future. 

I have no poetic quote to tie up this story in a neat package; something we can tuck away and evaluate later when it's more comfortable or convenient.  

If you want to help, I encourage you to find a reputable organization you trust and make a donation. Pray. Keep loving people; all people of all colors and creeds. This hate and power-hoarding thing hasn't been working for eons. Maybe we could try hope, faith, and love for a change.  


Monday, August 26, 2013

All Good Things Come to an End...for a month

The classroom is nearly silent. Just the scratch of pencils, the brushing of fingers on paper to clear away those bits of stubborn eraser. A slight breeze wafts in from the courtyard window mixing the smell of paper and rose oud perfume. A little after the wall clock ticks to noon, the call to prayer sounds. I hope it is a comforting sound to the students so focused on their final exam in front of them.

We have reached the end of the summer term, and my little muffins will be officially done after my exam, and their vacation can begin.  I wonder if they mind me calling them muffins. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy muffins?!

I think back on my first year at AUIS, and I believe this summer has been the most fulfilling. I am comfortable enough here to know how things operate, no longer being the new one on crew; I have another solid year of teaching at the university level under my belt; and the summer offers a chance to really apply yourself as a teacher due to the fewer number of students enrolled.

Smaller class sizes do make a difference. There isn’t a chance for someone not to participate because with 8-12 students a class, there is time for everyone to contribute and ask questions.  I can get quizzes and homework graded and returned the next day, which always means happier students. And happier students make for a happier classroom environment.

I will be going back to level 2 grammar in the fall and won’t have the privilege of working with these young adult muffins in the future.  I hope they have a relaxing break, but also make time to read something in English so they won’t be behind in the fall.  For those who are travelling south, I pray they and their families remain safe and away from the violence.

I very much look forward to starting my second year at AUIS and meeting another great group of students….maybe I’ll call them 'schmuffins'.

To love what you do and feel that it matters- how could anything be more fun?
-Katherine Graham

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Perpetual Rage

It seems a marriage of terror and hatred; an unending reign of violence.

Every day, on the same side of the webpage right towards the bottom is a link to some article on Iraq.  The stories are usually no more than a few lines, often just a short paragraph telling the place, the time, and the number of casualties.  A café in Kirkuk decimated.  A checkpoint in Mosul blown apart. A neighborhood in Baghdad ravaged.  I look up from my computer and peer at my students filtering into class.  They are from Kirkuk, Mosul, Baghdad.  Did they know any of these people?  Is it a constant worry that one day it might be their family?  At times I cannot comprehend growing up as they did.  Maybe many of my other students who are from the Kurdish region of Iraq can’t either.  Saddam’s regime is something they hear about from their parents, their uncles who fought against them.  That choking feeling of wondering if this trip to the supermarket will end in disaster is not something they (or myself) have had to comprehend.

I thought I must be mistaken. Surely this amount of violence couldn’t be occurring everyday in the same areas. If it were, wouldn’t there be more media, more shock, more people buying albums on iTunes to donate money to the cause?  So I kept a piece of paper by my desk, and every day that I noticed an incident, I recorded it.  I have since filled up my days for this week.

It is because I currently live in this country that I am so aware of this now, I know.  But I can’t help think about how a place with such a death toll can be so easily ignored.  Is it that people have come to expect this from this region? When the news anchor mentions that 20 people were killed in a restaurant bombing, is it easy to tune it out because, well, it’s Iraq; that happens all the time…

These people are no longer statistics to me.  Every holiday break as my students depart, I pray they return safely.

The north of the country is not without its own issues. It is by no means a paradise for those outside of the expatriate community or those lucky enough to come from affluent families.  An article a friend told me about today highlights the struggle of women in many villages around this area. These are the stories that almost never make it in the news; often overshadowed by louder headlines from the south.

In spite of it all, I look at the faces of my students each day, and I see a brighter future.  I have Kurds and Arabs sitting in the same room, working together towards a common goal; an education.  I know they think I’m nuts when I tell them I can’t wait to say I’ve known them when they go on to do great things, but I am serious.  They will be the generation that moves this country forward.  I can only hope that with their education comes the ability to throw off the anger and fear of generations past, to ignore stereotypes, to focus not on what has been done to them, but what they can now do together.

