Like a Beautiful Thing, Unattainable (On Visiting Our Syrian Friends)

Photo by Zoltan Tasi via Unsplash

This part of the city is dark and feels empty. There are only a few streetlights, and the windows in the houses are, for the most part, unlit. My wife Maile and I get out of our car and walk towards the front door of a small duplex. Lines of light shine through the slanted blinds. A dim, yellow porch light looks down on us like a low-hanging moon.

“Oh, look,” Maile says. “They put out a small American flag.” It’s the kind they hand out at parades, stiff, clinging to a long, wooden stick. The stick is deep in the ground beside the sidewalk.

I tap lightly on the window and hear footsteps thunder through the house—some coming down the stairs, some racing from the kitchen at the back. The door swings open and the screen is pushed towards us and there they are, Mohammad’s four boys, grinning as if I’m Santa. Maile and I go inside and take off our shoes.

The house smells wonderfully of foreign food. It is bright inside, and warm, especially compared to the February night. Mohammad shakes my hand and pulls me in for a hug—he is not a tall man, with skin the color of tan leather, dark eyes, and gray hair cropped short.

“Shawn! Where have you been? I put the coffee on 30 minutes ago!”

“I know! I know. I’m sorry. It took us a while to get the kids to bed.”

“No problem. Don’t worry. Come in, come in!”

His boys flock around us, eager, excited to have guests. I shake each one’s hand, all the way down to their mischievous youngest. He grins and at first he doesn’t know what to do, then he exaggerates his hand shake and I pretend he’s hurt my shoulder. He giggles and runs off.

I look at those boys and can’t help but think about how they fled Syria five years ago, how Mohammad had to load them down with backpacks full of food and water, tried to determine how much weight each boy could carry. Fathers should not have to do this. Father’s should not  be in a situation where they are deciding how many water bottles a nine-year-old can carry through the night. Who should carry the baby? Who should walk at the back of their small line through the darkness?

* * * * *

“Here,” Mohammad says, handing me the mug full of dark, dark coffee, and I take a sip, the caffeine shooting through my veins.

Moradi, Mohammad’s wife, comes down and greets us. She has a kind face, soft eyes, in spite of all they have been through. She smiles at Maile and hugs her, and the two of them talk about work and family and motherhood. When they hit a language barrier, and this is often, the oldest son steps in and translates.

“We brought a game,” I say, showing them the box: Connect Four.

“I have that in my school!” one of the boys shouts, and we tear it open, put the thing together. I sit on the floor across from their third son. He is around ten, and he is very competitive. Every time one of us has three in a row, he shouts, unable to bear the tension of the pending win. When I finally beat him, he groans loudly and falls backward. We all laugh.

“Shawn, here, look at this,” Mohammad says, and I sit up on the sofa while the boys push in to take over the game next. He hands me his green card paperwork. “The last time I looked up this serial number, it said error. Something isn’t right.”

I take his phone, already at the correct website, and input the number on his application. A message appears.

“I don’t know, Mohammad. But this says your application has been processed and your card was mailed out yesterday.”

“Yes?” he shouts, grabbing the phone. Everyone in the house cheers. He hands me his wife’s application. “Check this one.”

We go down the row, checking everyone’s green card application, and an enormous cheer rises when we confirm each person’s pending status. Their cards are on the way. It is Christmas in February.

* * * * *

There are shouts from the other room. The boys are arguing about the game, and the youngest has taken it hostage. The older boys protest. Mohammad calls the little one over, and he comes, reluctantly, dragging his feet.

Mohammad pulls him close and they argue in quiet voices, the boy’s lips grazing his father’s rough cheek as he pleads his case. Mohammad alternates between listening quietly and talking sternly. Their Arabic floats around us, above us, like a beautiful thing unattainable.

Then, I recognize a word the little boy uses often, in his most pleading tones.


He says it over and over again. Sometimes, when he is at a loss for words, it is the only thing he says.

“Abba, Abba, Abba.”

