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Fall-October 2016

Newsletter Masthead

Greetings from the city on the Mediterranean Sea!

At CIEE, Haifa we have taken advantage of our long summers to enjoy some amazing trips and activities. The long Sukkot holiday met us early in the semester and allowed the students to enjoy the activities without worrying about reading assignments and exams. Starting with the CIEE orientation and ending with a three day excursion to Jordan, the first few weeks of Fall 2016 included a rich variety of lectures, visits to historical sights and cultural experiences.


Orientation allows our students to spend three days together bonding as a CIEE cohort prior to joining the larger international student body at the University of Haifa.  By the time classes started, our students knew each other, experienced travelling on several kinds of public transportation, learned how to get to the closest shopping area, stocked up on necessities, and knew where to eat the best falafel in the city.  By the third day after their arrival, they already feel surprising comfortable with their new city. There is a lot to learn in this small country so settling in as quickly and easily as possible helps free students to start experiencing the abundance of experiences that await them!

Our obligatory stop at Rosh ha Nikra during orientation is always exciting because it allows the students to place Israel geographically within the larger Middle Eastern context.  They continue to develop that context geographically and politically later in the semester, especially during our excursion to Jordan, which you will read about later in this newsletter.

 Orientation.Lebanese Border (1)

There is no time for jet lag during orientation. The best way to get on schedule is to stay awake and out in the bright daylight during the day as much as possible. So, on day 3 of orientation we are off on a day trip to the Sea of Galilee. This semester we made three quick stops at Tabgha (Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes), The Church of the Primacy of St. Peters where water access allows us to wet our feet in the Sea of Galilee, and Capernaum.    From this area we were able to see the Golan Heights in the distance and to start to understand the geopolitical complexities of this region.  For Christian students this part of the trip is meaningful and important and although we have many other opportunities to visit churches during our excursion to Jordan, our day trips from here on will start to focus more on the socio-political and cultural conditions in the country.

Orientation.Sea of Galilee (1)

Orientation.Mount Capernaum (3)

Our Excursion to Jordan

We scheduled our Jordan excursion during the Sukkot holiday when the weather was still summery and the school work had not piled up. Before the excursion, the students attended a lecture about the Palestinian Refugees which helps provide a historical and political context for the current conditions in Jordan today. We crossed the Jordan River at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge in the North and even there the Jordan River looked more like a stream after the hot dry summer. This was a reminder to us about the scarcity of water and its role in the Middle East conflict.

Jordan never fails to fascinate! Accompanied by our amazing guide, Abu Yazan, we were introduced to the history of the city, told about the waves of refugees from from the 19th century on (Circassians, Palestinians, Iraqi's and Syrians), and exposed to a variety of cultural and culinary experiences. 

One of our first stops in Amman was in Jabal Al Qal'ah (The Citadel),the site of the Temple of Hercules (162-166 AD)  and the Ummayad Palace (first half of the 8th century).  All this and more in the middle of Amman, the capital of Jordan. To make things even more interesting, Jabal Al Qal'ah also overlooks a large Palestinian Refugee camp, Al Wihdat, which was built in 1955 and which now looks like a poor and overcrowded Amman neighborhood. This  juxtaposition of ancient history and current events accompanies us on this trip from beginning to end.

Amman.The Castle (41)

Amman.The Castle (42)

Amman.The Castle (30)

Amman.The Castle (31)

Overlooking Wihdat Refugee Camp from Jabal Al Qal'ah


The Roman Theater, in the middle of Amman.

Amman.Roman Theater (5)

All the walking that we do stimulates our appetite and Amman is not the same without a cooking lesson and dinner at Beit Sitti (My Grandmother's House).  Beit Sitti is literally the owner's grandmother's house in Jabal Lweibdeh in Amman.  It is now a place where we can experience cooking authentic Levantine food and to then enjoy it in a deliciously hospitable home environment.

Beit Sitti (17)

Here the students made Mtabbal (some know it as Baba Ghanouj), Vegetarian Makloubeh (upside down rice dish), salad,  and pita bread (yes from scratch). For desert, they made Basbouseh, which is made with semolina and then covered with a home made syrup. Delicious!!

Beit Sitti (21)

Everyone takes their cooking seriously at CIEE.

Beit Sitti (27)

When the makloubeh is ready then our teacher, Um Reem, shows us how to carefully turn it upside down. The best part, of course, is when we all sat down to eat on the balcony.  Coffee and the desert we made were served as the students had animated conversations with Jordanian young people.  One young lady told our group " here in Jordan young people follow and discuss everything . We follow your election debates and we know all about what is going on in the America".

Beit Sitti. Eating (2)

Another highlight of our excursion to Jordan was our meeting with some members of the staff at the International Rescue Committee in Amman. Maha's I phone December 2016 096 IRC is an NGO that "responds to the world's worst humanitarian crisis and helps people to survive, recover and gain control of their future". In Jordan IRC is serving  some 656,400 Syrian refugees, a population that is the target of the core of their work. We learned that the Jordanian government claims that the total number of Syrian refugees in Jordan is 1.7 Million, that they are 50% female and 50.6% under the age of 15.  We also heard about the cross border support that the organization provides inside Syria and about the impact of the refugees on the Jordanian economy.  

More highlights from our excursion to Jordan

Mosaics at Mount Nebo

Mount Nebo (20)

Mosaics in Madaba

Madaba (7)

The Ancient Greco-Roman City of Jarash
  Jarash (2)

Muddying it up at the Dead Sea

Jordan.Dead Sea (1)

Back to Academics:

At the end of the Sukkot holiday our students settled back into the rhythm of their classes. Hebrew Language, Arabic Language, Arab-Israeli Relations, Contemporary Arab Thought and Culture, Terrorism and Responses and Psychology of Conflict are some of the classes that our students have signed up for, and there is more. The diversity of the student body at the University of Haifa is also reflected in the diversity of the courses and lecturers who come from different ethnic and political backgrounds. The academic demands here at the University of Haifa's International School are rigorous.  From here on students will have to make sure they find a balance between the demands of their coursework and the various extracurricular activities that will constantly knock on their doors.

At the end of October we also start preparing the launching of our Aisha's Language Hub where our delightful coordinator, Aisha, pairs CIEE students with local students in order to allow for more opportunities for language practice and for developing local friendships.

Stay Tuned for our November Newsletter!  We will tell you all about our Olive harvest, our trip to Jaffa and the launching of our language hub.



Fall 2015


Your New Resident Director Hits the Ground Running!

