Our Story

Not Like We Imagined

Our first evening away from our then two-month-old, my husband and I sat on the rooftop of a local restaurant eating lamb kabob and drinking ayran, a traditional yogurt drink, and texting back and forth with my mom who was visiting us in Turkey for the summer and babysitting that night.

Call us easily pleased or starving for entertainment outside of nursery rhymes, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the sky. It was dusk and, almost as if on cue, hundreds of birds began to stream through the air from the west and take cover among the trees along the river bank. Black dots punctuated the sky, moving together with one mind, one shape-shifting cloud after another. Like airplanes smoothly landing on the runway, each giant flock congregated in the roost, seeking shelter for the night. A cacophony of chirps and squawks and beating wings could be heard above the restaurant’s music.

“Look what God created,” my husband murmured, always mesmerized by nature, especially birds. It’s their statelessness I think, their freedom not hindered by borders, their ability to pick up and move at the first sign of the changing season—something that, for him, is just out of reach.

First, it was the travel ban, which barred millions of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from ever entering the United States (still in effect to this day), sweeping my husband and his family along with it. One year of teaching overseas turned into six for me, waiting for the green light to leave. Six years of missed holidays and birthdays and life continuing at home. Six years of being at the mercy of ever-changing immigration policies and borders shutting down.

Then it was a pandemic and a country that didn’t handle it well. A different type of travel ban was put into place. U.S. embassies around the world began to shut down, effectively stopping almost all immigration, like a large locomotive coming to a screeching halt.

We’ve been hard-pressed every direction we turn and buried up to our chins with uncertainty. With our family spread out over three different continents, the future is looking foggier than ever.

Poet Samiya Bashir describes 2020 this way: “This year threads its needle between robbery and gift; horror and beauty. Global trauma and lovely surprises.” Can you relate? Does everything look a little foggy for you too? The last several months have been a delicate balance of holding many different things at one time. We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t imagine it to be like this.

I write a lot on here about finding joy and hope in hard places. The former is easier to define, but the latter, if I’m being honest, is a little more difficult. The definition of hope seems to always roll around on my tongue like hard candy and if I spit it out to look at it, I still don’t know what it is.

But I saw this question posed on Instagram the other day: What does hope smell like? All sorts of answers poured in from hundreds of people. Freshly brewed coffee, a rainstorm, chocolate, newborn babies, cookies baking. Trying to define hope by relating it to one of our senses puts a different spin on it. Suddenly, the unidentifiable candy doesn’t seem so mysterious anymore.

Just a few days after our daughter was born, we got a call from her pediatrician late at night urging us to bring her in as early as possible the following morning. We spent the next 24 hours in a cramped hospital room as she laid blindfolded under UV lights, black-out curtains drawn tight and, in true Middle Eastern fashion, heat pumping out of the vents despite the mild June weather. My still swollen feet and aching abdomen incision were made worse by sitting on the uncomfortable couch in the darkened room for an entire day and night.

When we were discharged the following day (our daughter was fine, by the way. The lights did their magic and her bilirubin levels were back to normal.), we walked out of the hospital doors and had to squint the sun was shining so brightly. My husband and I gulped down the cool air as we walked to the car, healthy baby in tow. The afternoon sun radiated onto our faces and outstretched arms. We rolled down the windows and stuck our hands out the entire hour’s drive back home, so grateful to be out of the dark hospital room and basking in the fresh air.

That’s the smell of hope: when you’ve been indoors for so long and are finally able to go outside. It’s that first breath of fresh air, cool and cleansing. It’s the smell of earth, dampness, soil, life. It’s knowing the sun is shining brightly just beyond the darkened room.

Back to the birds. They continued to streak across the sky that night while we were on the rooftop, something innate telling them the season will be changing soon. Despite the hottest part of the day still being in the triple digits (Lord, help us), there was still the tiniest, quietest whisper of something new happening, the ending of one thing and the beginning of another. It was that hint of light after coming out of the darkness, the promise of a fresh breath of air.

We turned back to the meal in front of us and fawned over pictures of our sleeping baby sent by my mom. We talked about those last six years and all that had happened and all that hadn’t happened—the good, the bad, and the unimagined.

You’re supposed to write about what you know. I don’t know a lot about what’s happening now or what will happen in the future. I wish there was a different ending—a victory ending—but that hasn’t happened. We are still here, waiting, standing on the threshold of two things. I wouldn’t have imagined life would be like this. But one thing I know is that there is peace in letting go. There is power in having an open hand. We may still be in the darkened room draped in blackout curtains but just on the other side of the wall, there is sunshine. Hope is in the unexpected and unimagined—whatever that smells like.

