Between Iraq and a Hard Place – Episode 38

Hannah and Colleen talk about how Kurdish people respond to different kinds of crisis. Some big, some small, some medical, and some military — the Kurds have seen it all and we have gained some perspective from them as we face new kinds of crisis.

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Ask questions about this episode on crisis or life in Iraq on our social media or by email to hannah@servantgroup.org. We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions!


Here’s a rough transcript of our episode on dealing with crisis in Kurdistan!

Hannah: Welcome to Between Iraq and a Hard Place. I’m Hannah!

Colleen: And I’m Colleen!

Hannah: And we’re going to tell you about our life in Iraq.

Colleen: It’s gonna be fun.

Hannah: I hope so.

Colleen: So wash your hands and don’t touch your face.

Hannah: That’s the best advice you can have in a crisis.

Colleen: Maybe not all crises.

Hannah: Maybe not all crises.

Colleen: But I will say, in the ones that I can think of. It would still be good advice.

Hannah: Yeah, I mean it’s good life advice generally.

Colleen: There have been a lot of crises in Kurdistan.

Hannah: Yes.

Colleen: Like there are people in somewhat defined by the multitude of trials and struggles that they have undergone.

Hannah: Yeah. It’s like an an ongoing lifestyle almost.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: Not because Kurds are overdramatic, like there really are terrible things happening to them and around them perpetually.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: Usually not their fault although maybe sometimes, nobody’s perfect. And so I feel like in living in Iraq we get exposed to that in a way that Americans just do not experience.

Colleen: Right. Because as Americans we really don’t experience a lot of ongoing crisis in the levels at least that are experienced at nationally, in Kurdistan. People have individual crises and different families have harder times and there are different communities that experience that. But it’s not necessarily on a national level the way Kurds do.

Hannah: Or as long and drawn out and from every direction. I think when we talk about a long time of tragedy in their history as basically all of Kurdish history is laced with people trying to wipe them out or some crisis of some other kind. If it’s not war, it’s internal issues or just the fact that they live in the mountains and it’s hard to live there. So we did experience several different bouts of crisis.

Colleen: Right, some more minor..

Hannah: …iterations of crisis…

Colleen: …some you know bigger, but I think all of those. And the way that the Kurdish people are you know the people living there whether they’re Kurds or not responded to those crises affected like how they they responded showed us a different perspective on things.

Hannah: A different perspective. And I think influenced even the way that we think about our own problems back in the US. Not necessarily that we minimalize the things that we’re going through because hard things are hard things no matter where you are. But there is kind of that shift of perspective of, “Yeah this is difficult for sure but I will get through it.” If the Kurds can survive everything that they’ve gone through me having to deal with sitting in the DMV for two hours is I can make it.

Colleen: Right. So I would say the current crisis that neither of us are living through there.

Hannah: Right. We get a break this time.

Colleen: Is the corona virus.

Hannah: Or as we like to call it COVID 19.

Colleen: Because that’s the actual name. And from what I can tell and from what my friends have told me there, there’s a lot of freaking out about it.

Hannah: Yeah, I think that as as calm and cool and collected as Kurds can be about some things, there definitely are other things that they kind of just like are overdramatic about and I don’t mean to say that COVID 19 is something that they are being overdramatic about. There’s a lot of reasons for them to be concerned about it.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: But sometimes they they preemptively freak out and then when things actually come to a crisis point they are calm cool and collected.

Colleen: And I think that generally applies to issues regarding health.

Hannah: Yes.

Colleen: So health things are things to freak out about. War things are not things to freak out about? Which is weird because I feel like, I don’t know, I would be the other way around.

Hannah: Right. And I think most Americans would. I think in part because we do have for all of its flaws, a pretty good health system.

Colleen: We are able to cure and help a lot of people with a lot of different illnesses. Yes.

Hannah: And we just have that background in health knowledge like most Americans know some form of CPR or first aid or you know we know what to do if you have a fever.

Colleen: Right. Where a lot of my friends in Kurdistan didn’t have that knowledge.

Hannah: Right. And and it’s one of those weird knowledge gaps to me which if you don’t know what to do in a situation. Yeah you’re gonna freak out about it. And so you know we get the kids who would fall down on the playground and come out in and be like my arm is broken. And it’s like you have a little scrape, you’re gonna be fine. No I need to go to the nurse. I’m going to die. It’s like, but you’re not.