I cannot describe my excitement when I found out this summer that I was to start my new position as the Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Haifa.  When is my start date? "Immediately, you say?" But that was not really possible with a family reunion in Seattle underway for the next three weeks and quite a few house maintenance projects to be completed before my Seattle house can be back on the rental market.  My scheduled departure to Haifa was already set for September 29 and the earliest I could start my new position was October 1st. The plane took off from Seattle at 7:15 p.m. with one stop scheduled in London and an arrival time in Tel Aviv of 11:45 p.m. on September 30.  By the time I arrived at my home in Haifa and placed my head on the pillow it was 3:00 a.m. on October 1st.  After six hours of deep and restful sleep I woke up at 9:00 a.m. ready to start my first day at work. With the University closed for the Sukkot holidays there was no way I could get the key to the CIEE office on campus and this was the perfect excuse to stay in my pajamas and get to work immediately.  
Nothing more than a cup of coffee was needed to start reading the emails that had already piled up in my newly established CIEE email account. I had one week to plan a meaningful orientation for Fall incoming students and the next few days were a blurry flurry of phone calls and preparation activities. 

Our three day orientation started with a pick up at the airport and it was lucky that all the students arrived within 45 minutes of each other; we were ready to start our orientation by 1:00 p.m. that same day.  During the three days we explored four types of public transportation in Haifa: the Carmelit, the Metronit, Egged buses and Shirut (van service).  We ate falafel sandwiches at the local favorite Falafel HaNasi’ in the Carmel Center and we ate hummus at the legendary Abu Maroun down town. We took a day trip to Rosh Hanikra – Ras al Nakoura to experience how close Lebanon was and we continued to the Sea of Galilee to visit Capernum and Tabgha and then to Akko for a shawermah lunch. The three days also included an afternoon at the beach with dinner at the famous Camel Café and a night time walking tour of downtown Haifa. Most importantly, the orientation involved a formal session to discuss culture, expectations, policies and safety and security.  

On Sunday, after the University of Haifa International School’s (UHIS) campus tour we took a trip to the biggest and cheapest supermarket in the nearby Druze village of Issifya, a ten minute bus ride away where we stocked up on food and some necessary kitchen items. By Monday morning everyone was ready and eager to start the term and in the next sections I will share highlights from  our CIEE activities during this semester. It was a pleasure to spend time with and to get to know our Fall 2015 CIEE cohort and I LOVE my new job!

PictureMaha completed her Ph.D. at the University of Washington in the Interdisciplinary Near and Middle East program in 2008 and received a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Hebrew University’s political science department in 2009/2010.  She is an adjunct lecturer at Haifa University’s International School and a regular lecturer for the overseas programs at the Galilee Institute of International Management. She facilitated Compassionate Listening workshops for international students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies between 2004 and 2008 and continues to facilitate these workshops for various youth groups including the newly opened Eastern Mediterranean International School and the Creativity for Peace, Young Leaders program. She is a Program Leader with the Mastery Foundation where she facilitates leadership empowerment workshops for grassroots leaders from various non-profit organizations in Israel.

An Authentic Olive Harvest 

OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (21)

October and November are the months for the olive harvest and it all depends on the when the rain comes.  The harvest usually starts after the first heavy rain when the olives are washed and plump. Our students had the opportunity to participate in a genuine olive harvest with the Daghash family, originally from the village of Dir Hannah and owning olive groves between the village of Dir Hannah and the village of Eilaboun where they now live.  The olive harvest for the Arab-Palestinian Israelis who own olive groves is truly a family affair.  Cousins who live in Akko and grandchildren who live in Haifa come to help and some bring their foreign friends to share in this experience.  OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (25)

OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (17)

What is special about this experience is being out in nature in the beauty of the Galilean rolling hills and seeing miles of olive groves.  There is something very satisfying and a sense of accomplishment as you tie closed one full burlap sack and then another.  I particularly like harvesting by hand straight from the tree and although it is a very slow process it is rhythmic and calming.  Harvesting is physically very demanding and the best part comes when it is time for the lunch break.  A  sheet or blanket is spread under one of the trees and old and young gather to eat the traditional mjaddara lunch with yogurt and salad.  Mjaddara, made of lentils and coarse bulgar, is considered a laborer’s food because it fills you up and the protein gives you energy…..and back to work you go.

OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (14)

At the end of the day, usually not too late as days are short this time of year, the sacks are counted with pride and then taken to the local olive press to be turned into olive oil.

   OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (19)

OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (23) OliveHarvestGalileeNov2015 (24)
Our Three Day Excursion to Jordan

JordanBorderCrossing (5)

This excursion gave us the opportunity to get a broader and deeper experience of the Middle East.  The difference in the culture, socio-economic conditions, geographic terrain and infrastructure are apparent as soon as you cross the Northern Sheikh Hussein Bridge.  We were in amazingly good and experienced hands with our guide Abu Yazan who has been working with CIEE in Jordan for well over a decade.

Our first stop was at the Sharhabeel Bin Hassneh Eco Park, ten minutes away from the border crossing.  We started with very informative talk about the benefits and challenges of creating and maintaining such a conservation area and then took a hike up through beautiful scenery to see the water reservoir.

JordanSharhabeel (5)

JordanSharhabeel (13)

We could see a Bedouin encampment in the distance and were told about the efforts to enroll the Bedouins into cooperating with the goals of the ecological park and the mutually beneficial agreements that ensure the respect of the park’s boundaries. 

JordanSharhabeel (8)

After the hike and a tour of the cabins where groups come to spend  a night or more we were ready for a makloubeh lunch and a nap on the hour and a half trip into Amman.

That evening we had another gastronomical cultural experience at Beit Sitti in Jabal Al Weibdeh neighborhood of Amman. 

JordanBeitSitti (7)

We donned aprons and learned how to chop cucumber and garlic for the cucumber salad, how to cut the roasted eggplant into tiny pieces for the mutabbal (babaghanouj) and how to make and roll the dough for tiny pitas.  We chopped lots of onions for the traditional musakhan (onions cooked in oil and sumac and spread over flat bread then topped with roasted chicken) and the trick we learned for chopping without tears did not work for all of us.

JordanBeitSitti (12)

The end product was scrumptious including the white orange blossom "coffee" we were served after the meal.

The next morning we were off to meet 12 CIEE students from the Jordan program and to join them for a volunteer project at a Latin Patriarchate School in Amman.  The school yard’s walls were in need of brightening up and with several buckets of paint and rollers, with long arms like I had never seen before, we went to work.

