Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Just Solidarity

“When I was working in the Eastern part of Germany back when the wall still divided the country, I worked with the people; I listened to their stories and heard their grievances. I remarked once that the people in Eastern Germany were just like other people around the world and they deserved the same kinds of rights that those outside of Eastern Germany received. My friends corrected me: ‘That is not so. We are not just like you. We look at the world very differently. We’ve been told,’ they said. ‘That in order to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world, we must give up our freedom. Yet you, and those of you outside of Eastern Germany have been told that in order to be free, you must give up your solidarity with those like us.” (paraphrased recount)

The story above was told to me by a Lutheran pastor who participated in the Bible retreat that I attended this past Saturday. My new friend paired solidarity and freedom with the biblical references of righteousness and justice; making me think of the passage in Isaiah “The fruit of righteousness will be peace and the effect of justice will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17)

I sit down tonight to write next about my experiences with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Kurdistan, Iraq and the words solidarity and freedom like two little globes rest in each of my hands. I look at them in my imagination, puzzled by how to fit them together.

After a night in Diyarbakir, the six of us travel south to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border. We were scheduled to meet up with the rest of the CPT-Iraq team late that night on the Iraqi side; stopping on our way to the border to meet with the director of a cultural center in Cizre (Jeez-ra). An early morning bus ride took us along the Tigris river for a short while before veering sharply south until the Syrian border. We then rode east alongside Turkish-Syrian border for many kilometers watching the barbed wire and military outposts snake back and forth around small villages, riverbeds and agricultural fields.

Cizre is only a few kilometers from the intersection of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It is surrounded by the Tigris river on three sides which is where it gets its name Cizre, which in Arabic means ‘island.’ Like Diyarbakir, nearly all of the residents are Kurdish. However, due to its proximity to the Iraqi-Kurdish border, Cizre faces a myriad of challenges.

We arrived at the cultural center in the mid-day and the director was away visiting his mother who was ill in a nearby town. After a few phone calls, the director arranged for a friend of his to come translate for us in his absence. The director was on his way and would be with us in about an hour.

While we waited, the many youth of the cultural center entertained us with music: instrumental and singing. First a few of the older men started playing and then younger boys and girls joined in both on instruments and in voice. The music was moving; it was full of joy and pride.

The director’s friend arrived to translate for us for a while but left after a short visit. We discovered that this young man was a pharmacist nearby and on the request of his friend left his place of work to host us. However, the cultural center was a dangerous place. The promotion of Kurdish language, music, and customs was seen by the Turkish government was illegal. This young pharmacist was afraid that he would lose his job if discovered in support of the center.

With his departure, we settled back into the entertainment of the young people. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the songs that the children were singing were Kurdish nationalist songs; songs that were illegal. Once the director arrived, we learned that over the course of the last year over 200 children between the ages of 11 and 18 had been arrested for displaying Kurdish culture in public.

The display and/or support of Kurdish culture are viewed by the Turkish government as the display of support for armed Kurdish guerilla groups. The situation is complicated and circular:

Between the ages of 11-18 children are in danger of being arrested for being Kurdish. If they act and speak according to Turkish law, when they are 18, boys are subject to conscription. The Turkish government places these young Kurdish men on the border of Turkey and Iraq to fight the Kurdish guerilla groups.

If children want to avoid prison and live into their Kurdish identity, often they will run away to the mountains and join the Kurdish militant guerilla groups; which in turn fight their brothers in the Turkish military. The guerilla groups, influenced by Marxism, are more egalitarian and often a more appealing option than prison. The director of the cultural center quoted us the figure that 10-15 children a day leave Cizre for the mountains.

The role of the cultural center is to provide a space for children to learn about and live into their Kurdish culture without running away to the mountains. Yet as the Kurdish cultural is systematically oppressed, many who learn about their roots leave Cizre to live more fully into their identity. The director himself was facing charges for indirectly supporting armed guerilla groups. He wasn’t sure how long the cultural center would remain open.

On September 20, two German sociologists were arrested by the Turkish government for suspicion of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization. The two Germans had been part of a larger international team of sociologists who were investigating a mass grave that may contain the body of German sociologist Andrea Wolf. They had written a news brief critiquing the local government and were arrested shortly after its release.

This incident lay heavy on my mind as I listened to the director of the cultural center in Cizre. In order for the Turkish-Kurds of Cizre to live in solidarity with their Kurdish people, they had to give up their freedom. In order for me to preserve my freedom, did I have to give up my solidarity with my new Turkish-Kurdish friends in Cizre?