Others with more experience in the region, or masters degrees in political science may scoff; call me naïve or fanciful.  I refuse to be swayed.  Those ‘others’ have not looked into my students eyes.  They have not seen what I have seen hidden in their depths.  Have not witnessed what they are capable of when given the chance to shine, and told that, ‘yes, you too are valuable.’

We're all human, aren't we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.”
-J.K. Rowling

Sunday, May 12, 2013

You Kick Like a Girl!

It’s five pm and I’m hustling to the soccer field after proctoring exams all afternoon.  I don’t actually play football, but some of the female teachers and staff were gathering to play a match against the AUIS Eagles, our women’s football team.

I play goalie.  I’m really bad at it.  But it’s lots of fun and I haven’t gotten hit in the face once!

Here’s the deal. I’m playing with a group of women, both Kurdish and Iraqi, in the Middle East.

 Women in sports has been a long contested issue in this region; it was just last year that Saudi Arabia allowed women to compete in the Olympics.  Many countries openly and actively discourage girls and women from participating in sports.  It is often of mixture of religion, politics, and cultural norms that are used to keep women out of sports.

They are told it is unacceptable, that it will make them unfit for marriage, that soccer or any sport is not for women.  In many places, like Saudi and Iran, women are not even allowed to attend matches.  I recall reading a story a few years ago about women in Iran who dressed as men and sneaked into stadiums just to watch the games.

And here we are.  

Their coach Ms. Leah is a fantastic person and a driven role model.  Coaching a team that rarely gets to play ‘real’ matches solely because of a lack of other female teams.  So they play games against the female faculty and staff, and we do our best to keep up!

They are truly a wonderful group of young women; pioneers on the field. And I look forward to risking my shins and nose in future matches.

Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.
-Amelia Earhart

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sometimes the Best Thing a Teacher Can Do is Shut Up

Sounds ridiculous, but if you've ever been in a language classroom, you know that students don’t learn by hearing their teacher talk about the language. If that were true, then my Spanish and Arabic would be way better!
My students today tackled a huge and intimidating chart on article usage.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Ms. Betty Azar and her books that are chock full of grammar nuggets of knowledge.  It is one of the many tools I use in my classroom; but this chart is just ridiculous.  It makes my head hurt and I already know how to use a, an, and the appropriately. Listening to me talk about the articles would not turn on some magical switch in their brain.
So, taking an idea from the teacher I aspire to be like, Ms. Barbara, I had the students break up into groups of four and create a poster and presentation based on the chart.
I have never heard such debates and discussions about articles in my life!
“No Akam!! Would you say ‘look at the some grass?!’ No…see my point?!”
“Ms. Rachel, can draw a chart and add the different nouns to show how we use them?”
“can we use the board to write examples?”
It’s like Beethoven is composing a symphony for my ears! And what have I done? I've just facilitated.  I gave them the poster paper, a rubric, and some printed directions, and then I shut my mouth.
We have reached that point in the semester.  We only have 12 class days left and now is the time that my charges need to show me that they can handle  level three. They have acquired the speaking and reading skills to successfully complete this small class project, and when it works, oh boy does it work.

Very rarely do I have a student come in and say “Oh yeah! Grammar is my favorite!!” No one says that really.  So having activities that engage them so close to the end of the semester, when the weather is so nice that no one wants to stay inside, and when anything sounds better than 75 minutes of grammar, is a precious commodity around here.

 A day later, with presentations done, I'd say it was a success.  A perfect combination of time management and willingness to learn outside of the box they've been used to all their life, resulted in something of worth. And they said they learned something...the quiz is on Sunday; we'll see if they were telling the truth!