JordanSchoolPainting  (14)

JordanSchoolPainting  (21)

We were rewarded with a delicious mansaf!….a big mistake as all you want to do after eating mansaf is to take a nap.  We really enjoyed talking to the Jordan CIEE students and learning about their experience there but we had to go and explore Amman with Abu Yazan, and so we did.

He took us on a tour of the Roman Citadel (Al Kal’ah), the Roman Theater (Al Mudarraj) and the souk by foot.

TheCastle (7) TheCastle (8)

We made it to the Balad Theatre in time to attend a panel presentation (with earphones for simultaneous English translation) on the topic or the Syrian Refugees in Jordan.  We listened to Daud Kuttab, Director of AmmanNet website and Al-Balad Radio and to Mr. Yusuf  Mansur, Deputy Chief Commissioner of Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority.


The panel was to discuss the newly published Alternative Voices on The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan which challenged the mainstream thinking that the Syrian refugees were a burden on Jordan and contributed to a rising poverty, unemployment and traffic jams. The main thesis of the panel was that the Syrian refugees brought with them invaluable social and economic contributions as did their Iraqi predecessors. 

After the panel we went to dinner the landmark Amman Jafra restaurant and then took a walk down Rainbow Street with its popular cafés and hangouts.  We learned that watching soccer games in local cafés was a popular activity for men and women alike. That night Barcelona was playing Real Madrid and all the rainbow street cafes were filled with patrons.

The next morning we visited UNRWA’s Jordan Field Office in Bayadir Wadi al Seer.  Maha al Rantisi, Chief  of Field Relief and Social Services Program greeted us and gave us a presentation about the status of Palestinian Refugees in Jordan. Dr. Ishtawi Abu Zayed, the Chief of the Field Health Program followed with a thorough power point presentation about the services provided and the challenges and facing the organization and the refugees. This was followed by another presentation about the specific needs and challenges of UNRWA refugees coming from Syria.

JordanUNRWA (4)

From there we travelled to Jarash, the ancient Greco-Roman city,  some 48 Kilometers north of Amman before heading back to the border crossing and to Haifa.

JordanJarash (5) JordanJarash (10)

Our Overnight Trip to Nazareth just before Christmas

We stayed at the Fauzi Azar Inn, took a guided tour of the Old City, visited the Church of the Annunciation at night and had dinner at Tishreen Restaurant. 


ChurchofAnnunciationNightDec2015 (1)

NazarethTourDec2015 (1)


The next day we had a lecture by Dr. Mahmoud Yazbak, a resident of Nazareth and the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern History in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Haifa.  Professor Yazbak talked about the various historical narratives accompanying the creation of the state of Israel and addressed questions about why Nazareth survived as a big Arab city when many other Palestinian cities did not.

On this cold but beautiful sunny day we meandered through the Christmas market and enjoyed many artisan booths during the market’s last weekend.  We visited the Greek Orthodox Church and returned to the Church of Annunciation to see it again during daylight. 

ChurchofAnnunciationDec2015 (1)


ChristmasinNazareth2015 (6)

Before returning to Haifa we took a short trip to Mount Precipice, the cliff where it is believed that an angry mob tried to throw Jesus off after his proclamation in a Nazareth Synagogue.  What captures you is the 360 degree view of the area overlooking the Jezreel Valley and all the way to  Mount Tabor in the distance.

MountPercipiceDec2015 (5)

And more,

We had an afternoon/evening trip to Tel Aviv where we received a very informative talk and discussion about Israel in the larger context of the Middle East and Global politics. The lecturer is my very favorite Professor Joel Migdal who is the Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies in the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. He is the author of many books and an expert on State and Society relations and Comparative Politics. We were lucky to meet with him as he is here on sabbatical. 

We visited the Halissa Community Center and Beit Magentsa Community Centers, both are branches of the Neve Yossef Community in Haifa. The Halissa Community Center serves the Arab population in Israel while Beit Magentsa services a majority of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. Both serve a low socio economic population in Haifa and we learned about each center’s specific challenges.  This trip helped us broaden our understanding of the mosaic that Israeli society is made of.


“Daddy, what’s Palestine?”

Phifer's picture

Those were her words that rang through the chilly air. Her father’s eyes and mine met, and a small, strained smile appeared on his face. “Well…that’s a bit complicated.” Her young voice pressed onward, “But daddy, are we in another country? Did we cross a border?” “Well, yes, yes we did. Did you not see that we traveled through a wall?”

On Christmas Eve, I had the opportunity to travel to the place where the Christian story began, that little town of Bethlehem so oft sung of. It is now a city, built up and bustling, but hollow. Buildings lie half-finished. Tensions flare up regularly near the Aida Refugee Camp. A weight presses down on all that live here, a similar weight that I see in each of my Palestinian friends.

This weight could be felt in the play called New Middle East I saw in October at a local theatre in Haifa. In the play, a masked man is in the process of burying a woman alive (with real dirt). The entire dialogue is centered on her plaintive cries to know exactly WHY she is being subjected to such a terrible fate. Satisfying answers are never uncovered, and a tragic story of love lost and suffocating pressure rules the day.

That same night, after getting some drinks and food, our motley crew made up of five loud Americans and one Palestinian made its way back to campus. There are security checks at each entrance to the dorms, and we opened the door and began to proceed through as usual. People are almost never stopped. I think in my entire three months at the university, I was told to show my ID two or three times, and only then when the guard was new. However, he told my Arab friend to stop and show her ID. Only her.

This weight can is seen in the scar that marks another close friend’s arm, a scar left by a sound grenade that detonated at her feet. She acquired it a couple years ago at a protest, which was pushing back against the Prawer Plan, a bill that (if passed) would allow for the depopulation and destruction of thirty-five Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert. Dubbed, “Anger Day,” this protest comprised thousands of people, from teens to Knesset members. Obviously, it ended in violence.

I was shocked by it when I saw a monument in a neighborhood not far from the university. On it were emblazoned the words, “Haifa Liberation 1948.” What is disturbing about this phrase is that what is cast as “liberation” to one group is another’s el-Nakba (catastrophe). This disparity in experience and historical lens is staggering.

And, perhaps most plainly, this weight can be tangibly tasted when confronted with The Wall. It is a short walk from where I am currently staying in Bethlehem, standing as stark reminder of the systemic separation that plagues this piece of dirt which I have begun to call “The Unholy Holy Land,” as a result of the, frankly, ungodly actions people perpetrate against each other in the name of God or any other myriad of religious or secular reasons. Graffiti marks The Wall’s surface, which artists from Banksy to unnamed locals have added to the collective voice calling for justice.

