28 Days in Kurdistan (Not a Horror Movie)


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Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Episode 54

Hannah and Colleen have a conversation with Victoria, who went on our teacher training trip back in August of 2021. Hear her reactions, culture shock, what she learned, and whether or not she'd ever go back! Also find out about what to do when you break your ankle on a mountain hike!

Lear more at www.ServantGroup.org/Iraq and email Hannah at hannah@servantgroup.org with questions, comments, or suggestions!

Hannah: Welcome to Between Iraq and a Hard Place! I'm Hannah!

Colleen: And I'm Colleen, and we're here to tell you a little bit about life in Iraq.

Hannah: We have a special guest today. Victoria is here with us to tell us about the trials and tribulations of going to Iraq with me.

Colleen: Trial and tribulation, I'm sure, although I've never actually experienced that.

Hannah: It's true, it's one of those weird things about us.

Victoria: That is not how this was pitched to me, it is not what I'm planning on talking about.

Hannah: So Victoria and I and four other people, four and a half other people, I don't know how you count a child. I guess they're a whole person,

Colleen: They are a whole person!

Hannah: We went to Iraq in August to help do some teacher training for the national teachers at the three different schools in Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaimaniyah. I was in Erbil and Victoria got the joy of being in Dohuk. So yeah, we're just going to talk to you a little bit about what your experience was like because you were new and maybe you have some different perspective than me. Who was not new.

Victoria: Sounds great.

Colleen: So how did you become interested in this trip?

Victoria: Well, I had been volunteering at SGI, and Colleen asked me if I wanted to go to Iraq and I said, Yes. I am an ESL teacher by training and trade. So I have a natural interest in teacher training in non English settings or non native English settings. So Colleen knew this and asked me if I wanted to go, and it really was that quick. I knew immediately that I wanted to go and had the flexibility to go. So I went home. I think that night I asked my husband, like, What do you think? And he was like, Sure. And so I'm pretty sure it was like a day or two later I was like, Yup I'm in, like, I'm all in, let's go.

Hannah: Yeah, I think you were one of the first ones because I think we talked to you about it like two or three days after we found out that it might be a possibility. So thanks for signing up so fast because I was like, I don't know this going to work. And I was like, I got one, and if I can get one. I could get more.

Colleen: But even before I asked you, I had told Hannah that I was going to ask you and that I thought you would go like I was. I was already like, I've got to find an opportunity to ask Victoria because I think she's going to go on this trip.

Victoria: Well, it ended up being perfect. Like, right after I got there, I'd been there, maybe three or four days. And I remember just reflecting on so many things that God has already taught me and experiences He's already given me and realizing that this trip was sort of like perfect for who God has made me to be. I think I wrote something along the lines of like, I was made for this. And so I really do see God's hand in the fact that he put in your mind to ask me and that I was able to go and learn a lot about myself and get to put a lot of the gifts and experiences I've already have to use. So it was great.

Colleen: Yeah, because Iraq's not the first place you've gone and traveled, right?

Victoria: I lived in Central Asia for two years and taught English there, in a bit of a different setting. But yeah, I lived in Central Asia for two years and I've traveled. I always say, like all over the Muslim world, like if you can imagine a sort of continent or area of the world where Muslims live in different cultural pockets. I've probably been there.

Hannah: So did you go into this trip with certain expectations of what it would be like because of those experiences?

Victoria: Some of my expectations were around myself, like, I thought that I would be cool and fine, and I thought I kind of knew what I was walking into, and to some extent I was. And in other ways, the uniqueness of Kurdistan sort of… I had culture shock that I did not expect. I've lived in the Middle East briefly, and so I was sort of expecting Middle East vibes, but also it's Central Asia. So I was expecting Central Asia vibes, and that was true. It felt more Middle Eastern than Central Asian to me in a lot of ways. I had sort of forgotten how hard that can be when you're going as essentially a single woman, because I was there without my husband. And just in general, how hard it can be to live in a culture that's different from yours and more restrictive than yours, for both men and women. So, yeah, I had more culture shock than I expected to have, for sure.

