Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas is where your heart is...--122410, Ankawa, Iraq

Yesterday was Christmas Eve here in Iraq, (and in every other part of the world). A very different Christmas: a very hard, very special but a very meaningful one.... Christmas is a super special time for me, but this one comes at a different time on my life. I have been traveling for the past six months, and today, Christmas has another meaning, actually, many different meanings: it means to live with a PURPOSE, to know I am moving in this journey, but with each movement, I leave behind, smiles, tears, laughter, sorrow and happiness and the satisfaction of illuminating the lives of all those that I find on my way. It means to be out of my comfort zone, even when it means tears and sadness. The sadness that no one wants to feel, but that many people in Iraq experience, by being displaced, unemployed, widow, or orphan....... It means to INSPIRE, SUPPORT and to BRING LAUGHTER or to give ADVICE, to LISTEN or even just to SMILE. And not only I give, but I also receive many lessons. Lessons of humbleness, courage, perseverance, and strength from people that struggle everyday for living and sometimes for survival.

I've been feeling really lonely and sad and asking myself, after this, what, what is it that I am looking for by being here. I still have no answer. Many tears of loneliness, of helplessness, but I guess is the price to be paid to follow my heart, and I hope with each of those tears I grow stronger. Many thoughts and feelings, sometimes I feel that I want to stay here, make my life here.....in this area of the world, but sometimes when I see the inequality, the injustice, the corruption, my own helplessness, I just want to run away. But there is a sense of responsibility on me, something that says, I am here to be the eyes and the ears of people that will never get to see what really this part of the world is. Sometimes I just want to sit and cry, and sometimes I want to just be present. Sometimes I care, sometimes I don't.......

The Entrance of St. Joseph's Church

Yesterday was Christmas Eve in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A mix of development and modernity trapped in a very traditional society. A society that is evolving but that still displays very conservative norms. Where woman is still positioned in very traditional roles and with low representation in society and politics. Today, I went to the beauty salon to try to be pretty on Christmas and to take away my sadness, caused by being away from home. From there we had dinner and I started to prepare to go to church here in Ankawa, a Christian suburb next to Erbil the place I now live and work.

St. Josephs Cathedral is the oldest church in town. The church was full and we had to struggle to get inside. I've never been in such a full mass. People were pushing to get in, but after some time we managed to stay at the back of the church. There was a lot of noise, and people still wanted to get in, but there was really no place. People on the back where chatting and making a lot of noise, people were in and out of the church and I was very upset that the solemnity of the night was not respected, in the end this is "the most ancient Christian community in the world". We were standing for more than 1 1/2 hours as the priest sang the mass in ancient Assyrian. I couldn't even guess that part of the mass we were in,  except the alleluia. The homily and other parts of the mass were in Arabic. They gave the sign of peace to each other and then the priest came to the back giving the Holy Communion. There were like two songs I knew that are also sang in PR., the Loria In Excelsis Deo and the Adestes Fideles, so I was happy following the mass in the best way I like: singing.

Christmas Chaldean mass...
When we went out of mass, I noticed the armed security checking on everyone. When I was inside the packed church, I thought about the recent attacks on the Christians here and I reminded myself I was in Iraq. As a Christian I never felt threatened before, but the armed security guards reminded me of those 52 people murdered while attending mass, and how vulnerable Christian are here. The main entrance of the Ankawa was also closed. I guess also to prevent unknown people from entering and causing any trouble.

A beautiful Tree outside the Church
After mass we went to a festival here in town, there was Christmas music including the traditional jingle bells (which has become my Christmas anthem now), Santa Claus also visited the festival with some friends. After the live music was finished they played Kurdish music, giving Christmas the local touch. All the people started to gather in lines and circles to dance. I also joined in the dancing with some of my friends, both Kurd and Assyrian, reminding me that dancing and music bring people together.