The word Jesus used when he addressed his Heavenly Father.


* * * * *

It is late. We pull ourselves away despite Mohammad’s offended protests that we are leaving too early. I laugh.

“It is always too early for you,” I say. He smiles.

“Come again, Shawn. Any time. Come again. Please.”

Maile hugs Moradi and I tease the boys and we walk outside, all of them standing in the doorway, in the cold, watching us go. They wave and wave, even after we are in the car, and then we are driving through the dark, towards the city. I can feel the light.

* * * * *

Did you know Mohammad and I have put together a book and it’s coming out in October? It’s all about his family’s trek to get here and how our friendship came to be–the book is called Once We Were Strangers.

What the Priest and the Nun Were Looking For – The Iraq Journals, Part 5


We drove up a narrow street in Qaraqosh, Iraq, practically an alley, and our driver stopped the van when he could go no further. A large group of soldiers stood at the entrance to the church, as if on the lookout for something, and they eyed up our vehicle. They held their weapons nonchalantly, the way men might hold briefcases or umbrellas. Just as we came to a stop, a motorcade of cars strung their way through the alley. The also stopped beside the church. A group of people got out, and one of the men was dressed in the black garments of a priest or a bishop.

He shook the hands of every soldier, of every person who approached him. He entered the church and was followed by a small crowd. We got out of the van. Walking in the street felt exposed, vulnerable. I glanced along the roof line of the surrounding buildings, but they were nothing more than rubble. There was no lone sniper, no incoming mortar. We followed the man and the crowd into the dark church.

There were no lights, and the sky outside was gray, so everything was in shadow, but it was impossible to miss the blackened granite walls. ISIS had coated those walls in some kind of fuel, something that would burn for hours. The columns were not as charred but were covered in ISIS graffiti. The altar had been desecrated. Anything holy or symbolic had been shot to pieces.

We walked through the church and into the courtyard where, again, anything beautiful had been smashed. ISIS had turned the courtyard into a firing range. There were reports of ISIS crucifying Christians in that part of Iraq, beheading children. The church building itself felt like it was in mourning, weeping for what had been lost.

We wandered around, stunned, feeling lost. A light drizzle fell from the sky, and something in me wanted it to pour, wanted the heavens to open and for a rain, no, a flood, to sweep it all away. All the burned things, all the disgusting symbols, all the bullet casings, all the memories of what had happened there. But no heavy rain fell. Only a light drizzle that blurred my glasses and sent us into one of the wings of the church.

There, we found a priest and a nun rummaging knee deep in debris. The room they were in had been destroyed. Bunk beds lined the walls. I thought they must be looking for something valuable – they seemed so desperate to find whatever it was they were looking for. They moved rubble and ceiling tiles and plaster. Parts of the walls that had fallen in. All the closets had held was strewn on the floor. We asked them what they were looking for. The priest held up half of a flannel board.

“We need the other half to this flannel board,” he told us through a translator. “We need to find it so that we can tell Bible stories to the orphans when they return.”

I walked out. Someone else in our group followed me, began to walk up the stairs.

“Don’t go up there!” someone told them urgently. “That floor hasn’t yet been cleared for landmines and IEDs.”

We went back in the room and we helped the priest and the nun look for their flannel board. There are still so many good people in Iraq, people looking for all the lost things. So many good people.

We didn’t find the flannel board. We said we would send them one.

Back in the courtyard, one of the soldiers asked to have his photo taken with us. We gathered together and tried to smile. The rain came down again. We walked out into the street, through the blackened church. the priest was leading the people in a church service, and they took communion.

The street was lined with broken houses, destroyed buildings. The church’s steeple was nearly falling down. We got back in the bus, and they drove us out of that broken city.

* * * * *

I sit on the floor again, another night in Lancaster. The boys are nearly asleep. The light outside is gone. I think back on my time in Iraq and it seems like a dream, or something I did twenty years ago, though it was only last month. I think of the people I met, and they are like characters in a book. But while I sit here in the quiet, the fan humming, over there they must live with their blackened churches, their bullet-strewn courtyards. Their nightmares. They must go on rebuilding, being good people, praying for peace.

