In this episode of our podcast, Between Iraq and a Hard Place, Hannah and Colleen tell the stories of how they told their parents that they were applying to go with Servant Group International to go to Iraq.
They also have some advice for how to tell (or maybe more accurately, how NOT to tell) your parents that you want to live overseas. We’ve counseled numerous people through this sticky process and definitely don’t recommend telling your parents like a baby gender reveal.
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Below is a roughly edited transcript of the podcast episode! Enjoy!
(If this is something you’d like to help us out with in the future, write us firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Hannah: Hey Colleen.
Colleen: Hey Hannah.
Hannah: So this is “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”. Although it kind of looks like a storage closet.
Colleen: Seriously though, we’re here to talk about life in Iraq.
Colleen: All right! So we have this list of the top ten reasons never to go to Iraq. And the first one is: “It will freak your parents out.”
Colleen: In fact one of the most often asked questions I feel like I’ve ever gotten is, What did your parents say or what do your parents think about that? I think it is one of the concerns that a lot of people have when they even consider going to Iraq is, what will my parents say.
Hannah: Yeah, I think we end up talking to people a lot about how to talk to their parents about going to Iraq. I do, in recruiting people. That’s one of the first questions that we ask is, Have you talked to your parents about this yet? What are your parents think about this? And it’s a mixed bag. Some people have. Some people haven’t. Partly because it can be really hard. Yeah it can be really hard conversation to have.
Colleen: Moving far away regardless of where can be a hard right conversation with parents and then moving to someplace that has the kind of super dangerous reputation like Iraq has is additionally difficult. I think also added aspects to that is if you’re going in support-raising capacity or in a way that you know is serving whether it’s students or refugees or some other program there that’s not a career builder perhaps that there are also concerns on that front. And all of those layers can make it difficult to go to your parents and tell them or ask them what what is the right option. Do you tell or do you ask.
Hannah: So I think we’re going to tell our stories of how we told our parents.
Colleen: Mention a few stories of those in the office that we’ve talked to you.
Hannah: Yeah. And the truth is there’s no like set. “Every parent is going to react this way. And so this is how you can couch it most nicely.” It depends on on your parents and how much you have already been talking to them about wanting to go overseas and how well they know you. I think that can be a surprise sometimes is that parents do you know their kids better than their kids think sometimes. Sometimes the reaction is like, “Yeah, I saw this coming.”
Colleen: That was definitely my dad’s reaction the first time I wanted to go do English in Japan was. Well I was actually kind of surprised you’ve waited this long to want to go.
Hannah: So why don’t you share your story first.
Colleen: I think my parents knew that I was looking for a way to serve overseas for a good at least six to eight months before the opportunity to even start the application process to Iraq came around and I think they knew that I was looking but not being successful in that search. And so we haven’t ever talked about anywhere specific I think we had talked about Japan and specifically that I didn’t feel called to go back to Japan. Then it was a cold November evening where I was on my shift at a coffee shop that had a room where there was a presentation going on and I finished my shift and sat in on the end of the presentation and they mentioned kind of as a side note, “Oh by the way there are these schools in Iraq that need teachers.” It was all downhill from there. I went out to my car and it’s just lightly snowing like the first snow of the season and the downtown lights and trees are all lit with white lights and there’s and it’s just so beautiful and I burst into sobbing tears. I could not breathe. I was crying so hard and I could not for the life of me figure out why. I sat in my car and was like OK just focus on breathing. Breathing is important. Let’s start there. Passing out is not going to solve this problem once I could breathe, calmed down. I was like, Oh I think God wants me to move to rock. That’s unexpected. I went straight from there to my parents house. I haven’t been living with my parents. I was in an apartment. But I walked in. My parents are there watching TV. It’s late in the evening. They kind of start to freak out. I haven’t told them anything yet but like they can see I’ve been crying. I wasn’t much of a crier than (I am now) but they are like, “Are you OK? Have you been in a car accident?” Because they weren’t expecting me to show up that evening either and I was like, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. I just I think God wants me to move to Iraq.” And they were like, “What? Well, calm down honey, let’s pray about it.” And I think you know my parents have been incredibly supportive. They didn’t love the idea of me moving far away. And I’m very close to my family. So they weren’t enthusiastic in that sense of like, “YAY! She’s leaving.” But they’re incredibly supportive and walked through the whole process with me.
