Traveling with Doctors in Mauritania

Mauritanian landscapes are breathtaking. During the airplane’s incoming descent, the Atlantic Ocean reveals itself, but unlike most other cities, the Nouakchott coastline stands bare. Instead of typical beachfront properties and busy highways, sand travels as far as the eyes can see with only narrow roads heading toward the city.

The barren, but soft landscape can pull tires in and it’s not uncommon to see remnants of popped tires lining the steamy roads.

All of these things make traveling in and out of the capital city of Nouakchott challenging, which limits access to medical care for many of the small villages throughout Maritania’s interior.

My friend Bakary Tandia introduced me to Gory. His great, great grandparents founded his village hometown where many members of his family still live. Gory is a Soninke village settled next to a Fulani Village named Djeol. While he resides in the US now, his affection for Gory was clear when he introduced me via email to the Bamanthia Tandia, president of the “Association pour les Ressortissants de Gory (ARG). He described Gory as a beautiful village strategically located between a towering hill and the famous Senegal River. People living in Gory share all of the infrastructure like schools, a health center, and marketplace which leads to extraordinary bonds and strong community cohesion. However, medical needs can persist beyond what is readily available.

To my great benefit, during my time in Mauritania, the ARG hosted their annual caravan to Gory with over 45 medical professionals who provide a weekend of healthcare for over 2,000 people. The health screenings are headed by natives of Gory who invite members of other nearby communities as well. Doctors travel to the weekend event from locations in Mauritania and Senegal. Senegalese doctors are appreciated because of the added dimension they bring to the process as many have experience in this type of caravan in Senegal and it’s always nice when doctors who grew up in Gory return each year.

ARG is a nonprofit organization that has been providing healthcare to the village of Gory for 20 years. Their medical caravan began during an outbreak of bilharziasis caused by the stagnation of the river years ago. Even as those conditions have improved, the needs for ongoing health education and treatment continues. Doctors continued to embark on this journey each year because of the great humanitarian outcomes, but also because of the positive exchange between the professionals who attend.

Bamanthia Tandia coordinated my visit to Gory which began with a pick up in Nouakchott. I was warned the first 70 km were smooth riding, but after that, we should be prepared for rough roads and police checkpoints that would slow us down for the balance of the seven hour ride. The roads were bouncy for sure, but outside of one flat tire, my roadtrip partners and I made it to Gory seamlessly – arriving at about 11:00 PM on Friday where people filled with village square and large platters of food were waiting for us.

The center square of Gory is a bustling place – an empty courtyard surrounded by open-doored residences and containing only two trees. Throughout the weekend, one tree housed the men in shade and the other near the cooking area was for the women. The underbellies of the trees were never empty. From morning to night, there was always a place to belong as there was no question that everyone seemed welcome. Whenever I passed the women’s tree, I am drawn in by their smiles, shouts, and the way they waved me to sit down.

On Saturday morning, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast of bread and milky tea together. Saying together is an understatement on this weekend in Gory – as I mean it was the entire village consistently eating meals together in the square. Large pots simmered from day to night and large platters were distributed and returned by children who clearly knew their jobs well.

Eating communally with all hands in the same platter is common practice with a hand washing pitcher and bucket offered before and after the meal. Everyone sits on a blanket and eats rice from their own area of other platter with everyone digging into the shared meat, fish, or veggies in the center.

This is an easier process if you can master mashing the small mix into a bite-sized ball before eating. I never really mastered a solid ball and seemed to be the only person who ended the meal with a blanket, shirt, and face covered in rice. Licking the rice directly from the hand after the meal was fun – like it felt sort of like it was breaking a rule – but it wasn’t.

The symbolism of not wasting a morsel of food feels like a responsibility of all diners and also a reminder of how wasteful I can often be. Extra food scraps and bones are saved for the local animals so really – nothing is wasted.

After breakfast on Saturday, the large group of doctors moved to their locations at the local medical center and high school. When we arrived, you could see that people arrived by all modes of transportation as the area outside was lined with horse carts, donkeys, truck emptying large groups of people every few minutes from their beds.

Hundreds of people were already lined up waiting for specific appointments with the team that included pediatricians, gynecologists, neurologists, dentists, and more. The busiest lines seemed to be the places that would cause the most immediate pain – especially the dentist corridor that was filled with people waiting for exams – but often waiting to have aching teeth pulled.

I had the opportunity to visit many of the rooms where patients were being treated.

Even though the halls were lined with patiently-waiting crowds, each treatment room held one person who was being respect as an individual, as they received quality care.

The doctors volunteered their days to be here and took advantage of the opportunity to use their gifts to serve people who were willing to wait hours to see them. Patients were given prescriptions when needed and were able to visit the free pharmacy room to get what they needed.

My friend Hatta is an ENT physician. She worked in the small space until every last patient was seen on both days – totaling over 50 patients on her first day. As I sat in her room, I watched her kindly tend to the needs of sore throats, swollen glands, and ears clogged with wax. One boy and his mom celebrated when a large chunk of wheat cereal was dislodged from his ear.

One doctor sat in a center area sharing diabetes prevention information. As I sipped the sweet Mauritanian tea I have grown to love, I watched him passionately point at large posters and repeatedly say the French word for sugar….sucre…sucre…sucre.

Pregnant women lined outside the classroom housing the gynecologist – some for an entire day – and entered a space where two women were receiving exams. Parents sat in line as placeholders for children who could be found running off energy in the courtyard to pass the time.

The line for the psychiatrist was hard because you could see many solemn people needing a place to talk and be heard. While the doctor graciously listened, you could see that the need was overwhelming and he wished he could take more time with each person. I asked about treatment options and he said that today, he was there to listen and offer support. I was happy to introduce him to the Hope for the Day webpage resources.

Generally, I walked around and took it all in. Being alone in Mauritania invites interaction. I think when traveling, everyone has a certain group of people who seek to connect. For me, outside of children, it is teenaged girls. As I filled time throughout the day, groups of giggling teens would take me by the hand – only being able to say things like “Nancy” and “selfie” and then posing me with their friends and teaching me to sing the “Gory! Gory! Gory!” chant. There really isn’t much I won’t do to make people laugh.