I pray for peace. I pray for peace. I pray for peace.

God, where are you?

But I know where God is. He is in Iraq. I saw him there, in the blackened church, handing out the Body and the Blood. I saw him there, in the wing of the church, searching for a lost flannel board. I saw him in the faces of the people filing in to attend the service.

As we drove away, he waved good-bye, the hand of a small child in the street.

The Autistic Iraqi Boy in the Hospital Bed, and the Song He Sang – The Iraq Journals, Part 4


I sat on a small stool in between two hospital beds. There were maybe twelve beds in the boys’ hospital ward, which was actually a sturdy, huge, permanent tent. The tent was in the middle of an open-air trauma hospital surrounded by 12-foot-high cement blast walls topped with razor wire. Beyond that? More layers of blast walls and fences and trenches, the makings of a high security prison, only this place was trying to keep people out, not in. Just beyond the fence were the suburbs outside of east Mosul. The air was cool, with a slight breeze, and the sky was slate gray.

Later, I spoke with one of the directors of the hospital, set up and installed by Samaritan’s Purse at the beginning of 2017. She said that a few weeks before we arrived, there had been a suicide car bomb along with a few other incidents in Mosul, all in the same night. Dozens of casualties had arrived at the hospital, so many that the entire staff, even those supposed to be sleeping, were called in. Still, there were not enough people, so non-medical staff were called in to help. Their job?

To sit with the dying.

She said she sat there in the midst of all those beds, each bed holding a person who could not be saved, and she sang and she prayed and she waited while each and every person took their last breath.

This is what some people on this planet are doing. While I worry about where my next paycheck will come from or complain about the temperature of my latte, there are people in northern Iraq, accomplished, talented, dedicated people who could have high-paying corporate jobs but instead choose to go to the ends of the Earth and sit with strangers while they die.

This is the ministry of presence. This is what I learned about during our trip to northern Iraq.

* * * * *

I’ll be honest: I felt very out of place there in the hospital. The doctors and nurses scurried here and there, from tent to tent, all with such purpose. We tried to stay out of the way. There were three, state-of-the-art operating rooms, a women and children’s area, an entire section where the staff lived and ate (no one left the hospital unless it was to travel back to Erbil), and a men’s section completely cordoned off with its own blast walls – any male between the ages of 15 and 50 who came to the hospital without ID was placed in that section until they could be positively ID’d as anyone other than ISIS.

And there I sat. Quiet. Not speaking the same language as the children I hoped to comfort. Feeling very inadequate. Learning about the ministry of presence.

Beside me, the boy began to moan. He pulled the blanket up over his head, arched his back, and let out a long, low groaning that seemed to emanate from his soul and have no end. I looked around urgently – why wasn’t someone helping him? He seemed to be in a lot of pain. An older man came over to the bed and scolded him, shushed him. I looked over at the nurse.

“He’s autistic,” she explained. “That’s the boy’s uncle. His father is in the men’s ward until he can be ID’d.”

One of the girls who worked in the hospital grabbed Murray’s guitar and sat down beside the autistic boy. She started strumming chords, three or four different ones, creating a simple, steady melody. The other boys in the room, most of whom had broken arms or bandaged fingers, clapped their hands together gingerly and smiled. The boy beside me, the boy who had been moaning, peeked out from under the blanket. His dark eyes unblinking. His mouth closed and silent. She kept playing. He watched her fingers.

Then he started to sing.

His voice was mystical, magical, in the way Arabic singing is. It was like the sound of a different era. It was like his voice was coming to us from a thousand years ago, through narrow city streets and over boulder-covered mountains. And, remarkably, his singing was in perfect pitch, perfect rhythm. Our friend kept strumming, and he kept singing, the words wavering out to us like an apology, or the offer of friendship.

