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

Traveling With Friends…

There is no way around it, solo travel is inherently self-centered. There is also no way around the fact that traveling with others has the potential for disaster, and the possibility of being miserable for everyone involved. Like all relationships, it is magical when people can be together, and in spite of all our quirky needs, find the taste of unity to be desirable.

For the last six weeks, I abandoned solo time to travel with friends. The thing about being together on the road is that you are ALWAYS TOGETHER…even in ways you might not otherwise connect with your closest compadres at home. Every decision becomes a discussion of, “What should we eat? Where should we go? Should we turn left or right? Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” There is an intimacy to being together in small rooms, sharing finances, and well, you know, even sharing the bathroom space.

After years of experience, my collection of travel partners is small. Often, the reason is more, “It’s not you, it’s me,” than anything. I am not everyone’s cup of tea on the road as I don’t really like sightseeing, am pretty cheap, don’t drink much alcohol, talk to everyone I meet, and spend full days daydreaming in cafes.

For me, my recent travel partners were dreamy. In December, my dear co-teacher Colleen and sweet friend Cat met me for travel throughout Israel and the West Bank. Sometimes, traveling as a trio can be tricky because it’s hard to coordinate ideas. For us, it was perfect. I have visited the area multiple times, so in some cases, it was fun to enjoy familiar spaces through the eyes of my friends. Other times, they journeyed out for exploration while I snuggled with a cup of tea and a good book.

While we were together, we walked Biblical steps…sharing days in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and at the Sea of Galilee. We floated in the Dead Sea – just barely – splashing in just minutes before sunset. I was able to connect them with dear friends who live in the area over shared meals and fellowship.

Travel was easy together because we have so much in common…teachers, women, friends. We laughed. We philosophized. We made plans for the future.

The best part of being with these ladies was that they know me so well, and there was total freedom to blend our shared times with a bit of independence. As they went off on adventures, I anxiously waiting back to hear about their exploits and laugh about their shared adventures.

As we said goodbye, I prepared for my next travel partner. Brian is Jason’s good friend from Portland. While we have met during visits to Chicago, and for a few days of overlap travel, being with someone 24/7 who is relatively unfamiliar could seem a bit daunting. Yet, all the things I knew about Brian made me quite comfortable with the idea. What I knew is that he is a low-key and seasoned traveler. He loves to read and has a great appreciation for the value of being quiet. He is a dreamer and a planner – one of my favorite types of friends. We spent two weeks exploring Lebanon on our own and then traveled to Kurdistan/Iraq to meet Jason.

Our month together seemed to fit into two distinct sections. In Lebanon, I didn’t preplan any Hope projects, and once we arrived, being reminded that sometimes, the best outreach begins at home, I felt like our time together was more important than anything else.

In Lebanon, we spent our first week in Beirut. I realized that my own perceptions of the city were so far off…formed from movies and wartime newsreels. The remnants of these times can be found scattered throughout the city in the form of abandoned buildings that are often broken from explosions and gunfire. While walking, you wonder about the deep history of these buildings that sit as memorials to tragic civil war events.

The seaside in Beirut is something special. On our first day, we watched as others climbed a fence to visit a lighthouse and pool area in Manama. There we met Abu Hoda – an octogenarian who happily posed in his swimsuit, shared some of his fanciest swim strokes, and showered me with a bit of water to the face and a shared grapefruit. It was easy to see why Abu Hoda was considered the “king of the sea.”

In both places, having friends along increased the ease of renting a car. To me, driving a car in an unfamiliar place is a two-person operation with a driver and navigator. In Lebanon, Brian was a driver and I was co-pilot. Usually, I am happy to drive, but sitting back and enjoying the mountainous views from the passenger seat was exquisite. As we visited destinations throughout Lebanon, we got splashed by waves, took a cool swim (mine was more of a toe dip until a wave pulled me in), and did a tiny bit of hiking. Even with exotic food options, most of our meals were shared grocery store treats at the end of our days.

Conversations with Brian were deep. I think not knowing each other well proved to add depth to our time together because we had so much to learn and hours by which to do so. His insights were valuable with a knack for asking thought-provoking questions. Moving beyond the travelers’ special, “What is your name? What is your job?” and “Where are you from?” felt really good. We explored new places, chatting the entire time. Brian’s research and insights into our destination added depth to all we saw.

We also rested – a lot. Brian’s jet lag gave me a valid excuse for heading to sleep at my typical 7:00 PM. We had time together, but also included some important hours of personal time too.

For the second half of our trip, we met with Jason to complete projects in Kurdistan/Iraq. After weeks of resting, we were up to the many planned tasks and intense socialization. More on this part of our trip later, but overall, traveling with Jason and Brian together was fun….because they are both funny. Silly actually.

It’s fun to be with friends who have shared so much and still believe in the power of being goofy. Sometimes, a good laugh was all that was needed for a bit of decompression from the intensity of our days.

I am back to being alone…with mixed feelings. In a way, it’s like taking a deep breath. I have spent four days recharging by writing, reading, and spending hours being quietly invisible. At the same time, looking at the empty chair across from me leaves me a bit nostalgic for shared conversations over hot tea.

Since I am focusing on mental health, I have spent time thinking about the benefits of traveling. For me, while the good outweighs any challenges, there are definitely some pros and cons. I wouldn’t just recommend that everyone just take a leap to get away as a form of self care. However, one thing I know for sure is that my time with friends was important and valuable for my own feelings of comfort. Traveling far and wide has only served to increase appreciation for the friends I hold so close.

Posted in Beirut, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Self Care, Street Art, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Takes A Village” – An Active View From Yemin Orde

For 25 years, I have sought an elusive magic wand that would transform education, building deep bridges to the world beyond school doors. From day one, it has often felt like a quest beyond the reach of schools everywhere…two steps forward and three steps back. Pockets of innovation burn, simmer, and fade…only to be discussed again as new initiatives a few years later. In all of it, I have never lost passion or hope in the full knowledge that there is no better place to be than where I have settled…but I can still dream.

When I arrived at Yemin Orde Village, there was an immediate sense of excitement as I watched the teenagers walking to lunch while laughing, taking selfies, and engaging in a bit of bantering. While in some ways, it felt like my junior high, there was an amplified sense of urgency and connectedness that comes from serving groups of at-risk teenagers who live and learn together. Initially, I was happy to share craft supplies collected by my students with their team, but during the visit, I learned so much more about this wonderful learning space. Yemin Orde is more than a school – it is a village that provides a safe haven that teaches youth the power of personal development that encourages global leadership.

During my visit, Racheli and Lisa provided a tour that inspired my teaching goals and supported my belief that best practices do not stem from a nationally-based curriculum or assessments that require quantity over depth.

As I have been traveling to learn more about mental health outreach programs, I recognize that providing a sense of belonging is just as important as the work needed to repair the heart and aspire toward goals for the future.

Yemin Orde masterfully integrates mental health support within their academic and social goals through ten core components that make them a giant in prioritizing leaders of tomorrow and innovation. According to this website, a successful Village Way educational community must integrate each of the methodology’s 10 core components into its work including:

Anchors in the Past: Recognizing and strengthening positive personal narratives, empowering communal history, and honoring cultural traditions;

Anchors in the Future: Designing a plan for the future and encouraging youth to change present actions accordingly, teaching valuable life skills, providing support for graduates and letting youth know that the community will serve as their safety net;

Earth (the physical environment): Creating an aesthetically pleasing home-like atmosphere, using the physical environment to convey lessons and communal values;

Sky (the spiritual environment): Reinforcing communal values and national belonging, finding meaning in tradition and holidays, promoting moral judgment;

Tikkun Halev (repairing the heart): Providing diverse opportunities for success in academic and extracurricular activities, providing programs for emotional healing, and using setbacks and crises as an opportunity for growth and learning;

Tikkun Olam (repairing the world): Participating in community service to empower youth through helping others and serving a valued role in the wider community, promoting a sense of responsibility to service, opening up the wider world to the child;

Reliable Representations of Parental Wholeness: Placing every educator in the role of a meaningful adult in children’s lives, involving parents in community, empowering parents in the eyes of their children and the children in the eyes of their parents;

Community of Meaning: Crafting a sense of belonging to and pride in a supportive community with common values and spreading values beyond the community’s borders;

Dialogue: Opening up understanding, respectful dialogue between adult and youth, aimed at promoting the youth’s progress, without blurring the role of the responsible adult;

Minimizing institutional characteristics: Building a living community that goes beyond the bureaucratic aspects of institutional life, on the physical and interpersonal levels.