For all the connectedness that village life can offer, the remote nature of living in the Mauritanian interior makes consistent and comprehension medical care difficult because of the long distances to hospitals equipped with necessary medical resources. ARG addresses this need by bringing hospitals to the people. For the entire weekend, the two makeshift hospitals were packed, with some people waiting in line for more than one service. Most people could be treated near home, and those who could not, were referred and encouraged to make the long journey to a hospital.

My time in Gory was special. First off, almost everyone I met was related to my friend Bakary Tandia. I felt like I was representing his celebrity status as so many people shared their connections to him….an uncle, a friend, a cousin, a Kung-fu partner. I also received great privilege from my hosts Bamanthia Tandia and Dr. Hayda Tandia who made sure that my accommodations were comfortable and that all of my needs were met. I was able to sit under the women’s tree for hours – enjoying their laughter and some origami-folding for kids.

I enjoy the simple, but universal message of making origami hearts because when I have no words to share, I can always motion loving affection as I hand over my beating paper hearts.

We also tried to fly some kites in Gory where I thought I would have to convince and assure the teenagers that this would be WAY FUN with a bit more wind. But, nope, they ran, laughed, and cheered as pulled kites behind them.

On our way home, we experienced two more flat tires. The bursted tires lining the road should have been my first clue that this might happen, but each time, there was a carload of returning doctors who stopped to give us a hand. And, it gave us a chance to enjoy a few extra cups of tea and this beautiful sunset.

Being an honorary Tandia for my weekend in Gory was an experience I will never forget. Thankful for all of the doctors and planners who see a need and do something about it. Your medical bags and truck beds carried more than medical supplies, you traveled with HOPE and LOVE and are an example of the type of person I want to be.

Posted in Africa, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mauritania, Medical Caravan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Paperforwater, Poetry, Self Care, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting to Know Mauritania

I arrived in Namibia yesterday, feeling anxious to spend the next few days writing about my time in Mauritania.

Each morning, noon, and night during my visit was filled with activity. So much that it was hard to effectively process what was happening in this unfamiliar country. Before leaving for this trip, I met with a friend named Sean Tenner to discuss potential connections in Africa. He talked about Mauritania and his important human rights work with Bakary Tandia. To be honest, as he shared, I wasn’t sure I had heard of Mauritania and could definitely not find it on a map.

Months later, Mauritania wasn’t on my itinerary until my friend Kim told me she would be visiting in March. Although it was a big detour, I decided backtrack to West Africa to spend time together, and I am so happy that I did. Not only was it wonderful to reconnect with this deeply inspiring woman, but Mauritania proved to be one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.

During the past weeks, I met so many kind and generous people. It challenged my senses and travel abilities in good ways. The sights and sounds lit my heart and soul at almost every turn. Before I detail specific projects there, I want to share a few general items about the people and things that make this such a special place.

There is great vibrancy in Mauritania that can truly overwhelm the senses. The desert landscape is filled with soft sand and seashells. Brightly painted walls often fade and peel from the high salt content that leeches upward from the sand. Walking through crowded streets require a constant “head on a swivel” to avoid donkeys carrying large carts of goods or people selling every basic human needs – especially deliciously simple culinary treasures.

Mauritania is an Islamic Republic with varying cultural groups. In a short time, I sought to learn about the cultural norms and differences between each group, but there is much more to know that I currently do.

Walking through the streets, many women are covered in beautiful clothing called melafas. As far as the eye can see, one melafa is more beautiful than the next – a seven foot scroll of lightweight fabric that requires special ties and wraps to effectively cover all parts without trailing behind. More often than not, I needed help to get mine just right, and was like a young child who needed help tying my shoes as I helplessly sat by and let others do the wrapping.

Most things in Mauritania are enjoyed communally. When visiting the home of another, you are quickly offered Mauritanian tea which is unlike any I have had before. Mauritanians work diligently to froth their tea with a cup to cup method of tall pouring. In the end, the small glasses are half-filled with froth covering a small amount of minty, sugar-filled tea. It’s taken in one quick sip – and three cups are typically offered consecutively. In Mauritania, people have strong throats that quickly down the steaming hot drink. My slow paced style of blowing on each tiny sip offered some amusement.

Frothing the tea is much harder than it looks. I tried and failed – spilling more than I saved for drinking.

Eating is a shared experience with all hands dipping into the same platter for delicious rice dishes filled with vegetables mixed with meat or fish. As I ate from the platter, I often noticed others pulling apart the best parts of the fish and moving it my way – sharing the best of what was offered in this beautifully concrete way. Eating with the right hand is common practice with a small bowl offered for hand washing before and after the meal. Being a “lefty” made this something that required thought – and a few easily forgiven missteps along the way. It’s common to end the meal by licking the hand of all food remnants so as not to waste what was provided. I enjoyed every delicious meal I ate – not only for the bursting flavors – but more importantly for the friendships created by this type of intimate sharing of daily meals.

Walking through crowded markets and sandy streets offered many snack options. Food served on the roadside is always a favorite for me. Our morning routine always included fresh loaves of hot break and hard boiled eggs. Bags of mandarin oranges were also a staple for snacks and desserts.

I am typically not a meat eater, but while traveling, I aim to eat what is offered and recognize that my ability to not eat certain items is a privilege I have lived with for years. Meat here is fresh – so fresh that a central meat market in town is actually a field filled with goats and cows. Non-refrigerated meat is always something that takes some getting used to as it is sold at small kiosks hanging from hooks and sitting on wooden counters. I tried a bit of camel meat and goat when I was here and can’t really judge how it compares to other meat as it has been so long since I have eaten it…but I think it was pretty good.

Mauritanians have very open homes that welcome guests all the time. It is not uncommon for people to drop over late into the night to share time together. While traveling to a small village where a companion’s “mama” stayed, we didn’t hesitate to make a quick visit that woke everyone up to say hello at 1:00 AM. I enjoyed the tent-like living rooms in many homes where guests were welcomed. While passing one family, they quickly invited me into their space to enjoy some tea and nuts together. Welcoming friends and strangers is a regular practice here with food always seeming to be ready to share.

Family is important here with all members of the family considered as mamas, brothers, and sisters. Children are overseen by all members of a community and are encouraged to be respectful by shaking hands and greeting adults they meet. Although there were language challenges when communicating with children, common smiles were always a way to share nice moments together.

Taxis are a main form of communication in the main city of Nouakchott with old cars driving along main roads carrying as many passengers as possible down straight routes. Getting a taxi on busy roads made me very happy to my friend Leena could navigate all destinations.

Women and men are generally separated in the car, seating all together in the front of back seat. Three people in the front was typical, but the back seated held as many people as the driver could fit – generally four adults. There were a few occasions where we had to push ourselves tighter and tighter to close the door. During these times, I decided it was best to be the last one in the car because you squished on top of the pile. During one ride in a small hatchback, our car held seven squeezed adults with a noisy sheep baa-night in the back.

Mauritanian people are not particularly outgoing at first, but generous and kind. I tend to be a bit touchy when first greeting people – so I often had to navigate how much was too much. Over the course of my time there, I met many exceptionally generous people who shared much of themselves in different ways.

During my 16 days in Mauritania, I…

*Worked with a local artist named Leena on painting projects to support the work of Foundation Noura at both the boys’ and women’s prisons. Leena’s and her husband Mikka are from Finland and moved to Mauritania ten years ago. They have fully invested themselves and their four sons in being Mauritanians. I learned so much from them during time in their home.

*Traveled seven hours from the city to a village named Gory with over 45 doctors who spent the weekend giving free medical care to over 2,000 people.

*Visited three different teachers to learn more about the kindergarten programs they offered in their neighborhoods. In one case, we spent an entire day making instructional materials from easily found trash items included flip flops, milk cans, and water bottle caps.

*Visited a sewing cooperative operated by Foundation Noura where women learn important sewing and business skills.

*Met with a teacher of an adult leadership class to learn about his programs and offer some general ideas for group activities and learning plans.

*Shared kites with children and teenagers in three places including a group who attended weekly Korean language classes offered at the Korean Cultural Center.

*Enjoyed making origami in many places along the way.

*Enjoyed a sunset meal on the sand dunes with many others who enjoy this Sunday evening time with family and friends.

As I sit enjoying the quiet of my Namibian hotel, I miss the pace of Mauritania. Iam fondly thinking of my desire to return someday soon. For now, my pictures and memories will have to suffice. I hope you will enjoy my upcoming pictures and posts about this wonderful place.

Posted in Africa, HeartsTravel, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mauritania, Medical Caravan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Did I Save For One Year Away?

I am seven months into my twelve month journey – so I am using this week to do a general status check…reviewing my finances, reflecting on my mental health, and beginning to plan for my return home.

Starting with finances…

Traveling looks so exotic. When I look at photos of people around the world, I often wonder how they are covering the expenses of being away.

Outside of “Are you married?” and “Do you want a ______ (fill in nationality of country) husband,” the questions I am asked mostly relate to how I can afford to take a year off of work. It’s a curious conversation because while others might think it personal, I am more than happy to share.

First off, I recognize that I have the privilege of having a good job and a lifestyle that allows for much financial freedom and personal decision-making when it comes to money. I know this is a privilege – and will say it again and again. My privilege is not lost on me, and I recognize that being away is not a luxury afforded to all. But, I also know that there are others who want to know specific strategies for adding more travel to their lives – even if it will take years to plan, so I am sharing a few of my basics.

On the positive side, sometimes, people are surprised to hear that life on the road is WAY CHEAPER than living in Chicago. While my accommodations are typically not fancy, there are generally safe and comfortable options that fall well below the monthly cost of rent at home. Eating on your own often means picking up grocery store items or simple take-out options. Generally, on most days, I don’t have many expenses outside of accommodations, food, and transportation. Being away from places like Target, missing nights out with friends, and having to carry anything I buy are all financial wins while away.

As for challenges, I have taken a few unanticipated financial hits that happen when traveling. I have spent more on airfare than I should have because of a wonky itinerary that includes detours for valued people connections. Last minute changes in plans meant lost money on a flight and accommodation that needed to be changed. Unexpected expenses are a reality of traveling, so I think it’s best to count on them before going and really consider the importance of blending travel planning with budgeting. Having more than you think you will need is likely a good plan.

Here are some things I did to prepare financially for this journey.

PLANNING and BUDGETING:

It took me four years to prepare for the financial aspects of living without a paycheck for a year. Outside of not getting paid while away and having to pay for my ongoing travel expenses, I also had to prepare for “up front” and maintenance expenses that needed to be considered before I left. These expenses include covering my international health insurance for the entire duration of my trip, maintenance costs for my condo while away, initial airline tickets, etc.

The budget-guru Dave Ramsey became an important partner as I used his books or online resources as a foundation for much of my planning. Ramsey suggests, “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.” Instant gratification of spending feels so good – so he doesn’t say not to spend anything. He just suggests being logical in planning your budget and using your own hustle to live the life you desire.

Budgeting the Ramsey way is scary because you can’t fool yourself about your spending. Every penny is planned and accounted for. For me, an adapted Ramsey spreadsheet documented every penny I spent during the last four years and led me to categorize money into predetermined budgeted areas. While I was never perfect with my spending – this system kept me consistent in monitoring all money going out and adjusting my time working if I needed to make up for unplanned spending. So – instead of a plan that restricted all spending, I decided exactly what I was able to spend on things like dining out, clothing, gifts, groceries, and charity each month. Logging my expenses each day forced me to take a hard look at whether or not my money was supporting my goal and adjust as needed.

The Ramsey budget plan revealed parts of my daily life that were less than desirable – with so much waste in which I was not a gracious steward of the money I have earned. There were definitely struggles with taking a hard look at myself – but I feel like the value went beyond just my financial planning – but also made me really consider my personal values and priorities.

SIDE HUSTLES

If you know me, you know I have been working a lot during these four years with my full time employment as a teacher and weekend work at a hotel front desk. Outside of this, I tutored one student weekly and supplemented all of the jobs by delivering food with Uber.