Hannah: How many follow up conversations did you have after that initial. Do they come back around to the next day and were like, “So you seemed really emotional yesterday. How are you feeling about this today?”
Colleen: I don’t remember. I don’t remember it. I’m sure we talked about things following up but I don’t remember any of those conversations because I was really, really sure that if they accepted me like I was going to do it from even before I told them and it seems a little odd to me that I wasn’t even asking them. That’s where we get that question of like telling versus asking me because I was still a senior in college and while I wasn’t living with my parents I was really close to them. It would have made more sense to me to be like, hey I’m thinking about this. Like what do you think? Like that’s how I dealt with most of the other big questions, I think. Instead this was very much, “This is what God told me it’s like what I feel like God is calling me to I’m going for it. Come alongside. Welcome. Let’s go.” Yeah. They were nervous about it. They were nervous for my safety but they were supporters of mine from the beginning. And my mom even came and visited me while I lived there which was awesome. And they definitely got more and more used to it and more more comfortable the longer I was there. And especially after my mom came to visit they were still sad to see me go every time I came home to visit but it was much more of a just a normal thing. Oh she lives there now.
Hannah: Yeah. It it seems less exotic the longer it’s like the thing that you do.
Colleen: Yeah, and the more pictures and the more stories they hear where everything is normal. And when she came to visit and like the most exciting thing that she had to do was like figure out how to buy bread on her own.
Colleen: You’re like oh well that’s exciting but maybe it’s not like the most thrilling thing ever.
Hannah: Sure. She didn’t have to come in with an armed escort or wear body armor everywhere she went.
Colleen: Right. How about you? You also have parents who are believers.
Hannah: I do.
Colleen: So that definitely helps.
Hannah: Yeah. And my dad grew up internationally. He grew up in, mostly Brazil, mostly in the jungle in Brazil. So his his parents were definitely pioneer style missionaries. That’s definitely how he grew up. I’d been on a couple of international trips. I went to Venezuela twice while I was a freshman and sophomore, or sophomore and junior in college, maybe. And then I did my college internship. I lived in India for two and a half months by myself. So my parents kind of had the idea that you know I was planning on moving internationally and living internationally somewhere although I did kind of fake them out because when I got back from India I think I told them both that I was never going to live internationally ever again. But also I hadn’t really done anything to like establish myself in the U.S. at that point. So I was I was graduated from college and living at home with my parents. And actually, honestly, the first person that I told that I was thinking about moving to Iraq was the good family friend that led the trip that I went on overseas for the first time. The first time I traveled internationally was with these folks. And we were visiting them, my mom and sister and I. I remember sitting down with her one night and being like I think this is a thing that I’m going to do. I have no idea how to tell my mom and she and my mom were were good friends. I mean I think they’re still pretty good friends. And she was like, Well I don’t think your mom’s gonna deal with this well but I’ll pray with you about it. And you know John and I, you have our our full support in this. And I was like that’s that’s really encouraging. Thank you so much. But it didn’t end up being several months later before I told my parents. So the way I told my parents and I don’t write and this is: I had gone through the whole application process with SGI and was scheduled to come to Nashville because I was only living four and a half, five hours from Nashville at the time to come to natural to do face to face interview and I had a friend who was living in the Clarksville area which is about an hour from Nashville. She still lives there actually. And so I had arranged that I was going to come stay with her hang out with her. We would drive in to Nashville. I’d do my interview and I’d go back to her house, because I was like I don’t want to like have to get a hotel or spend the night with these people that I don’t know at all.
Colleen: Which is what I did when I came for my interview!
Hannah: Yeah. It was like if I can avoid that I’m gonna, which I missed out, man!
Colleen: Yeah. Super fun!
Hannah: Anyway, so I told my parents maybe two weeks before. I came for my interview I think I was just like so in a couple of weekends I think it was I was driving an old beater of a car and I’m pretty sure I was like, So, I think I’m going to need to borrow you guys’ this car in like two weekends I’m going to drive up to Clarksville to see my friend Mandy and while I’m there I’m going to drive down to Nashville and do an interview with this organization that is gonna send me to teach in Iraq and my final interview so would it be OK if I borrowed your car to do that and both of them were kind of like, “Wait. Back up. What?”
Colleen: You buried the important information there.
Hannah: I did. I buried it in there!
Colleen: It didn’t fly past them though.
Hannah: No, no, they picked up on it. They’re all pretty sharp characters so they both had a lot of questions and, at that point, I couldn’t answer any of them really because while I had done the application process it was at a time when SGI I was kind of being very quiet about where they were working. I didn’t have a lot of details. Perhaps because I did not ask a lot of questions honestly. It is very me thing to kind of be like, Yeah this is what I’m going to do. And just kind of barrel ahead without necessarily inquiring too deeply. So my parents had all those questions and we’re like, OK well what about this? Well where are they working? What about what are you going to be doing? And I was just kind of like I don’t really know. Like they have schools and it’s in Iraq and I don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions. I think I asked more questions that were about like how do you guys do team care and would I be living on my own, would I be living with a family kind of learning questions from experiences I had because I don’t think at that point I really cared what I would be doing or even where necessarily. It was more about how are you as an organization going to care for me as a teammate
Colleen: And all those questions that I am so glad have good answers here with Servant Group, that I never would have thought right I could have totally gotten myself into a situation, because so many… There’s a lot of struggles on different teams.
Hannah: Yeah, so I wasn’t asking a lot of logistical questions. My dad was the one that asked a lot of those. And my mom was more like, “No, no, you’re not, you’re not going to do this. This isn’t what you’re going to do. I don’t think this is what God is calling you to do.” Which as a youngest and as a very stubborn person kind of made me go, Yeah definitely doing this now. Again. I was an old enough adult to make that decision for myself in a lot of ways I had talked to some of the leadership in my church at that point, because I needed references from them to be able to apply. So I had talked to several other people about it. And so I didn’t feel like I was making a foolish choice. And after I came and interviewed and got some of those details, asked some of those questions and went back and talked to my parents some more… I think actually it was my brother-in-law that made my mom feel a lot better about it because he is a Marine and he had served in Iraq. And when I went back because he had a lot of questions, too. So when I went back and I was like, Oh yeah, they work in Kurdistan. He was like, “Oh, Kurdistan, she’ll be fine. Kurdistan is totally safe. That’s where we would go for R and R like, Yeah, it’s not a problem.” And I think for my mom to hear my six foot five marine brother-in-law be like, Oh yeah that’s cool. She was like, Oh OK. All right. I have a little bit of a frame of reference now. Yeah. I don’t recommend that method.
Colleen: Telling them, “Oh, by the way, I’m almost finished with this process.”
Hannah: Right, aside from the like, be sure that you know, for me it was important to be sure that I knew that this was the thing I was going to do or that I wanted to do before I brought it up to my parents because I didn’t want to cause them anxiety about something that wasn’t going to happen.
Colleen: Yeah, but I can imagine that a lot of parents would want to be involved in that process, too, and that it wouldn’t necessarily cause anxiety.
Colleen: Hey Hannah! Wanna know a secret?
Hannah: Yeah, I love secrets.
Colleen: You can get “Between Iraq and a Hard Place” stickers!
Hannah: I can get stickers?
Hannah: What do I have to do?
Colleen: You need to go to Instagram or Facebook and find the post about this episode.
Hannah: This one!
Colleen: …and then comment with somebody else’s name
Hannah: Can 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. I love STICKERS!
Colleen: So yeah, I think we’re just talking to one of the other guys in the office and in giving advice about how to talk to your parents about this. Really, there is no one that way every person is different. Every set of parents is different. Age makes a difference. Closeness makes a difference. Whether or not your parents are believers makes a difference.