I had the unique privilege of spending the summer in the Galilee on an archaeological dig with Dr. Byron McCane of Wofford’s religion department. He is a man that I highly respect and admire, and I am unendingly thankful for his influence and wisdom concerning this land and the many problems that perniciously press on the people, both Jews and Palestinians, that live here. I will never forget his advice as we asked him about how to relate our experiences to people at home that possess stalwart opinions about Israel/Palestine. “Sometimes all I can say is, ‘I have been there, and it is not that simple.’”

It is not simple. The brokenness runs deep. So deep that it takes my breath away at times. People on both sides of the conflict have committed heinous acts of violence, from the burning of a Palestinian family (with their newborn son) alive last summer, to the random stabbings of Jewish civilians going about their daily lives that has characterized life here for the past few months. I could list example upon example of atrocities committed by both sides, all which point to a sobering reality: unless changes are made, the people here will continue to suffer.

However, Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), the story does not end here. I have seen with my own eyes the beauty that still lives in this divided land.

I have seen the lasting ripples that the faith of Kamil and Agnes Shehade, and their life’s work, House of Grace in Haifa, has left on the community at large. Their vision of working to selflessly serve ex-convicts (who are also recovering addicts) as an outpouring of their Christian faith’s mandate to serve the “least of these” has touched the lives of thousands, and given hope to the most hopeless individuals and families.

I see how the House of Grace plods on, faithfully working as the only halfway house for the Israeli Arab population (on request of the government), in the midst of Kamil’s death in 2000 from cancer, governmental threats to cut funding, and the ever-shaky political climate.

I see a Palestinian woman who grew up as a refugee as a result of the creation of the State of Israel who now refuses to pick sides, based on the belief that a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” stance necessarily excludes the other. Instead, she has chosen a path of “compassionate listening,” one that has helped her overcome deep-seated wounds and truly see the humanity behind each “side.”

It was tasted in our inaugural “Arab-American Thanksgiving,” in which the cuisines of the “East” and the “West” (phrases that I generally like to avoid, because they can insinuate a kind of irreconcilability, but for the sake of artistic flair, I will utilize here) met. Pita was defrosted and hummus olive oiled (yes, “olive oiled” is a verb now), pesto pasta with chicken was scarfed, and salata (Arab salad) added some balance to the carbs being consumed. Finally, it was topped off with what I have dubbed the “pecan loaf,” my failed attempt at baking a pie in a toaster oven that, surprisingly, turned out fairly well.

I have also seen this beauty, this hope, in one of my dearest friends here. She has sought out relationships with both internationals and Jews, seeking to share her story and heart with each of them. This quest has put her in places like local salsa dancing nights in Haifa, where she is (as far as I can tell) the only Palestinian present. It has led her to share personal and collective stories and histories about this region with people from every place and walk of life, being faithful to her cause and her people, yet open to listen and answer each difficult question with patience and conviction.

I believe that this kind of embodied engagement, undergirded by humility, is desperately needed in this place at this time. The barriers that exist here are insane: be it from language and cultural differences to the governmental mandatory military service from which Arabs (except Druze, which introduces many new nuances) are exempt. Furthermore, media creates fissures ideologically, and dangerous political discourses heap dry wood and gasoline onto already-blazing flames.

The people here, both Jews and Arabs, do carry a weight. I have experienced a bit of this reality first-hand. It is not pleasant, but it has changed me…for the better, I hope. The lives that have invited me in have taken a piece of my heart, and I have grown to truly love individuals and groups on both sides of this murky conflict.

Therefore, my answer to the questions, “What is Palestine?” or “What is Israel?” is this: people. People with hearts, hopes, dreams, fears, and yearnings for peace. People who enjoy good food, beautiful music, and the company of those they love as much as any of us. People who desire for a safe environment, a home, in which they do not have to worry about rocks or knives when they send their children to school.

I could go on and on. However, I will close with this. Which people do you and I need to strive to see as this: simply people? What kind of change could come if we could look in the eyes of the “other,” be they brown or blue, and see a mirror image of ourselves?

This world will not change in an instant. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be solved in a single moment. However, I posit that something beautiful could come to pass. Let us compose a song. Let us paint a picture. Let us write a story. Let us create beauty, and, hopefully, thereby walk into new measures of shalom, salaam, and peace together.

Phifer Nicholson, Presidential International Scholar at Wofford College, CIEE Haifa Fall 2015


Never Forget Halabja

Twenty-seven years ago, the Kurds of Iraq experienced the most horrific event of their peoplehood: The Anfal Campaign; an assault that many have considered to be genocide.

On March 16, 1988, Sadaam Hussein’s troops invaded and used poison gas on the Kurds in their region. The most deadly attack of all was the notorious Halabja attack in which over 5,000 Kurds died in less than two hours from the gas attack. Nearly 200,000 Kurds died in the campaign altogether.

The background of the Halabja genocide was during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) when the Kurds in the north supposedly sided with Iran. Sadaam used this as a pretext to massacre the Kurds. His hatred towards the Kurds, as Stephen Mansfield says, was because they refused to be absorbed into his dream of pure Arab state of Iraq; they wanted to stay Kurdish.

The genocide is still fresh in the Kurds’ mind. It was just over a generation ago, but things have certainly changed.

The Kurds now have their own autonomous region in Iraq and have built a vibrant society through economic stability and religious tolerance. The Kurds’ military force, the Peshmerga, have also proven to be the only formidable force against Daesh (ISIS) this past year, including rescuing another minority of Iraq, the Yazidis, from a genocide of their own.

Time and again the Kurds have had their state stolen from them. Time and again they have helped the West in Iraq and have had their promises broken. Time and again they have been oppressed, massacred, and even experienced a genocide twenty-seven years ago today while the international community does little to help them.

Yet, the Kurds have stood strong and have helped others.

Since receiving their autonomous region in Iraq after the Gulf War, they have built a thriving economy with five-star hotels, literally, from the ashes. Their tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities complements their economy. For instance, since 2003, about 20,000 Iraqis have come to seek work in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurds have shown that they do not judge all Iraqis from what Sadaam did twenty-seven years ago by employing them.

Iraqi Kurdistan has also been a relative safe place of refuge for Iraqi minorities after Daesh’s rampage over the summer, such as Turkmen and Yazidis. As said before, the Kurds essentially rescued the Yazidis from a genocide by liberating them from Daesh's siege on Mount Sinjar.