“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  -Khalil Gibran

Sunday, March 31, 2013

When living abroad isn't as cool as Facebook makes it appear

     It's Easter Sunday and I'm at work.
      Don't get me wrong, if AUIS had decided to give everyone today off, I'd still be feeling kind of blue.
     It's one of those days when you want tradition to prevail, and I want to be surrounded by family, to celebrate like I've always done. I feel badly that I feel this way. Christ has risen! I know that fact as well here as I would in Virginia. However, the picture isn't computing. I did not wake up to go to church, to my dad presenting me with the most adorable/practical Easter basket (Who doesn't need travel-sized lotion and 5,000 yards of floss at my age?!), no late lunch with family out of town. I am prepping to give a quiz to my dear grammarians in level 2 and trying not to cry from homesickness.
     On any normal day I can go about my business knowing that's exactly what my friends and family back home are doing. Holidays are tough. It's on these days when you realize what you are sacrificing for a cool job that allows you to jet set to Europe and Africa on your semester breaks.  No amount of vacation or cool baubles from exotic locales can every replace that feeling I have when I am home.
     It is a growing opportunity, I am sure of it.  Teaching me to rely less on myself and others, and more on God; becoming aware of how little those things I often place first in my life really are, and how important those little things become when you are far from home.
When life won't play along, and right keeps going wrong, and I can't seem to find my way...I'll keep dancing anyway (Move, Mercyme)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Capital City

Just outside those two gently rocking rivers, the witnesses to the birth of civilization, sits a city of many names.  It is the capital city of Kurdistan, Hawler; Erbil in Arabic and English.  Many claim it to be the oldest, continually inhabited city in the world.  It's citadel proudly set atop a tel speaks to the many generations who have called this place home.

I'd like to tell you of the many great sites of culture and society I pondered on my first trip to Erbil, but if I did I would be lying, and lying is not cool!  

I went from one mall to a bigger mall, and then promptly got back on the bus at dusk and was whisked back to Sulaimani.

One of our lovely coworkers here at AUIS had arranged for a small fleet (two) of buses to take anyone who wanted to go to Erbil this weekend for a shopping trip.  

While Erbil is not a huge city in terms of what an American might picture, it is more developed in terms of infrastructure and international business than Suli.

So I was journeying in hopes of reaching the renowned Carrefour...Carrefour, did you see what I said? I have an inexplicable love affair with this French-owned hypermarket.  I witnessed its majesty from afar in Sevilla, I experienced its hypnotic wares in Cairo, and now it was my chance to revel in their goods in Kurdistan.  It was not an opportunity to be passed by.

All in all, it was a successful trip.  Things that are readily available at any and every store in the states can be down right impossible to find in Suli, but sometimes appear in Erbil.  I picked up jars of salsa, knock-off Lucky Charms, goat cheese, sliced roast turkey, tortellini, cookie sheets, and some new all cotton bed sheets, all of which are scarce or non-existent most of the time where I live.

There is never a dull moment at the two story house of dreams.  I felt very fancy ordering my lebnah and feta cheese with zatar in Arabic.  Because Erbil has such a diverse population, with Kurds coming from Turkey, Syria, and Iran; and hospitality and retail workers coming from everywhere, many languages are understood and spoken.  My Kurdish is still very basic, so it was a treat to order in Arabic and have the cheese guy perfectly understand me and not walk away with four kilos rather than the quarter kilo I actually wanted.

Over in their delightful seafood section, they had an open tank of live fish, just chillin'  and minded their on business, until a friend and I walked over and proceeded to stare and talk about how they are killed.  One apparently didn't like that because it attempted to jump out of the tank and attack us...The guy behind the seafood counter found our shrieks of horror quite funny.

Over all, my favorite part of the trip was the drive there.  It was a cool and foggy morning, with an air of quiet dignity surrounding the mountains.  It was very easy to picture the many peoples who have traversed this oft contended land.

Families were out for day long picnics, and the sky was dotted with children's kites.  Tents were set up to shade mothers and aunts from the noon day sun that eventually peeked out.  Many that I saw were wearing the traditional Kurdish garb that is still popular with both the older and younger generation.

I was able to witness more culture through those little glimpses from my bus window than I did all day, and no matter how fabulous Carrefour is, they can't compete with that.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
-Carl Sandburg