We are returning…to South Sudan!

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!



In Memorial

Mass Grave-sight

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?

– Bethany

Kurdish Drivers

Are the worst.  I have seen some gnarly traffic and some heinous insanity on the road, but that is just the way the traffic works.  In that lest sentence ‘works’ is the operative word…it is craziness but it works because it is part of a system in which all drivers on the road participate.  In Cairo it seems like chaos but it darted and swam like a fish in a river.

Kurdistan is not that.  Its not the driving that is insane, but the drivers.  They are horrible.  Miserable.  Careless.  Reckless.  Dangerous.  When I drive here I don’t enjoy it…I dread the commute to the office in the morning because I know at least 5 people are going to not watch the road and almost hit me with nothing I can do about it.

Why am I writing about driving?  Because it is easier than writing about the history and memorials we have seen regarding Saddam’s mass murders and killings.  Easier than trying to encapsulate what it means to live in a region that has a growing post-islam mindset.  Easier than griping about not knowing what is next in our lives since we are done here in the next 3-6 weeks.

But we will tackle those hard issues soon…I promise.


Wake up to the pitter-patter of rain drops on the window. Walk out and look out over our balcony at our little street. Power clicks on and off as we shower and get ready for the day. With raincoats, backpacks and appropriate rain foot-gear on, we leave our comfy apartment. Walk down the stairs and greet our landlords who are in their courtyard beneath our stairs.

“Baani Bash!” (Good Morning)

“Chony!” (How are you?)

Thus ends our Kurdish language skills.

Leave our front gate and step out onto the sidewalks. We share them with vendors who are opening their fruit and vegetable stands. Heat hits our faces as we pass the bread smith who lays his warm flat-bread out on the sidewalk stand. Fresh bread fills the air for a moment and we drink it in.

Streets are filled with morning traffic. My favorite vehicles are the school buses. Each bus that passes is filled with singing, dancing and clapping students, who appear to be trying to out-do the others.

Come to a large road with cars whizzing by. We watch the traffic with other foot travelers. One confident person makes his or her move, traffic slows and we all make our move. Jump over the puddles and jog across the street, backpacks flopping against our backs.

On the other side of the busy street, we are in front of the office.

Warm greetings from our colleagues in the cold office. Tea and instant coffee flows almost as consistently as the flow of literature before us. Resources, history, studies and statistics, overwhelming needs and questions of how to answer them. Coordinating projects, meetings and discussions and it’s lunch time.

This rainy day calls for soup… and even if it wasn’t rainy, soup would be on the menu. The best soup vendor in town is nearby – a tiny street vendor that serves the best chickpea soup we have ever had. When the soup runs out, the vendor closes shop and enjoys his afternoon.

More information, discussion, coffee and tea flow through the afternoon and it is evening. With backpacks on again over the crowded street and past the bread smith and vendors we go, back to our little apartment.

Laundry and cooking is planned according to the power. Clothes sit in water for hours, waiting for city power to come back on to finish its process of semi-cleaning our clothes. The gas stove top works regardless but few cookies will be baked in the electric oven lest the power goes off, leaving the cookies to wilt.

Reading on the balcony listening to children laugh and play until dark, eating dinner on our red stools, a piece of chocolate from a thoughtful friend back home and into bed.

By the way, never take for granted your fitted sheets. Never. Electricity comes and goes, but fitted sheets stay put forever.

Sleeping deeply and waking up to experience more new things here in this new place.

If These Hills Could Talk

The hills are alive in Sulaymaniyah… Sing it with me!

Kurdish Hills
Hills of Kurdistan

Last week, we got to drive west through the beautiful hills of central Kurdistan. If someone had blindfolded me, took me to these hills, took the blindfold off and asked me where I thought we was, I would say something like Ireland or something… certainly NOT in the Middle East. The drive was amazing. Thanks to all of the April showers that have been falling here, the wild flowers are in full bloom. Bright red poppies speckled the hillsides along with other flowers of every spring color you can imagine.

Brian and Yellow Flowers
Brian and Yellow Flowers

Driving through what was once ancient Mesopotamia, I couldn’t help but think about the events this soil has carried. These hills create the ground that is considered to be the cradle of civilization. The water that flows off of them flow into the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The history that these hills have supported is overwhelming… and the story is far from over.

Our road trip took us to the town of Shoresh. We visited a site that is being built as a large community center for the population of Shoresh and its surrounding communities. When we arrived we were greeted warmly by the staff who are building the community center and they welcomed us into a traditional Kurdish dining space where we feasted on a delicious meal with all the Middle East flavor we could hope for.

Kurdish Dining Room
Kurdish Dining Room
Examining the plates
Examining the plates
Reclining Pre-Feast

The wonderful thing about the way we were seated on the ground is that when we got full we simply reclined back and got dangerously close to slipping into a post-feast coma. We have learned quickly that every meal is followed by a glass of tea. It is very similar to the tea we drank in Sudan – black tea with a solid inch of sugar in it. With that kind of help , we can quickly say goodbye to post-lunch drowsiness!

Pouring the Tea
Pouring the Tea

After our meal, we learned more about the town of Shoresh and why the community center is being built there. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, any men suspected of being involved in or supporting the Kurdish army – the Peshmerga – were taken and systematically killed. So basically males between the ages of 15 and 50 were killed, leaving thousands upon thousands of widows and orphans. The Iraqi regime then proceeded to gather the widows and orphans from all over the region and bring them to a new area, or a “collective”, and told that if they even attempted to go back to their homes they would also be killed. Without any infrastructure to speak of in these areas, Kurdish women from different tribes and areas were forced to fight for survival and start over. Shoresh was one of these collective areas. As is always the case in any conflict, it is the women and children who are the most vulnerable and Shoresh has been no exception. The people in this area still have very little health care and have had almost no education. Along with that there is a large population of elderly women who have no children or family left  to take care of them. The community center we visited will have a hospital inside its facilities, classrooms for a variety of education opportunities and trainings, a sports center for youth and a conference room for larger meetings and trainings.