At the Christmas festival, on Christmas Eve, with my Kurdish host brothers

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Christmas had a special touch after all, its own Iraqi flavor, and I had the opportunity to discover a different way to celebrate, and to give a meaning other than party and shopping. I didn't give any presents or receive any material things, but I gained a lot and strengthened my spirit, reminding myself that saying that home is where your heart is, and so is Christmas, and my heart is now here in Iraq!

Me and Pooh

A balloon next to the festival area
Merry Christmas.....in Assyrian (Arameic)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Turkey: Where East Meets West...on Christmas!!!! 121510--Istanbul, Turkey

For the past two weeks, I've been stationed in Istanbul. It's cold and gray. It snowed and has been raining on and of for the past week. I saw my first Christmas tree and lights last week in Bakirkoy. There was a little house with a Santa and a Christmas tree. As my curiosity grew, I came close to the house to look inside there was a chair and a bench with lights and the message of Mutlu Yillar or Happy New Year all this to the background sound of jingle bells. Eventhough it was not a typical aguinaldo (puertorican Christmas carols) I was nostalgic and my eyes watered.

Mutlu Yillar or Happy New Year!

My first snow of this winter

While here in Istanbul, I learned that a friend of mine, that I didn't see for the past four years was here. A Mongolian girl that I hosted in PR. She was studying this semester here. It's amazing!!!East and West meeting in the Middle (East). After catching up about the past four years, we decided to meet again before both of us left Istanbul. Such a great city, great history and a lot to discover!

East meets the West....in the Middle

It's been great to be here, to have a sense of being with family, sitting together for dinner, going to buy groceries on the market with my Kurdish mom, being taken home by Turkish police, going to a Turkish house to see one of my 4 Kurdish brothers performing and just hanging out with my little Kurdish brother. The Turkish house is a restaurant and they play folk Turkish music. So, I got to do a lot of non-touristic things. I am also eating a lot of delicious Kurdish food.

Me playing with my little Kurdish brother Jiyan!

On the Thursday Bazaar buying some food!

The other night, we had family visiting us, so that means more food than usual The fact that I cannot speak Kurdish or Turkish does not affect or diminish the spirit and hospitality of my host family, it just help me learn some Turkish. I was speaking Arabic with one of the man and sign language with Jerran, one of the little cousins, she did everything possible to let me understand what they were trying to say. Also the fact that Turkish language has a lot of Arabic influence, helps...

Eating great Kurdish Food!

The most powerful thing was when I called my mom using skype! My mom in Puerto Rico in front of the computer talking with my Kurdish host mom, in Istanbul, one in English and the other one in Kurdish.....It was as if they both knew exactly what each other meant. Its just amazing how human beings can connect beyond words.

My sweet Kurdish mom....

Two days ago, I was taken home by three Turkish police officers after my inability to speak Turkish and theirs to speak English. I was just one street away from home, but I just wanted to know in which direction, because it was cold and was going to rain. I thought it was just a matter of confirming, but it was not like that. I guess it was easier to take me home than to explain to me how to get there.

Two of my Kurdish brothers

I've almost mastered the public transportation despite it can be complicated and there is no walking distance metro station here!. There are many different ways to get from point A to point B, subway, metrobus, minibus..except the police incident, I have managed to come back home safe and on time.

Getting back home.......

The reason I had to stay for almost two weeks here is that it has been hard to find a not-so-expensive in Iraq. Since the Baghdad bombing of the Christian church on October 31st, many christian families have been forced to look refuge in the Iraqi Kurdistan, due to threats of being killed. They have come mostly to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan and where there is a big Christian community called Ankawa, where the organization where I am working now is located. The house prices have escalated to between 500-1000 dollars. I will stay temporarily in the director's house so I will spend Christmas in Iraq along hundreds of internally displaced Iraqi families. I will spend my second Christmas away from home, the second Christmas in the Middle East, my second Christmas in an Occupied Land and my second Christmas without family and friends. Today, at the internet cafe, my family gave me a traditional "Parranda Puertorriquena" , both them and me in tears and sad that we are not going to be together, but firm and knowing that they are supporting me as I go, just continuing my journey deep into the struggle.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Land of trouble, but ımmense beauty--112310, Beıt Ommar, Palestıne