As I read these principles, they are not just how I want to teach, they are descriptors for the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to live.

Yemin Orde team members – all of them – including maintenance, secretarial staff, food services, etc. and called to exemplify core values centered on respect of the youth they encounter each day. Everyone on staff is trained and empowered to be advocates for the children with the expectation that everyone is part of a solution.

Students are taught that they are not defined by their past, and they can rewrite personal narratives to highlight what makes them proud. Reflecting upon their unique backgrounds and cultural heritage helps to repair their hearts from angers in the past.

In an effort to reinforce that the youth are not victims but part of solutions, serving others is expected in some capacity as a volunteer. Outreach and service aim to empower kids by showing that they are not needy, but needed.

Walking through Yemin Orde Children’s Village is exciting because there is something interesting around every turn. As students crossed our path, Racheli was visibly excited to see them and share their individual talents and contributions to the student body. The Eco Farm was a favorite spot to visit with chickens, goats, and student-designed spaces for hanging out. The wood shop offered a necessary space where students create items needed throughout the village.

Through active learning, with real-life applications, students learn that they are worthy enough to invest in themselves…not by saying it, but through their actions. Yemin Orde demands that everyone expects enough from students and that they are not prone to reducing expectations because they feel sorry for the challenges they have encountered. This is seen as one of the miracle corners of the world where students are nurtured, but also challenged to defy all limitations and expectations perceived by others.

Thank you to Adina and the Yemin Orde team for sharing your space with me. If you are interested in learning more about Yemin Orde, this webpage is a helpful starting place. I am particularly interested in determining ways to include their academic research and progressive programs into my plans when returning to school. Innovation is complex – but can be done with minds and hearts focused the core components of growth.

Posted in Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject, Yemin Orde | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Journey To Discover My One Word…

Late in 2017, as the spirit of reflection was in the air, I encountered an online testimony about the power of picking ONE WORD as an alternative to making a New Year’s resolution. The concept was appealing because my resolutions typically drone on about health, relationships, wellness, and budgeting. While my efforts are generally consistent, I make the same dips and strides in a cyclical manner each year – increasingly disconnected from these resolutions as the year proceeds. So, I began searching for my word, pondering options during free mind moments, and making a list of every word I could think of that might propel my life to new heights.

Two weeks into the year, I was left with a running list, but not a single word that inspired change or growth. After submitting a request to take a leave of absence for the 2018-2019 school year, the urgency to claim my first annual focus word increased with my deliberately unpredictable planning.

On January 14th, while sitting quietly at the New Buffalo Fairfield Inn on an early Sunday morning, with very little additional pondering, a word that wasn’t even on my list swam to the top. OPEN! As in opening doors to new places…helping to open doors for others…having an open heart and mind to new experiences…and opening a window to new relationships.

After selecting my ONE WORD, I created this list of ways it would impact my life during 2018 and bought myself a My Intent reminder bracelet.

    OPEN the door to unexpected opportunities
    Be OPEN to input from others – even when it feels a bit uncomfortable
    Look for OPENings to new friendships
    Keep an OPEN mind and don’t settle for “I’m too old” to try something new
    OPEN my home to a tenant who will allow me resources to travel with ease
    Find ways to OPEN knowledge to students about life around the globe
    Try a bike trip during the summer on the OPEN road
    Try to OPEN my mouth with advice – only when it’s a last resort
    Be OPEN to criticism and use it as an opportunity for learning.
    Remember that the OPEN air is my friend
    OPEN my closets and jewelry box to give away anything that isn’t useful
    OPEN my eyes to unseen beauty all around
    OPEN books – just for fun! Lots of them!
    Find OPENings to communicate HOPE mission while leaving touchstones behind both at home and abroad
    OPEN my wallet – for needs more than wants – and only when aligned with my planned budget
    Be OPEN-handed when giving to others – in unique and interesting ways
    Have an OPEN heart to others who think differently than I do and be willing to learn from them
    Be OPEN-eyed and aware of potential risks – situational awareness is important too
    Pray – and allow God to OPEN parts of my heart that might be closed in fear or uncertainty

Throughout the year, when I struggled with a decision or found my mind wandering into unfocused spaces, I remembered my ONE WORD and pushed myself back on track. As the year closes, it’s time to reflect on this list. Since i feel that I am deeply in the middle of this journey, I’ve decided that OPEN will carry into August, 2019 when I return home.