Hannah: Yeah. Was there anything specifically that you like in the moment were like, Oh, this is really different than what I expected? Or was it more of a general?

Victoria: This is going to sound so funny because I know better because I was warned that it was hot and I've lived places without AC and I know how heat can affect you. But just how hot it was and how much that took out of me and how angry that made me and the whole world for existing was a little unexpected. I was like, I didn't anticipate not handling this as well as I'm not handling this. Or however you say that.

Colleen: That's a great example of something that you can tell someone ahead of time that it will do this to you or that this is the experience. But it's different from actually feeling it and having it change what you can and cannot do.

Victoria: Well, it's strange too, because it's not the first time I've experienced that. And so I like anticipated like, I know that jet lag is hard, and I know that cross-cultural living when you don't have language is hard and I know that heat is hard. And I got there and it all hit again, and I was like, I hate this place. I don't want to be here. I don't want to ever come here again, which did not stay that way. By the time I left, I very much want to go back. But at the time, I was just like, What am I doing? This is so hard.

Hannah: What did I sign up for it? Yeah, yeah. I honestly. The heat for me was a struggle, too, because I've never been there in August, really? So, yeah, even for me, I was like, OK, it's going to be hot. We're going to be fine. We're going to be fine, but it's going to be hot. And then the first night we got there, I was like, Oh, yeah, it's hot. I forgot. I forgot how much I hate this. And how much. I don't want to do anything because it's so stinking hot, right? But everyone else feels that way, too. And so it's kind of like nobody's doing anything.

Victoria: It's true. I think the other thing that what made it even more interesting was the fact that I was in a classroom teaching 10 hours after arriving at the place that I would stay. And I don't know that I ever had that fast of a turnaround on any trip or like cross-cultural, longer experience that I've been on, like we were expecting you to perform, this quickly. And that was fine once I got used to it. But I think that that definitely slowed my acclimation by quite a bit because I didn't have time to like orient before. It was like and now,

Hannah: Right, because you got there and pretty much got up the next morning and there was a taxi at your door to take you to the school.

Victoria: It was one a.m. when we were like, People are out of our house. We can go to bed now. And someone picked us up at 7:30 a.m. We had a meeting with school administrator and we were… I had a few hours or an hour. My coworker compatriot, roommate was teaching at nine. Like, that's how much time we had.

Hannah: Which is less than ideal, but pretty much the way that it works in Iraq.

Victoria: And I think truthfully, I think that knowing that that's the way it works in Iraq made it worse, not better, because it wasn't like, Well, this just happened this time or like, this just happened to me. It's like, this is representative of the way this is expected to go. Oh crap, what am I doing?

Colleen: Was there any of your expectations that you were thinking that were good things that did happen or that were met in a way that you found really valuable?

Victoria: I mean, I expected people to be warm and they were. I was hopeful to get to connect with people like one on one to get to go to cafes or go on walks or be in people's homes. And that didn't happen as quickly as I was hoping for because I kind of thought having this sort of established relationship might have made that happen more quickly. But it was more like what you might expect with a culture like that where it's like, really, it takes time for people to trust you. And by the time we left, we had gotten to do quite a bit of that sort of one on one relationship building. And so that was really sweet. And I guess met expectations eventually. Oh, this is an interesting one. It's not your question, but I expected good food and that wasn't actually the case.

Colleen: I'm sorry we failed to prepare you.

Victoria: You didn't. You told me. I just made it up in my head that if you were probably not right about it and I don't know why I thought that. The fruit was great. The rest of the food was fine. But it's like imported Middle Eastern food versus like fresh Middle Eastern food, and it's just not as good and it's still Middle Eastern food, even though you're starting to get up into Central Asia, but you're still in the desert. So you don't get like all that really yummy Kafka's food or whatever, that's a little further north.

Hannah: Yeah, it's one of those things that also makes it hard sometimes because you're like, not only is it hot, but also all the food tastes the same. And this is very boring,

Colleen: Which I mean, I can understand why you maybe didn't believe us on that one, because food is somewhat a matter of taste and …

Hannah: Good pun, Colleen.

Colleen: … but that there are people and team members, even though I've had in the past that love the food. So it's a little bit of a toss up.