There were two benefits to working during all of my waking hours. First being the obvious income from my work and the side hustles. Having money from multiple sources allowed me to cover my typical expenses while also putting extra into a travel fund. Second, working so much kept me away from spending on social events and shopping trips. I learned that free time is expensive.

Outside of side hustles for work, Ramsey encourages you to look for all types of creative income streams. Some that worked for me would obviously not be possible for others. But, he suggests that everyone consider their own lifestyle and find creative ways to find money sources.

For the year before I left, renting my condo and being a bit of a vagabond was an option for me. Between time with my aunt, staying at hotels using the employee discount, and house-sitting for friends who live in the community, my life was a bit unpredictable. My overnight bag was always ready and there were some nights when I craved the comfort of one solid place to sleep. Living this way wouldn’t work for everyone, but there might be ways to supplement income through things like a roommate or AirBnb room rental.

I also planned for my rental income while I am away to cover most my costs and provide a bit of funding for travel expenses. While it has certainly helped, a large special assessment for roof repairs and an error with taxes on my parking space have minimized the bottom line of rental benefits. For me, it’s easy to imagine the rental dollars coming in, but I am not great at anticipating the costs that go out. It’s a lesson I am learning.

MY DREAM BOX:

Four years ago, I covered a shoebox with vision board pictures and quotes from magazines and made some very specific rules for this “dream box.” Any cash that I was given – as a gift, through reimbursement by others, or via tips or Uber earnings went into this box. Money could not leave this box unless it specifically funded something that supported a dream – mine or others – that could not be otherwise accomplished with my regular income. This has been the MOST FUN part of my budgeting because it feels like real money when it is removed. Through gifts from family and friends, I have been able to fund some beautiful projects while away – and I always try to match their gifts using money from my dream box. Dream box expenses are rash and against better judgment sometimes – and that is fun too.

ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNERS:

I can talk myself into almost any bad idea when it comes to money. For this reason, I have found a few key accountability partners to keep me on track. Getting someone else involved in your finances can be tricky, so I can only suggest that having a thick skin reaps positive rewards – even when it hurts a bit.

SPENDING WHILE AWAY:

There isn’t much that I can say about this that would work for others. There are many ways to save money while traveling, but determining a traveling budget is so personal. For me, I am totally okay with staying at less than perfect places but will spend extra money on flights if I really want to meet up with someone. I have time, so on this trip, I can take slow, but cheap methods of transport. Food is not important to me so I rarely spend more than $10-$15 a day on all of my meals. Finding hotels with breakfast included usually means I am only buying one meal a day. I am just as happy at a local coffee shop as I would at a fancy restaurant. A day spent wandering is just as good as a daylong tour. I guess my point here is that I don’t know how to tell someone else to plan financially for their time away outside of saying that you can’t always do everything, so try to determine what is most important to you.

GENERAL TIPS:

There really wasn’t any magic here – even if it took me 15 years to save instead of 4- it would have been worth it. Here are the best tips I have…

  • Make a plan for specific amounts to spend each month and try to stop spending when that money is gone. Some people use the “envelope system” for this. I like to earn credit card rewards – so I have done my budgeting in a spreadsheet that gets updated each morning.
  • Find extra work and put the money from those side jobs into a dream/travel fund. Doing this, motivated me to keep delivering food with Uber even when I was tired because I knew that every dollar made a difference in my bottom line of traveling.
  • Be creative with the “big” expenses in life like housing and a car. Not everyone may have someone to live with – but considering AirBNB rental income from an extra room might make a difference.
  • Provide enough time to make it happen – four years was a big commitment – so I had to consistently review my goals and finances to remind myself that the extra work was moving in a good direction. There is no way around it – there are days when saving felt frustrating. Set and achieve mini goals along the way to help your psyche and motivation.
  • Tell everyone about your plan – having others hold me accountable made a difference when I felt like changing my mind or giving into excessive spending impulses.
  • Feed yourself with a “diet” of budget-minded websites, books, and articles that provide new ideas for saving kept the process fresh for me. There are other people who have been successful in saving – look for ideas from what they have learned.
  • If you haven’t already done so, sign up for a travel reward credit card. As a Marriott employee, I opted for the SPG/Marriott card. Over the course of four years I charged as much as I could and have been able to use my points for multiple nights of accommodations.
  • Setting up an Acorn account was another way to “find” money as this app that tops off all of your credit card purchases to the next highest dollar and invests it. While it is just your own money being saved, the small chunks made the savings feel invisible – but the $$ add up fast.
  • Be sure to budget, but also enjoy ongoing treats too.. You just want to be sure that these treats fit in your overall long-term plan. I still had splurges and spent on travel during these four years, especially during summers. I just pre-planned and accounted for the expenses to avoid loss of savings and stay on track toward my big mission.
  • While away, schedule tours and events locally when you can and always be open to sharing them with others. For example, when visiting Wadi Rum last week, I reached out to a couple on my bus ride there to see if they wanted to split the cost of a Jeep tour. It was not only more fun together, but we all saved money.
  • I had to learn that being on a budget does not mean being cheap. There are still ways to be generous with others – you just have to be a bit more creative in your approach.
  • Do what works for you – but recognize that a specific and deliberate plan is important. Here is the bottom line for me. When I don’t have a plan, I spend what I earn and that means I never have enough money to do what really matters to me.

I am an open book. If there are ever questions about your own planning, feel free to reach out.

Posted in Budget, Dave Ramsey, HeartsTravel, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Ramsey, Self Care, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Art & Smiles on the Alkalha Steps

A bleak and brooding vibe filled my first rainy days in Amman. While shuffling quickly through flooding streets, my one pair of boots and socks soaked it all in, squishing water with each step. Stony buildings appeared dark and dusky across the horizon and for these first days, I couldn’t see beauty anywhere. Traipsing through downtown felt like more of a burden than an adventure – with little interest in peeking around nooks of the city. Turn after turn brought more of the same – until began my descent down the Alkalha Steps.

Entering the corridor at the top of the steps, you are first struck by bright street art that seemingly appears out of nowhere. A “Starry Night” inspired piece stares regally across the walkway at a whirling dervish surrounded by a circle of Arabic calligraphy.