Nevertheless, this would not be the first time the Kurds have saved another religious group.

I had always heard of the story when Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, rescued the Jews from the Babylonians and allowed them to go back to the Holy Land. But did you know that Cyrus was actually a Kurd? Yes, Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, according to Kurdish expert Stephen Mansfield, was actually a descendant of the ancient Medes, whom to this day are known as the Kurds.

From the time when Cyrus rescued the Jews from the Babylonians to when the Peshmerga saved the Yazidis from the Daesh on Mount Sinjar, the Kurds, a people who have been oppressed by others, have time and again helped others.

Every year, I commemorate the Holocaust and the tragic event that happened to my people, the Jews, all those years ago. Well, I believe it’s time that more and more of the world began to recognize this day, March 16th, twenty-seven years since the day of Halabja, and commemorate the Kurdish genocide, acknowledge the adversity they have overcome, and to help pursue their independence.

It is simply spectacular that the Kurds have turned ashes into five-star hotels. It is simply spectacular that the Kurds run one of the most religiously tolerant societies after everything they’ve been through. And it is simply spectacular that the Kurds, the one stateless people in their relative region, were the one people who could stand up to Daesh this year and save another minority from genocide.

As we all know, independence cannot just be a privilege due to the politics that play a role in international relations. However, independence can, and should, happen when it is necessary. An independent Kurdistan is necessary for the Kurdish people, not just because they deserve a state, not just because they can run a state, but because they need a state for safe refuge in case of a time of Kurdish oppression.

“Never Again” and “Never Forget,” Halabja, 4/16, 1988.

From the Bab to the Baha'ullah: My Baha'i pilgrimage

The moment I stepped inside I heard the most powerful sound of all: Silence. I was overwhelmed. It was no ordinary silence. It was silence that was saying something, that this was a sacred place and I should be silent to respect it. I felt as if the power of the silence was running through my veins, welcoming me into it’s holy place while reminding me to remain silent.

These were the emotions running through me when I went into the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa. Baha'is from all over the world go on a pilgrimage, in which they visit and pray at the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa and The Shrine of the Baha'ullah and the Bahji in Acco (Acre) to connect with God and pay their respects to their two holiest messengers.

Inside the shrine, two women lay their backs to the wall behind me on both sides, praying to connect themselves closer with the Bab. At the back of the interior was where the Bab is buried. Carpets lay out all over the square floor. Endless sets of candles displayed creating an image of unique composition. Four chandeliers set at the corners of the square room, with one magnificent chandelier dazzling in the middle over the square floor. Red petals laid out face down in front as if they were a placed there as a sign of mourning and honor for the Bab.

A few weeks later, I continued my pilgrimage to the site of the Bab’s successor and the holiest site of the Baha’I Faith: The Shrine and Bahji of the Baha’ullah in Acco.

I walked through a white arching balcony as if I was entering a castle and into its courtyard. There was a long narrow path in between tall trees on each side, which led to the Shrine and the Bahji (Mansion) of the Baha'ullah. Once I reached the end, with no trees blocking my view, I saw the most indescribably beautiful image I had ever seen.

You would have thought it was humanely impossible to put together such a beautiful place. I thought I was in the Garden of Eden. It was so big, so green, so evenly cut and clean. Bushes

Bushes were shaped into perfect squares.

Pots of red and purple roses on the sides of the paths of the garden's maze.

Sculptures of eagles and babies sitting on a fountain in between the roses.

Flowers designed in shapes of stars, dropped down one level, so when you walked over you would look a few feet down and see a beautifully carved star in the grass with yellow and orange flowers coloring it in.

I could smell the fresh scents of the many different kinds of flowers, whether red, purple, yellow, or organge. They all mixed together to create a unique scent.

Tall and thin trees stood mightily on the far sides. I found myself in the middle of a huge garden with these tall trees towering above me from perhaps 100 feet away. It was an incredibly overwhelming feeling.

Down at the end, was the Shrine of the Baha'ullah, where is laid to rest, and to it's left the Bahji, a Mansion where the Baha'ullah lived the last 12 years of his life (1879-1891). It was a huge mansion with blue colored on the doors up on it's balcony.

We were all instructed to take off our shoes before entering the shrine, to respect the religious integrity of the Baha'i Faith's holy site. And again, just like Haifa, the very moment I stepped foot onto the first of many Persian rugs laid down on the ground, I heard the most powerful sound again: silence.

I was taken into a different world. I could sense the entire group's awe as we walked around small square room with Persian carpets laid down on a path circling a small garden in the middle of the room.

Lamps lit around the inside garden.

Rooms for prayer were on the sides with carpets hanging as curtains.

And then, there was the memorial site. In the corner of the room, people lined up to peak through a small squared cage on the wall. Above it was a golden colored clock with the word "Baha'ullah" written inside of it in Arabic script. (Baha’i scriptures were originally written in Persian, but are usually written in Arabic these days).

It was damp inside with lamps inside lit along with many glowing candles, some with fire, some with electricity, around a chandelier on a carpet where the Baha'ullah is laid to rest.

I couldn't describe the emotions running through my mind. I was in the presence of the resting place of the Baha'ullah, the most important figure of the newest Persian religion. It was only over a century ago when he lived next door.

The Baha’ullah settled in Akko, Israel in 1879 where he lived the last 12 years of his life. Back then, he would embrace Baha'i pilgrims to come, pray, and preach and teach them god's messages. Baha'is to this day come to meditate in the rooms covered with the carpet curtains to connect with god and the holy messengers.

May 29th is the day most Baha'is around the world come to the Shrine of the Baha'ullah because that was when he passed away. This May will mark the 124th year anniversary of his passing and I hope to observe the commemoration.





Refugees: Don't take them for granted

I had always taken refugees for granted. Whenever I heard of a refugee crisis I would, of course, feel sympathy, but I never fully comprehended the difficulty of being a refugee. However, thanks to my course, "Refugee's Mental Health: Global and Local Perspectives," where we learn about the challenges and approaches to helping refugees through a psychological perspective, I learned that there is more to a refugee than leaving his or her home.

Due to internal crises like the Syrian civil war and natural disasters like the typhoons in the Philippines, the world has seen a devastating amount of refugees in the past few years.

At the end of 2013, there were 51.2 million people displaced from their homes. That is the most since the Post-WW era. What makes it even more insane is the fact that, if they were their own country, the "The Nation of the Displaced" would be the 26th largest in the world.

Many refugees tend to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when fleeing their homes. However, we learned that refugees' traumatic experiences may not be the primary explanation for their symptoms of depression and stress.