Victoria: Well, truthfully, I was like, you lived there for a long time. I also lived in Central Asia in a different place for a long time. And while the food there was delicious after a couple of years, it is kind of samey. And so I was like, Maybe it'll be fine for a month. Like, maybe I'll love it for a month. It was not. I did not love it.

Hannah: I mean, that's a that's a fair bit of advice that like, food: lower your expectations. I think that's fair. Any particular adventures or weird happenings that you're like, Oh, people need to know this story? People need to know about this thing that happened to me.

Victoria: I was really blessed with a roommate slash partner in crime in Dohuk, who had the same approach to that month that I did like. We ended up getting to do a lot of things together that we both wanted to do, which was great. Since we were both single women, we kind of needed each other to, like, navigate. So we did a lot of the things I've already talked about together, but we also both really wanted to experience nature, which exceeded my expectations. Going back to your previous question, I sort of expected it to be boring and drab and brown, and instead, it's beautiful and drab and brown. But we were like, we both really wanted to like do some hiking and exploring. It's also like phenomenal history that struck me really differently than… I've been in Israel, and the history in Israel is beautiful and amazing. But being there and realizing you're really in the cradle of civilization is hard to put your mind around until you're there. So one thing that happened, we went on several hikes and historical explorations. But when you're driving around Dohuk, there's some Assyrian carvings that you can see on the mountainside, and the top of the mountain is a--it's not really a tourist attraction, but it's an attraction for the people who live there. You can drive up and there's a park and it's really beautiful. You can also hike up. It's a small mountain, it's a rocky hill.

Colleen: But it's called a mountain.

Victoria: It is called a mountain. And so anyway, you can see these carvings on the side of the mountain if you know where to look and you can hike up to them or down to them if you've driven to the top. So we got up really early, like really early one Saturday morning, I think to go before I got hot.

Hannah: Yeah, you don't want to be hiking in the middle of the day.

Victoria: We wanted to be down. We wanted to be down before eight a.m. so that the heat was not desert intense. And so we go we meet up with a bunch of people. One of them, we had met briefly before the rest of them. They're all expats. The rest of them were new to us and we'd go exploring. Nobody had done this hike before. We'd all just heard about it and talked to people who had done it. Some of us had talked to people who'd done it. So we like scramble around for a while trying to find the trailhead. Finally find a goat path to go up. There's not really a trails. Yes, which is fine where I lived in Central Asia, I did a lot of mountain climbing, hiking, whatever, and I'm quite used to like, go path equals trail. So it was fine. So we're scrambling up and it was moderate to extreme. Like, it wasn't super difficult. I was wearing chacos like and it was doable. So we go up. One of the gals who is with us rolled her ankle, or so we thought, so she was not feeling great. She sat down and tied it up. We went on to go and try and find the carvings she rested for a while, eventually caught up with us. We found the carvings. They were amazing. They are faces carved into the mountain. So there's this moment where it's like I'm face to face with history. And it looked like a Bible play of Daniel or something like, it's just amazing. So anyway, so then we go to go down and she's not doing well. This girl that had rolled her ankle is just really not doing well. And so we kind to stop and have a powwow. And several of the group had church that they needed to get to because Saturdays are one of the weekend days where they're able to do church. And so they really needed to go. So they went on down. I didn't need to go and was like, You can't get down the mountain and it's actually not safe for you to go down. It's better to go up if you're injured, because what we just climbed up is very unsafe. I'm afraid to go down it on two good legs. Why don't we go up since it's drivable? So the gal that we had met before went down, got her car and drove around to meet us at the top. Meanwhile, my roommate, co-teacher and I stayed with this girl who had rolled her ankle and started to try to make our way up. It took us, I don't even remember, like an hour and a half. It took us a long time to go like a fourth of the mountain was all that was left to go up and we had to like, pick our way across and like, go up these big boulders. And she was a trooper. It was really tough and it got hot. And then we got up got in the car, drove back down. She drove us back to like where her apartment complex was because that's where we had plans later in the day and then texted us that night and said, "My teammates said, I need to go get it X-rayed. So I did, and my leg is broken." Yeah, so like the bottom, like close to her ankle, she had, like, fractured her leg. And finish climbing a mountain on it.