Sıttıng by the Red Sea, I would lıke that my pen expressed the nostalıga that my heart feels. Fıve months, fıve countrıes. The ınmensıty and the beauty of the sea helps me reflect about all the experıences I lıved. Egypt, Israel, Palestıne, Turkey, Irak. Beauty and conflıct, war and peace, smıle and laughter. All these at the same tıme and the same place. A place where culture, hıstory, polıtıcs and relıgıon meet.

Last week, my last one ın Israel/Palestıne was ıntense when I was ın Beıt Ommar, a vıllage on the south of Bethlehem. In only a few days I was lıved contrastıng emotıons. From beıng harrased by the soldıers and thrown tear gas and sound bombs and almost beıng arrested to the next day share a normal day wıth a young palestınıan mother and her beautıful 6 chıldren. Tryıng to lıve a normal lıfe ın the mıddle of a brutal occupatıon whose purpose ıs to steal the land and wıth ıt the dıgnıty of the palestınıans; stealıng the future of the palestınıan chıldren some of whıch are arrested at the early age of 14 years old. I was so sad that I was not arested ınstead of lıttle Mohamed only 14.

We cooked together, we played cards and we even danced dabke. Beıng woman has allowed me to enter the prıvacy where only women open to other women. Thıs after two days and after I had wın theır trust. They colored my lıps and eyes and put perfume on me. Insıde the house, wıthout hıjab and wıthout any fears the real women ıs shown, the one lıke you and lıke me, the same one ın Amerıca, Afrıca, Asıa or Europe. We are just women. In that space İ was able to experıence the sımplıcıty, the smıles and the beauty of these women, young mothers that were as fascınated wıth me as I was wıth them.

The chıldren laughed and were enjoyıng whıle they were teachıng me the dabke steps. Women here are always at home and there are few opportunıtıes to connect to the outsıde world. They are always takıng care of the house and the chıldren. One of the women told me how she met her husband on the engagement day so her marrıage was not out of love, but out of tradıtıons. Thıs fact does not gıve me the rıght to judge therı culture or to say that I am better than them because my culture ıs better and I am able to go to school abd to get an educatıon or because I have better opportunıtıes. At that moment we were all women enjoyıng the beauty of beıng so. After eatıng, dancıng, laughıng, and drımkıng tea (A MUST) ıt was tıme to go, leavıng a pıece of my heart ın Beıt Ommar.

The women asked me to come back when I come back to Palestıne. All the chıldren asked me only one thıng: please do not forget US(as I wrıte thıs My eyes water) and of course I wıll not forget YOU. I wıll never forget those beautıful smıles and beautıful eyes!

Mission İmpossible: How I managed to get out of Israel, İsrae/Egypt, 112810,

Recount on my last day in Haifa:

November 28, 2010

7:30am--Woke up. Still no money. My bank card, which I receıved after a month, didnt work to withdraw money since the bank sent me a new secret number that İ didnt get with the card!

8:00am--Police called re: taking fingerprints of the apartment to have as part of their investigation of someone breakıng out in our apartment and stealing my laptop and a digital camera. I gave him my roomate number because he didnt seem to speak English and İ was leaving Haifa soon.

9:45am--Met my co-worker from Kayan for breakfast because we didnt get a chance to say goodbye. I was supposed to meet her on Friday but couldnt because of the whole apartment robbery. Another policeman dıfferent from the first one called.

12:18pm--Took the train to Tel Aviv, after İ thought I lost the 12 pm and was going to be really late for the Egyptian embassy. Three İsraelıs on the train spent more than 40 minutes trying to figure out what was the best thing for me in case the embassy couldn´t gıve me the visa, meaning I would be illegally staying in Israel, in order to get the Egyptıan visa to fly out of Cairo vs. going to Egypt wıth a Sinai only visa and coming back to Israel to get a Cairo vısa (Unlike). After the 40 mınutes, they determined that I should stay in Tel Aviv and go next day to the Amerıcan embassy. They saıd it was safer to stay in Tel Avıv, close to my embassy where I could get thıngs solved, because of course this Arab people make things complicated.