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Little Joy Crumbs

A tiny foot is wedged into the bottom of my ribcage, prompting me to surrender to third-trimester insomnia and rise with the spring sun. I make coffee, pulling down the same two mugs I always do for my husband and myself. It is a daily rhythm serving as an anchor in these strange times where one day bleeds into the next.

Today the coffee has to brew over the gas stovetop because of a neighborhood power outage—a small inconvenience, but I have lived abroad long enough to expect interruptions. It comes with the package when signing up for the expatriate life.

But how troubling it is the first time the veil of certainty is stolen from our startled hands and we realize we were not as in control as we once thought. How troubling it is when a novel virus carries itself invisibly from street to street, city to city, and we all find ourselves behind the closed doors of our homes, our routines wholly and completely upset. “Normal” holds a new definition now, the old meaning tossed aside. One day it was and the next it was not.

My husband and I have had good practice braving the onset of life’s interruptions. Prolonged uncertainty breeds isolation but we have learned to receive it. Along with living in a foreign country, we got married amid a controversial travel ban, paddled the choppy waters of immigration visas, and are now bringing a child into a worldwide pandemic. Uncertainty is an always-present third party perched on top of the couch, a visitor who has missed the cues and overstayed its welcome.

Like brewing coffee, walking outside each day—perhaps more of a waddle, belly propelling me forward—has been another anchor, a sacred cadence for the soul.

 Neighboring homes stand stoic and taciturn as families tuck themselves inside. The unusual silence cloaks everything like a stubborn layer of dust. There are masked faces, parks wrapped in police tape, canceled plans, and disappointments.

 But when looking a little more closely, there is also a wave of a hand from a watchful grandma behind glass, a clumsily colored rainbow taped to a window, a softer and gentler greeting between two people as they pass six feet apart. A turtle ambles across the rocks. The lilac trees blossom into soft purples. A collared dove perched in an evergreen calls out in a long, slow lament.

Having weathered many upsets in life, my husband and I know the feeling of juggling juxtaposing emotions. At the beginning of the year, we received news that caused the seams of our life to unravel and the ground beneath our feet to shake. The heartbeat of every one of our prayers for the last few years was for a single door to open. And now, after one phone call with an impassive immigration clerk on the other end of the line, that door was closed shut.

Yet life went on and my belly grew a little rounder each day. A week after receiving the devastating news, we held a party with our close friends where we bit into cupcakes to the count of three and cheered when little pink sprinkles spilled out from the middle—a girlWe celebrated with frosting decorating the corners of our laughing mouths, sprinkles falling into cupped hands. And I remember feeling these words dash across my mind for just a fleeting moment: This is kind of nice.

When receiving the difficult news earlier that week, all our future dreams dissipated in front of us. We could no longer plan ahead. The curtain of certainty was stolen and replaced with an unending today but never tomorrow. But this—celebrating the coming of a new baby girl with pink cupcakes and laughs and prayers—was nice. 

The late poet, Mary Oliver, writes that joy should not be compared to a crumb. Recognizing the scattering of little joy crumbs on the counters of our lives does not need to be embarrassingly brushed into our hands and down the sink or quickly wiped from our lips before anyone has noticed. “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,” she pens, “don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” We have permission to recognize the little bit of beauty in the struggles of life.

Spotting joy—there it is and there is another!—does not overshadow the weight of grief, disappointment, and pain, for these too, are important to hold. Feeling one thing does not negate the other because both/and fits comfortably on our laps.

Joy makes space for these heavy things. We can lift it onto one hip and sorrow the other, our arms wrapped around both like a mother gathering her children to her. It is in the tension of life’s complications where the scent of God is. It is here—right here, at this moment—where the Creator speaks, for he holds it all together. At this crossroads is where we can partake in the glory that will be revealed at God’s coming again.

Joy is in the kick of a tiny baby’s foot, the slow brew of morning coffee, a power outage, the daily rhythm of rising and opening curtains. It is in a leisurely walk, the still small whisper of God’s voice, two mugs set out on the table, frosting on a cupcake. Perhaps looking for these is a way to fight back against the heaviness of life. Perhaps it is okay to see a morsel of joy in the middle of pain.

So when you do see little joy do not hesitate. Give in to it. Grab on to it.

Resources

3 (more) Books to Help Understand Immigration and the Global Refugee Crisis

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The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You
By Dina Nayeri
(Nonfiction)

As a child, Nayeri was forced to flee her home country of Iran because her mother was a Christian—a crime punishable by fines, arrest, imprisonment, and death. Nayeri details their harrowing and heartbreaking flight through several different countries, accounting what it was like to be a child growing up without a home and living in limbo. Several other refugee stories are interwoven into Nayeri’s memoir as well. Due to the subject at hand and how intensely personal it was for me, finishing the book left me in a sort of book hangover for a while, and I found myself needing to take a break from reading anything afterward. This is a powerful story that looks intimately into the psychology of a refugee. Get your pencils ready; you’ll find yourself underlining a lot.

Notable Quote: “We drift from the safe places of our childhood. There is no going back. Like stories, villages and cities are always growing or fading or melding into each other. We are all immigrants from the past, and home lives inside the memory, where we lock it up and pretend it is unchanged.”

91+UbXN-oaLThe Beekeeper of Aleppo
By Christy Lefteri
(Fiction)

Nuri, a beekeeper by trade, lives a simple and quiet life with his wife and young son in Aleppo, Syria. As the war rips his country, family, and livelihood apart, Nuri and his wife make the difficult decision to leave behind all they have ever known and become one of the millions of displaced Syrians.

I picked up this book on a whim during an airport layover after the title and cover caught my eye. While Nuri’s story is fictional, it represents the voices of the millions who bear the title ‘refugee’ and a heartbreaking yet realistic depiction of the refugee’s experience. There are definitely disturbing parts of this book, but it is a must-read story that is stunningly emotional and thought-provoking.

Notable Quote: “I wish I could escape my mind, that I could be free of this world and everything I have seen in the last few years. And the children who have survived – what will become of them? How will they be able to live in this world?”

51YBMz37y1L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong
By Karen Gonzalez
(Religion/Theology)

We need more books on immigration written by immigrants. Gonzalez does just that as she recounts her family’s flight out of Guatemala to California and Florida. Partly an autobiography, partly a Bible study, and partly on United States’ immigration policies, The God Who Sees puts a much- needed face to statistics through both modern-day and Biblical stories of displacement.

Using Biblical scripture, Gonzalez issues a plea for the Western Church to open its eyes to the plight of immigrants in the US and to treat refugees and asylum seekers as Jesus has commanded. This book is a great start to diving into the immigration issues that are so pressing today.

Notable Quote: “When we talk about immigrants and immigration we are always talking about people who matter deeply to God. We are talking about people made in the image of God—people like Hagar and my abuelita.”

 

Check out seven other books to read on the Global Refugee Crisis here.

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The Good Luck Mug

If you ever come to our home, you’ll probably be greeted with a cup of tea no matter the season. Admittedly, not by me—I’m still learning the art of tea-making—but by my husband. And don’t expect the instant tea-bag-dunked-in-hot-water kind. No, you will be given slowed-brewed Persian chai—black tea leaves with hints of cinnamon and cardamom, steeped all morning over a low open flame on the stove.

And there might be a chance you’ll reach into the kitchen cabinet for a glass and unknowingly grab the red mug. It’s a small, stout ceramic cup, half-submerged in vermillion red paint, half left as natural clay. We have a green and blue one too. They’re handmade by a Turkish potter, getting his clay from the river running through our town, spinning them on his wheel and firing them in his kiln down the street.

But the red mug? That’s our good luck mug.

It’s called that not because it mystically brings years of good fortune and success to the drinker (at least not that we know of). It’s not because it’s pretty and unique—and it is, made locally and one-of-a-kind. There isn’t one like it. Even its siblings who sit quietly in a row on the store shelf all look slightly different from each other upon closer inspection.

It’s called our good luck mug because it has cracks—actually, a lot of cracks. Actually, the handle has been broken off and glued back together three different times in four different places. There are thick clumps of dried superglue oozing out of the broken areas and little paint chips sprinkled around the rim. ‘Good luck’ in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way because the glued-on handle has, on more than one occasion, slowly and melodramatically separated from the rest of the mug while in use.

Life holds a lot of cracks, doesn’t it?

Our miserable-looking mug, in all its fractures and pitiful glue attempts, brings to mind the stories of grief we all carry, how life has the power to crack us wide open. I have yet to meet someone who isn’t shouldering a rucksack of grief—past or present, big or small, seen or hidden. At the moment, we are all living in the same state of cracks as we experience a global pandemic, and with that brings in worry for high-risk loved ones, disappointment from canceled plans, and the loss of any sense of normalcy.

My husband and I have experienced ongoing grief before; this feeling isn’t new to us. It wasn’t just one defining moment or one break down the middle, but a series of blows and burials of dreams. We haven’t seen much come to fruition, or at least not many prayers answered in ways we had hoped. Any appearance of control we thought we possessed has been jostled out of our hands. Add on to that a pandemic, living in a foreign country, and the upcoming birth of our first child and our stress has been turned up one too many notches.

On a macro-level, we are all enduring the world turning upside down. And with that, there’s been a lot of online content lately written by well-meaning people who are trying to be encouraging during this time of heightened uncertainty. In a benevolent effort to ease the discomfort of quarantine and social distancing, there has been a flood of to-do lists, checklists, advice, and examples of productive routines infiltrating our inboxes. Get up early, exercise every day, bake bread, organize the junk drawer, write letters, zoom in meetings, get creative, be grateful, find a new normal.

But coming from someone who has had prolonged uncertainty as a constant sidekick for the past three years, let me be the first to tell you that you don’t have to do any of that. It’s too much pressure when the world feels a little too shaky. When tomorrow is shadowed in the unknown, sometimes we need to survive before we think about thriving. Often, it is more essential to acknowledge how we feel for a little awhile before we choose all the “shoulds” thrown our way.

This grief—a crack on the handle here, a chip around the rim there—can teach us the importance of holding space. In her book, The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp suggests, “Maybe wholeness is embracing brokenness as part of your life.” And when life throws a curveball, like an outbreak of a novel virus, we hold on to hope, which cannot be held on to without a few cracks. Grief, cracks, wholeness, and hope. They’re the ingredients to a recipe for fertile and holy ground. Welcome it.

If your good luck mug has cracks like mine—perhaps from the strange state of the world or from something else entirely—hold space for it. Don’t take sandpaper to it and buff out the discomfort by way of routines and productivity just yet. Identify the grief you’re feeling. Look for the growth among the cracks. Doing so can make way for wholeness. Joy and grief can be felt simultaneously. Imperfections and beauty can live side-by-side. And know this: the cracks are not fragile despite their appearance. They are being held together tightly by the Potter, the one who created the mug, the one who sees, who resurrects, who makes all things new.

When life feels unresolved and the threads of simply being are left untied, come to our house—you’ll be in like-minded company. Pull up the comfy chair, the one over there in the corner with the throw pillows. We’ll offer you that good, Middle Eastern chai. Choose the ramshackle cup with the crimson red paint and embrace both the defects and beauty. Hold space for grief in this time of uncertainty. Trust that the cracks will lead to light.

And, while I cannot prove this for sure, I’m almost certain everything tastes just a little bit better and a little bit sweeter in that good luck mug.

Recipes

How to Make Persian Yogurt Dip | “Mast-o Khiar”

With the weather warming up in Turkey, we have naturally changed our dinners to reflect the changing weather. Less on the heavy, hot dishes, more on the light and refreshing. This includes a Persian staple: mast-o khiar – which, if my Farsi is correct, translates to yogurt with cucumbers.

If you’ve ever tasted Greek tzatziki sauce, this is similar but, thanks to the addition of dried mint and dill, (and some really fun toppings), it feels a little more elevated.

Mast-o khiar can be used as a dip for fresh veggies and bread, as a sauce over salad or meat, or eaten straight from the bowl by the spoonful. Persians use yogurt during mealtimes to cool down spicy foods, balance out any richness, and cleanse their palates.

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In this recipe, I used a mixture of plain full-fat Greek yogurt and a fat-free yogurt because it’s what I had in my fridge. Although Persian yogurt tastes much different than Greek – my mother-in-law makes her own – I want to keep things simple here. You can use whatever plain yogurt you’d like but a thicker one is best. We’re adding cucumbers, which are pretty watery so the yogurt will thin out a bit anyway.

The addition of dill and mint is a must! If you’d like to go all out and use fresh herbs, go for it (a 3:1 ratio is a good rule of thumb if you’re going to go this route). But I like to keep things easy and accessible so dried works really well here. There are tons of options for toppings (walnuts, raisins, dried rose petals, more dried mint, more fresh cucumber) and really adds to the dish. I’d suggest picking at least two to try.

Mast-o khiar pairs great with my Persian salad and Persian potato patties.  There! Make all three and you’ve got yourself a great refreshing meal – not too late to celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz.

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Persian Yogurt Dip: Mast-o Khiar

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 cups yogurt
1-2 medium cucumbers, finely diced (you should end up with about 1/2 – 3/4 cup total)
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 tsp dried dill
1/2 tsp dried mint
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Golden raisins (optional)
Walnuts, chopped (optional)
Dried rose petals (optional)

METHOD:

 1. In a mixing bowl, combine yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, mint, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
2. Transfer to a serving dish, if you’re feeling fancy. Sometimes I just mix and serve everything directly from the yogurt container. If you’re not serving right away, keep it refrigerated – it’ll taste even better the longer it sits.
3. Just before serving, add toppings. Yogurt dip can keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Nooshe-jan!

Other Delicious Recipes:
How to Make Persian Sesame Brittle
How to Make a Simple and Refreshing Persian Salad
How to Make Stuffed Grape Leaves: Persian Dolma (Dolmeh Barge Mo)
Easy Carrot Jam | How to Make Persian “Morabaye Haveej”
How to Make Persian Potato Patties | “Kookoo Sibzamini”
How to Make Persian Chai