Colleen: I feel bad for her.

Victoria: And I'm really sad that that happened, but I'm also grateful because I think if it hadn't, we would have met her that day and all gone our separate ways. But because that sort of traumatic experience happened and all of us were involved, Abby and I ended up going back to see her the next day to still, like, help her process. And then we had just the sweet time, like she was just this really beautiful, amazing, strong human that we had a great time with. So then we ended up hanging out with her two or three more times, which doesn't sound like that much until you realize we were only there for four weeks, right?

Hannah: Yeah.

Victoria: And she came to our place. We went to her place a couple more times and she was just a joy to get to know. And I think we never would have like connected that deeply that quickly. And she's busy. If that hadn't happened, so there's a very long adventure story for you.

Colleen: Good trauma bonding. Also, I think one of the positive features of both. I mean, my time and I can't speak for Hannah's time in Iraq, but we did often make friends with other expats or team members and build relationships with people that are never going away. Yeah, and that's one of the neat things.

Hannah: And people that you may not otherwise have built those relationships with. Like, if you had been their neighbor in America like, you might not have built that relationship. But because you're in kind of that like it's us or no one situation? Yeah, you build some really beautiful connections.

Victoria: I think one thing that I've been thinking about around that recently since since getting back from Iraq specifically is like, Abby, my roommate and co-worker and I, we did everything together. We had a great time. Like, we really enjoyed each other's company. We got to know each other really well, and we haven't really talked since we got back. But like that month, we were each other's person and it was beautiful and wonderful, and we were both really grateful for each other. And since we got back, we've texted and checked in a little. But not like we're not, I think, going to be a regular part of each other's lives. And I think the more I've traveled around the world and seen like those intense experiences that you can have together are really beautiful and show you some of what like being a part of God's Kingdom together can be like. But it doesn't mean they have to be your best friend for the rest of your life. And it makes me look forward to eternity when I really will have enough time and capacity to actually stay friends with all of these wonderful people that I've gotten to meet.

Colleen: Yeah, absolutely.

Hannah: It was really encouraging to me to see the two of you get along so well. I I was a little bit like, Well, I'm tossing these two people who don't know each other into the pot of soup that is Iraq. Hope this works out, OK, bye.

Colleen: It's not quite that flippantly!

Hannah: Not quite.

Colleen: We do carefully consider everybody that applies and pray over the situation.

Hannah: I do my due diligence for sure, but there is also an element of just like these people are strangers, they will either get along or they will not, and I can't control that. And so it is really encouraging to me to see just how God brought the two of you, and then the other family that was in Suly kind of all together. When we all got to get together for that that long weekend and how everyone just like, enjoyed each other. I was like, Yes, this is what like, this is what the Bible means when it says they will know we are Christians by our love. Like we don't know each other, but we all love each other and we want to be together. And for me, that was the highlight of the whole, the whole three and a half weeks that I was there. How about you? Did you have like one thing that was like, yes, this was perfect and beautiful, and if I could recreate that in my own life, that's putting a high expectation on it. Did you have a moment where you felt like this is this was the best part of this trip for me?

Victoria: I loved being in the classroom with teachers. Like I said at the beginning, my background is in teaching English to non-native English speakers. I've done that in public school settings in the U.S. and I've done it some overseas with like wee children all the way to adults. And getting to teach teachers was really fun and like, build those professional but also sort of friend relationships like, I just loved teaching them and the relationships we got to build. But I really loved the content and getting to like do professional development with teachers. I actually loved it so much that I came home and got a job doing it in America,

Colleen: Which you hadn't planned on doing before you took this trip, right?