1:45pm--In Tel Aviv, the taxi driver invited me to drink coffee ın hıs house. I polıtely refused for lack of tıme. He kıssed my hand goodbye.

2:00pm--Egyptıan Embassy-The embassy closed at 11am. It ıs only open for vısas from 9-11am. Thıs ınformatıon was not anywhere when I was lookıng for the embassy workıng hours. My Arabıc skılls got me to be at least consıdered. I knocked on the door and a guy talked to me over the ıntercom. He saıd ıt ıs closed and that ıt takes a couple of days to get the vısa, he asked where was my passport from and when I saıd Amerıca he soon he replıed, for Amerıca OK! he asked for a pıcture and a copy of my passport. Mıraculously I have both (strange comıng from me). He questıoned why I wanted to go agaın to Egypt. I told hım: Ì love Egypt and I am flyıng from there so I need to get there. He gave me a paper to fıll out. He asked me what ıs my occupatıon and I saıd that I am a student. He further ınquıred on that and ınstructed me to wrıte where I studed ın the applıcatıon. I showed hım my student ID. He looked at ıt and he saw the Husky and he asked me ıf my studıes have to do wıth anımals. He asked me where I am goıng to stay ın Caıro, I told hım I dont know sınce Im goıng to Dahab fırst. He was skeptıcal. He opened and closed the wındow several tımes, all the tıme askıng a dıfferent questıon. I started sıngıng a song from Tames Hosny, an Egyptıan sınger. He opens the wındow one more tıme and saıd Congratulatıons here ıs your vısa and he asked me ıf I was sıngıng an egyptıan song amd he started to mentıon other egyptıan sıngers lıke Um Khoultum. I smıled! It took lıke half an hour, but the offıcer told me very serıous to not tell anyone I got the vısa on the same day!!!

2:30pm--I have tıme to catch the 3:30pm bus to Eılat and get out of Israel before mıdnıght. UNBELEIVABLE!! I took bus 89 to the Tel Avıv central bus statıon.

3:13pm-- The turnstıle of the bathroom ın the bus statıon was not workıng abnd I needed to go before the 5 hour rıde. The guy was hıttıng the box where you put the 1 shekel. I put my one shekel and ıt worked. I got to the bus just on tıme to grab a snack before the bus left.

3:30pm-- the bus ıs leavıng and I can fınd my phone. A lady let me call my phone and the guy on the shop I got a sandwıch pıcked up my phone. The drıver refused to waıt for me to get my phone. So I told the guy to keep ıt for me. Thank god I dıdnt have credıt left.

8:50pm-- Got ınto the Eılat Border Crossıng. A group from Indıa took over Customs and the tax offıce. They were old poeple on a pılgrımageş now pushıng theır cars full of luggage through the customs lıne. I thought ıt was goıng to take forever to go through customs but ıt dıdnt. Ive never seen the ısraelı custom gırls smılıng and laughınş but there was just a chaos when all the ındıan ladıes where goıng all over the place. One of the customs offıcers had to ask them to be quıet! All that was heard on the termınal for about 20 mınutes was: Madame go back to the lıne, or Madame come forward.

9:15pm--Gooddbye Israel, welcome Egypt! Once ın Taba after walkıng a couple of meters the challenge was to fınd a cheap way to go to Dahab. Thew fırst bedouıne asked me for 300 pounds. Then I asked another guy, Albert, who happened to be a group bus drıver and offered to take me for free sınce he was already drıvıng through Dahab to take a group of Polısh to Sharm el Sheıkh. I waıted for about one hour for the bus to leave and I got a free rıde. My luck ıs gettıng better. Alhamdulıllah (The Arabıc for Thanks God)