Hannah and our Director, John, recently took a trip to Iraq to visit our teams there and to meet up with old friends. So we asked Hannah about the food, the weather, how things are on the ground in North Iraq, and lots more!

If you have questions you would like to ask send them to hannah@servantgroup.org.
To learn more, check out our Iraq Page!

And here’s a rough transcript of our conversation if you feel like reading! We aren’t vouching for the punctuation!

  • Hannah
    Hey Colleen.
  • Colleen
    Hey Hannah.
  • Hannah
    So this is “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”… although it kinda looks like a storage closet.
  • Colleen
    Seriously though, we are here to talk about life in Iraq.
  • Hannah
    Right. So we have a special guest today.
  • Colleen
    A very special guest.
  • Hannah
    It’s me!
  • Colleen
    Welcome to the podcast, Hannah.
  • Hannah
    Thank you. It’s my joy and pleasure to be here.
  • Colleen
    If you don’t mind would you introduce yourself for our listeners.
  • Hannah
    I prefer to remain anonymous.
  • Colleen
    Oh.
  • Hannah
    It’s too late for that?
  • Colleen
    I think so. So we’re interviewing you today or rather I guess I’m interviewing you today.
  • Hannah
    Yeah. Be hard to interview myself. Would be a weird conversation.
  • Colleen
    I mean it’s not too unlike other conversations we’ve had.
  • Hannah
    It’s true, let’s not get into that.
  • Colleen
    But we’re going to talk about your recent trip. So where did you go?
  • Hannah
    Well, I drove from Nashville to Atlanta which was probably the least exciting part of my trip because I then got on a plane and I flew to Istanbul, Turkey and then on to Thessaloniki in Greece and drove about an hour. I can’t ever remember directions. I want to say it’s north because it felt northward but I feel like that’s probably wrong. But we drove about an hour out of Thessaloniki to Katerini and visited with some of our national staff there. And when I say we, John, our director, also went really it was his trip and I tagged along. So we should say that I went with him but we’re going to make this all about me.
  • Colleen
    All right. Yeah I’m good with that.
  • Hannah
    So spent a couple days in Katerini which was amazing and wonderful and beautiful. Back to Thessaloniki got on a plane flew back to Istanbul and then flew in to Sulaymaniah, Kurdistan which was the first time I’d ever flown into Suly.
  • Colleen
    Isn’t it a cute little airport?
  • Hannah
    Sure. Cute is a word you could use. I was glad that I had a limited amount of time that I had to spend in that airport. Yeah I mean it’s certainly not as posh as Erbil’s airport.
  • Hannah
    No it’s like an old army airplane hangar that they converted into an airport.
  • Colleen
    Yeah, probably, never really thought about it that way.
  • Hannah
    It’s very warm and people-y. Yes. Yeah. So we spent a day in Suly so I didn’t get to see much. And then went on to Erbil and Dohuk and then back to Istanbul and then back to Atlanta and then back to Nashville.
  • Colleen
    So how long was that whole trip?
  • Hannah
    I was all gone 20 days I think about approximately 15 of those days in international travel. I lose track of how many days because time is weird when you’re traveling in time zones.
  • Colleen
    Yeah. Yeah. Going one direction you get more time in the other direction you get less time.
  • Hannah
    And we were gone during the daylight savings switch. And so I feel like something weird happened with time there too. It was wibbly wobbly.
  • Colleen
    There you go.
  • Hannah
    Yeah it was 15 or 16 days.
  • Colleen
    So what was your purpose in this trip?
  • Hannah
    In the Greece portion we were just going to encourage and meet with and kind of check out what’s going on in Katerini and encourage our national partners there. And that was kind of also what we’re doing in Kurdistan as well with our teammates that are there we have teams in all three cities. So we visited all three of them. But then we also kind of got to do this cool thing where we brought a young married couple that are interested in go into Kurdistan as teachers with Servant Group and kind of did like a vision trip, showed them around what life would be like for them if they were there.So it was kind of cool and then you know also visiting friends and students.
  • Colleen
    Did you find a lot of your your former friends and or current friends even friends and students there and in Dohuk or Erbil both?
  • Hannah
    I mean there are people who are like there permanently. Most of my students at this point are in college. Most of the teachers that I taught with in Dohuk have moved on either to other jobs or moved out of the country. It was also like their spring break time their Newroz break. So everybody was kind of scattered to the four winds anyway. So I got to hang out with two of my students for a couple of days and see one other one. And so my other friends. None of the expat people that I knew when I was living there are still there.I mean it wasn’t a priority to me to try and catch up with those people anyway. But yeah it’s a whole new whole group.
  • Colleen
    Group of foreigners.
  • Hannah
    Yeah I mean there maybe was one person there that I knew when I was there. Which is kind of exciting but also a little bit like “Oh, this is very different now”.
  • Colleen
    So what other things were different from when you lived there?
  • Hannah
    Well I learned that in Erbil now you can get food delivered to your house. Which, you know, was one of the things that I was like the most excited about moving back to the US like the miracle of food delivery. So that’s very different. I guess they have street names and house numbers or maybe it’s only two apartment buildings. I don’t know. I’m not sure how it works but our teammates in Erbil were like, “Yeah, we order food in all the time”. I was just like what kind of life is this?
  • Colleen
    It’s become all posh and fancy!
  • Hannah
    Yeah for real. There definitely is. I mean both Dohuk and Erbil (because I don’t really know Suly and I don’t really spend much time there on this trip) both Erbil and Dohuk our growing. Erbil like ridiculously fast, Dohuk a lot more slowly which I appreciate.I was like “Oh good, I still know where things are in Dohuk.” So that’s kind of different the way that things are growing and changing I feel like people’s I don’t know how to verbalize this entirely but like peoples the mood of the country is different than when I left.
  • Colleen
    I would expect it to be because you left when ISIS was still around.
  • Hannah
    And now that ISIS is mostly defeated, you know, Mosul is back in Iraqi hands I guess. People are a lot more celebratory, I guess, they’re they’re a lot less morbid is not the right word but kind of downcast and like what is going to happen.
  • Colleen
    Because there were quite a few years in there where Newroz celebrations were really subdued because so many people were in mourning over lost family members or had people in the military that were off fighting.
  • Hannah
    Yeah my last year there they didn’t do Newroz at all the government said we’re not nobody celebrate Newroz this year. So to go from that to like there’s almost like a “Yay, the bad times are over, let’s have so many good times kind of vibe”.
  • Colleen
    Take advantage of it while it lasts.
  • Hannah
    Right. I mean we were also there during Newroz which is like the happiest time to be there. But yeah people were a lot more friendly and open and cheerful I guess is the best way to put it. And we were told that the government is finally going to start paying people again.
  • Colleen
    Yeah. I saw that in the news that makes everybody happy after years and years and years of no pay.
  • Hannah
    Yeah. Those are some things that are different. I mean Kurds are still Kurds and a lot of it is very much the same. And we are only there for a short time. So there are probably other things that are different that would have taken me some time to notice.
  • Colleen
    You said that you were there during the best time right. Yes. What. What things make it the best time.
  • Hannah
    So March and I think we’ve talked about this before that like March is when everything is green in Kurdistan because they have all the winter rains have come (well, should have come) and it hasn’t gotten blazing hot yet. So everything was just really lusciously like maybe the greenest that I have ever seen it. They had a lot of rain.
  • Colleen
    Even flooding to some extent, I heard.
  • Hannah
    Yeah and it’s cool the weather is really nice. And people are just kind of in the celebratory mood. So everybody’s kind of out and about and doing fun and special things.
  • Colleen
    Did you warn the new couple that this was not the way Kurdistan was always.
  • Hannah
    Yes, I mean they definitely were like, “It’s so green. We didn’t expect it to be so green”, and both John and I were like well, “It’s not always this green. We did kind of bring you at the time of year where it’s a little deceptive. I mean it’s always beautiful but it’s not always green.” And we have a teammate who has decided to stay through the summer and so we warned him as well like it’s gonna get real hot.
  • Colleen
    Did you tell him about soaking his sheets?
  • Hannah
    No I don’t think we gave him any. “How to Survive the Hot Summer” advice he came with some of this podcast, we’ve talked about it. I think our only advice was to take at least two weeks and get out of the country and go somewhere else like for your own mental health. Not to mention it’s stinking hot.
  • Colleen
    It’s hard to do anything with people and like actually engage with your brain if everybody’s just trying not to melt trying not to get heat exhaustion. So you mentioned food delivery. What kind of food is delivered?
  • Hannah
    We didn’t order delivery while we were there. Like I’m gonna do that. I would just say I’m like pizza and chicken. I don’t know if you can get Kurdish food delivered or not. While we’re in Erbil we went to a really good Chinese restaurant.
  • Colleen
    Really?
  • Hannah
    Which I’ve heard there used to be a really good Chinese restaurant and and.
  • Colleen
    I mean “really good” was a stretch.
  • Hannah
    OK, I’ve only heard the rumors. This one was quite good.
  • Colleen
    I’m sure the sweet and sour chicken was mostly made with ketchup
  • Hannah
    This one there was no ketchup involved. It was quite good. Is even very kind of modern Chinese style inside. So you definitely did not feel like you were in Kurdistan.
  • Colleen
    Wow.
  • Hannah
    And all the staff was Chinese and you know. So it felt very authentic. And we had a lot of food. So that was probably the most unique dining experience that I had.
  • Colleen
    OK.
  • Hannah
    I was just like weird Chinese food in Kurdistan and it’s actually like really good. We also did like typical Kurdish restaurants. Actually we did like a fancy you like real fancy Kurdish restaurant because we got invited there by someone else. I don’t think John or I would have chosen it like he and I both kind of like the old school Kurdish restaurants. Which we did end up taking everybody to one of those. So I got to have makluba which is my favorite. I don’t think it’s actually Kurdish. I think it’s Arabic, but it’s just so good. It’s like potatoes that are like cooked in the bottom of the pan with rice and chicken and this had eggplant like fried eggplant and tomatoes and then they turn it out so that you have the crispy potatoes on the top.Oh man it’s making me drool just thinking about it right now.It was the best makluba that I have ever had in my life.
  • Colleen
    So you may be making that for our next food video here.
  • Hannah
    Yeah. I’m going to have to try to recreate it for sure. And then you get the bamya and bringe and everyone else got tika because they’re boring and fatoush, which is like a really good salad.
  • Colleen
    So, really quick, what’s bamya?
  • Hannah
    Bamya, ah bamya… is…
  • Colleen
    You sound like you’re going to start a poem.
  • Hannah
    I’m going to start a poem about bamya! Oh man it is like kind of a tomato based soup with okra in it. And when I say tomato and okra soup like that does not sound good but it is probably one of the best things
  • Colleen
    You did manage to convince someone else to try it right?
  • Hannah
    Yes. Yeah. The couple that went with us were like, “That does not sound like it’s tasty”. And John and I both are like, “Oh no but it’s so good. Really you have to try it.” And it was, it was really good. And you eat it over bringe or rice so you’re not like eating it as a soup necessarily you’re kind of eating it as a sauce but I wouldn’t call it a sauce. It’s not thick. It’s definitely soupy.
  • Colleen
    Yeah. Also one of my favorite things.
  • Hannah
    And then fatoush I think I said it is is a salad but it’s not like a lettuce salad. They do like a bunch of different chopped vegetables with like a pomegranate vinegar and olive oil kind of dressing on it. And they put like fried pita chips in it, too, so it’s like really crisp crunchy and very fresh. And I think at that point I hadn’t had fresh vegetables in like days. And I felt like I was in a restaurant where I could trust them enough that like all right fresh veggies it is.
  • Colleen
    All right because you just when you’re out in public with regular restaurant stuff you just never know how well fresh vegetables have been washed or..
  • Hannah
    ..in what they have been what they have been washed. And they had like watermelon radishes.Have you seen those? That are like pink in the middle and then they have a little white and then they’re green on the outside. They’re really good. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever had watermelon or radishes actually. So I felt very posh.
  • Colleen
    Yeah
  • Hannah
    Yeah. And you know the typical hummus and bread and it was good.
  • Colleen
    I think I saw some photos of you also getting ice cream.
  • Hannah
    Oh man. Yes. OK. I apparently am a person who travels for the food because those tend to be the things I remember the most. Yeah. We went to this place called Abu Afif in Erbil and I think it’s actually I think it’s Lebanese. They make 40 different kinds of ice cream but it’s not like Baskin Robbins 40 different flavors of vanilla and chocolate. Each one is its own beautiful amazing work of art. So they had some weird stuff like you could get which this isn’t weird but you could get Ferrero Rocher. They had Snickers, mango which was pretty good and not like mango sorbet like mango ice cream. Pistachio which is universal and therefore common.
  • Colleen
    Always disappointing if it’s green and you think it’s gonna be mint.
  • Hannah
    Mint, yeah!
  • Colleen
    It’s never mint.
  • Hannah
    No one else understands that except for you. Everyone else is like no, but pistachio so good. No it’s not, if you’re expecting mint. But I got dark chocolate which was like the darkest dark chocolate ice cream I have ever seen, it was almost black. It was like the color of coffee with no cream in it.
  • Colleen
    Wow.
  • Hannah
    Yeah. It was really dark and it was really good. It wasn’t too sweet so I got dark chocolate and pomegranate. And I was like pomegranate could go either way but it was like the perfect balance of like sweet and tart and it had like pomegranate caramel in it almost like not syrup, like it wasn’t soft like syrup, it was thicker.
  • Colleen
    Yeah.
  • Hannah
    And so you got this like nice line of like really tangy pomegranate in the middle. It was really good. We went back after that and I got pomegranate again because I was like, “Wow this is the best and I know I can’t get it in America.” Abu Afif, if you’re ever in Erbil, it’s the place to go. And it’s cheap like two scoops of ice cream was like maybe a thousand dinar which is like a little bit over a dollar.
  • Colleen
    Wow!
  • Hannah
    Yeah yeah. I was like I’m just going to come here all the time.
  • Colleen
    Maybe it’s good that we don’t live there.
  • Hannah
    Right. And it’s it’s really close to the school our teammates they were like oh yeah we might have to come here after school from time to time.
  • Colleen
    So you mentioned the school and our teams there. How’s all that going? How are they doing?
  • Hannah
    Yeah, I think it’s good. I mean everybody has everybody was in a good mood because it’s the holiday and they could kind of relax. The schools are growing. We visited the Dohuk school which they’re building they have been building a new school school building. They started that my last year and I think they’re mostly done with it at this point and it is really nice like really really nice. They’ve done a great job with it and they’re adding on in Erbil as well. Yeah. So they’re growing and things are good. Our teams are doing well and I think almost everyone is coming back to the US for the summer except for one one in Dohuk who decided to stay. Which is all well and good. So I think we’re going to get to see almost everybody this summer here in Nashville, which will be fun.
  • Colleen
    Yeah!
  • Hannah
    I love having our teams come visit us.
  • Colleen
    Hey Hannah! Want to know a secret?
  • Hannah
    I love secrets!
  • Colleen
    You can get “Between Iraq and a Hard Place” stickers.
  • Hannah
    I can get stickers.
  • Colleen
    Yeah.
  • Hannah
    What do we have to do.
  • Colleen
    You go to Instagram or Facebook and find post about this episode.
  • Hannah
    This one.
  • Colleen
    And then comment with somebody else’s name
  • Hannah
    Can I put your name?
  • Colleen
    I mean I guess you could if you really wanted to but maybe somebody who doesn’t already know about this podcast?
  • Hannah
    Oh I gotcha.
  • Colleen
    Uh huh.
  • Hannah
    I love stickers!
  • Hannah
    I feel like we got to spend a good amount of time with almost everyone. The team in our bill probably the most because the team is really a married couple actually ended up driving to Erbil with us and flying to Turkey because they were going to do some visiting there and then in Dohuk we probably spend the most time in Dohuk. I ended up spending most of my time with my students and John hanging out with some of his friends. Because our team there was busy with I think language learning and they were going on some trip somewhere.
  • Colleen
    Well it is picnic season, right? Everybody goes and visits their village ancestor. Yep land and all that kind of stuff. So a big part of the reason of your trip, like you said, was to visit our team members there and encourage them and make sure they’re doing okay and help, point out good things that maybe they don’t see because they’re too close to it. So that’s part of their support obviously. Right. And you or John or other people are also calling them weekly. What other parts of their support system are there?
  • Hannah
    Sure. I was actually really encouraged and I think John was too, to see the growth of the church not necessarily the Kurdish church. And I know that the Kurdish church there is growing but there are big expat churches in Erbil and Dohuk that are really really different from when I was there, which is great. They’re very much functioning as as churches and not as ministry opportunities in that they want to support the people that are in their church as they work in the country. You know, offer them Bible studies. The church in Dohuk was doing a series on how to study your Bible not as their main sermon series but as like an extra class. People can come in and do that which I thought was really great.
  • Colleen
    Yeah.
  • Hannah
    We sat and talked with the pastor of the international church in Erbil and he is very passionate about supporting and encouraging and helping people be able to serve in Iraq to the best of their ability and very much saying like we don’t we don’t want to take your teammates who are serving in the schools out of that by having them expend so much energy in the church. And he actually mentioned that one of our team members had been doing a lot in the church and he was like and she was sitting there when he said all of this. And he was like and I feel like we kind of need to tell her to step back a little bit like he was almost doing too much. And I was like wow
  • Colleen
    That’s so great.
  • Hannah
    That’s awesome. That’s super encouraging. Yeah so it was really neat to see how in both Erbil and Dohuk our teams are really being supported by a vibrant church body that really didn’t exist, you know, four years ago. Yeah so that has been really neat. And you know both of them have dedicated pastors who are supported by like they have their own support network.
  • Colleen
    Right.
  • Hannah
    So they’re not expecting the people in their church to be their support network is good.
  • Colleen
    What was the funniest thing that happened on your trip?
  • Hannah
    I had a lot of fun. I spent two days with two of my students who are now in college. I had a lot of fun with them and during that time one of them for the first time discovered the musical stylings of Queen. And so we then spent the rest of our time together listening to Bohemian Rhapsody over and over and over and over. So it was kind of hilarious to me because she was just like, “This is so great. I have to tell everyone about this band.” And I’m like, “You realize that like this is not like a secret thing, like there’s this whole movie about them. So people know who they are.”
  • Colleen
    But maybe not younger people in the Middle East.
  • Hannah
    Maybe.. except every time we hung out with her friends and she was like, “You have to listen to this song!” and like started Bohemian Rhapsody they were like, “Oh yeah, Queen.” And I was like, “Wow, I mean, I’m really glad you’re enthusiastic about this but it was also kind of a weird cultural like.I don’t know. But crossover of very classic rock and Kurdish people.
  • Colleen
    It was just not the soundtrack that anyone would have picked for a movie of that particular experience.
  • Hannah
    Right. It was a little bit of an out of body kind of like I can’t believe this is happening.
  • Colleen
    I feel like that kind of thing happens a lot though it travels to the Middle East where things just never really fit our expectations.
  • Hannah
    Right. Yeah.
  • Colleen
    No matter how well prepared you are for them. I mean, you’re pretty prepared. You used to live there.
  • Hannah
    Right.
  • Colleen
    Still a surprise.
  • Hannah
    Yeah. It was fun kind of sharing that because I really like classic rock and so introducing my students to some of some of the things that I like beyond Queen before Queen was kind of it was fun to be able to listen to that and talk about it and answer some of their questions about like what is this song even about. And I was like Bohemian Rhapsody, I have no idea. I don’t think anyone knows what the song is about.
  • Colleen
    This song, this song is about drugs.
  • Hannah
    I try not to play any songs about drugs.
  • Colleen
    OK.
  • Hannah
    We played a lot of beach boys which was also kind of weird to be like you don’t understand what the surfer culture is at all but you get the like boppy happiness of classic Beach Boys stuff.
  • Colleen
    When you finally made it back to the US what were your first thoughts and feelings?
  • Hannah
    I was definitely glad to be home mostly because I was ready to be back in a routine. Because travelling for 20 days and sleeping in a different bed basically every other night is not my favorite thing to do.
  • Colleen
    I don’t know that it’s really anyone’s favorite.
  • Hannah
    Fair. It wasn’t like I wasn’t miserable by any means. I can definitely had a great trip, but it was nice to get back and be like, “Oh, I can sleep in my own bed and I know what time I have to get up and go to work tomorrow morning.” And it was really great to be back in my home church. I think I had I was definitely encourage by the trip. It was encouraging for me to go and see that life continues on there even though I’m not there. And we will continue to grow even though I’m not like pouring into them in the way that I was when I was living there. And things are improving in a lot of ways that were unexpected. And so it felt like to go back and see everything. Be very positive after having lived there through ISIS and even going back and visiting. You know, I visited again with my dad while ISIS was still kind of there just to see that the change of attitude and see the resilience of the Kurds and their ability to bounce back from that.
  • Colleen
    That’s good.
  • Hannah
    It was very. I feel like we hear in the news about how everything is a disaster and you know everything is destruction and I’m sure that is true in some parts. I’m sure that the destruction in Mosul is devastating. But I also know that people are trying to make it better. They are trying to put their lives back together like it’s not worth abandoning to them or to me. Yeah I think those were all kinds of things that I started to process back in the U.S. when I had some time to like my life is on this track that I don’t have to figure out every single day. So I have time to actually think about this. It was really nice too. I didn’t suffered too much from jet lag coming back.
  • Colleen
    Yeah, I was surprised.
  • Hannah
    I know I was too. I was just like oh I guess I’m OK. Which has never happened to me before. I think I had one day where we we’re at work and I was like I am really tired and I think I just need to go home but I had worked like half a day at least at that point. And that was like the second day I was back.
  • Colleen
    Thank you very much for joining us today Hannah and sharing about your trip.
  • Hannah
    My pleasure, as always. I would love to do it again but not for a while. I like it was great but it definitely takes a lot out of you to do four countries and 20 days is a lot.
  • Colleen
    Yeah a lot.
  • Hannah
    If anyone wants to go let me know. Send me an e-mail. I’ll make you fill out a bunch of forms and make sure you’re not completely crazy.
  • Colleen
    Just a little bit crazy.
  • Hannah
    Yeah I think John I both walked away thinking yeah we would do this again.We would bring people with us again.
  • Colleen
    You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram or on our website at servantgroup.org.
  • Hannah
    Yeah and if you have a question that we haven’t answered yet, send us an email or Facebook message. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks for listening.