Because of what happened only weeks before to the two German sociologists, all of us on the delegation were instructed to keep silent about our support for the Kurdish people until we crossed the border of Iraq. During those days in Turkey, we choose to preserve our freedom publically and stretched to privately convey our solidarity with our friends. Our friends, the children of the cultural center included, choose to display their solidarity publically and privately conveyed their concerns for freedom.

I pray that one day we can choose to live into both solidarity and freedom publically and in that new creation the fruit of righteousness will be peace and the effect of justice will be quietness and confidence forever.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Freedom is the Most Important Word

The four of us huddled together in the hostel dorm room. We were lucky to have a room to ourselves. “So we’re going to use a few code words.” Gerald, our team leader implied. “We can’t use words like Kurdish, Kurd, Kurdistan, PKK, etc in public. It’s dangerous. You got that article right? Last week a group of German journalists were arrested in Southern Turkey for appearing to supporting the Kurdish national cause. It’s illegal here to be Kurdish.”

While my recollections of exact statements are simple estimations, Gerald led our small delegation through an orientation session that included examining what we said, to whom, just about everywhere. In the cafĂ© downstairs a woman remarked “Did you four meet here? What are you doing together?” We looked at each other and came up with an ambiguous answer. We didn’t know who was listening, who was watching, who was waiting.

As a U.S. citizen I highly value my right to freedom of speech. Throughout the next few days of the delegation found that the right to freedom of speech was one of the many U.S. assumptions and privileges with which I view the world. During the first two days in Istanbul our group worked through a series of orientation sessions that covered topics about overcoming oppression, personal security, and group roles. While it was necessary to discuss these things before traveling into the field, the next few days brought them to life.

We flew from Istanbul to Diyarbakir.

Diyarbakir is in south eastern Turkey and is one of the largest cities in its region. It sits on the ancient river Tigris and overlooks kilometer after kilometer of farmland. The old city is surrounded by now rundown ways which make up the alleged “Longest continuous city walls” second to the wall of China. Its airport, the very one that we flew into is also used by the Turkish army. From that airport surveillance drones and shells are dropped on the Turkish-Kurdish border region.

Diyarbakir has a turbulent history. Early in the 20th century Armenians and Assyrians were brutally massacred. Over the last century, rural-to-urban migration, governmental pressures, and refugee migration have contributed to the increase of Diyarbakir’s population. In the early part of the 20th century the population was around 30,000. Today Diyarbakir verges on 1.4 million where over 98% of the population is Kurdish.

Being Kurdish, speaking Kurdish, dressing Kurdish, writing Kurdish, advocating for Kurdish communities: all this is illegal in Turkey. According to the Turkish Constitution there are not ethnic minorities in Turkey. The only language allowed in the public sphere is Turkish. The only flag that may be flow in the Turkish flag.

Yet of the 98% of the Kurdish Diyarbakir population, 60-70% are generational refugees from the 1990’s. The first wave of migration settled in the city and today they have children (47% of the total population of Diyarbakir is between 14 and 29 years of age). Persecuted for decades for being Kurdish, the Kurdish language, cultural traditions, and flag are deeply embedded in the pride of the Turkish Kurds. Giving up the Kurdish identity to succeed in Turkey, for most, is not an option.

In Diyarbakir, we met with a young woman who is a Human Rights Activist. She was dressed more western than myself, carrying a laptop and smoking cigarettes elegantly. Her English was slightly accented and her presentation one of education and respect. In another context we might have been best friends; collaborating on projects, cooking food, laughing. Her stories revealed a very different reality… one that left me pondering the U.S. privilege I have and what responsibilities I have to use it.

In 2009 our friend was arrested for four days. She lives with her parents in Diyarbakir and one morning she woke to the touch of cold metal to her forehead. A machine gun was pointed at her forehead. Surrounded by masked armed military personnel she was escorted to prison where she stayed for four days. The government charged her for being a member of an illegal armed organization. The following evidence mounted against her:

1. She wrote grants that funded 44 social projects for Kurdish women and children in Diyarbakir.

2. She published 5 books about these social projects.

3. She signed a human rights petition online against sexism.

4. Kurdish music was found on her computer.

5. She co-authored and produced a book and film about honor killings.

6. She met with international groups (like us!) to talk and teach about the situation of the Kurdish people.

And the evidences continue as such. In December our friend faces trial for these accusations which may lead to a sentence of eighteen years. Now she considers leaving her country; something she never thought would happen: “I have decided to leave because I’m afraid that I will lose my hope. When your hopes are challenged every day, every hour, its hard to keep up hope.”

As our friend left us for the night, we were joined by a Kurdish teacher for a short time. We asked her to teach us a word in Kurdish, the most important word that she could teach us. “Freedom” she replied. “That is the most important word.”

We walked back through the darkened streets of Diyarbakir pondering the words of our new friends. I was asked to keep a radio diary of my trip and I found that night especially difficult to describe. What could I say? How could I share the stories of my friends and of their people without causing them harm? What power do relationships, do names, do conversations have in this part of the world. Why do I feel so angry that I can’t say certain words on the streets; that I can’t share with you my friends’ name; when none of this is about me- and all of it comes back to me and my country’s foreign policy.

What does freedom mean to any of us? My own questioning brings me to my faith, to the bible, in which I find some guidance and many more questions. I expect I'll be reflecting more on all of this as the days continue.

But what does freedom really mean to any of us?


It is the most important word.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Transitions and Holy Remembering

One of my dear friends at Pendle Hill asked me upon my return from Kurdistan, “Were you faithful?”

“Yes.” I replied.

“And are you then released?” She continued.

“No.” I shook my head. “This is only the beginning.”

I’ve thought about that brief conversation several times over these past few weeks and each time tears well up in my eyes when I think of the act of being released from a leading. “How?” I wonder, “Can anyone go on a CPT delegation and feel released in return?”

There is only beginning. This work becomes part of life.

"How this become part of my life?" though is a different question; it is a difficult question. So difficult in fact that it has taken me a while to get into a space of personal and theological reflection. I’ve needed space for the experiences of CPT to stew inside me. Now, stories are emerging.

These past few weeks have been saturated with transition. Two weeks before I left on the CPT delegation I was offered a job at Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry (STM). I returned from Kurdistan, Iraq to Pendle Hill for five days. During those days I wrapped up my time with the resident program, gave two presentations on my CPT delegation and then moved across the country.

Way Opened.

And it continues to open. Just before I left on the CPT delegation I was contacted by friends of friends who invited me stay with them for my first month in Seattle. I arrived on October 31st to an unknown city with many familiar faces. An old college friend picked me up from the airport and showed me around the house I would house-sit for two weeks before my hosts came home. So with the company of an adorable dog, I began my work at STM.

As the Interreligious Program Manager I’m still figuring out all the pieces of my position. These first two months are dedicated to listening; listening to faculty, staff, students, local faith communities, and intermediary partners- listen to their ideas of how to engage in interreligious dialogue, what projects people are already doing, and how I can help. My to-do list is pages long already and everything is so exciting! I have a lot to learn!

On a parallel thread to starting a new position here in Seattle, I’ve also been working at figuring out where I am going to live. I have been invited to consider an intentional community out near the mountains in a place called Issaquah. The community is looking at how to be good neighbors to everyone around them- including those who are homeless and who are working poor living in the woods. The house that I hope to be moving into is a collection of these good neighbors and the basement of the building is being developed into a sanctuary space.

At the end of each day, I retreat home and after dinner I collapse.

My exhaustion surprises me; until I remember all that has changed in this past month and a half. I am pushing through- In’shallah.

The intentional community in Issaquah is brought together monthly by the ministry of two of its members who host a bible study/ discussion group. Saturday was the first session of the year and we worked with the idea of remembering; holy remembering related often to shema the Hebrew for listening. One thing that struck me from our study was how deeply creative was the act of holy remembering. The act of reflection, or remembering transformed the present into the future. God commanded remembering not as an act of retribution or returning to old ways, but as a call back to the center, the source, from which newness grows.

And I have so much to remember.

I’ve been struggling with so many questions concerning life, lifestyle and life choices. I feel like every moment is caught between what is first nature in me and what is God’s will. I have chosen to live radically into my faith but I’m not always very good at it. And on top of all the transitions here in Seattle, the multitudes of stories to share from CPT have overwhelmed me to the point of shutdown these past weeks. That is changing. I am learning so much. I have so much to reflect on. I have so much to learn… it’s all exhausting.

However, when I sit and think about all that has happened to me these past weeks, I find myself incredibly thankful for where I am now and how my path has directed me here all along. I am deeply thankful for the space and grace that my friends and family have given me in this transition period. As I wrote above, the stories are beginning to emerge and those feelings of being overwhelmed are starting to subside. God’s shema, or holy remembering is written on my head and on my arm bringing me back to the center, back to the source and new growth is happening.... slowly, sometimes painfully, sometimes with beauty, and always in the presence of the Spirit.

So my blogging begins with the stories of the CPT delegation.

May I be faithful in my remembering.