As you enter the New Year and the season of goal-setting, what will your word be?

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What is the PITH of Black Pith Poetry?

Deep within a young tree is the pith, or soft tissue which stores and transports nutrients throughout. As the tree grows, rings surround this pith to show the evolution of time and development. After meeting the young men who are known as Black Pith Zambia, I think this is a perfect name for their team. It is not only reflective of the solidly rooted poetry they share, but symbolic of their deep character focused on sharing knowledge with others.

As you can read on their Facebook page, Black Pith believes “in talent, the magnification of art and the value of an artist” with the mission of “raising a generation of poets in Zambia and beyond.”

Embedded within their poetry is a strong connection to proactive mental health education, reducing the stigma related to conversations about mental health, and showing the power of poetry as a valuable form of self expression.

After reading about their work and focus on community development, I contacted Black Pith and learned that it was an eleven hour bus ride between Lusaka and one of their outreach areas in Solwezi. Despite, a general aversion to long bus rides, and after only a few informal conversations online, I felt good about the trip. Everything they shared was in-touch with the kind of missions I hope to support…innovative, positive, productive, interactive, and hopeful.

I arrived in Solwezi on Thursday night to a bus station filled with people willing to help find a taxi to my hotel. Without a phone, local communication is a challenge, so I to knew I had to wait to contact Black Pith until I had a WiFi connection. To my surprise, during a quick stop to get water at the local grocery store, four smiling young men greeted me by name saying they must be psychics. We all laughed as I fought moments of confusion, but I was immediately sure that this would be a weekend filled with friendship and fun.

Charles Chalwe, Ezra Mwenda, Mbwangi Mwenya, and Mwanangwa Zombe offer their own skill sets to this well-designed team with each focusing on poetry and another specific role within the organization. They met in college and shared a common desire to use the spoken word they enjoyed in school to influence their others and support local development. Through six shows a year, and a variety of outreach events in Kitwe, Zambia and beyond, they are doing just that.

Our weekend, which also included two Black Pith volunteers named Nsofwa and Grace, was filled with diverse outreach in a variety of settings.

What I enjoyed the most about participating in their events was the way their mission was always clear, focused on sharing poetry and building the power of others. However, their approach varied to customize the experience for different audiences.

On Friday night, Black Pith hosted a poetry event at Shamel’s Restaurant. I have to say that I was awed when these fun-loving and humble guys took the stage and dove into their poetic personas. In one breath, their spoken words were deep and meaningful, and in the next, funny and inspiring. It was a wonderfully emotional poetic ride. I loved it!

Photo Credit: DC Photography Zambia

On Saturday, in preparation for our visit to the correctional facility on Sunday, we shopped at the local market for Chitenge fabric that we could used to cover up to follow local customs. It was fun shopping with the girls for clothes – and then some groceries for the lunch they made. They even bought some dried caterpillars which I must say – for caterpillars – tasted good. Even though I still can’t believe I ate caterpillars. It’s funny how our cultural food hang-ups run deep. The dried caterpillars were similar to a small piece of a pretzel – but my own bias made it feel different. I also know, there are things I eat at home that others wouldn’t dream of eating. This is why I love the way travel shows us new ways to be.

During our afternoon of lounging, I learned Zambian cooking basics – and enjoyed the fellowship of our meal, playing cards, watching soccer, origami making, and just hanging out. After months of traveling, this recreation time was a welcome friend.

Saturday’s visit to Cheshire Home was beyond special and gave me a chance to see Black Pith connecting with children. The young people who attend this school have physical challenges and a ton of spirit. They board at the school during the school year under the care of their maternal leader Sister Michelin Kafwembe. During the show, the children were encouraged through puppetry and interactive activities to be overcomers focused on achieving their dreams.