As you begin the trip down, you notice stairwell is something special. Wall spaces are filled with artwork of many styles. I was drawn to a Zentangle-inspired mandala filled with intricate designs. In the hope of making a connection, I took a picture of the words “Abeero Art” as this was the artist’s Instagram profile name.

Zaizafoun Art Cafe stands proudly at the halfway point down the stairs heading toward the bustle of downtown Amman. The colorful artwork outside and welcoming decorations inside invited me in for my first of many hours spent enjoying tea, snacks, and time for writing.

Abeer was easy to find online – and to my delight, she quickly replied to my direct message with a willingness to meet and brainstorm ways she could support the Hope Travels mission of community connectedness.

We met at Zaizafoun where I learned that Abeer was a university student who found great pleasure in artwork, but I also heard what had become a common discussion by young artists in the Middle East. Many have said that art can be viewed as a distraction from studying even when they expressed great therapeutic benefits they found on a canvas. She has a great passion for art, but is also generally concerned with being a person whose life is purposeful for herself and others. Her kind nature and determination to create something special was evident from the first words of our conversation.

After sharing ideas, and making an initial plan, Abeer headed off for a day filled with studies, but soon returned with Telek. You see Telek is a volunteer on the corridor who wanted to join our planning team

He told me about the restaurant near the top of the stairs named Ezwitti where the owner and volunteers work tirelessly because they have a heart for feeding all who hunger. By that, I mean that they not only sell meals, but they also have a voucher system where customers can buy tickets for people in need to use while purchasing food. Along the wall in this tiny space, hangs a bulletin board covered with donations that can be modestly taken and used as cash for any meal.

Telek brimmed with excitement as he also told us about the Jadal Center for Culture and Knowledge where his friends volunteer each week to host a group of Syrian refugee youth. Every Friday morning, the young adults and teens meet for outreach sessions that include lesson on music, art, leadership, self defense and more. Children are brought to the center on a bus to enjoy the center and young adult mentors and friends who eagerly await their arrival.

We all agreed that our partnership plans should include adding a Hope Mural to our ongoing collection to the corridor that involved the kids in some way – so they could pass each week with a personal reminder of the importance of hope and the knowledge that they were sharing the message with others. As we brainstormed ideas, we decided that we would use art lessons as a foundation for mental health discussions during the two upcoming sessions.

Shopping for art supplies is always fun. Abeer would teach mandala art which brings therapeutic benefits of peace and focus. I talked about plans in motion at AlHadaf Training Center and we decided to also include a Kindness Rocks Project for the corridor. We determined that our messages would focus on the power of using self expression to decompress and the power of sharing and receiving acts of kindness.

Our first session on mandala art was a bit rushed when the bus was late, but I personally loved the way Abeer created a template that made mandala patterns so easy to create. She has a wonderful style – guiding each child to create their own masterpiece – being both an encourager and teacher. She has a wonderful style – guiding each child to create their own masterpiece – being an encourager and teacher. I loved how she naturally leaned into each young artist and offered kindness with her gentle and genuine nature. Personally, I enjoyed the time spent creating. I never jumped on the coloring page bandwagon, but there was definite power in the peaceful mood of the repetitive patterned mandala designs.

Our second session connected the power of self expression through art with the value of kindness. At first, there was a tad of disappointment when the wall Abeer wanted to paint was unavailable and we were given a long space above other completed murals. As our mural was intended to have interactive participation by the Jadal youth group, we had to quickly adjust our plans so they could have a step up while adding handprints to the mural space.

The mural design included three elements of community input blended together to show unity of purpose in hope. The center “Have Hope” message is surrounded by whimsical doodle creations by Abeer, Arabic calligraphy by Abd Alrahman, and children’s handprints decorated with positive messages. While each section is interesting by itself, the blend of styles is powerful when combined and stands out high above the Alkalha Steps.

Our time together created fun bonds between the children and adults. Painting rocks together blended support for creative expression with sharing uplifting messages. Some designed their words of wisdom in Arabic while others asked for English translations and learned to say their selected phrases.

One girl eagerly shared her heart with, “I have a choice. My choice is hope.” Each person took one rock to place in a location near home and found a special spot on the corridor to surprise passing visitors with the other rocks they designed.

Handprint painting was exactly like you would expect – fun and a bit messy. Giggles were everywhere as oozing paint squished between fingers and plopped onto waiting walls.

After a bit of cleanup, we wrapped up our time together with a short origami lesson and a lunchtime meal together. Children departed to their bus gleefully, as they shouted spirited farewells and returned home with pockets full of inspiration.

Abeer and Abd Alrhaman continued to work on the mural – with Abeer’s doodle portion lasting well into the evening. In spite of the dropping temps and strain of working on the high wall, Abeer maintained dedication to every detail – especially in her desire to leave handprint messages to surprise each child –

Working with this team continued the Hope Travels theme of finding mentors in people much younger than me. New friends like Abeer are leading a global generation that celebrate the act of caring for others through their dedicated spirts and selfless actions. Young people have much to learn from each other. For me, it was a pleasure to be a small part of their time together.

Posted in Abd Alrahman, Abeer, Alkalha Steps, Amman, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Jadal, Jordan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Refugee, Self Care, Street Art, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject, Zaizafoun | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Open Arms and Hearts at AlHadaf

People have asked about the process of establishing Hope Travels partnerships. There really isn’t a perfect answer, aside from the fact that I reach out to people in as many ways as possible…Google searches, Facebook messages, connections from friends, and hanging out in a new city with eyes open to new partners. Social media posts have also been helpful. Sharing project information does more than keep my family and friends connected, it offers invitations to potential partners. The more people know I am interested in sharing hope and engaging in conversations about proactive mental health, the more doors seem to open.

(Like right now, when I am sitting at a cafe near the Red Sea with a beautiful view, cup of chai, and some zatar bread while planning for my next destination)

In some cases, I communicate for weeks, ending up with a handful of empty promises and lost connections. I’ve been excited about potential projects and then ghosted – jilted without identifiable cause and a bit disheartened. It’s hard not to take that personally after weeks of communication. However, there are rare gem moments where my outreach receives instantly positive results, the celebrated message bubbles of receptive fingers typing a response. As cliche as it sounds, people who are openly excited about working together have given me a bit of hope. In fact, Hope Travels has taught me a lot about perseverance and maintaining a positive attitude when things don’t seem to be connecting.