We went onto the roof of the community center and looked out over Shoresh. It was a heavy experience looking out over a town that established itself under the conditions it did. It is still hard for me to comprehend humanity’s capacity for division, hate and cruelty. And if these hills, that have carried, absorbed and observed so much, could say something about the patterns of humanity, what would they say. What advice would they give?

I lift my eyes to the Hills. Where does my help come from?

First Days in Kurdistan

Historically, when we have left the States, we have had about 19 hours of transition time on a very pleasant KLM flight. With personal t.v. screens to watch a great variety of movies and television shows, our flights were always something to look forward to. And then we had the layovers in Amsterdam where we would take our final deep breaths of Western comfort and our first steps out of the Western world were taken as we stepped off of the plane and on to African soil.

Well, this time was a whole new experience. Our departure from Western comfort came in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. In the international terminal we were by far the minority, and there were certain signs that we were among people who were used to a different way of life – the greatest example being the conditions of the bathrooms. 🙂

We sat at our gate to get onto our Royal Jordanian flight to fly into Amman, Jordan and in no way did I have the sense we were still in the States. The feeling of having left American soil solidified as we got onto the Royal Jordanian plane. All of the signs were in Arabic with English translations next to them and all of the announcements over the intercom came first in Arabic, and then in English. We were back in the Arab world and we hadn’t left Chicago yet.

The flight was very pleasant, though we were concerned at first. There were no lovely little t.v. screens for us to watch, and as we sat down we became aware that we were surrounded by screaming children. The first hour into our 13 hour flight showed no promise of a break from the screaming, but as the turbulence subsided and the children learned that their screaming would not get them off the plane, everyone relaxed. In fact, Brian and I realized that the children were a far better form of entertainment than any movie could have been. There was one boy directly across from Brian who became our fast friend. We played and joked with him for the entire flight, breaking only for the occasional nap. Before we knew it, we were landing on a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Jordan.

We made our way through the airport, onto a shuttle and into our hotel. Both of us were eager to begin soaking in our first real experience in the Middle East and it was more familiar than we expected.  The hotel dining room served hummus, flatbread, eggplant dishes and all of the Middle Eastern cuisine we could hope for. Immediately we were using the Arabic we learned in Sudan and were surprised by how much we understood from other people, and how well they understood us. This only peaked our interest in continuing to learn the language. We are further along in the process than we knew!

We weren’t sure how we would do with the time difference… we had to get up at 4:30 am to catch our flight to Kurdistan, and we were concerned we would not fall asleep. Well our in-flight entertainment must have worn us out because we slept very well. 4:30 am came too fast, and within a couple of hours we were on the flight that brought us to Northern Iraq. We had met many of the others who were flying with us at our hotel. We met 4 professors from all over the region who are teaching at the brand new American University in Sulaymaniyah – the city we are living/working in. We also met quite a few Kurds who were traveling home. Immediately our impressions of the Kurdish people were that of warmth, friendliness, and hospitality. It was extremely refreshing.

I stared out the window as we flew over an incredible display of beauty – rolling brown hills, speckled with green meadows. I thought about how long I had been hearing about Iraq… since almost as long as I can remember. And there we were, landing in Kurdistan. Brian and I looked at each other and said, “Well, here we go!”

Flying over Kurdistan

We followed our new friends through the passport lines and just as easy as could be, we were in.

We met our two Samaritan’s Purse colleagues, John and Doris, at the terminal. We liked them immediately. John and Doris also worked in North Sudan with Samaritans Purse a few years ago. We had heard all sorts of great things about John and Doris from the North Sudan staff, so we were eager to meet them.  John and Doris have been working in the Middle East for almost 35 years. We cannot imagine better resources to help us learn about this complex area.

We sat over coffee immediately after arriving and peppered them with questions about Kurdistan, Iraq and the entire region. The story of the Kurdish people is even more devastating than I knew. The Kurds suffered cruelly under Saddam Hussein’s reign. Thousands of men were systematically killed and widows and orphans were transferred to camps in new areas to start their lives over. Chemical bombs were dropped all over the region, killing and injuring thousands upon thousands. Samaritan’s Purse is currently doing work with disabled people, as well as working within some of the areas where the widows and orphans were relocated.  We are just learning bits of information about this area that has such a tragic history.

Sulaymaniyah (aka Suly)

We are living and working in the city of Sulaymaniyah [ (Soo-lay-mah-nia)… most people call it Suly (Soo-lee) ] . Once again, we have been greeted warmly by those we have met. We are starting to get to know the local cuisine which consists of a lot of meat, beans and rice. Sulaymaniyah is one of the most progressive cities in Iraq (it has the only movie theater in the entire country!)

Though our Arabic was well used in Jordan, it is less useful here. Many people understand it, but they prefer to speak Kurdish. So we will be learning some Kurdish quickly!

We spent yesterday in the office with John and Doris along with Nawzad and Omar who are also employed by SP here.  In the next few days we will be looking for an apartment for Brian and I to stay in (we’re staying at a small hotel for the moment) and continue to soak in as much information as we can.

More to come in the following days!