This is where I began to comprehend how difficult it is to be a refugee.

Imagine you who have to flee to a neighboring country. You have money for a month. What are your three biggest challenges?

This was the question our professor asked us. I thought of coping with distress, taking care of family, and food. After going around and having a discussion, my professor told me that, though my examples were true, there are more challenges. The two I found most interesting were disrupting one's "way of life" and "cultural relativity."

It's common sense to believe that a refugee has a disruption in his daily life, which is why I, and I think a lot of people, don't fully understand the difficulties refugees deal with. We think to ourselves, yeah, they're obviously going to need to adapt to different things, but think of it this way:

When or what do you have for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? When do you go out for a walk or a run? When do you go out to hang out with your friends? These consistencies of going about your day and performing the pleasures of your life are absolutely essential for feeling good.

Now you have to flee your home in Nigeria to Chad. You won't have your lunch the same time of day as you usually do. You probably won't have what you typically have for lunch. You can't afford to go out for a run to clear your mind because you don't want to risk the few things you have being stolen or your family members getting hurt by Boko Haram because there is poor security in your refugee camp, and many other concerns that hold you back from doing what you would normally do.

It all sounds simple, but if you think about it, these small things of eating and doing other social activities keep us at ease.

As for cultural relativity, this is a challenge the UN has faced when dealing with refugees. UNCHR (the UN's organization for treating refugees) primarily uses Western methods to help refugees, such as therapy. However, most refugees come from non-western countries and thus have different cultural backgrounds and views.

For instance, western health services typically treat the problem "within" someone who is emotionally distressed. In other words, they take a more scientific approach. Many refugees come from cultures where religious and supernatural understandings help ease their emotional distress and, thus, many health services cannot provide them with culturally appropriate care.

In addition, there is the issue of foreign languages. Let's say an elderly Iraqi refugee needs to speak with a therapist after his traumatic experience of fleeing from Daesh last summer. However, the health clinic cannot provide a fluent Arabic speaking doctor to communicate with him.

These are some of the many challenges the West has to adapt to when treating culturally foreign refugees, which, again, make up most of The Nation of The Displaced.

There is also the issue of being a foreigner in the country you fled to. You don't know where things are, how things work, who people are, and perhaps not know their native language. Where and when can I find a bus or a train? Where can I send my kids to school and for how much? Where, or can I even, get a job to provide for my family?

Moreover, when we talked about cultural values in class, we discussed how one's religious practices are essential for his or her well being whether it is because it is routine or because it helps soothe them.

Now, let's say you are a Syrian Christian who fled from the civil war into neighboring Lebanon where most Syrians fled to. You are emotionally distressed from the recent events and you would like to go to a church to pray for your family and calm yourself. However, you realize that you fled to a Shia neighborhood in Lebanon, can't find any churches, and might risk your security if you identify yourself as a Syrian Christian.

Again, these are only some of the many issues that refugees have to deal with. Whether having to create a new schedule, security risks, or not being able to perform your cultural practices to cope with your depression due to sectarian conflicts in the general region, being a refugee is hard not simply because you fled your home.

So the next time you hear about a pack of refugees on the media, don't just take them for granted. It's not that they're just fleeing their homes; they're leaving and will have more challenges when trying to resettle.

I have only just begun this course so I can't give a concrete solution yet. However, we did go over some possible ideas on how to help refugees in the non-western world.

For example, health services need to adapt to the refugees' cultural norms so they can treat them properly. We need a more broad base of therapists who can speak foreign languages. And lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the idea of helping build community centers in refugee camps so they can perform their religious practices and have a social life, which are absolutely necessary for one's emotional well being.

I am looking forward to getting a hands on experience too. Later on in the semester, we are planning a trip to Tel-Aviv where we will observe and help the African refugees in Israel.


Haifa Connections

Assimilation into the wonderful port city of Haifa.

     I have found that integration has been surprisingly facilitated by the ease in which locals are eager to introduce themselves, to tell you their story, and to happily listen to yours. Whether you are at a cafe, a bus stop, a restuarant, or even in the occasion that you randomly stop to pet a fluffy cat at the University of Haifa, there is likely someone within close proximity readily available to chat. I have met more people in the short two weeks and a half that I have been here, than I have in a year back in Los Angeles and Arizona (where I go to school) . I am not implying that American culture is in any way closed off, what I am referring to is the increased openness in which everyone is readily available emotionally to exchange ideas, experiences, and contact details without a sense of increased malice and mistrust despite the ongoing conflict that exisits.

    An atmosphere of community and solidarity from Israeli's of all ethnicities can be felt throughout the country. As my Arab-Israeli professor mentioned when we started his class, "You are now part of Israel and are now therefore Israeli".  Although some people are attuned to the idea of what they can take back with them, I am willing to challenge that ideal by aiming to leave a permanent footprint of myself socially, emotionally, and intellectually.  100_8246 100_8225 1378020_317895078390392_2156043582726898185_n



This week, I learned how to meditate. I’m trying to learn to be present, in the moment, more fully. As my grandma said today when I spoke to her- “you can only be in one place at a time.” Yeah. I’ve wished time-turners actually existed since I read about them in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But I think the fact that we can only be in one place means that maybe we should spend a little more time finding ways to enjoy those moments, or at least find meaning or value. We get so caught up in trying not to waste time that it’s easy to waste the time we have, the moments in which we are living, here, now.


I’ve been all over the place the last few weeks. I’ve been to Tel Aviv for a weekend to hang out, and to the Leo Baeck Community Center Synagogue here for another interfaith discussion, this time about prejudice. I was in Jerusalem for a day with CIEE and spoke with a Palestinian student at Hebrew University, and a man who runs “Keep Jerusalem,” and the curator of the Museum on the Seam, and went to the multifaith prayer room at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Since we’ve been off for spring break, I’ve been back to Ashkelon to stay with my family, and to Jordan to see Petra and Wadi Rum with my cousins, and woke up in the Negev in Mitzpe Ramon the morning of Passover, and then went to Tel Aviv for Pesach lunch with another bunch of cousins. And I just got back from the DOOF Festival on the Golan side of Lake Kinneret/Sea of Galilee. These festivals are all over Israel this season, especially the week of Pesach, and they bring together some incredibly special, peaceful people (aka hippies).