With all that said, magic happened when reaching out to AlHadaf Training Center in Amman, Jordan.

Before arriving, I found AlHadaf from a general Facebook search using keywords related to my outreach interests including, “Amman, Jordan, mental health, outreach, women, art, refugee, nonprofit.” As I have done a hundred times, I shared an invitation message telling about Hope for the Day and the Hope Travels “Agent of Impact” program. Quickly, and with great celebration, I received a response from Maran Maayah who is the organization’s CEO and founder. In just a few welcoming words, she was open to meeting upon my arrival, clearly proud to the work they were doing, and willing to discuss some partnership ideas.

My first day in Amman was a bit bleak. With so much busyness in Kurdistan/Iraq, I arrived feeling depleted without much energy for grand plans here. Rain poured down and filled me with a malaise and ideas that I should make this a quick stop on my journey, see the major sites, and head to other destinations. Staying close to bed for a few days didn’t do much to change my spirits and I wallowed in bed on the only day I have felt a bit sick this year. My biggest venture during the first days in Amman was to a nearby cafe to warm my soaking feet and watch the storms pass by.

With some sense of commitment on my shoulders, I traveled to the training center, where Maran greeted me with great enthusiasm and excitement about the work being done there. My tentative nature turned to enthusiasm as we walked through the bright facility, she stopped to describe collections of artwork on the walls that were obviously created by children. Uninformed eyes could see paintings on the walls, but Maran stopped to point out some of the specific places in the artwork where paintings of regimented blocks and designs opened to more hopeful representations of the world. Each piece of art was the story or lesson shared with one of the Jordanian orphans or Iraqi refugees served at the center.

Bulletin boards shared pictures of children and adults engaged in a variety of activities and dream statements filled the walls.

In one of the classrooms, where I mentioned feeling a bit embarrassed by my worn out face and cosmetic-free face, a group of beautiful women chatted and laughed along as they practiced cosmetology skills. The center is always a hub of activity including classes that include sewing, positive self image for teens, and more.

There is a great energy at the AlHadaf Training Center. Maran’s oversight requires strong respect and a sense of safety in each experience. Over the course of time, she has worked hard to build positive relationships between the women who learn together. They can be real – and share their great challenges with each other – knowing that they will always be treated with dignity and respect. AlHadaf provides more than training sessions, they provide a sense of community and a place where people are received with open arms. Maran and the AlHadaf team bring strong personal and professional pride to the center each day.

During the next week, collaboration sessions mirrored my favorite moments (with Colleen Walsh, of course) at school. Ideas flew as I worked with my Muna and Joy, my planning partners, to blend mental health outreach and art therapy activities within their weekly English and leadership lessons. They are committed to excellence – but also want to make sure that the sessions are fruitful and fun.

We found inspiration for our sessions from two great Hope Travels partners. For our Valentine’s Day session, we spent time getting to know each other. For me, the relationships formed stem from informal time together and Paper for Water has taught me that there is great relational power in a single piece of paper. With a tremendous story and endless examples of generosity, Paper for Water focuses specifically on using origami sales to fund water in developing countries. They have been generous partners who have supplied stacks of origami paper to build connections during my journey. This activity was a nice warm-up for our days spent together.

Our new partner, Megan Murphy of The Kindness Rocks Project, enthusiastically encouraged us in using the phenomenon and culture of kindness she has created. Her inspiration for sharing painted rocks with beautiful messages became the base for group sessions and mental health discussions. While Megan’s project began with a few simple rocks shared on the beach, it has extended around the globe as a way to carry messages of hope and kindness in rock gardens. To me, she is an example of one person who saw a need and filled it. Her actions teach others that caring (even for strangers) is an active process. I was thrilled that she became our partner who shared paint pens and supplies for us to use as my journey continues.

I was also EXTREMELY THANKFUL for Raed, who graciously offered to find bags of rocks for us.

For these moments, Hope Travels was working exactly as I imagined, building relationships and supporting people who are already doing amazing work in their local communities.

During each Kindness Rocks session – the classroom filled with women and children who are not only neighbors, but deeply connected by the shared experience of being Iraqi refugees forced to flee their homes due to threats from ISIS. Discussions about hope and change moved from influencing the world to also focusing on family relationships and personal self care.

There was so much chatting as everyone painted – and lots of laughter. Women shared about their appreciation for the AlHadaf team and the value placed on their weekly time together to learn and grow. For some, art projects may seen juvenile or like time spent creating isn’t enough to address big issues. To me, artistic environments supports friendship and a small escape from routines.

People converse openly as they are painting and benefit from making something beautiful and purposeful. The more I learn about mental health, the more I recognize the value of self expression strategies like art, music, fitness blended with self care and the power of serving others.

Projects like AlHadaf, Kindness Rocks, and Paper for Water are making a difference because they offer tangible and positive outlets that build communities. And, I am still in awe that we can be partners while miles apart.

After a rocky start, time in Jordan has far exceeded my hopes – all because of the open doors by AlHadaf. I am grateful to be welcomed into the powerful place of friendship they have created.

As with other nonprofits, AlHadaf is always in need of funding to support their goals. People who want to learn more or donate to their cause can find necessary information on their webpage.

For my remaining time in Jordan, I will travel to Petra, Aqaba, and Wadi Rum – along with supporting local artists in the creation of a Hope Mural. More to come…

Posted in AlHadaf, Amman, HeartsTravel, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Jordan, Kindness Rocks, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paper for Water, Self Care, The Kindness Rocks Project, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Final (and Random) Stories from Kurdistan/Iraq

In fifteen days, our “More Friends That The Mountains” projects in Kurdistan/Iraq took us to four different IDP and refugee camps and included hosting two community kite events. We flew kites. We danced. We shared many moments of friendship!

Photo by: Farhad Blbas

While most days were filled with active movement on this work, our time also included quirky moments typical of traveling.