Victoria: Completely unplanned. Like, I went on this trip thinking I would come home and I wasn't sure what I was going to do and actually God used to just being away from my husband and having sort of a limited set of things that I could do while in Iraq like help clarify a lot of things about my own personal goals and what I needed and wanted next. And sort of, wow, you're really good at this. And like, he's made these things that are part of how he designed you to be. Like, how are you going to leverage them for his kingdom? And so all of those things sort of came into focus for me while I was there, which was really sweet because I had been living overseas and came home and got married. And there was a lot of like, my life is in all of this transition and somehow like being in Iraq for that month gave me a lot of like, brought it all together and was like: this is a good example of how everything works together. And that allowed me, I think, to come out of that trip with like, I want to replicate some of that in my life. Like exactly how you just said it, like this part of this I can do, even in Nashville, I am going to try and find a way to do it. And I didn't know that the job I have now is how I was going to do it. I was still kind of exploring and then when I came back, there was a conversation I had and it was just like, Ah, this is exactly what I want to do.

Colleen: Teach teachers.

Victoria: Yeah, so that's what I'm doing now.

Hannah: Also, the thing that I love, like, you know, as much as I would love for you to go back to Iraq and live there forever, knowing that you have found the thing here in the U.S. that is that fulfilling moment for you, that fulfilling, I mean, ministry and a lot of ways it's more than a job… vocation, I think, is the Christiany way to say it. I think for, for for SGI and for me, like, that's the outcome that I want for anyone that I take to Iraq is like, find the thing that God has for you and then do it. Maybe it's here. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's, you know, maybe it's not with us, but it's been neat for me to see you find that, and I feel like Abby has found that on some level. So look in a little bit, but has found found the next thing and even the family that was in Suly, you know, they went back to where they were before, but I think they took a lot of things with them. And it's been it's been cool to see that happen out of that very short trip. It was a fast trip.

Victoria: It was! The whole from like, "Do you want to go?" to like "We're back!" was like maximally two and a half months or three months? Like, it was not a very long trip, even in your own mind. I didn't want to add to what you said that I think this trip was a great example of how God sometimes just asks you to do the next right thing (to borrow from Frozen). It's not that this job that I have now is the thing that I'm going to do for the rest of my life or even the rest of the next five years. It's just the next right thing of how he wants to use the like time, place, gifts, availability that I have and Iraq was exactly that, too. It was like it was the next thing that I could do, to follow who he made me to be and who he is asking me to become. And so, I was grateful for that opportunity and how it sort of dominoed right into this next one and my own personal journey.

Hannah: Yeah. Is there anything else that you can see that, like, "My time in Iraq really influenced this aspect in my life now that you're back here?" Colleen and I talk about this quite a bit, but something that was like cultural, a cultural difference that you saw that you're like, I want to do this in my own life. Beyond just teaching teachers or even a like, I have to remember that I'm not in Iraq anymore, so we can do this instead.

Victoria: I don't know if I was there long enough to, like, get those things that happen in your brain. They're like, Oh yeah, I can do this. It reminded me how much I love cross-cultural work and just how much I am made to need that in my life and how God wants to use that. And so that's probably not like the huge moment you're thinking about, but it's definitely…

Colleen: Not everything has to be a huge moment. It's OK.

Victoria: It also has been I mean… This is really small, but it's like it's really fun that like now when I think about Kurds or Iraq, I like have a visual and I'm way more interested in like the history and development of that place than I could have been before. I think I had a fun. This is not really related to your question, but it's a story I want to tell. I bought a keffiyeh. Is that how you say it?

Hannah: Mm hmm.

Victoria: The scarf that you see in like pictures like red checkered thing. I bought one for me and for my husband, but I wore it the first day it was like chilly to work to Metro Nashville public schools, and I was like going to get my name badge. So it was outside of my normal context. And there was a gentleman in the waiting room and he was like, "That's a blah blah blah." He said the tribe like, keffiyeh. Like, "Where did you get that? Like, that's from my country?" And I was like, Oh, I was in Kurdistan teaching, and that's where I bought it. And he was like, "No way I'm from Dohuk." And I'm like, "Well, that's where I was. I was in Dohuk." And I was like, This is just so sweet. Like, I never would have had that connection. And I have this like tangible souvenir that allowed me to, like, make a small connection with another human. And it was great.

Hannah: It's really fun that he was like, This is the tribe that that is because I could never figure that out in Iraq.

Colleen: No.

Victoria: He told me like three times and I was like, tried. So hard to remember, but I can't remember.

Colleen: So would you go again? Was the trip so scarring, the heat so awful that you would never set foot in the country ever again? Or if? It worked out…

Victoria: I would love to go back. When I left, I was like, I want to come back, maybe in the spring. But it's a little less hot. But like I went to my husband and I both love biking and mountaineering. So purely for my personal enjoyment standpoint, I was like, I would love to come back and like, Do all this hiking? That's awesome that I didn't really get to do because it was so hot. We also got to go to sort of a cradle of Christianity location in Al Qosh, and that was a really phenomenal trip for a lot of reasons. But being there made me really want to bring my parents. My parents travel a lot and I think that they would just be really moved by seeing through that faithfulness of the Christian witness and Christian history that's so old. Yeah, there. And so it's weird. Like, I just got this feeling like I really should bring my parents here. So I would love to go back and like with my husband and my parents, and if I can't go with any of them, I would still love to go back so I can picture a lot of different ways in which I could go back. This trip again would be an easy, obvious one. A year in the school, a tourist trip like, but regardless, it's like it's super easy to get there as an American. I would love to. Yes, is the short answer.

Hannah: And I really hope we get to do another teacher training trip. I feel like it went way better than I expected it to go. To be frank.

Colleen: Not that it didn't have its challenges!

Hannah: It had its challenges.

Colleen: Your classroom was missing its roof one day, right?

Victoria: Not my classroom, the classroom across from my classroom. One day it was the teacher lounge, and the next day there was no roof.

Victoria: Oh fun!

Victoria: And they were doing renovations the whole rest of the month. They were like, "This will be your teacher lounge. We will give you a locker." Two days later, it had no roof.

Hannah: Did you get a new locker in a different room?

Victoria: No, I never got it, and I never got a locker.

Hannah: Never, ever.

Victoria: No.

Hannah: That doesn't surprise me.

Victoria: That's fine. If I ask for one, I might have. They might have found me a hole somewhere.

Hannah: I mean, again, I feel like you got a genuine Kurdistan experience.

Victoria: Here's a fun story I should tell.

Hannah: All right. Share.

Victoria: That related to lockers. So one day I took chocolate that I brought from America with me to work. But because it was so hot, I left it in the fridge and I was taking it to a friend that I was visiting after work, so I left it in the fridge. But then I was gathering my things at the end of the day. I went to get my chocolate and the room was locked because literally everyone had left already because in the ten minutes it took me to get my stuff together. Everyone else was like, We're done. It's time to go. I'm pretty sure they left before the workday actually ended. But the teachers and me, were still finishing our class. So I went and hunted someone down and was like, I need my chocolate. I actually just told them it was my lunch. My food is in there. I need my food. And so they went and found somebody who, like, climbed up the stairs and unlocked it. And I had to call like four people to confirm that it was OK to unlock the door. And then I got my food, and I just thought that was the like most hilarious little like, This is exactly what you would expect to have happen.

Hannah: Who knew there would be so much bureaucracy around a door. Chocolate, I totally get the bureaucracy around that.

Victoria: That's why I didn't tell them it was chocolate.

Hannah: I know if they knew it was chocolate, it probably would have been a longer experience.

Colleen: But you were very smart to put it in the fridge. Because outside of the fridge, it would have turned into a puddle.

Victoria: Exactly. So I just thought that was a really good example of like a couple of things. It's a good example of like, this is funny when you live in a different culture and you don't speak the language, like things like this just happen that you would know unspokenly to not do. It's also a good example of like how culture stress doesn't have to be something that anybody else would think is traumatic because it can be really stressful when, like, you think things are going to work this way and then they just don't and you're like, But I need this or I had a plan.

Hannah: Right. And now my plan is gone!

Victoria: So it's like a hilarious story that represents a couple of the like lighthearted and more serious sides of being cross-cultural.

Hannah: Yeah. Well, thanks for sitting down to talk with us. Thanks for coming.

Victoria: Thanks for having me. Yes, it's great.

Colleen: We'd love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram, and you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at ServantGroup.org.

Hannah: And it's really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on, it helps us know that people are listening and you can let us know what you want to hear next. Thanks for listening.

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