The DOOF festival is three days straight of psychedelic trance music 24/7 on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It almost got too uncomfortable at some points as it’s not really my taste in the first place. But there also were some amazing moments. Walking in, and wandering around and talking to people who were simply happy to be there. A day of basking in the sunshine along the shore, and then under enormous old trees that shaded us from the heat. And on Friday night, the trance music stopped for a few hours, and I sat in my first Shabbat circle here. It was easily the most spiritual (and most Jewish) experience I’ve had so far this semester, as we sang the soft Hebrew tunes I’ve grown up with, with others I’d never met before in my life, and will probably never see again. I moved to a nearby small quiet tent, to listen and let the music wash over me, and cuddled with a four month old border collie puppy that seemed to know exactly how to be for each person there. That evening, in those moments, I felt so in tune with the earth, so completely at peace, thankful for those quiet, calm hours in that beautiful place. It made me realize how important it is to just let good feelings wash over us, surround ourselves with good company, and take time for that, just breathing it in, and for finding that, if we feel that we need it. Especially if you’re like me, and have a lot of feelings (can you tell?)

Through all this traveling, I’ve also been all over the place emotionally, too. Each traveling experience exercises my mind and heart in a different way, even while I’m just looking out the window and watching the world go by.  There are so many new people I’ve met, thoughts I’ve had, and sensations. I don’t always know what I’m feeling, either. Each moment is special, and new, and exciting, and sometimes a little uncomfortable, and sometimes so completely heart-warming that it feels like my heart is overflowing. Those are the moments we live for, I think. And you have to have the tough ones to recognize the amazing ones. There have been a lot of tough ones. But usually, these special moments are the ones that catch us off guard. All this traveling has taught me a lot about the simple beauty of moments shared with other people, the beauty in unexpectedness and just being. And not always looking for something. And how sometimes we won’t even realize how amazing or special or valuable a moment is until it’s gone. But how important it is to let ourselves feel. Feelings are good things. They remind us that we’re human.

“Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.” (The Guest House, Jelaluddin Rumi)

Metta (Good Intentions/Lovingkindness)

We all have feelings. We all have different kinds of feelings that stem from our perceptions and attitudes and interests and passions. And I believe because of that, we have a responsibility to each other to respect the way we are in the world, the way we do things, the reasons we do things, and how others choose to do things. It is what we do with this awareness of ourselves, our feelings, our relations with others and the earth that will keep us moving forward. We each have our own stories, our own ways of dealing with things and seeing the world, and enjoying our time on earth. On my computer screen, I have a sticky note:

“remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something”

It is hard to remember, sometimes. Even of ourselves. But we are only human, after all.

“we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed by our own seed & golden hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset” (Sunflower Sutra, Allen Ginsburg)

And because we are only human, it is important to forgive ourselves, to be good to ourselves, and wish for happiness- we are allowed to be happy- and to be good to others, too- those with whom we are close, and perhaps more distant; those we know are suffering, and those we have never met or heard of in our lives. And the hardest- those who have hurt us, intentionally or not.

It takes time. These things don’t come easy, but they are steps and moments- they are these moments.

And then we had tea.



Planes, trains, and auto...buses

I have a love-hate-very strong dislike relationship with buses. Really any moving vehicle, actually (trains are mostly okay, though). But I especially don’t like buses. The bumpy rides and strong smells and sometimes it’s really humid and you’re sitting squished next to people when you’re carrying a bunch of grocery bags and the bus stops suddenly and you go flying backwards and your backpack hits someone in the face and when you get off everyone’s laughing because you are so obviously relieved to finally be off that bus. Every time is a new experience. I’m sure anyone who has had to use public transportation knows exactly what I’m talking about, too. Growing up, I was lucky enough to live five minutes from my high school and it started early enough that I could go in with my mom on her way to work rather than having to take the bus (thanks, Mom).  We also live on a small street at home where I would’ve been the only one at my stop. So I never had to really deal with them much until I got here. I recognize how nice it is to not have had to take buses until now. But since we live on top of a mountain, we have to take them pretty much all the time, unless we’re hiking across the street.

Buses go everywhere here, and they’re really cheap. So they’ve been my primary mode of transportation, and I’ve seen a lot of Israel while sitting on buses. Aside from the struggles that come with grocery bags and riding up the mountain, and occasional bouts of motion sickness, buses can actually be pretty great. They give me time to think. Sometimes, I have the seat all to myself and I can put my legs up and look out the window and have my own little corner. Sometimes, I get to meet someone new. When you get on the bus, you never really know what’s going to happen. Or if you’re even going to get to the right place…there’s a lot of trial and error involved. And generally a lot of error at first. But I’m figuring it out, and the little victories are awesome when I finally get to where I’m trying to go (even if it’s been a few extra hours). Bus rides have taught me a lot about myself, and about trusting people when I ask them questions about my stop (even if I have to be a little more persistent when asking) and the driver to get us there. Not everyone is excited about being helpful, but if you ask enough times they’ll answer. Some people, though, are surprisingly really nice and they’ll make sure I know exactly what to do.  And I’m never the only one who gets off. It’s pretty humbling, in that sense. I’ve also grown a whole lot of respect for bus drivers. They’ve taught me about patience (about having to have it) and being on someone else’s schedule, and waiting, and the way drivers deal with people every day (especially the ones who don’t know Hebrew and ask all the questions) and drive the same route over and over again. I’ve also learned exactly how much I love finally getting off the bus and standing on firm ground. Because as much as buses get me to the places I’m going, I love walking so much more.

One of the reasons I’ve realized it took some more time than I’d thought it would to get adjusted here is because of the buses. I can get to know a place so much easier by foot, like when I was in Istanbul. Even after just three days, I felt like I could still show someone around there better than I could here. Which was a little weird after having been here for a month by then. But there’s a whole process involved in bus rides and I think the uneasiness is just one of the unexpected challenges of living in a new place. If things weren’t hard about this whole thing, it wouldn’t be right. But now, after two months, when I get on buses, I’m a little calmer about getting to where I’m going. I can just kind of let go and know I’ll get there when I get there.

I called my brother the other day and we were talking about everything that’d been going on, and being here, and away from home, and how I felt compelled to be doing or thinking or learning or something. Listening is doing something too, but sometimes it’s also okay to just be. He told me to think about holding a glass of water- if you pick it up and hold it for a few seconds or minutes, it’s not heavy at all- you barely think about it. But the longer you hold it, the heavier it gets. Sometimes you just have to put it down. (He’s so wise, I know!) That gave me some perspective on my perspective. We’re allowed to just be, too, and let life take the reins. Buses have taught me about that, too. It’s okay to let someone else drive.