In no specific order, and with a random nature to these stories, here are some of my favorites:

On our first morning, after a few slow-paced weeks in Lebanon, Brian and I arrived at our hotel in Erbil and enjoyed a similarly leisurely walk near the Citadel for our first of many kebabs. We returned to our hotel to await Jason’s evening arrival – thinking about a relaxing evening of catching up. Jason texted that he landed and was ready for his pick-up by Awa, an artist he had been communicating with for weeks about the Hope Mural Project. In a matter of a few text exchanges, we were dressed and ready to meet Awa and eight of his closest friends for an evening of chai and nargila. We soon learned that Awa and his friends are very popular on Snapchat in Iraq. Our first hours in Kurdistan were snapped for all to see and while we enjoyed chai, some of his fans came to visit and say hello. This was our first experience as Snapchat celebrities.

Speaking of chai, it’s a big deal in Kurdistan, served in small, piping hot glasses with at least a half inch of sugar lining the bottom. Wherever you stop, it’s not uncommon to be offered chai. It is usually good for a chuckle to see us try to blow the liquid to a tolerable temperature while our Kurdish friends quickly down it with total disregard for seared esophaguses. Over the course of fifteen days, I developed a pretty hearty addiction to this sugary goodness – ending my time there with a daily habit of 8-10 glasses. Although I wouldn’t change a thing, when I arrived in Jordan, my first three days were filled with detox headaches from the caffeine and sugar.

While we were enjoyed chai at our favorite spot near the Citadel in Erbil, a woman asked if we would agree to be on video while drinking our chai. We weren’t sure why, but agreed, and were soon given a clip-on microphone to wear while drinking tea. Since we weren’t exactly sure what to say, our conversation focused mainly on how much we loved tea and how delicious it was. Who would have guessed we could spend ten minutes chatting about this delicious treat? We felt like actors in a cheesy commercial.

During our final meal with friends, we watched Jason’s shocked face as he nearly spit out his chai after realizing he added a bit of salt instead of sugar. We laughed at him – only to watch our second friend (who will remain anonymous) do the exact same thing. For us, chai was not only delicious, but also at the center of many shared moments with friends…some that were pretty funny!

Chai – was usually one part of a really big meal. We ate some sort of a kebab or shawarma every single day. When eating with friends, we would finish our meals and often still have a table of half-filled plates because the sheer amount of food was overwhelming. Each bite offered flavors to impress with a desire, but not an ability to finish every bite. We also loved that you could find delicious shawarma for less than a dollar – which made eating them habitual too. In Dohuk, the men behind our favorite shawarma counter had to laugh on the day when we had enjoyed all three meals there. Oh, and the bread!!! Piping hot and delicious.

One of my favorite chai and food experiences was at the home of Rawand who surprised us with a beautiful spread of fruit and snacks – along with a custom-made nargila pipe that was covered with an artistic display that includes our names a a bit of homage to Kurdistan. While I don’t smoke, I can now say that I have had a favorite nargila experience. Art can be found in the most interesting places!

While visiting Domiz camp, we enjoyed working with the Barzani staff and center volunteers. As we prepared to head to lunch, one of the volunteers shared pictures of his musical talents and a video of a song he made to honor the camp leader. It was beautiful and enthusiastic in praise. I mentioned that he was the best volunteer ever because I have had many volunteers and have never received a song written in my honor. As we ate lunch, he joined us in the small center side room and let us know that within the last half hour, he had written the lyrics of a song for me. While he still needed to finish the music, he shared a beautiful collection of words he had written…words of kindness and friendship.

Each day was a pleasure and I felt lucky to spend my time with so many wonderful people.

And my final random note on time in Iraq…Jason, Brian, and I enjoyed games of Uno at the end of most days. The competition was fierce with happy dances by the braggiest of the winners (no need to mention name). However, in the final championship game – there was a big winner – a really big winner – someone who won in only two hands. Okay, it was ME! I mean – it’s not great to brag, but when you end a trip on a win like that – and will remain champion until the next group adventure – it does seem worthy of sharing with the world. I wish I had pictures of my championship game, but I guess the memories of the triumph will have to suffice! So, thanks for the memories, Kurdistan!

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Friends Than The Mountains

Iraq/Kurdistan was a whirlwind, at times, too much to process.

For weeks before arriving, I hiked and strolled through Middle Eastern streets enjoying friends, freedom, and falafel, while Jason worked around the clock to make connections for Hope Travels and developed “More Friends than the Mountains” outreach projects.

While he reached out to many organizations, there was one group who stood out for their welcome willingness to become partners – not just in name – but through generous shared resources including time, transportation, and oversight.

Barzani Charity Foundation oversees centers in IDP and refugees camps throughout Kurdistan/Iraq. Each of the centers is unique based on the camp needs and available resources, but all of the camps are filled with dedicated people who bring hope through hardship.

While I know this blog post is long, it is only a sliver of the goodwill shared and challenges addressed by the Barzani team during our time together.

Our first camp visit was to Hassan Sham IDP camp. Internally Displaced Persons are people who remain in their countries but were forced to leave their homes because of the effects of armed conflict, generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural/human disasters.

As we turned onto the road leading in Hassan Sham for the first time, both sides of the street were filled with abandoned buildings obviously hit by air strikes. The structures appeared to be destroyed with specific precision from clear explosions centered on rooftops. We learned that these buildings were previously occupied by members of ISIS and the entire community was destroyed by US air strikes in the fight to remove them. It made sense – but felt ominous and unsettling at the same time.

Photo by: Jason Everett

After entering the general camp area and meeting the camp leaders, we walked to Hassan Sham’s Barzani Center which illustrated a literal form of a “safe space.” Through the fence, music blared as a cluster of girls danced in an experienced sync, a classic recess parachute rose and fell in the eager hands of smiling kids, and determined feet kicked a soccer ball across through a small field. All of the destruction we passed seem far away, which now I recognize as one of Barzani’s key goals. As we heard again and again, we can’t give answers for every single problem, but we can help kids to experience happiness – and that means something.

