Bethany Kurbis recounts her experience working in South Sudan and how it helped her find her calling in Career Management.
Working in South Sudan
I found my calling while on a motorbike in South Sudan. I was behind my colleague, Ruman, holding on for dear life while we navigated the dried up river beds that doubled as roads in this remote village. We were on our way to a training, where we were going to discuss conflict, and specifically, how to handle conflict without violence. We were introducing a concept called “Forum Theater” in which young people act out a conflict in a skit, and test different ways to resolve the conflict without resorting to violence.
Volatile environment because of war
South Sudan had been ravaged by war for decades. Most of the youth I met grew up in refugee camps in Uganda, and their families had returned to their homes in South Sudan after the recent peace agreement, and impending formal independence from North Sudan. Those families, who raised their children in refugee camps, came home to a country that needed relief from decades of war. Conflict sparked easily, over big and small things. Most people were on edge; everything still felt volatile and fragile.
Watching young people test ways to resolve conflicts was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. Those trainings led me to subsequent roles across Sudan, and eventually, I watched adults struggle to resolve conflicts in working environments. I began coaching staff on resolving conflicts within our agency’s teams, and simultaneously began building human resource operations and processes to ensure staff were able to focus on their work, instead of their conflicts.
My path to Human Resources
Eventually, I was hired as the HR Manager in 2010 for an agency in Juba, South Sudan, the newly named capital of the soon-to-be autonomous country (South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, gaining its independence in 2011). Our agency focused on two things: health care and clean water. We had a staff of medical experts who provided health care to remote communities, and engineers who focused on digging and maintaining wells to provide access to clean water. These days were fascinating days. I spent hours in tiny planes, and on motorbikes visiting our various sites where we ran health clinics and clean water stations. At each site, I heard consistent themes about our teams’ work. While the environment was incredibly volatile and high stress, each employee wanted to make sure they were effective in their role—that at the end of the day, health care and clean water was available within these vulnerable communities. Within this high pressure environment, managers felt challenged to provide feedback to their fatigued staff, and employees were frustrated that they didn’t feel supported by their managers.
As I visited our field sites, I listened to these themes and created a structure for managers and employees to discuss key priorities, areas for improvement, and the type of support needed to manage the intensity and stress of the work. Managers sat down with each staff member to discuss individual priorities, and talked about what each person needed to be successful and supported in the role. We recommended that staff meet weekly to talk about how the work was going.
Inevitably, we started to hear about the impacts of these conversations. Processes and logistics were smoothed out, efficiencies were improved, and we got better at providing health care and clean water to our communities. Additionally, employees felt that they had a voice with their managers, and trusted relationships were built across our teams. Returning to my dusty, open-air office from a day in the field, I often marveled at the power of conversations between managers and employees. Thus, I found the career path I would pursue to this day, focusing on ongoing performance conversations between employees and managers to ensure individuals are engaged, knowing what it takes to be successful to accomplish our core mission and vision.
We can’t all be right. That’s impossible. And yet, our country is divided in two sides that both believe they are right. Pick your issue and, without fail, one side will scream that they are the right, moral side, while the other side screams the same.
I have two people in my life who represent the tense divide in our country. They both think the other is stupid. They both take to social media screaming about their opinions through their finger tips, trolling and shaming the other side. So, essentially, they cancel each other out on the large stage of political discourse. Both individuals are galvanized in their beliefs because of the others’ rhetoric. The more they tweet and post you-tube videos, the more they fall into the deep stereotypes they have built for each other.
In this process, they are losing sight of the person behind the beliefs, and they seem to lose more self awareness and humility tweet by tweet, Facebook post by Facebook post. The more wrong they feel the other is, the more right they, themselves, feel.
What is the truth? The truth is often somewhere in the middle. The truth is often uncomfortable, because it is seldom convenient and safe. The truth often threatens how good we feel about ourselves, our lives, and our beliefs.
Anger is a powerful emotion. I was told once by a wise man in France that we demonstrate anger when we are afraid and when we feel we need to protect something. I think that sums up a lot of what we are seeing today. Both sides of our country feel that there is much to protect. Whether it is a deeply held belief about what it means to be an American, a patriot, or if it is a dedication to protecting basic human rights, both sides feel those core principles are vulnerable and at risk of being destroyed. Because of that fear, that need to protect, we quickly move to anger. Sustained anger starts to sound, look, and feel like hate. It’s powerful. It overwhelms. It blinds.
If fear is the spark that ignites the fire of anger, then something must put out the fire and smother the embers. I can’t think of a more powerful force to tame fear and anger than love.
I practiced this recently with one of the two aforementioned people in my life who are angry and afraid. I told him that I understood why he is afraid, because I do. I told him I respect him for wanting protect what he loves. As we spoke like this, the anger dissipated between us. As we started to respect each other’s perspectives and experiences, we could hear each other. I then challenged him to love the people he fears – to love radically – even when it’s risky. I challenged him, and myself, to love even when we think the other is wrong. Love each other, even when they’re wrong. Love each other, even when you’re wrong. Because you are wrong. And I’m wrong. Because I’m right. And you’re right.
Love is more powerful than anything else in the world, but it is a difficult discipline to practice when you are afraid and angry.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – MLK
It’s time to speak. I left South Sudan in November of 2010 for reasons I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote that last post. Just over six years later, I can’t believe what we are seeing occur across our globe, and within the United States.
South Sudan has struggled to stabilize since its independence became official in July of 2011. Yei, the village we lived in during our first year in Sudan, has been decimated as a result of rising tribal and political violence, and by all accounts is unrecognizable as the lush town it once was.
In June of 2014, we learned about the atrocities happening in Iraqi Kurdistan – in the area we lived and worked – at the hands of extremist groups.
As the world has spun, it has seemed to spin further and further into chaos.
I carry with me a load of guilt for leaving Sudan. I know it’s irrational. I know that I would not make one lick of difference in a situation that links back to deep-seated tribal and political issues. I know that my presence there does very little on a macro level.
In the years since I left, I have become quiet about my time in North and South Sudan and Iraq. When I bring my experiences up with friends and family, the mood tends to shift. The topic either makes people uncomfortable, bored, or defensive (if they feel they should have done/should do something in the humanitarian aid field), or it is romanticized as an exotic way to live. I have also seen others react by telling me that I don’t “look” like someone who worked in humanitarian aid, or that “three years isn’t that long” and therefore I shouldn’t be so affected by the experiences. In the end, I have found that bringing up the specifics of the days and nights I spent in these countries leaves me feeling isolated from the people around me and, therefore, I have largely avoided getting into details other than providing small palatable sound bites for easy consumption.
On January 27, 2017 our newly elected president, Donald J. Trump, signed an executive order to stop accepting refugees into the United States.
I sat stunned in my office in D.C., staring at the words on the screen. I looked at the map and saw big blocks of countries identified with a bold red color indicating the countries from which refugees will not be accepted. Sudan and Iraq were among those countries.
It has taken time for me to develop actual words for some of the emotions I am feeling, but I know I must start to use words – detailed words – to start to speak about parts of the world in which I have had the privilege of seeing the sun rise and set. In those places I have watched women, children, and men laugh, cry, learn, love, and struggle through life.
We need to begin to act like we share this planet with 7 billion people.
We need to use our privilege and our resources to reach out to those in need, not shut our doors to them.
We need to be humbled by our weaknesses, learn from humanity’s mistakes, and engage with each other to find a way forward.
I can’t stay quiet anymore. If this executive order is blocked and ultimately unsuccessful, I will still speak up and stand up against fear, hate, isolation, and withdrawal.
Tomorrow is October 9th. October 9th is my brother’s 25th birthday (Happy Birthday, Jaron!). October 9th also marks the 3-month countdown until the results of the referendum voting are scheduled to be announced. The referendum vote will decide whether Southern Sudan will become it’s own independent country – A new country declared over night. Beginning in August,the Government of Southern Sudan announced that every 9th of the month will be observed as a public holiday until the 9th of January. After Saturday, there will only be 2 “9ths” left… And no one feels ready for that.
As I type this, a demonstration is walking by our office. A male and female voice take turns yelling through a loud speaker. I can make out enough of the Juba Arabic to know that they are talking about a New Sudan – a separated South Sudan.
Things are tense, there is no doubt. Every organization is in the middle of “contingency planning” including the one I work for. A major part of my job is overseeing staff plans over this period of time. I have drafted policies for when our Sudanese staff should travel to register for the referendum and for voting. I have also been tasked with developing our key messages as an organization during this sensitive period of time. I am highlighting our neutrality, impartiality and our consistent dedication to serving and helping the most vulnerable in Sudan, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. I have to encourage Sudanese staff to avoid wearing our organization’s t-shirts while they are participating in political rallies, registering and voting. We could never ask our Sudanese coworkers to hold back their opinions, but we do ask that they try not to confuse our mandate with their own opinions… tricky sometimes. As for the rest of our staff – Kenyan, British, German, Dutch, Danish, Australian, Irish, and American – all of us have opinions and theories. But we have to careful to remain supportively neutral and impartial. Again, tricky at times.
I have been thriving in this role. I love it… and it seems to suit me really well. Our staff are exhausted (as Brian and I are as well), but I love that it is a part of my job description to support the staff. The challenge is to find ways to feel motivated and inspired during really difficult days.
I have been lucky to have housemates and neighbors who enjoy jogging, so I have been running almost every morning since I got here. I wear my Vikings t-shirt (Favre AND Moss!… pigs will be flying any day now) and run down the quiet streets, past tukuls where women are starting fires for tea and men sit sleepily chewing on wood to brush their teeth. Every morning we run by one man who is clearly homeless. He sits in the same place outside a pharmacy across the road from the hospital. He must have TB. At exactly 6:45 am every morning we jog past him and he is coughing… coughing up a lot of fluid. He hits himself on the back of the head as he hunches over and coughs. Later, as I drive past him at 8 am, he is sitting, back against a bundle of all of his belongings, wrapped in a faded green blanket, watching what was a quiet street only 1 hour earlier, now bustle and surge with all sorts of life. Students in bright uniforms walk to school, women draped in vibrant, printed cloth dash across the street with large bundles of food on their head to cook for their loved ones in the hospital (meals are provided by families if someone is in the hospital… so you can imagine how that effects a family when someone is in the hospital), and mutatus (taxi vans), bodas (motorbike taxis) clog traffic as vehicles filled with government employees, NGO workers and military try to squeeze through the chaotic congestion. I am in one of those vehicles. I wave to him when we make eye contact… “See you this evening”, I think to myself, “and again tomorrow morning”.
He is my mile marker. When I reach him in the mornings during my run, I know exactly how much distance I have left – past the petrol station, over the stream, and home. He is my inspiration. When I pass him, I run harder for two reasons. Firstly, because I think that if he could, he would join us. I can see the hate he has for his disease and how it cripples him. But I am not crippled. I can run. I can feel the air coming into my lungs and going out again. So I run harder… because he can’t. Secondly, I run harder to become stronger. I sit at a desk every day, behind this laptop. A majority of my job happens remotely, and almost none of it involves me interacting with people like him – people in need. But I know that what I do helps people like him. I support a staff that consists of doctors, nurses and engineers who provide emergency and primary health care, nutrition and clean water projects to people all across Southern Sudan. I know that when I am encouraging managers to do staff appraisals, that means that those doctors are getting a chance to hear about what they need to improve on – how they can help people like my mile marker better. I know that when I meet with a staff person and ask them what they need in order to do their job better, I can encourage, build up and spur on those who are on the front lines. Every morning I want to stop, and go put my arm around my mile marker. I want to pick him up, and bring him home and figure out a way to improve his life. But instead I run harder. I run hard to stay healthy for him, so that maybe some day, one of the doctors or nurses I support will take care of him and his life will be improved.
The scariest thing is not knowing how long we can be here… how long we can do this. Brian and I both signed two-year contracts, meaning on paper we are here through 2012. But we could all be pulled back to Nairobi in January… or even before.
But until then we will keep going, looking for our mile markers when we are tired, taking the inspiration to make us run harder while we can.
In 8 weeks I have been on 3 continents and 7 countries.
June 15th we left Iraqi Kurdistan.
July 15th I arrived in South Sudan.
And on August 15th the world has stopped spinning at a dizzying pace, long enough for me to sit, reflect and hammer down some notes.
Goodbye to Iraqi Kurdistan
Sweaty hugs in the Sulaymaniyah airport. Nawzad, Omar and John squeeze us, thank us and we all say that we hope to see each other sometime in the future… though we don’t know if that will happen. We wave goodbye and Brian and I sit down in the crowded airport. I look out the windows at the hills. Those hills where 4 Americans were taken hostage by the Iranian government, those hills where people sought refuge from Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons dropped in the name of Allah, those hills that are now crowded every weekend with families who are enjoying their new-found freedom. We board the plane and say goodbye to Iraqi Kurdistan.
We land in Istanbul, Turkey. The drive from the airport to our hotel is stunning. We are still in the Middle East, but not the same kind. We are on the cross roads of the East and West. We eat dinner on the rooftop of a hotel, overlooking the river on one side, and Old Istanbul on the other, with the magnificent Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
We take our time walking back to our hotel. The cobblestone streets are lined with cafes, bars and restaurants. Though our stomachs are full, these places beckon us to sit and drink something more, eat something more. But we opt for a drink on yet another rooftop, overlooking Old Istanbul that is now lit up, continuing to show off its ancient structures.
Breakfast on the rooftop. We are in the land of cheese and honey, olives and bread and strong, delicious coffee. We could stay on that rooftop with our breakfast, but the city calls.
The heat is already causing sweat to drip down our backs as we find our way to the Hagia Sohpia. We enter its large doors and step into the damp protection of ancient stone. We gape as we walk through each corridor and hallway. The centre dome makes our necks ache, and we were tempted to lay on the floor, as others are doing, in order to save our necks and still try to experience the full stature of the rotunda. Islam has stamped its names for God over the wings and faces of giant angels, but even these massive stamps cannot cover what was built as the glory of the Roman Empire.
Our next destination is a Turkish mansion that has turned into a Museum. Intricately painted tiles line every wall in every doorway, hallway and walkway, each design is more stunning than the previous. We take endless pictures of the blues, reds, and golds. That kind of artwork cannot simply be walked past. I try to imagine living in a place with so much color and beauty. I think I would go blind.
We walk through the massive mansion grounds until we feel our stomachs telling us it is time for lunch.
We walk down narrow streets and alleyways through the city toward the river. Once we find the river we walk until we find a line of brightly decorated boats. We have found the Jimmy Johns of old town Istanbul. Men in gold-embroidered vests on the boats pass fresh fish sandwiches to the hundreds of customers standing on the sidewalk. As the waves moved the boats UP and DOWN, I am sure that at least one sandwich will get thrown into the river, but as I watch, the men on the boats and those receiving and distributing the sandwiches are obviously used to this… and not one fell. I watch as our sandwiches are prepared on the hot grill right on the boat. We sit with the hundreds of other fresh-fish sandwich fans next to the boats and savour each bite.
When we have eaten our fresh fish sandwiches we walk to the Turkish bizarre. We literally get lost in the endless paths through the ancient market. Its age is covered by endless options of fabrics, tiles, tools, and trinkets. Our upcoming travel plans don’t permit us to buy anything… so we are forced to decide we will have to come back.
We find a café in the bizarre and sit and cool off under the cover of the market.
The afternoon flies by with the Babylonian cisterns and the Blue Mosque.
We stop by the hotel, change and prepare for our last supper together. The next time we will have supper together will be in South Sudan.
We eat on the cobblestone streets, telling ourselves not to think about how wonderful the day has been… to enjoy even though it will be over far too quickly.
We buy ice cream from a sidewalk vendor who is paid more for his performance than for the ice cream… but it is worth it.
We sit in the park that sits at the feet of the lit up Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and try to decide which is more spectacular.
As I lay in bed, flashes of colour tiles dance behind my eyelids. History and modernity met on these streets. And we were all too quickly about to say goodbye to it.
Parting of ways – This narration goes the way of Switzerland
We say goodbye to each other on the cobblestone street in front of our hotel. My next destination is Geneva, Switzerland, his Nairobi, Kenya. As my taxi drives away from him, our paths separate , but both lead us into the craziest, most exhilarating 4 weeks that either of us have ever had.
I land in Geneva with visions of Turkey still looming in my mind. I walk from the train station to the hostel I have booked for the night. With my pack on my back and my guitar in hand, I trod down the streets of Geneva, suddenly waking up to where I am… not Kurdistan, not Turkey, but Switzerland – Europe!
I pass pubs and cafes, making mental notes to check them out when I have lightened my load. I arrive at the hostel, check into the high-school-like monstrosity that houses hundreds of people every night. I walk up the 8 flights of stairs with my heavy load (the elevator is broken) and when I finally make it to my room, I jubilantly open the door. The door swings open a bit more forcefully than I have intended (again, my hands are quite full) and I give a little shout when I see, facing me from the bed in front of the door, one of my roommates – a mummy. It is a mummy wrapped in hospital gowns and clear, plastic rain jackets from head to toe. I do not know if my roommate mummy is male or female, or even if it is real at all. In the room of 8 beds, I figure this mummy could be a prank of some kind… for one of my other roommates, perhaps? I force myself to walk into the room, and to my relief I see a young, blond girl sitting on the top bunk of one of the beds. I pause, catch her eye and point to the mummy, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes”, she replies with a heavy accent.
“Is… everything ok?…” I ask, still pointing to our mummy roommate.
As I point at the mummy, to my great surprise, the mummy moves with a loud crinkle of rain coats. So it indeed was alive.
The girl laughs and says, “Yes… I have been here all week and she has been in here like that every day…. I don’t know…”, she responds more to my face expression than the my question.
So the mummy is a she and it is alive. But a very innocent looking young girl has lived with her all week and she seemed to not be possessed or injured in any way, so I take it on faith that I will be ok for this one night.
I drop my things in my locker and make for the streets of Geneva. I can see from my hostel window that there is a gap in the skyline a few blocks away. I wondered how far I am from the lake and decide that I will head in that direction first. My search is short. I walk two blocks, I turn a corner and, voila, there is Lake Geneva, lined on the other side by the Alps. To my surprise, the beauty brings tears to my eyes. I walk up and down the lake, pausing to soak it all in. The architecture that lines the lake is beautiful, and the companies that are housed in those structures are amazing – Rolex, Cartier, HSBS – wealth. That’s right, I am in Geneva. UN flags wave in the breeze beside Swiss and French flags.
I get to know the city a bit, and I settle on a café to spend my evening.
I get into the café just in time for a heavy rain to begin to fall. Though I want to stay out and continue to explore the city, the rain forces me to do what I actually need to do in the café – start to work. I have about 2 pounds worth of documents in my purse that I must read within the next two days in preparation for the Medair training… which is, after all, the whole reason I am in Switzerland. I sit in the café, eat, read my documents, occasionally… ok frequently… stopping to watch the rain and soak in the atmosphere of the café. Once my head is full of new information, I walk back to the hostel. Upon entering my room, I discover my roommate mummy is still in her cocoon, but she is laying down, not sitting up.
I lay down and listen to the mummy shift beneath her plastic cocoon and laugh. Life is too much sometimes.
I start the morning early. I have a lot to accomplish and not very much time. I need to go shopping in one of the most expensive cities in the world and find some necessary items I wasn’t able to get in Kurdistan in preparation for my trip. I hit the streets of Geneva and I am proud to say that I am able to find the best store for all of my needs – Manor (it’s like a VERY classy version of Target… it has EVERYTHING) – and I don’t break my entire budget getting the things I need!
Big Fall and Little Blessing – A Story from Kurdistan
One of the items on my list is to have my watch repaired. My LOVELY sister bought me the watch and had it sent through a coworker all the way to Khartoum, North Sudan last fall. I LOVE this watch and have not gone a day without wearing it.
Well one bright and sunny morning in Kurdistan, Brian and I were at our favourite produce stand. It is a tiny little stall STUFFED with bright and beautiful, fresh produce. I was admiring a pile of perfectly red plums when a stout Kurdish man tried to squeeze past me in the stall. I stepped to the side to avoid getting bumped into the precariously stacked plums. Well the step I took was actually into a crate of cherries, and I completely lost my footing and my balance. I felt myself hopelessly falling, so I tucked my arms in to avoid taking any plums, peaches or pomegranate down with me, and SPLAT, I fell directly onto a tray of Apricots. Brian and the Kurdish men in the stall all stopped, stunned. Brian grappled to help me up and I slipped and stumbled my way out of the stall. I kept mumbling “I’m sorry” in Kurdish, and I started to consider how much it would cost to repay the vendor for his Apricots, but by then a crowd had gathered outside of the stall it became very clear that the vendor was more embarrassed than me and basically said, “just go”. I turned the corner and stopped to survey the damage. My pants were COVERED in sticky Apricot guts, my knee and arm were throbbing, and the worst part that I discovered was that my watch was broken.
Our apartment was a few blocks away and we had to walk to the office to meet some people so had to quickly hobble back home to change my pants. I was limping with an achy knee, and I realized only after I returned home that I hadn’t quite found all of the Apricot skins on the street corner, I had walked home with Apricot skins hanging off of my rear end. I am sure it was quite a sight for the neighbours.
As embarrassing (and slightly hilarious) as the whole thing was, the thing that really made me upset was the fact that my watch was broken. I took it off and set it on the counter, not having the heart to throw it away.
Just one week later we were packing to leave Kurdistan and I was in the process of ceremoniously throwing the watch away. “Goodbye, watch-that-my-beloved-sister-bought-me”, I said. I was about to throw it away when Brian stopped me. He took the watch and inspected the damage. He pointed out that I was about to go to the THE watch country… and that if there was any hope for the watch, Switzerland would have what it needed. Touche, Brian. I kept the watch in my backpack and added “get beloved watch fixed” to my list of things to do in Switzerland.
As I escalate up and down the amazing Manor store in Geneva, I come to the watch floor, and think of apricots and plums. I think about the worn leather that has darkened two shades of brown and how the threads are fraying and the holes are stretching on this watch in my backpack. I take a deep breath and step off the escalator. I wander past perfectly lit cases filled with watches of every shape and size in every kind of metal, with every kind of jewel or stone. I look for the least pretentious-looking man working at a counter and ask him where I can bring a watch for repair. He points across the room to another counter. On my way to the repair counter I tell myself that a Target watch is perfectly acceptable, even if the leather is worn out… and covered in Apricot guts… it is the watch that I love. I step forward at the repair counter, apologize for not speaking French and find a friendly English speaking repair man to help me. I present my shabby, sticky watch to the man and sheepishly asked him if it can be repaired. He smiles and simply said, “Yes.” Now this is great news, but I am only half way to celebrating. I bite my lip and ask the second half of the question, “Great… and how much will it cost?” The man bites his own lip, squints and looks up at the ceiling. I sigh. What was I thinking trying to get a WATCH repaired HERE, one of the most expensive cities in the world?! I look at him as he puffs out his cheeks and appears to be calculating the cost. He looks back at me after a moment, smiles again and says, “Madam, it will cost you nothing!” He laughs and then I laugh and thank him profusely in the only French I know, “Merci! Merci Bou Coup!”. I have no idea what he does, but the repair is extremely simple, quick, and apparently, even though it is a Target watch, the repair is free.
I walk away from the Manor store with everything I need, and even though I don’t NEED it, I walk away with a fixed watch.
I get on the train and go to my next accommodation – the very small flat of a couple of employees from Medair. Being that I had to book my accommodations last minute, AND that it is summer time in Europe, booking hostels is tough… and I wasn’t able to book a hostel for one night. I contacted Medair and a very generous couple were going to be out of town so they let me stay at their apartment. I walk to their place from the bus station in the rain. When I get into their apartment, there is no mummy and no plastic, sterile environment. Instead there are fresh flowers, and little bowls filled with Swiss chocolate. Having my own apartment for almost a whole 24 hours is amazing. I walk to the grocery store and buy crackers, delicious cheese, and of course, more Swiss chocolate. I take a bath and savour the solitude I know I won’t have for many days and weeks to come.
June 19th – 26th Medair ROC
I wake up in the morning and walk to a café for breakfast. I watch the rain continue to fall outside and try to prepare myself for the upcoming Relief and Rehabilitation Orientation Course with Medair.
After I have taken another bath and say goodbye to my perfect little accommodation, I cathc the train to Vallorbes, a town right on the border of Switzerland and France. Within minutes I am meeting other Medair candidates and Medair staff and my whirlwind week has begun. Because I have come straight from “the field” I share a room with one other girl instead of about 6 which both of us are grateful for.
The orientation course kicks off and from here, I apologize, but I really can’t write any more about my experiences that week. This is partly due to the fact that there is just too much to write about… and it is also partly due to the fact that we are asked to keep our experiences to ourselves for the sake of others that may end up going through this process.
Suffice it to say that it is a week full of lessons and experiences that I will never forget as long as I live.
June 26th – July 15th
Now, I sit in Juba, South Sudan. I spent two more weeks in Switzerland which can be summarized in a chapter of Scripture that has never been so alive to me
Change is once again in the air in the Kurbis household. Many of you know that after we left North Sudan earlier this year our visas were rejected by the government of the country and we shipped off to Iraq after a wonderful 2 months at home in order to provide temporary assistance to the office here. Our time here has been wonderful and we have experienced an entirely new culture in a complex country in an extremely complicated region of the world. Our first exposure to the Middle East has been great and we cannot imagine a better way to see what is happening then from the safe, beautiful Kurdish region of Iraq.
With that said, it is apparent that Iraq is not the place for us in the long run so 3 weeks ago we began exploring other options. Long story short, we are going back to South Sudan!!!
“What?!” you say? “Back to that country that gave you all of those illnesses and chewed you up and spit you out?!” Yes. That one. We are going back and we are, believe it or not, quite excited. It will be an interesting year for the country as they enter into 2011 where they vote on whether or not to remain with North Sudan as one country, and we are excited to see what happens and are hopeful that things go well.
Brian has accepted the position of Deputy Country Director of South Sudan with Samaritan’s Purse and will be starting his new role on June 18th in Kenya, traveling to the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan on the 21st (in fulfillment of his dream to travel there since first reading about them when he was 16).
Bethany’s situation is a bit more complex as she doesn’t have a contract yet, but the organization that she is speaking with, Medair, has asked her to come to Switzerland for 3 weeks to do interviews and training. It is a really great opportunity to attend what many of our friends have said is a fantastic week long, intensive training with a respectable organization. The strong, and consistently restated objective of Medair is to put Bethany through this training (which is a requisite for working with Medair in the field) so that they can send her to Juba ASAP to be either the Human Resources or the Operations Manager for South Sudan!
So, lots of change, several unknowns, BUT it appears that things may actually work out in a good way for us, with both of us working in Juba with separate organizations for the season. You can count on us descending into radio silence for the next 3 or 4 weeks while we both learn what it is we are actually going to be doing, but count on photos from Turkey, Switzerland, Kenya, and Sudan to be posted sometime in the next 60 days!
A final note: I have signed a 2 year contract and Bethany will be signing a 1.5 year contract, so this should give some of you plenty of time to plan and save up for a trip to see us somewhere in the universe!
This morning I woke up thinking about what it means to memorialize, to remember, to honor someone or something.
Brian and I have been to our share of memorials in the past few years, places of remembrance that exist to tell a story – stories about people who have lived and died in such a way that we who remain, living, want to construct something so that we will remember, and maybe even learn from their stories.
We have seen the Genocide Museums in Washington DC, Rwanda and Cambodia, and now we can add Northern Iraq to the list.
We visited the town of Halabja a few weeks ago. Halabja is the most well-known town where Saddam Hussein’s regime dropped chemical weapons on the Kurds. He was the first leader in history to use chemical weapons on his own country’s people. When the bombs fell, they released a gas that smelled sweet, like fruit, causing people to take in deep breaths, and activating the deadly chemicals in their bodies. Halabja has a number of mass grave sights, as well as a museum which contains pictures and names of the thousands who were killed.
The morning after our visit to Halabja I was still processing what we saw, what we learned. In my attempt to process I wrote the following:
The bombs dropped heavy on the ground. The air smelled heavy of apple and sweets. The breaths they took were heavy and deep as they tried to identify the smell. They fell heavy on the ground – over children, ovens, doorsteps. Their bodies filled heavy with chemicals.
Their families, who came later, stood heavy over the lifeless bodies. But the souls of their loved ones were light in the sky. Free from their bodies, they flew above the mountain tops, over the planes, beyond the atmosphere of poison.
On that ground, I drank the sweet tea, ate the yogurt with salt, the chicken with oil and the sweet apricot. It is now a part of me, and I am a part of it. I have tasted life from the place of death.
My eyes felt heavy when I looked at the pictures of the lifeless bodies. My heart was heavy on the beautiful drive through the mountains.
Something about beauty and horror filled my mind. That beautiful place. That horror they faced. The beauty still existed and looked over the horror. The horror still came, though it did not match the beauty. How can so much horror and so much beauty exist in the same place?
The horror that fell did not destroy the beauty. That ground did not stop being beautiful even though there was wickedness falling upon it, soaking into its soil.
How can we become a part of the beauty? Can we help to purge the wickedness? Can we move purposefully on this ground and plant new life in poisoned soil?