I’m well aware of my tendencies towards planning- it runs in the family (I think my brother got a little less of that gene)- so it takes a lot for me to just sit back. But I do love the grass, and feeling it between my toes, and just watching the sky go by. Just having time to sit and enjoy those little things is really wonderful. Sometimes it’s hard to learn how to give ourselves a break for us thinkers and planners, but it really is okay to just lay in the grass. I’m finding places to do that on top of this mountain, too, between classes. It’s like a little slice of home that for some reason I didn’t realize I could do here, too…we’re all under the same sun, too, even if it’s not always shining, or warm.

"Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees...watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time”

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees…watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time”

Last weekend, we went to a seminar near Jerusalem but close to Abu Ghosh, which is a really beautiful place that overlooks the city. One of the sessions was a panel about Israeli society. All of the panelists go to the School of Management in Tel Aviv, and the conversation took a bit of a turn from community involvement when a participant asked why more young Israelis don’t get involved with politics. Her response was simple: “I can talk about the conflict, but it’s about what you do on a daily basis, more than anything- it’s about being nice to others, to Arabs or anyone else when you see them, every second, every hour.” It’s about just being- just being kind, and human. That can’t be that hard, can it?


Part of doing something is listening

Time is a whirlwind. So many special things have happened in the last week- and I can barely believe it’s already been a month since I’ve been here. In the last week, I:

  • Went to an interfaith conversation last Tuesday evening (March 11) at the Ahmadi mosque in Kababir, a community here in Haifa
  • Visited family friends and their adorable little kids
  • Flew to Turkey on Thursday for three incredible days- got to see my boyfriend and other friends from W&M, another who has been studying in Scotland for the last two years, and met some other really cool people in the hours that I wasn’t with my friends
  • Got back late Saturday night just in time for Purim (basically the equivalent of Halloween here, except people really go all out)
  • Went back to the Ahmadi mosque on Tuesday to have tea and talk with the Secretary General of the Ahmadi Muslim Community here, who also runs three different projects: one is a program for conflict resolution in schools and workplaces, another is to reintegrate teens who have been incarcerated, and the third is to help girls who are survivors of domestic violence. Just all of the things I have ever wanted to do with my life…he is inspiring and I am looking forward to learning about more of his work
  • Finally was just in Haifa this weekend- went out, walked around Carmel Center, which is restaurant central, and found an amazing hummus place and tried to settle in a bit more here…I realized I’d been exploring so many other places that I hadn’t had a chance to just enjoy where I’m living (it’s hard though since we’re on top of a mountain and have to take buses into town)
  • (and yes, between all of those things, I went to class, too)

It’s all a little overwhelming. Actually, to be completely honest, it’s very overwhelming. Everything here stretches my mind in different directions, and my heart a little too, and my levels of exhaustion. It’s hard being away from people you love. But I’m also finding things I love about being here, and people I love here. I love about having this kind of time to explore and be independent and free, too. I’ve never felt this kind of freedom before.

I love being able to meet different kinds of people. At the interfaith conversation, I met people from around the world-Focolare ChristiansAhmadi Muslims, Jews from here, London, and the US (I also went with some other girls from the International School here), and others who didn’t specify their backgrounds but just wanted to be part of the conversation- this week we talked about faith and modernity. We learned a bit about the Focolare and Ahmadi movements, which are, at their essence, focused on love. Someone asked why we never hear about them- the response: “to cut down a tree makes a lot of noise, but to let it grow is quiet.” What I found particularly striking about this group of people sitting in the room with me was that everyone wanted to listen. You don’t find that often- it seems that everyone always wants to talk, make people understand where they are coming from, and that they have to agree on everything or else they can’t be friends. Here, that wasn’t the case. People simply wanted to hear stories, experiences, and opinions of others, and share their own. No one was trying to change anyone. That was really refreshing. I was sitting next to a woman who, when I met her and shook her hand, just held my hand for a few extra moments. It caught me off guard- we are so easily caught up in moving through the motions and not fully being in certain moments, but she took the time. And for the next couple hours, we all took the time. “If listening doesn’t lead to love, then there is a bigger problem with humanity,” she said as we wrapped up our discussion. Little did I realize I was going to meet some other really special people later that week, too.

On a water taxi from Eminonu to Kadikoy (from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side), I decided to move to sit outside so I could take pictures off the side of the boat. There were birds flying along with us that I was pretty focused on getting a good shot of- my camera keeps me company in lonely moments. The guy sitting beside me pointed out that if I looked a little higher and past the birds and the Bosporus, I could see the beautiful skyline of mosques, too. Then we started talking about how we each ended up in Istanbul- he is from Syria, and I was the first Jewish person he’d ever met. We talked about politics, the conflicts, our backgrounds, and hopes, and goals…and Seinfeld. He told me he thinks we have more in common in some respects than he does with other Syrians. I met his friend, a woman from Istanbul who studied at the Hebrew University. Over fish, while sitting on a restaurant on the Bosporus, we listened to each other and asked questions. He asked me if I believed that these kinds of conversations would do anything for peace. I hope so. I believe that they are the small steps, that if we take the time to listen and make human connections with each other and just try to learn how to love each other other a little more, maybe we can get somewhere.

Sometimes it feels like there’s so much to do here, because the news always seems to be talking about violence erupting or hate or prejudice or war or death- the media doesn’t always focus on the life and respect and peace that is here, too. And we always hear about so many people trying to work to “fix” it all. So then I feel like I have to fix things, or else what am I doing with my time here? I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to learn or go somewhere or do something, and I feel like I need to plan it all out and know what I believe and think about what I’m going to say.

But I always talk about how the stars ground me. Which is a little ironic, I know, because they’re up in the sky and they make me feel like a tiny little dot on this whirling ball. But, like I’ve said before, they put things in perspective. Sometimes we see only a few, or just the moon, or the sky is black, or it glitters with millions of pinpricks of light. But from anywhere we stand on earth, anywhere we come from, they are always up there, and they are always beautiful. And when we look up, we are listening too, even though it’s quieter than what we’re used to listening for. I’m learning a lot about how the earth makes me feel more settled even in really unfamiliar places, and how many different experiences others are having under the same sky, and how it’s okay to wonder and question and feel small and a little overwhelmed. We all do. But we also have this really special capacity to just listen, and sometimes that’s all we need.

“Part of doing something is listening. We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.” (-Madeline L’Engle)

Today, after hiking down Mount Carmel to the beach, I just sat listening to the waves and sand and the sunshine and laughter- and it was perfect.