For our first hour, we dove in…not knowing where to begin. I imagine this is how the kids feel each day as they decide where to start. Of course, the parachute and dancing feet pulled me in…with a few side trips down the slide. While this could have felt like a playground anywhere in the world, there were moments of clarity that proved this wasn’t true. Within these fences are a mix of children orphaned by parents who were members of ISIS who gently play alongside other children who lost their parents during ISIS attacks.

This was our first experience sharing the kites gifted by friends from home…and it was a bit crazy. Kids were everywhere, all seeming to finish coloring at the exact same moment. An intense glee filled with air as we struggled to get kites together in time for play. In the end, kites filled the field, along with kids who were smiling, laughing, and running while wearing ninja headbands made from kite ribbon. Creative chaos at its best.

The Barzani team at Hassan Sham is exceptional. Every person we met was dedicated to growth and willingly worked beyond reason to make a difference. Working in intense environments like Barzani Camps is a 24/7 job and not something you walk away from at the end of the day. Through tired eyes and limited resources, they persevered in connecting with every child we encountered.

Our second camp experience was much different. Domiz Camps 1 and 2 are home for Syrian Refugees. Unlike the tent homes of Hassan Sham, the streets were lined with more permanent structures including a typical main street lined with small shops selling essential community goods. There was sense of progress here and hope as kids shared dances and were equally eager to fly kites. For camp two – we quickly trained the Barzani team and were getting in the groove of putting the kites together.

Photo by: Jason Everett

We are learning a lot about how to be more responsible humanitarians when it comes to interacting with kids, but we also have much to learn. Developing relationships is important, but it’s also hard for kids to have people in and out of their lives. It’s something that I have consistently pondered on this trip – wondering about the best ways to interact with children in respectful and helpful ways.

Photo by: Jason Everett

The third camp we visited was outside of Duhok. Dawidiya IDP Camp is primarily a home for Yazidi families. The plight of Yazidis at the hands of ISIS may be familiar from news reports describing them being held in mountains where they were persecuted and starved with great cruelty as they awaited support from the international community. This camp was hard. The location is further from primary cities so there we fewer resources and support from international organizations allocated to people who have already suffered intense atrocities. The camp lacked play structures found in other spaces we visited. Classrooms in the camp school were filled with kids who were ready to decorate kites. It was apparent that life experiences had made the children more cautious…you could feel weight on their young shoulders and even fear and reluctance in some eyes.

Photo by: Jason Everett

After kite-building, during a walk through the camp, we encountered many of the children again. Soon, we had a big group of playing and dancing kids. The boys followed Jason as he randomly sprinted down the dusty street with a dramatic appeal. They laughed while attempting to catch his whirling feet that psyched them out in all directions. A group of girls looked at the boys, then looked at me, and did an international eye roll, noting the silliness without saying a word. Instead, our girls club easily enjoyed chatting and skipping down the same streets. It was so much fun, as it is whenever you get a few minutes with kids, but as we walked away, I carried the weight of a person who can so freely walk out these doors while others were left behind.

Photo by: Jason Everett

While in Kurdistan/Iraq, we also collaborated on the planning of two community events with local nonprofit organizations. The map of Erbil is a circle with the Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, smack dab in the center. Truly, all roads lead to the Citadel. On a perfectly sunny Saturday, with just a touch of a breeze, Barzani Charity Foundation invited families to enjoy an afternoon of kite flying. The children received kites filled with designs from the US. We watched as proud parents smiled and laughed at the antics, running along with kites and cheering in awe as the traveled aloft. Colorful kites above his historical site shouted majestic messages of friendship and hope.

With a colorfully diverse HOPE mural proudly hanging in the background of Citadel stage, Jason and Mo offered words of friendship to connect our countries and share hope. News cameras filled the area with microphoned reporters asking questions about the project and highlighting the deep friendship of US citizens and Iraqi Kurds. This moment was the culmination of hours of investment by many: the mural designers, US artists, Melissa Marie Collins and Mike Steneron and Kurdish artists, Awa F. Bakr and Vanila Van; people who purchased or colored kites; and Jason, Aamr, and Mohammed who communicated for months to create this powerful moment.

The second event was planned in partnership with Halabja Glory Foundation who are instrumental in planning humanitarian efforts in this city. Halabja is another community that struggled to receive international support from NGOs because of the longer distance from main cities. However, recent history of this town certainly warrants a deep international response. On March 16, 1988, Halabja was the site of a chemical genocidal massacre where mustard gas and unidentified nerve agents were used to kill up to 5,000 and injure 10,000 Halajans, mostly civilians. The atrocities committed by the Iraqi Regime under Saddam Hussein have left both physical and emotional scars on Kurds that continue to create issues throughout the area including the increased incidence of cancer and birth defects that occur today.

The Halabja Glory team tirelessly dedicates itself to bringing awareness to the plight of chemical massacre survivors while fighting for the reconstruction of hearts and minds. During our time in Halabja, their team extended themselves to meet our every need. Their event planning was precise and they used kites as a tool for sharing hope at the feet of the Halabja Memorial. Children sang with enthusiasm, teachers watched students with firm, but loving eyes, and kites flew.

Fun was had – but the Halabja Memorial was also a place for intense sadness. Looking at statue recreations of March 16, 1988 illustrated the types of everyday activities taking place during this attack. Parents unsuccessfully attempted to cover their children while taking the brunt of the painful attack. Burns, disfigurement, and excruciating death are the realities of chemical warfare. Each child pictured within the memorial resembled children I know, and even that tiny bit was overwhelmingly painful to consider. Halabja left an imprint for the resilience to move forward, but also for the great needs that exist there today.

Emotionally – time in Kurdistan moved between these intense moments of despair mixed with gratitude for our Kurdish friends and the culture that is by far the most generous I have experienced. Characteristics of strength, resilience, and unselfishness are the norm rather than the exception.

At the same time, we experienced the same youthful spirit that questions status quo and fights for change. Snapchat and selfies fill the air and conversations question the establishment and push for change. There is a vibrancy about this area where we will surely return.

As I said, there is so much more to say about time in Kurdistan beyond our project experiences. In fact, there is so much more that I will add some highlights on another post.

Posted in Halabja, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Iraq, Kurdistan, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments