The Nose Job

Sometimes, living in hard places is nothing compared to doing hard things. Plastic surgery is hard. It doesn’t seem like it would be. You’d think it’s for the weak, but you’d be wrong. You have to be strong to admit that there’s something you don’t like about yourself; and brave enough to do something about it.

I loved my nose when I was a little girl. I loved all of me back then. My eyes reminded me of my cabbage patch doll and my chubby cheeks rounded into a chin with a point as sharp as a valentine’s day heart. But then things started to change. My face elongated and my eyes shrunk. I inherited the Sunderland nose from my dad, a gift of puberty. Slowly it changed from a gentle slope to a crooked hump.

I can’t remember when I first started talking about getting a nose job. I guess it was probably around age 11 or 12. I don’t think I ever actually planned to do it, though, mostly because I was afraid. It was something I would talk and dream about while the birthdays stacked up.

My track record for surgery is less than stellar. One of my earliest traumatic memories is of having tubes put in my ears at age 4. I woke up screaming after having my wisdom teeth removed at age 15, and again had to be pinned down to have my jaw wired shut the same year.

So how did I end up in Lebanon at Trad hospital wearing a paper gown, crying, about to have my face cut open once again?

Simply, I received an invitation.

I was making plans for my end of contract when my colleague asked me to go with her to Lebanon to get our noses done. It had never crossed my mind that she needed a nose job. If she (who didn’t need a nose job like I needed a nose job) could do it, why not me? And just like that, the ball was rolling. Of course, I wasn’t going to hang around until her end of contract in April when mine finished in March. But I could do it alone, couldn’t I? She made it sound so possible. Still, I procrastinated, emailing the doctor for the first time with less than a week before taking my last R&R. I was hoping he wouldn’t be available.

He was.

I decided to take the leap, just like bungee jumping in the Nile. My part would be easy. All I had to do was show up.

The work week was busy and I was out in the field for most of it. I started losing sleep around Monday, waking up with nightmares of other things that needed to be fixed – webbed feet, a third breast (in addition to real things like moles that needed to be removed and a neck that requires a little lifting).

On Friday I flew to Lebanon where the taxi driver took me directly to the Beirut Beauty Clinic for a consultation. I haphazardly poked the silicone implants on the desk while Dr. Roland quickly analyzed my features. I didn’t have time to pick out a designer nose, so I asked him just to fix the one I have. I asked if he could do anything about my “resting bitch face” while he was at it, but other than Botox the answer was no.

By 7:30 the next morning I was at the hospital starting to flip out. The cleaner thought I needed to use the restroom because of the way I was pacing and kicking my leg sporadically. Mercifully, the nurses gave me my own room and a pill to calm the nerves. I kept thinking how brave I was. Still, I managed to cry as soon as the team wheeled me into the operating room. I could swear they put me to sleep before the appointed time because I was unconscious before the doctor even changed into his scrubs.

And then it was over. Coming out of the medically induced coma that is anesthesia, I gave the thumbs up sign to indicate I was alive, promptly falling back asleep. A few hours later, the hospital fed me a steak dinner (seriously) and I was back at the hotel before dark.

If I had thought that my fears would subside after the operation, I was wrong. The night holds a whole host of terrors for those who can’t breathe through their nose and are afraid of smacking one’s face in the dark. I tried breathing through a straw and tucking my hands under my bum but neither proved to be a good idea. Leave it to me to turn sleeping into something stressful.

The morning after surgery revealed chipmunk cheeks and the jowls of a Mastiff. At least I didn’t have black eyes. Overall, the recovery period was much more difficult than I expected. My Google search bar filled with terms like “sneezing/death after rhinoplasty” and “does lubneh (Lebanese cream cheese offered at the breakfast buffet) have the same effect as yogurt on yeast infections?” Other than trips to the pharmacy, I barely left the hotel.

The cast finally came off yesterday. My nose is greenish-blue and the whole thing kind of looks like a sausage. The doctor says the swelling will go down in a couple of weeks. I can already tell it’s going to be great! I am happy.

Window shopping in the mall today, I felt like my true self. It crossed my mind that maybe what I was feeling was a tiny smidge of what it must be like for a transgender person when their outside finally matches their internal identity. Having a humped nose should not have defined me, but I let it. And it robbed me of confidence.

Tomorrow I go back to my hard place with a straight nose and a lot less shame. I am proud of myself for making the decision to fix what was broken, both inside and out. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

Do You Want To Die a Virgin? Catching up with kids in Jinja

Mwesigwa opened the large black gate and waited for me to pay the driver. I wasn’t sure it was him, and his face didnt register recognition of me either. The last time I passed through these gates was over 3 years ago, when Mwesigwa was still young enough to want to play on the swingset in the front yard. This time he held a hoe in his hand and impatiently went back to weeding as soon as I entered.

Inside the large house, a troupe of children filed past to greet me, polite but indifferent, too young to remember the six months I spent tutoring them in 2007. The last visit in 2012, too brief to be significant.

I thought for sure Junior (Joe, now that he’s older) would be happy to see me. But even though he shook my hand a little longer than the rest, I wasn’t quite sure what he was thinking. His voice was deeper and he stood as tall as me. I didn’t want to be awkward and gush about how I missed him, so I sat down and he returned to his chores.

I spent a lot of time with Junior, teaching him his numbers and the alphabet and how to play nicely with his 30 brothers and sisters. That was 9 years ago, when he was 6. I had left him an odd gift, a mug with my photo on it, a present I received from an ex-boyfriend in Mozambique. I’m not sure how long it lasted before it broke. Hopefully long enough to cement me in his mind as someone who loved him very much, even if his teenage machismo prevented him from showing it.

The awesome thing about kids is that they often surprise you in both wonderful and horrible ways, even if they don’t remember you.

Outside, some of the other children were preparing dinner, cutting onions and tomatoes. Ruth sat in the middle. She didn’t know it, but I had spent hours fussing over her, even carrying her on my back tied in a blanket when she was just a baby. I have pictures of her learning how to stand and being bathed in a blue plastic tub in the yard. If I had been more brave, I would have brought her home with me, if they let me.

“Auntie Jennifer, are you married?” she asked.

“No,” I said, while moving my star ruby to the other hand.

“But why are you wearing that ring?”

“So men won’t harrass me!” (As if they do regularly)

“How old are you?”


(Exasperated eye roll) “Do you want to die a virgin?”

Flabbergasted, how could I explain that ship had sailed back in 2001 when I got married at age 19, precisely so I wouldn’t die in the manner she suggested?  (I’m over simplifying, but you get the point)

“No, I’m waiting for the right one, though.”

And I guess that’s true. As often as I joke about being single, I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Inside the living room, I told my friend all about the shockingly blunt coversation I just had with a nine-year old. Deidrah’s response? “Jennifer, you must have rubbed off on her! Now it makes sense where she gets it! She’s just like you were: curious, sassy, and no filter.” Deidrah was one of my Sunday school teachers so I guess she should know.

Then Deidrah reminded me of one more thing. “Jennifer, you always wanted to do what was right, even if you didn’t know what that was. If Ruth is the same, I’ll take it!”

And I remembered being like Ruth. Asking questions. Testing boundaries. Seeking truth. Being bold.

And even though I won’t be able to blame it on my youth, I want to be that way again. So in 2016, don’t be surprised if I show up at your door asking some variant of “Do you want to die a virgin?” And yes, your answers will end up on this blog.

Hope you’re ready!


What questions will you be asking this year? Are you focusing on a theme or ‘word’? Tell me in the comments. Or just tell me an awkward question a child asked YOU!


2015 Indicators: My Year In Review


I recently had to write a midterm report for the project on which I’ve been working since September. In reality, there wasn’t much “writing” to do because it’s a numbers game. The format of the report looked more like a chart you’d fill out at the doctor’s office to measure the state of your health. All the major outcomes, outputs, and activities from the project proposal had been uploaded into the form by the grants management system. All I had to do was answer the question, did we hit our targets or not. Three cups of coffee later and I was still stuck trying to figure out did we or didn’t we.