Colleen: I mean I once had a kid who, I wasn’t actually up on the hillside at a picnic who fell down on the hillside. He did get a pretty good cut on his head. And we did end up taking him back to the city to his parents to deal with it. That said the very first report that I got from kids running down the mountain to tell me what had happened was that he was dead. Even though he was not dead.

Hannah: Like obviously so.

Colleen: Obviously so. To me at least. But to them it was like he’s bleeding from the head. Of course he’s dead. And I was just like what?

Hannah: But he was like conscious?

Colleen: Oh, conscious and walking down the hillside. And you know the more kids that came down it softened from he’s dead to he’s going to die.

Hannah: Not dead yet.

Colleen: Not dead yet, but yes by the time we actually got to him we were able to clean him up put a Band-Aid on

Hannah: Get him where he needed to be

Colleen: He ended up being fine.

Hannah: Right. Did he have a scar.

Colleen: I don’t remember.

Hannah: So it wasn’t like all the way across his forehead or anything?

Colleen: No, it was small.

Hannah: It was just a little one.

Colleen: I mean he had a good bump with it you know. So we we had to we took him back to have his parents take him to a doctor and make sure all of the different liabilities that are present in such a thing. At no point were we in deep concern over his life.

Hannah: The rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated. So it is kind of interesting when things like that happen there are just some odd cultural gaps of things that make Kurds really nervous. That seems silly to us but there is that like they just don’t know what to do.

Colleen: I taught health class for a while and there were some things that my students had never heard before that they were so surprised about and thought that everybody should know this information. Things like you don’t put water on a grease fire. And with the kinds of fires they have with things like kerosene there they were like we always throw water on these. Like how come we don’t know this?

Hannah: It’s just an educational educational gap of some kind. I think fire is definitely one of the things that I worried about in Kurdistan because I was like, I know what to do in the case of a fire but I’m not confident that like even within my own apartment, like leaving out the students in the school, within my own apartment complex if something caught on fire there there are no smoke alarms there’s no like really not a nine-one-one and I don’t know that people would know like, Hey get out of the building and leave everything! Like I could definitely see people being like I can’t leave everything, you know I’ve got to bring my picture of Barzani at least and so I think I didn’t like actively worry about fire but I was like, yeah a fire. I feel like would be a disaster.

Colleen: And I would say my first my first crisis in Kurdistan was a fire.

Hannah: Oh yeah. Oh man. That’s why I had panic about it. It was like I know we’ve dealt with this before.

Colleen: Well, and I wasn’t there when it happened. It was I mean as far as we know the building was empty there were different rumors. No one really knows how the fire started. It could have been electrical. It could have been on purpose. That aside, it really did show me how a lot of people there deal with crisis and how they especially communicate bad news.

Hannah: Sure.

Colleen: And so I remember getting into the car with my teammates who had come to pick me up, we were carpooling out to the school and they said he just got a phone call saying that you know there was a small fire in the office. Everything’s fine, but it may you know there may be you know some extra people there or something. And it’s like, Oh OK. And then we get further along and he gets another phone call and he’s like, Wait, what? How much? Wait, where? And the next phone call like it took us a good half an hour to get out to the school at that point. But the next phone call said, You know, oh well like the whole office cause smoke damage and it’s been a little bit burned like but still kind of like you know localized, small…

Hannah: …slightly worse than we thought.

Colleen: But we’re all still okay. He got another phone call before we got to the school that said the fire department’s here and you know, it’s all taken care of but really the whole office (which will I will say, it was a wooden walled structure inside kind of the concrete building. So I mean in some ways it made sense that it was more flammable than the rest of the building.) Yeah. It’s it’s really badly damaged the office is really like it’s really burned and you know, like there is there’s definitely like smoke in the hallway. But really everything’s fine. It just keeps getting worse. The closer we get to the school!

Hannah: Like a frog in water turning the heat up just a little bit at a time.

Colleen: I don’t know. Like O,K OK. Like is it still burning is that why we’re still concerned about this and we get there. The fire truck is pulling out of the school parking lot and there is still smoke rising from the building. I was like Wait, why are they leaving? And we get in and obviously the entire building which is made of concrete block so like on a whole it’s still standing right. Not not going to be structurally damaged necessarily but the entire building has obviously had significant heat and soot damage like everything was coated in soot down every hallway inside every classroom. The plastic clocks have been melted off the walls, all of the splits the air conditioners and everything are sagging in these weird like smiles like heat damage like the plastic has been melted.

Hannah: Yikes. So not like the office has some damage. It’s like the whole school the whole school is non-functional.

Colleen: The plaster is peeling off the walls or the room of computers which was only a few doors away from where the office was, like the computers are completely destroyed. They are melted piles of black.

Hannah: So it was a hot fire.

Colleen: And there is nothing, like we are not having school today. Not remotely.

Hannah: Yikes.

Colleen: But kids are starting to show up now and there’s still smoke and the office is now this pile in the middle of this hallway of rubble and charred things, bits of paper and it’s still smoking. Like OK OK. Not a small fire; not easily resolved. Not like everything’s going to be OK today. So we what we end up doing. We collected up books we put sooty tables out in the parking lot collected up each grades books all the books had been spread out on tables. The books were all fine just covered in soot. And we got plastic bags we stuck kids books and plastic bags and doled out books to kids to their grade and said, “Take these home and clean them however you can, and we’ll get back to you about when we’re gonna have school again.

Hannah: When school will actually start!

Colleen: Wash your hands; don’t touch your face.

Hannah: Yes. Good advice in this situation.

Colleen: Though it was a very exciting first day of school for me in a new country.

Hannah: Yeah.

Colleen: I spent all day with soot.

Hannah: Talk about a trial by fire. Literally!

Colleen: Yeah let’s just say after that point I was never really nervous about the first day of school. Like those first day of school nerves that everybody talks about.

Hannah: I didn’t have that ever again. You deal with the worst right from the get go.

Colleen: I’m like it could be worse. The school could be burned up. You know before you get there.

Hannah: Yeah. Which would be would be rough, a rough start. I’m sure.


John: Hey there. This is John Nelson, the director of Servant Group International. I just wanted to encourage you to consider going to Iraq as a teacher. If you do, I can guarantee that at least one life will be changed.


Hannah: I can’t say that I’ve ever dealt with any any of those kinds of crises not even really medical crisis. I had some I had teammates that dealt with some pretty serious medical issues while they were in Iraq and it was really neat to see how their national friends kind of rallied around them and helped them with a lot of things. One who needed to be taken to the hospital via ambulance like there was just no way he could get in a taxi and go which I feel like is the way most people get to the hospital.

Colleen: Right. I mean it’s definitely what’s recommended and the faster way.

Hannah: They ended up calling one of their nearby friends who had the number for an ambulance company that then came and got him and took him to the hospital. But then they’re they’re national friends really did a good job taking care of them in the midst of that, going to the hospital to check on people. We talked about how Kurdistan is a cash based society. That means even the hospital bills, like the tests that you get along the way you have to pay as they’re done. And they just at that time didn’t have that much cash on hand. It is definitely cheaper than in the US, but there’s a lot of cash. And so they had. He was working for a national guy outside of the schools and his boss showed up with like several thousand dollars in cash and just paid for everything and was like, You know you’re a guest in this country. You shouldn’t have to worry about this. You’re our family; your family’s not here. So we’re gonna take care of you. And another national friend who is a doctor who helped them kind of navigate the healthcare that they were getting. And so that was really cool to see just kind of how that communal kind of life helped in a time of crisis. I wasn’t living in the same city as them. I ended up coming down the next day, because that was as soon as I could get there. And so it was like, I couldn’t be their community for them but they had all these people around them that that helped them with things. And I think that was one of the coolest circumstances of like occurred if a Kurd had been in the house when the crisis happened. I think they would have flipped out, but after the crisis was kind of given into the hands of the medical people they definitely came in and gave some really practical help which was very cool to see.

Colleen: And always so generous.

Hannah: Yeah always, always generous. But I know that Kurds when it’s their own family that have have some more serious medical concerns. They will be a little… Kind of like the there’s a small fire kind of phone calls, will not tell the person how bad it is. Like they want to shield them from it in some way or they want to shield their their loved ones from it. So like Kurds won’t ever say that someone has cancer. That is because if you say they have cancer then it’s real I guess or..

Colleen: …they’ll freak out and you’ll just cause them extra pain and it won’t matter. It’s a little confusing sometimes where those lines fall.

Hannah: So a lot of times you know you just get, Well they’re not feeling well; they’re they’re tired. They’re very tired.

Colleen: Or they’re a little bit sick.

Hannah: Yeah. When occurred admits to being sick beyond like kids who try to say they’re sick to get out of school. You should be more concerned than when Americans are like, Yeah, you know I have a cold.

Colleen: Let’s say they would never say they have a cold necessarily. They’ll say they’re a little bit sick and then it’s like it could be anything. Like it could be they’re actually a little bit sick. It could be that like they’ve just been diagnosed with some life altering disease that has no cure.

Hannah: If it is finally admitted that they are sick it probably means that they’re dead or nearly so. It’s there’s not a lot of… there’s not that slow entrance into, “this person is going to die.” It’s well they’re just a little sick, oh now they’re dead. And I think because of that there is a lot of hysteria when someone has to go to the hospital for some reason.

Colleen: Right. Or when someone says they are sick. Sometimes the people who hear that do freak out about it in a way that seems overdramatic to us. But they are also potentially picking up on the clues of when they say they’re a little bit sick, they don’t mean a little bit sick.

Hannah: Right. They mean like real sick, like this is bad. But again on the flip side of that I would say the crisis that I went through in Kurdistan, I was there during the rise of ISIS.

Colleen: Yeah. Big one!

Hannah: Which one everyone in the US was like: “You shouldn’t go back. You shouldn’t go. You shouldn’t be there. That’s not… it’s bad. You shouldn’t go.” And I went anyway, in part because I I know that the Kurds would take care of me if it got really bad. And in part because I knew that it was what God wanted me to do. And it was really interesting to be there during that time and see how the Kurds dealt with it. There was kind of this weird mix of like, “Of course, of course, of course, we’re at war again. Of course someone is going to try to come in and kill us. What are you going to do?

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: Not in the sense of, we’re not going to defend ourselves, because the other side of that was, We’re going to kick their butts. You know, like we’re going to defend our borders at all costs and Kurds are going to take care of Kurds and like we will conquer all or die trying, kind of thing.

Colleen: Yeah. That very martyr attitude that is you know the name of the Peshmerga those who are ready you know about to die.

Hannah: And so there was just that kind of weird juxtaposition of, well we’re probably all going to die but we’re going to die fighting, kind of thing.

Colleen: Yeah. And with that comes kind of a mellow attitude about it. There’s no panic with that.

Hannah: Yeah. There was no panic. I didn’t have students who had citizenship in European countries or green cards to other countries. Their families weren’t going, “We’re getting out of here. This is crazy.” They were going, “No, this is our country and we’re going to stay and help and fight in any way that we can.” There were some differences in the way that life was lived nationally. There was kind of this decree of there will not be celebrations during this time.

Colleen: But that wasn’t because there was like some sort of threat that was just because enough people had died that there was enough mourning involved that they didn’t want to make people miss out on parties because that mourning.

Hannah: Or minimize the tragedy by being like, Yeah, people died but we’re still going to have fun.

Colleen: But at the same time it wasn’t fear that ISIS was going to come and get them in their picnics.

Hannah: No not at all. No, it was just more out of respect for those who are fighting. There was a lot more caution because they were a lot more worried about me than I think I had experienced in the past. We’re just saying a lot because people were not like always deeply concerned but always concerned about like, Hey are you being safe? Are things OK with you? What’s going on? But things like my students would never let me ride in a taxi by myself ever, during the day or at night which was not a thing that had happened in the past. Their parents, especially for the girls, the parents would come and pick them up from school or take them if we were gonna go somewhere. The parents did all of that. They didn’t want their their kids in taxis. I had several different students say, “If things go badly you don’t need to be afraid. My family will take care of you. I’ll take you. We’ll take you to our village.” Which is like every family comes from or has a house in a village outside of the city, which are usually up in the mountains somewhere. That’s like the protected place for the Kurds. And so that offer was basically like we’re going to give you refuge and we’re going to protect you.

Colleen: And they would have.

Hannah: And they would have.

Colleen: You know they mean it.

Hannah: Absolutely, they absolutely would have. And a couple of kids whose parents, fathers were in the government circles, who said if things go badly my father will help you leave. So even if the borders close you know we’ll find a way to get you out. And so it wasn’t just like one or two people. It was like half of my students and almost all of the people that I worked with were like, We don’t want you to be afraid. Like, this is a scary time. Be careful. But we’re going to take care of you.

Colleen: I had one experience where, yeah, I had students offer me families’ guards or and I mean it wasn’t something I ever took them up on. In that moment of crisis it was like, Yes, you are our priority. We’ll do whatever it takes for you.

Hannah: I never felt fear during that time. Like I never was like, Oh I want to stay in my house or maybe I shouldn’t have come or I’m not gonna go and do this thing because it’s scary. I think I was more cautious in some ways. You know, as recommended to me and I kept a closer eye on the news maybe than I had in the past.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: …and kept in close touch with our national friends who kept us updated on what was happening. But I don’t remember ever feeling fear or reading from my friends that I should feel fear, because they were not freaking out about it. Like they were keeping a concerned eye on it.

Colleen: Right. They weren’t being reckless or naive about it but they’ve experienced enough to know when something’s a real current immediate threat and when even if there is a threat a little ways away you have to continue to live life and continue to function and you can’t let that threat that is you know beyond your arm’s length actually change how you move forward in life. Because if they did they would never have any lives at all. Like there’s always something that’s looming and threatening on the horizon.

Hannah: Yeah. It also helped me understand kind of the survivalist attitude that Kurds have and not in the sense of like, we’re gonna make it through this. But in the sense of we’re not going to plan for the future; we’re going to get through right now, what is happening right now. Which was something that up to that point I was like why wouldn’t you plan for the future. Like I know historically you’ve had a lot of wars but like everything’s fine right now, like plan ahead a little bit. But going through that and just seeing how quickly the turnaround was from everything’s fine to things are not really fine. It was kind of like all right. Like I understand you know I come in here and say, Yeah I’m staying. I’m staying for the duration of this, however long it takes. But also having to realize if things had gotten worse, I would not have been staying. I would have been leaving. In part because being an American, even though my Kurdish friends would have taken excellent care of me, it would have put them in more danger than I was really willing to put them in. But yeah, seeing that kind of like, “Well, I could build a future but not here.”

Colleen: Who knows what tomorrow’s going to bring. I mean it could fall apart tomorrow. I remember running into that early on with weird little things like sometimes the lack of high quality things, like there’s not a point in investing in a high quality piece of furniture. For example if you have the mentality that something bad can happen and like I might just lose it. So it’s OK if it doesn’t last. Or things like libraries like there’s just not a lot of people with personal libraries there. Part of that, I mean, really is a luxury of being able to plan for the future of having a stable place. They’re not things that are easy to move or carry our transport. And for people who have lost homes more than once and have moved from place to place and who have fled to the mountains and these kinds of things, those heavy non portable possessions of luxury are just not a high priority.

Hannah: Yeah there’s a little bit of that trauma detachment that happens when it comes to things.

Colleen: So now with the corona virus, it’s a medical thing. I have seen some videos of people dancing halparke wearing rubber gloves and hair nets, weirdly enough.

Hannah: I mean, why not.

Colleen: They’ve canceled school for the next month which sounds extreme but a big portion of that is off anyway because of Newroz holidays. They have canceled most public gatherings, funerals and picnics, and things which is very sad for Newroz month.

Hannah: Yeah, there’s definitely concern and I think for the first time we’ve had Kurds tell us, Hey maybe don’t don’t come, don’t come during this time. Probably stay out which is not a reaction I’ve ever had. Like even with ISIS pushing in and they were like, Oh no yeah come on.

Colleen: But I think with the way the society has responded and the way people are kind of self isolating to some extent the idea that someone’s gonna come around and visit a whole bunch of people and potentially you know spread germs or viruses across different people it’s kind of like, no no.

Hannah: And even like we can’t go on a picnic anyway so why bother.

Colleen: We want you to come when we can go on picnics!

Hannah: That was one reaction I got. We can’t go on picnics so there’s no point. Which just emphasizes Kurdish love of picnics.

Colleen: It does.

Hannah: Yeah.

Colleen: So we could just tell them the same thing we hear here.

Hannah: Yeah. Wash your hands don’t touch your face. That’s what you should be doing. Keep your hands clean. If you’re an introvert self isolate. It’ll be fun anyway. Maybe don’t go on a lot of picnics, although fresh air would be good if you could do it without people around you.

Colleen: You can go on a personal hike.

Hannah: Don’t freak out.

Colleen: Don’t freak out.

Hannah: It’s not going to help.

Colleen: No.

Hannah: We’d love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram and you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at servantgroup.org.

Hannah: And it’s really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on. It helps us know that people are listening and you can let us know what you want to hear next.

Both: Thanks for listening.


Hannah: Cool. Real cool, be a Jet.

Colleen: Oh OK.

Hannah: I don’t remember what the other one is. Jets and the…

Colleen: I don’t know!

Hannah: This makes me feel like a terrible person. Sharks! Sharks and the Jets.

Colleen: Oh, it’s because you don’t like sharks.

Hannah: Yeah, that’s why I forgot about the sharks.