Someone asked the interpreter what he was singing. She smiled a sad smile.

“He is singing a lullaby to his mother,” she said softly. “His mother who is now dead.”

I traveled to Northern Iraq with a group called Reload Love. They take spent bullet casings, melt them down, and turn them into jewelry to raise awareness and money to support children impacted by terror. They send aid to in-country partners that have expertise in rescuing children from harm’s way and provide much needed assistance, including relief supplies, children’s programs, and safe spaces such as playgrounds. Reload Love is doing incredible work. You can find out more about them, as well as check out their beautiful line of jewelry, here.

Into Iraq – The Iraq Journals, Part 3

Erbil, Northern Iraq
Erbil, Northern Iraq

There was an Iraqi man sitting next to me on the plane as we approached Erbil. He motioned towards the window.

“I love seeing Erbil at night,” he said, looking down on the lights. He sounded like a man talking about a woman or his childhood home. He looked at me, alarmed, as if suddenly abashed by some lack of manners.

“Have you been here before?” he asked.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Come, come over here!” he insisted, unbuckling his seatbelt. “You have to see! Take my seat.”

“No, no,” I said, smiling. “That’s okay. Really.” But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He stood and pushed passed me into the aisle so that I could slide over into his chair and watch our descent into Iraq. It really was a beautiful site. Erbil spread itself out in shining white lights, hemmed in by the pitch black mountains. It looked like any other city I had flown into before – serene, busy, like an outpost surrounded by darkness.

“Thanks,” I said. “It’s beautiful.” And he smiled, looking rather pleased with himself.

“Do you need a ride from the airport?” he asked. “I can give you a ride if you need one.” I explained that our group had someone picking us up. Need I remind you that it was 4am? Never in all of my travels has anyone ever offered to give me a ride from the airport, much less at that kind of hour.

No, I had to go to Iraq and hang out with Muslims to receive that kind of radical hospitality.

* * * * *

We arrived at our hotel around 5am. We slept until 7am. Had breakfast. Glided into a day-long security training session at 8:30am. Had to prop eyelids open with toothpicks. What I caught from the lesson was this.

The road from Erbil to Mosul, along with the abandoned buildings in Mosul, were lined with thousands of old mines and IEDs that had yet to be disarmed. Our plan was to travel to the outskirts of Mosul two days later.

ISIS will sometimes put toys in the middle of the road for children. These toys are attached to explosives.

Do not leave the road. Do not walk into abandoned buildings. Do not step on rocks that are out of place.

Photos of people who have stepped on landmines and experienced traumatic amputations are images that will stay in your mind for a long time.

* * * * *

I slept well that night. I woke up early the next morning. My body had no idea what time it was – too many late nights in a row, too many long days, too many time zones crossed. I had to believe the clock, and the sun, knew what they were doing.

We ate breakfast on the sixth floor of the hotel. The entire wall was glass, and we looked out over Erbil. Again, I was surprised at how normal the city appeared. There weren’t car bombs going off every day; there weren’t mortar rounds falling from the sky. There was traffic, and people opening their shops for the day, and a bell hop who insisted on helping us out the door to our waiting van.

So began our first day in Iraq. We planned on driving two to three hours north, into the mountains, to a remove valley lined with eight Christian villages. It would be many miles on the road, and many checkpoints. I felt a little bit anxious, leaving the safety of Erbil. We climbed in the van, and off we went.

* * * * *

I traveled to Northern Iraq with a group called Reload Love. They take spent bullet casings, melt them down, and turn them into jewelry to raise awareness and money to support children impacted by terror. They send aid to in-country partners that have expertise in rescuing children from harm’s way and provide much needed assistance, including relief supplies, children’s programs, and safe spaces such as playgrounds. Reload Love is doing incredible work. You can find out more about them, as well as check out their beautiful line of jewelry, here.

On Mutual Fear, and Veiled Women Telling Their Stories: The Iraq Journals, Part 2

The road in Jordan.
The road in Jordan.

The drive from Amman, Jordan, north to the city of Mafraq (also in Jordan) is a journey from the (vaguely) familiar into the foreign. Amman, at first glance, is a modern city, but as you drive north, the streets begin to fade, turning gradually into wilderness. Soon, the highway is the only man-made thing for as far as the eye can see, splitting a white-tan horizon blurred by distance. On either side, the occasional shepherd wanders with his flock over the rocky hills, though it is impossible to see how anything could survive for long in that landscape.

After a few hours’ drive, the city of Mafraq rises up out of the wilderness, the buildings the same color as the pale rock. Initially, Mafraq opened the door to a small amount of fear in the back of my mind. It came to me in the narrow, back streets, the hard stares, and the impenetrable dark eyes. I had to calmly talk the fear down.

But then I met the people.

There is a pastor in Mafraq whose church is a magnet for volunteers. Over 1,200 people come through his church every year from all over the world, looking to serve the people of the city as well as the refugees who have ended up there. The city’s population of 80,000 has been joined by 100,000 refugees spilling across the Syrian border, yet this church welcomes them. They distribute food and heaters and blankets to the new arrivals. They even started a school that now holds nearly 120 Syrian refugee students who would otherwise receive no education. One of Reload Loves playgrounds is at the school, and we were able to speak to, and play with, the children there.

Back at the pastor’s church, we were invited to attend one of the many women’s classes they offer to the city. This one was heavily attended by Muslim refugees, mostly from Syria. It was a class on forgiveness.

I walked in, and even though I was with the pastor, I felt very out of place. The women quickly scrambled to put up the head coverings of their burqas, and soon all that was visible through the slit was their kind eyes. A teacher spoke to them in Arabic about forgiveness, with the pastor whispering the interpretation into my ear. Many of the 25 women nodded as they listened. A few of them cried quietly.

Lenya was given the opportunity to speak. She thanked them for welcoming us. She asked if they would mind sharing their stories so that we could go back to the United States and bear witness to all that is going on.

One woman raised her hand. She wore a covering that draped down over her head and came up tight under her chin, but her face was visible. When she spoke, it was in a quiet voice, with very little emotion. The interpreter told us what she had said.

“My son can no longer walk. He was shot in the legs by a sniper. My brother was tortured for many weeks, and he can no longer function.”

All the while she spoke, small children played under the tables and in the corners. Sometimes they crawled up into their mother’s laps while they spoke, pulling at their veils for attention. But many of their children played outside on a playground supplied by Reload Love. The Pastor told us it was a blessing to the mothers, who could leave their children in a safe, gated space while they listened to the teaching. Some of them stood in the playground afterwards while their children played, and the mothers became friends with each other in this way.

One by one, the women told us their stories.

“My husband was killed,” another woman said, tilting her head to the side as if to ask us how this could be true. “And I have five children.”

“My husband went back to Syria three months ago to try to find some important things we left behind,” another woman said, “but he has not returned. I tell the children he will be home soon.”

She stared down at her folded hands.

* * * * *

We stood on top of the school building and the call to prayer went out over the city. A small truck approached the school, and a man shouted from it into a megaphone in Arabic. His voice sounded scary, as if he was rounding up the entire neighborhood to hunt us down.

“What’s he saying?” Lenya asked one of our hosts.

The man smiled.

“He’s selling vegetables from his truck.”

I stared out over the city. I wondered how much of our mutual fears came simply from a complete lack of understanding. I could see Syria from that rooftop, its mountains rising. I wondered how this little church in Mafraq could be so welcoming and courageous and generous, while so many of us comfortable brothers and sisters in America can be so afraid, so focused on self-preservation.

I wonder, what will we do with all of our stuff when we are dead?

* * * * *

We returned to our hotel, and a security guard walked around our van with a mirror attached to a pole so that he could examine the underside of our vehicle for explosives before letting us back into the parking lot. We had only a few hours to sleep before we boarded our 2am flight to Iraq.

* * * * *

I traveled to Northern Iraq with a group called Reload Love. They take spent bullet casings, melt them down, and turn them into jewelry to raise awareness and money to support children impacted by terror. They send aid to in-country partners that have expertise in rescuing children from harm’s way and provide much needed assistance, including relief supplies, children’s programs, and safe spaces such as playgrounds. Reload Love is doing incredible work. You can find out more about them, as well as check out their beautiful line of jewelry, here.

Welcome to the Middle East: The Iraq Journals, Part 1


It’s Friday morning at 2am and jet lag has turned my head into a solid block. I’m still nursing a strange, low-grade fever and a distant sort of headache. The house is quiet. I got home from Northern Iraq a little over 24 hours ago. There are things I will not forget.

There was the autistic Iraqi boy in a hospital bed, singing a lullaby in perfect pitch with the strum of our guitar. We asked the interpreter what he was singing about. “His mother,” she said. “He is singing a lullaby about his mother who died.”

There was the way we descended into Sinjar City on a winding piece of road, down into buildings now nothing more than booby-trapped rubble. The grassy field on the entrance to the city covered a mass grave of 75 men and boys, killed by ISIS. Here, an exposed femur. There, a small patch of poppy flowers, growing wild. Our guide said a tiny skull used to be visible, but grass and weeds now hid it. And then, in the middle of that city, in the very center of what appeared to be a lifeless place, a playground, and laughing children.

There was the breathless sound we all made, walking quietly through an abandoned ISIS tunnel, our flashlights bobbing.

There are things I will not forget.

* * * * *

Maile and I were spending one last night together, just the two of us (plus Poppy) in a hotel. We thought it would be nice to get away for a night before I went to Iraq and died in a blaze of glory. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but it’s funny how carried away your imagination can get. Fear, like hope, is a thing with feathers, and it will fly out beyond your reach, if you let it.

Toward the end of the day, as we settled into the bed in our hotel room, I checked my email. I sighed.

“I have to do an online training,” I said to Maile. “For the trip.”

“What’s it about?” she asked.

I paused. I tried to insert some humor.

“How to spot IEDs in the workplace.”

She only stared at me.

“You know. Improvised Explosive Devices. Land mines. That kind of thing.”

She didn’t blink. Then she rolled over in bed and faced the other direction.

* * * * *

My Tuesday flight from Harrisburg to Chicago was uneventful, and in the windy city I met up with the Reload Love team: Lenya, the founder, a strong leader and wonderful human being; Jen, the director, the one who knew everything and had anything you could ever need; Murray, an Aussie version of MacGyver who was also a mean guitar player; and Nick, entertainer and camera man extraordinaire.

We had dinner together, got to know each other, and then boarded a 12-hour Royal Jordanian flight to Amman where we’d meet up with some of Reload Love’s partners during a 36-hour layover. The flight was bumpy, and when we landed in Amman, the passengers cheered. It makes me nervous when people cheer a successful plane landing – it makes me feel like there was something I should have known about.

Outside, the landscape was covered in a dusty haze. Nick leaned over towards me.

“Welcome to the Middle East,” he said with a grin on his face.

* * * * *

I have strange dreams now that I’m home. I dream of checkpoints we cannot get through, and desert roads lined by bottomless canyons. I dream of getting beat up by border guards. I dream of my children dying. I wake up again, sweating. I go downstairs and turn on the stove, heating up the kettle. I watch as the tea bag stains the water. I sit at the table in front of my glowing computer, and, again, I listen to the quiet.

* * * * *

I traveled to Northern Iraq with a group called Reload Love. They take spent bullet casings, melt them down, and turn them into jewelry to raise awareness and money to support children impacted by terror. They send aid to in-country partners that have expertise in rescuing children from harm’s way and provide much needed assistance, including relief supplies, children’s programs, and safe spaces such as playgrounds. Reload Love is doing incredible work. You can find out more about them, as well as check out their beautiful line of jewelry, here.