My struggle was not because of a delay in programming, or lagging logistics or anything like that. In fact, in my opinion, we’re on track. My problem was with the indicators. They were incomplete. Lacking definitions. More importantly, they were written before we really knew the context. Sure we had done a rapid assessment, but that was before we knew just how complex and diverse the geographical regions would be. Before we knew that a one-size-fits all approach wouldn’t cut it.

I wrote the report, but I also wrote a revised list of indicators to propose to the donor. A list that would better capture the full extent of our impact.

The day before the report was due, I turned 34. I was miserably sick with a cold and could barely muster the strength to go to the zoo and enjoy an amazing barbecue dinner (said tongue-in-cheek). Somehow I managed to muddle through, all the while thinking about indicators and targets and my life, and was I measuring up?

Here’s the thing: at some point in the last year, I had decided that I simply would NOT turn 34 in this country. Not because I don’t like it or because I don’t think my work is meaningful, but because I wanted to do something even more risky: start writing a book.

And besides that, here were a few of my other personal goals for the past year:

  • Talk to a financial planner
  • Get a life coach
  • Find someone to marry (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point)
  • Become fluent in Arabic (also exaggerating)

Here’s what I did (and didn’t) accomplish from the above:

  • Asked friends for recommendations of financial planners then failed to contact any of them
  • Emailed the Paterson Center for help with creating a life plan then decided I could make the plan….later
  • Shelled out $75 for an online dating profile and logged in twice (once as a group activity on a boring Friday night so my colleagues could have a laugh)
  • Learned 1 new word in Arabic: “coordination”
  • Made 9 monthly payments of $83 to study ‘the art of work’ then failed to take the course

Clearly I didn’t hit all my targets and I’m ok with that (except part of me wonders if maybe I’d talked to that financial planner and hired a life coach I wouldn’t have lost $1,075 on the other activities I never completed).

But I’ve been thinking, when I made those goals, I didn’t know the context fully. I didn’t know where the year would take me, what opportunities I would be handed.

Here’s what else I did in the past 12 months:

  • “Learned” to “surf” in Sri Lanka (and by learned to surf I mean stood up a couple of times on waves so small they wouldn’t overflow a bathtub)
  • Paraglided to 1,350meters in Hungary with my friend Abner whom I met in the Philippines way back in 1996!
  • Became a Camp Coordination and Camp Management Trainer in Iraq with the legendary CCCM mentorship consortium
  • Was accepted to the DRC Standby roster in Denmark and met up with 3 of my favorite Danes!
  • Won 3 consecutive games of bouncy ball soccer in Sweden, at swing dance camp, with my South Sudan besties
  • Learned how to navigate a hazardous environment in Lebanon
  • Explained (in Arabic) to my driver that no, I am not married, and yes, I want to get married (that’s not weird is it?)
  • Improved my physique by exercising 4-5 days a week consistently since August!
  • Found my writing voice with the help of author Allison Vesterfelt
  • Created a blog and wrote 15 pieces (ignoring the fact that I completely failed the 31 day writing challenge)
  • Rode in the ambulance with Grampy for his last trip through town
  • Watched my friend’s son marry his beautiful bride in California
  • Made countless new friends and connected with old ones

With all that, so what if I didn’t get past Lesson 5 in Author Launch? I’ll start again in January (I hope)!

This year I learned that life doesn’t come with preset indicators. Unlike in project management, you get to make them up as you go along! It’s great to have goals, but not if you lose sight of what makes life interesting and dynamic – the adventure of the unknown.

My year was amazing because of the people I got to spend it with, not because of anything I did to try to succeed.

Thank you to everyone who made this year so special – family, colleagues, friends, and peers. May your 2016 be filled with whimsy, laughter, and inspiration. Celebrate the small things.

And keep your eye out for my book. It’s coming.


Writing Challenge Day 8: Saying Goodbye

In two hours I will be touching down in Montreal and catching another flight to St. John, New Brunswick. It’s time to say goodbye to my grandfather. I didn’t know my grampy very well, but I loved him.

Growing up, we didn’t get to visit my father’ family very often because the east coast of Canada was just so far away from California.  Grammy and Grampy met me in Prince Edward Island for a beautiful afternoon lunch  in 2001 when I was leading a team of teenagers on a summer outreach there. That may be the last time I saw him. The last time we spoke, he was wishing me a Merry Christmas.

This is one of the greatest regrets of my adult life – not knowing my family. Them not knowing me. Understandable in my youth, inexcusable now. I’d blame it on the divorce, but that wouldn’t be fair.

Part of me feels like I don’t have the right to go say goodbye.I didn’t say goodbye to grammy. I didn’t even give my condolences because I didn’t know how. That is one of my deepest, darkest secrets. And admitting it out loud doesn’t take the shame away.

I didn’t do any of the things a granddaughter should do. That my cousins did. I didn’t take him for walks or watch the news with him when he was housebound. Didn’t bring him his favorite meal or read to him as his sight worsened.. Didn’t give up my nights or weekends so he wouldn’t be alone. Didnt shovel the snow from his driveway so he could get to church on Sundays. I don’t even know what his favorite things are. Who am I to show up now?

Saying goodbye is something I have to do. I was in Mozambique when my grandmother on my mother’s side passed away. I wasn’t able to come home then, didn’t have the finances. Couldn’t miss school or some other excuse when it was my grandpa and my grammy’s turns. I won’t get another chance to tell them I love them.

My grampy deserves better from me. And so does my family. Hopefully I won’t be too late.

Life and then Death

Hooray! Today’s blog marks the doubling of all my previous posts on this site – 14 for the year (gotta celebrate even the smallest milestones)! So basically, I’ve written more in the last 7 days than I have in 8 months. So much for all those courses I took in order to learn how to write consistently. Thousands of dollars spent when maybe all I really needed was someone to challenge me to write for 31 days!
As I was pondering what to write about today, I thought that maybe I should have called this series “31 Days of Awesome Colleagues” because I am starting to see a pattern in the things (people) I want to write about. Last night after a short delay (I accidentally sat on some eggs the driver had forgotten in the back seat and had to change my jeans), my housemates and I went out to meet a friend working in the development sector. This woman amazed all of us, so passionate about the country and the citizens who are fighting to keep it together and stable. It’s easy to get pigeon-holed and near-sighted, only to focus on your own work. How easy it is to miss the big picture. I was ashamed at my own lack of knowledge on the country and its politics, having been here nearly two years. I guess I’ll be purchasing some heavy reading material while I’m home!
Today was more of the same – hanging out by the pool with friends who have worked in resettlement and protection and have done more by the ages of 27 and 30 then I could have dreamed of then. Each one of them deserves their own blog!
Don’t get me wrong – we aren’t serious all the time. Aid workers have plenty of outrageously funny mishaps along the way. One of my favorite get-to-know you games involves revealing your most embarrassing story. Of course, whenever we play the game, I have to go first.


Posting this as is. Interrupted by devastating news that my grandfather is extremely ill. I will be flying out tomorrow. Your prayers appreciated for the family.

Writing Challenge Day 6: After Hours

Last night’s party did not disappoint. When I say party, I really mean a handful of the housemates sitting in the garden laughing at each others sporadic dance moves (my coffee grinder and the Italian’s moon walk, for example) and enjoying the fresh air and cheerful company. For a hefty price you can view said dance moves as it was all captured on our security cameras, which I forgot about.

My housemates make fun of me a little bit for writing this blog every day. But they have also been really supportive. It’s kind of awkward though, when the phone gets passed around so everyone can read it while you’re sitting there. I think I prefer not knowing whether they have read it or not. What if they aren’t impressed, or worse, it stinks? I don’t say anything in the blog that I haven’t already said out loud. I think it means more though, when you put it on paper for the world to see. Ultimately you’re saying, “This is important to me. Please like it, please like me.”

After reading one of the blogs for the first time last night, a colleague made a comment that I thought was very profound. Along with warning me not to let the blog become too egocentric he said,

“Now let your character match the person who wrote this.”

Thank you, O sage one.

A few drinks in, the conversation turned to secret insecurities. Turns out none of us are completely confident that we can do what we’ve been hired to do. Which makes sense, because they don’t teach you this stuff in school (unless you went to Tufts or some other specialized program, which I didn’t). The lucky ones are those of us who get to work in a team, to bounce ideas off each other and affirm that indeed, we are not crazy (unless of course your teammate is ornery or just plain horrible, in which case they may be driving you to the loony bin).

I am lucky to have such great colleagues who are both hilarious (despite being a bit morbid) and competent. Who wouldn’t want to sit around the table with some of the most passionate, bold, intelligent people in the world? Each one bringing their unique flavor to the way we do life together. Granted, half the time I can’t understand their accents, but that’s ok, there is always someone to translate!

Tonight we will gather again, this time with friends from another agency. We will listen to mostly the same songs, rock the same dance moves. Again, we’ll swap jokes and stories from other missions, and nothing will shock us. We will listen and nod, and without realizing it, we will be grateful for these other human beings on this journey we call humanitarian aid work. Because, despite our differences, we are family.

On Sunday, when we are back to work and nothing seems to be working and I am tempted to get angry with one of them, I will remember how much they made me laugh on Friday night and smile to myself. I will take a deep breath and remind myself, it’s only 4 days until Thursday – when I’m going HOME!

See you in a week California!

Writing Challenge Day 5: Influence

It’s Thursday night! Party night (in the Middle East)!

Because I’d rather join the party (in order to have something to write about tomorrow, of course), I’ll keep this short.

Sometimes when I’m in an important meeting, between wondering how it is that men are able to grow unibrows and why they don’t do something about it, I think about how I it is that I ended up at the table.

I am a person with very little power. I can’t buy my way into anything. In fact, I’m always looking for freebies – hoarding hotel soaps and scouring the internet for coupons for my yearly haircut (warning: coupons for services that cannot be reversed are not recommended – my last trim resulted in a ski-slope shape and 1” longer on the right side)
Despite my lack of purchasing power, I have been entrusted with a little bit of influence.

That, to me, is amazing.

The internet (too lazy to figure out whom exactly) defines influence this way:
Influence: The capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

That’s huge.

Today was one of those days where I found myself making a presentation before a group of powerful people, wondering who let me in the door. At the table next to me was one of my national colleagues with whom I have been working for the last 10 months on a capacity building project for camp management.

She rocked it today – translating and answering questions directly when my explanations just weren’t cutting it.

I asked her after the meeting if she ever thought she’d be in this position. Can her father imagine all that she is doing? How brave she is? How influential? That she has the possibility to change the way IDPs access services and protection?

I am so proud of her. At just 25, she is consciously pushing herself to do new things, live on her own, and make a difference.

In a world where power is everything and concentrated in the hands of a few (mostly men), I’ll take influence any day.

What about you? What sphere of influence are you operating in? Which would you rather have – influence or power?

Writing Challenge Day 4: Mental (un)health

This writing challenge is turning out to be more difficult than exercising. At least Jillian (Michaels) only yells at me for 30 minutes. But this writing just drags on and on. The good news is, tonight I finished work at 6:30 so I had time to work out (HIIT via Fitness Blender), shower, and eat supper already. I even squeezed in a gin and tonic so I won’t care so much about grammar or sounding super smart.

I have to tell you, the conversation around the dinner table devolved way too quickly. Too many jokes about ISIS as someone cut into an orange. I reacted rather badly, punching my friend in the arm to reinforce how I feel about his inappropriate comments. Gotta give props to the chef though, we had a lovely Italian risotto!

Since I’ve started this writing challenge, I’ve gone 3 sleeps without a nightmare. No one shooting at me, bombing me, or forcing me to be their 3rd wife (not sure what category that one falls into – stress dream, maybe?).

I’ve always had stress dreams. You’d be surprised how many ways your mind can conjure up to lose your teeth. They can crumble, break, fall out whole. And the dentist never can put them back in, no matter how hard you plead.

We all react to stress differently. I don’t think any of my colleagues are losing sleep at night. Just me. And not even me anymore – now that I’ve learned writing before bed can trick my brain into turning off.

Just to be clear – most of my fears are irrational. I know that (it’s the fireworks that always get me). That’s why I’ve made it my motto to do things afraid (future blog post right there). Fear holds us back. It also keeps us alert. If I never did the things I was afraid to do, I’d never leave the house.

I’m part of a special group on Facebook for humanitarians who have crazy stories to tell. We talk a lot about mental health issues, some of us anonymously. It’s nice to know there are other people out there for whom this work isn’t so easy.

So in the interest of preserving my mental health, I’m taking a break tonight. I’m going to watch a movie. I’d prefer to watch The Bachelor (even better, be on the Bachelor), but the next season doesn’t air until January and I never heard back from the producers regarding my application 😦

While I’m watching a movie, it’s your turn – tell me, how do you balance stress with living your dream? Do you share my motto, “do it afraid”?

Writing Challenge Day 3: Quitting

Have you ever watched the Fox Reality Show, Solitary? My friend, Bea, was on season 4. She is a badass woman (no other way to put it – she even applied to live on Mars). The show pit contestants against each other, but also against themselves. For weeks contestants were isolated in pods, assigned grueling mental and physical challenges, and asked to outperform their peers. The catch – contestants were not informed whether the others had completed the task or not. Check it out on Youtube. It’s crazy.

My life feels like that show, except it’s the Big Brother version where I’m isolated with 8 other people, all of us competing for the next contract or deployment to the most recent level 3 disaster. The task – to maintain sanity while implementing impossible projects with poor logistics, zero privacy, and never knowing whether your project made a difference.

My personal and profession strategy has always been simply to outlast the others. Live in a tent for two years? No problem. Give up summer vacation to write the final report? You can count on me. Blog for 31 days straight? Sure I can!

As the longest standing international member of the DRC Iraq team, I think I’ve succeeded on this point. And yet I’m still here, competing against myself. Even the runners up are dropping like flies (apologies to any colleagues reading this – I do not mean to compare you to such a dirty insect, it’s just a saying) – moving to new posts, having babies, and being with family.

Last month a new colleague quit after just a week. We joked that we’d been abandoned, divorced, all of us, like the Henricksons in HBO’s Big Love. She didn’t even leave us a Dear John letter. Just went on holiday, asked us what we wanted her to bring, then never returned. AND, she took all her stuff with her (so she knew she wasn’t coming back!). I don’t blame her though. Really. She had the balls to do what I have never done – quit (I even read Quitter by Jon Acuff!). My colleague was able to assess the situation, decide it wasn’t the right fit, and leave.

For the rest of us it seems, deciding to quit is like torture. Should I, or shouldn’t? Have I put in enough time to earn the street cred? Will I be able to find a job when I’m ready? Are people judging me? Do they think I’m weak?

The amazing thing about contract work is that you rarely have to commit more than a year. Most likely you sign on for 6 months and reevaluate depending on how you and your supervisor think it’s working out. And even with this awesome system, I still struggle to say enough is enough. My bosses have figured this out, too. On paper, I’m afraid of commitment so they give me three month contracts. But in practice, I’m as loyal as they come. All I need in order to extend is a little sweet talking. Even with an end of contract date, I never know what to tell my family when they ask when I’m coming home. That date means nothing to me. It’s like I’m swimming laps, head in the water, counting every stroke, looking forward to the end, only to keep going when I’ve reached the target. Unless a double cheeseburger is waiting for me, why get out of the pool?

But I’m getting there. I really am.

I’m working on an exit strategy. Well, I’m thinking about one anyway. My theory is that it’s easier for aid workers with romantic relationships to leave a post. They have someone telling them Come Home! We’ll cook dinner together every night, walk in the park, visit Rome.

The single aid worker, however, has none of that. Especially if she is an introvert. Or quirky. Which I am. And unless I want to move back in with dad at age 34, it’s the field or bust.

So basically, I’m looking for love on

Just kidding. Been there, done that, didn’t work (can someone please tell me why never took off??).

My real exit strategy involves finding a place where I would want to live next, visiting that place on R&R, viewing apartments, picking out my new favorite café, and signing up for language classes. Until I have some place to go, I’ll never leave.

The question is – where shall I go? Give me your suggestions and you could be the grand winner of a blog dedicated just to you!

Just kidding. There is no prize. Unless you want a blog?

I’d also love to hear from you if you have a great quitting story! Tell it to me in the comments. And if you’re the guy that quit JetBlue by sliding down the emergency slide, I’ll pay you for a coaching session.

Day 2: Two Tough Questions on the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Until tonight I’ve had two messages sitting in my Facebook inbox that I’ve been pretending I didn’t see. One is from a longtime friend who asked me if I had a minute, could I please give a rundown on the refugee crisis in Europe (clearly she doesn’t know how long it takes me to write a single paragraph). The second is from a former colleague in South Sudan whose heart has been wondering if Syrians are being treated better than the refugees in Africa. These are big questions. You can see why I’ve been procrastinating. But since this is a 31 day CHALLENGE, here goes. I’ve only got an hour tonight since it’s almost midnight and my brain is mush already anyway.

To be honest, most of what I know about the refugee crisis in Europe I’ve learned by reading the news, just like you. I tried to prep for this blog by listening to my friend Stephen’s Podcast. He lives in California and teaches at a university and probably knows more than I do. Unfortunately we don’t have enough internet tonight so I’ll have to come up with original material.

I am not going to talk much about the war in Syria, the policies that have led to the crisis, or about the asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea or other countries. I am only going to talk about what I know, what I’ve seen. The rest you can Google like me.

Iraq is a host country, with nearly 250,000 Syrians registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (ok, that was still Google). Iraq is also a sending country. According to the article I just read (see, cheating again), nearly 50,000 civilians have left the country in the last three months, and hundreds of thousands are expected to follow suit. And I can’t tell you why. Sure, there are push factors like decreased food rations ($13 a month for a family of any size) and limited access to jobs. There is also trauma on a scale I have never seen before. One IDP camp recorded 9 attempted suicides within a month. Can you even process that? I can’t.

Regardless of the collective reasons for leaving, each family has its own story, its own hell from which it is willing to risk the death of its children to escape. I encourage you to read some of these stories on Facebook. Truth is, I don’t hear these stories firsthand, either. That’s someone else job. My job is to figure out how to manage things. How to get trash collected, buildings repaired for winter, water networks installed, and children enrolled in school. I am not an engineer, a plumber, or a teacher. But I work with the people who are, and together we try to make sure that refugees and IDPs are able to lead lives that are livable.

Someone mentioned to me recently that most of the migrants in Europe are young men between the ages of 18 and 35. That doesn’t surprise me. When Daesh took Kobane last year, many of the first refugees to arrive on the buses to our camp were young men exactly the same age. It’s easy to be afraid of young men. I was. What if Daesh was hiding among them? How would I recognize them? Would they kidnap me while I was stuck in the mud, rainboots too clunky for me to run away? But the reality is, those young men were being brave. Charged with ensuring their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters would be safe, they were asking questions just like me. Will the community welcome my children, or will they be taunted on the way to school? Can we live in dignity? Will my wife be raped while I am out looking for work? Will I be able to provide for them? Will Daesh follow us here?

The conditions in the Syrian refugee camps weren’t much better than the ones I’ve seen in South Sudan. Where standards exceeded the norm, it was the local community who gave above and beyond the package of core relief items provided by the UN and international NGOs. Local charities and businesses distributed air coolers and refrigerators to as many families as they could. Women’s groups collected milk for babies of mothers too dry to nurse. And the rest was pretty normal. One UNHCR tent, one plastic sheet, five mattresses, five blankets, kitchen set, water bucket. That’s it. From there, the entrepreneurial spirit took over.

I’m not sure we can really measure quality of life by material goods anyway. My heart breaks for each family that lives in the camps I visit or the makeshift shacks we assess. My heart also breaks for my friends in South Sudan, who, as refugees themselves, continue to work to protect their community from the effects of a brutal, unjust war three years later. These two groups are my cup, and my cup is full.

So that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Not much in the way of answers, and I’m sorry about that. But I think if we had all the answers, there wouldn’t be a crisis in the first place.

What are your thoughts on the refugees and asylum seekers in Europe? Do you have other questions? Friends who are working there, please add your stories in the comments!