On Sunday morning, we visited a correctional facility where the poets share regular poetry workshops for a small group of prisoners. The men who participated shared poetry written after their previous workshop- and reinforced the power of freedom they will never take it for granted again. There was a strong connection between the poets and prisoners – focused on self improvement and the potential for change. The workshop focused on writing with sensory details – which I loved – and made me feel a tad like I was back at school.

Sunday night was for relaxing at Georgie’s Restaurant outside of Solwezi where there was a bit of kayaking, bridge walking, pizza, and dance.

One cool project we have in motion is collaboration between Black Pith and Chicago poet, Adam Gottlieb. During our video collaboration, they planned a combined poetry workshop centered on, “What gives you hope for the next year?” Through video and audio work, they will host a poetry workshop in their respective cities that will be combined for a global poetry production. As a teacher, this is my dream for how technology can be used to build partnerships and provide cross-cultural learning opportunities.

I cannot say enough about the men of Black Pith poetry and the way they have created an outreach program built on their talents. In many tangible ways, they are providing poetry therapy for the masses in their community through large and small group activities.

If I had grown children, I would want them to be just like this crew…filled with respect for others, a desire to influence the world, and a general good nature and strong set of values.

Someday, they will come to visit me. I can already picture them working with some friends from home, and other I have met on this journey, to bring their positive influence to Chicago.

Posted in Africa, Black Pith Poetry, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Kitwe, Mental Health, Mental Health, Hope for the Day, Origami, Paperforwater, Poetry, Self Care, Solwezi, Spoken Word, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hearts Travel Where Hope Travels

It’s December! The hustle of the holidays makes this a whirlwind month. I think of how many holiday gifts I have wrapped in my lifetime and how much time I have spent finding just the right presents, while often succumbing to the pressure of just grabbing something to fill the need. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed the process less and less, seeking simplicity in a world crowded with stuff, seeking a way to bring cheer without an ounce of expectation, and seeking ways to find perfect gifts that feel right instead of just checking a holiday box. After my last three weeks in Africa, I have determined that an ounce of holiday cheer can be found in a single sheet of paper.

Where did this origami mission begin?

You may have enjoyed pictures and stories from the travels of Jason Everett. He has shared a story of when a young woman in line at a Bethlehem, Westbank, checkpoint alleviated boredom and tension by transforming a few squares of paper into origami surprises. While it only took a few minutes, the imprint of the way the small gesture elevated the mood of that moment left its mark on him- leading to his partnership with Paper for Water who generously sent him to Africa armed with large stacks of paper in the hope of sharing small treasures along his way – which he did.

I watched his work in action throughout Uganda and Rwanda, enjoying the process, but never mastering a technique of my own. However, as his leg of our journey finished, I became the beneficiary of his unused stack of paper. I turned to the master teacher named Google – and searched for “preschool origami projects” with my instructional competency level. I watched 8 year old experts as I painstakingly practiced the simplest technique found in the form of a basic heart.

With paper at the ready, my backpack is currently armed with tools to surprise children with an unexpected paperfolding lesson. Each time we engage in the process, I am surprised at the collective sense of accomplishment experienced when our basic square becomes a colorful heart.

This small gesture makes me think maybe I don’t need BIG and beautifully wrapped gifts right now. Maybe this is a time for simple gestures of kindness in places where no one is looking for it. While it’s easy to let encroaching excess fill the air, I wonder if there is joy to be found at home in these seven simple folds.

Is anyone else is willing to test the idea that a few minutes of sharing origami with a stranger can bring a snippet of unexpected joy? All you have to do, is make your own paper hearts to share with others. Or, teach someone else to make their own so they can share with others. I promise, if I can perfect this technique, you can do the same within minutes of watching my short training video.

If you’d like, I will send you paper in the mail in the hope that you will find someone to surprise with a heart-making exchange. Or, here’s a link to buy a pack of your own.

Share a pic!!! I would love to see your work in action. #heartstravel #hopetravels

Posted in Africa, HeartsTravel, HFTD, Hope for the Day, HopeTravels, Mental Health, Origami, Paperforwater, Self Care, Street Art, Travel, WJHSPantherpride, WJHSPeopleProject | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments