On most days, by the end of the day, I have sweat running down both my forehead and my back. My feet are black from the dust and dirt. I am so tired I want to go to bed at about 7:30. On most days, I’ve learned a few Arabic words, only to forget them by the time I get home. I hear that something will take 10 minutes, but that really means at least 30. The sink in the kitchen breaks, leaving the meal program scrambling to provide lunch for the 100+ children who eat there everyday. I hail what feels like a bajillion cabs before getting one that will actually take me where I need to go. I get the feeling that I’m just supposed to know this, that, and the other thing, but I don’t and I’m not entirely sure who I should ask in order to find out. When I think I’ve got all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, I find out that the baas and taas (two letters of the Arabic alphabet) also need to be dotted. I wait in line only to find out I didn’t have to. This city is loud and dirty, and seemingly inefficient. Traffic is horrible. Getting a straight answer may or may not happen. And Arabic is really, really hard.
And yet, I love it here.
I love to sit and watch as hundreds of people go by–walking, or riding in mini-buses or taxis, or zooming around traffic on motor scooters. I love watching men balance on their heads huge boards stacked high with fresh baked bread, while they ride bicycles. I love to observe the fashion–the gorgeous scarves wrapped and tied in all kinds of ways to cover heads; the totally impractical, but fabulous shoes the same women wear. I love to listen to Arabic and try to decipher words or patterns. I love it when I see totally random things on the street, like a flock of sheep in the middle of downtown. I love it when the young men guarding the embassies in our neighborhood are caught laughing with one another. I love walking around the neighborhood, people watching, cat watching, finding shade in the afternoon sun. I haven’t managed to get myself terribly lost in the neighborhood yet, and that’s something.
And it seems like just about the time I find myself frustrated by cultural differences and language barriers, someone walks in my office just to check in. The guards invite me for an afternoon Pepsi. One of the teacher’s kids skips by my office, sees I’m there, and stops to give me a hug, dragging her little friend along. The kid walking down the sidewalk stops to pose for a picture, presumably with the graffiti behind him advertising his favorite soccer team. (By the way, the word for ball and/or soccer/football is one of the few Arabic words that have stuck in my brain. Important when you work with kids!)
Part of my job is to work with the pastors of our sister congregations, refugee congregations that worship in the space throughout the week. The pastors will often stop in to chat, and I ask them how their people find things these days. Things are a little better now that the curfew doesn’t start until 11, but it is hard. It’s hard to find work when your status is uncertain and the economy is informal. It’s hard to live in an area where violence breaks out in unpredictable patterns. It’s hard to live in a time that is uncertain and even harder when your refugee status card is the wrong color. (There’s a whole system of colored cards that grant different statuses to refugees. I don’t entirely understand it yet, but blue card v. yellow card comes up in conversation fairly often.) I hear these stories of struggle and uncertainty, and it would seem like it could just suck the wind right out of you.
But that’s not all they tell me. They speak of hope. They speak of being grounded in Christ. They speak of faith and of community. And that’s what keeps us all going–the refugees and those of us who work with them. They speak of a faith that is deeply, deeply rooted in Christ’s promise of life. They speak of the community giving hope to people who could not find it elsewhere. They speak of caring for one another and for the children, the weak, the vulnerable. These people are amazing. Their faith inspires me. Really, it breathes life into my tired soul. Their faith kindles in me new sparks that ignite my own faith. Their priorities help me reexamine my own, and remind me what’s really important. They give me the strength to keep going, in spite of frustrations and inefficiencies and language barriers and misunderstandings.
The courtyard was filled the past few days with people waiting to register for English classes. By 10:30 today, there was a sign on the door that they are full for the term. I’m not exactly sure how many slots there are, but I know the Adult Education Program director has been very busy the past few days, registering people for classes, organizing space for registration and placement tests. People are eager to learn and it is beautiful to sit and watch and see all of the faces come and go. I haven’t had a chance yet to sit and listen to stories, but I will soon. And those stories will surely be filled with sorrow and grief, and love and hope.
And then there are the kids. I showed a friend some pictures the other night and her first comment was, “The kids are so happy. That must be a good school.” I hear from their pastors some of the challenges their families face, yet when they come to school, they’re kids. They play soccer and jump rope. Teenage girls giggle in tight circles as teenage boys lean cooly against the wall, both groups no doubt trying to impress the other. When I bring out the camera, they gather around and pose. They tap on my shoulder and pull me to a place where they have the background they want. They make bunny ears on one another. I find myself stopping just to watch. I can’t help but smile. You can see a smattering of pictures on my Shutterfly site.
So at the end of the day, when my feet are dirty and I find myself ridiculously envious of those who post on Facebook of their 70 degree weather, I think back on my day and say a little prayer of thanks for the taxi driver who, despite my broken Arabic and his broken English, got me home safely. For the Arabic speaker who doesn’t laugh too much as I mess up words and quickly forget them. For the kids whose smiles light up their faces. For the people who fill the courtyard and patiently wait their turn. To the God who created us all and loves us all very much. And then, at least for a minute, it’s hard to be frustrated and I don’t feel so tired. And I remember why it is I love this place.
Kirsten, you don’t know me, but I am a friend of the Kolbs, and Debbie has shared your blog with me. We have been going to Honduras on mission trips the past 8 years and I know the feeling when you see people have joy and a big smile in the midst of a life that makes middle class Americans cringe. Your stories are wonderful and I so appreciate your observations and ability to find the beautiful in your new world. Thanks for sharing…. you are doing very important work (serving God and his creation) – work that truly matters…. I look forward to reading more! Becky Stuckey