Hannah: Whether or not you’re married makes a difference. Because we were talking to John, of John and Mary fame, and I feel like his experience was really different and Mary’s telling their parents separately in that his parents were kind of like well you’re an adult and you’re married and so you’re the leader of your family. So you you’ve made this choice and we trust you. Where I think for especially a young single woman parents would be a lot more concerned due to the nature of the reputation that the Middle East has for how it treats women.
Hannah: Which is not an undeserved reputation it can be really hard and it is really hard to be there as a single woman. But I think that plays into it, too, the the concern a little bit more.
Colleen: I think one of the other concerns that I’ve heard out of some families has been you know you’re taking our grandkids out, you know, and so that can be a factor, too, when you have even if you are married and have kids there’s a sense of ownership over those children and that parents can have that can be an added obstacle. But I think from what I’ve heard in all of the talking to all of the people here in the office, pretty much all of them told their parents that this is what God was calling them to do or what they thought God was calling them to do and didn’t necessarily ask permission.
Hannah: Right. Didn’t give their their parents the opportunity to object in any real way which is not to say that SGI is going to send you even if your parents don’t want you to go.
Colleen: …because we sort of won’t. Depending on age and stuff…
Hannah: Right, you you should have as much support as you can expect from your parents. I think we do understand that there is a challenge in that and like for my my mom I don’t think was really comfortable with me going back and forth to Iraq ever. I think she came to a point where she she trusted God for me but I know that every time I left it was really really hard for her and she never came to visit and my family didn’t come to visit until after I had left so they didn’t have context for what I was doing. And so I think there’s that possibility that your parents are never really gonna be alright with it, but you have to do what God is calling you to do, even if it is not comfortable for the people in your life.
Colleen: And I think that’s one of the benefits of having, which will be another conversation for another time, but but being sure that you know that this is what you’re supposed to do.
Hannah: Yeah I used to have a youth leader that would say, How do you know that you know that you know?
Colleen: That sounds like something Lisa says all the time just like you just have to know that you know that you know that you know.
Colleen: Because you’ll have doubts and you can go back to that trust that you know that you know that God called you here.
Hannah: And I think there are things that you can talk to your parents about, ways that you can make it easier. I know my mom really appreciated that she felt like she could call Dave whenever she was freaking out and being young how are things going. Like, let me check up because I think she knew that I wasn’t going to call her and be like, “Things are terrible!”
Colleen: No, of course not. You’re never going to do that as a kid.
Hannah: And so I think she felt like, I can call him and Dave is very reassuring. He’s a very calm person. John now plays out the same role, very calm very reassuring.
Colleen: But will also tell the truth.
Hannah: Yeah they’ll both be honest.
Colleen: And not tell someone, “Oh it’s all fine,” when it’s not. I know that’s something that yeah. My my parents appreciate it as well as being able to have the office here at Servant Group. And and once my family met the people here, too. They really liked them and trusted them.
Hannah: Yeah. And we we want to have that connection with the families of the people that we send.
Hannah: Because we want to be able to support again this is where it came down to to me was I could tell the SGI really wanted to support me being on the field and not have a list of goals to accomplish. And I think that holds true even today that we want to support our team members. And one of the best ways we can do that is making sure they have the support of their family. Whether that be through us talking to and encouraging their parents or making sure that they are able to communicate with each other really well. I think that’s something that’s gotten easier as time has gone on. Technology is making it easier. It’s not that it will never replace face to face but to be able to call and video chat I think is very reassuring for a lot of parents and staff too.
Colleen: Yeah yeah because you know your family is going to be there every time you come back to visit if and when you are done with your time in Iraq. They are still part of your life and those relationships need to be kept up and cultivated.
Hannah: If you’re thinking about moving overseas I think it would be a good time to come up with a plan maybe start talking to your parents about it now. I think neither of our parents were surprised that we wanted to move overseas.
Hannah: But maybe the location was a bit of a surprise.
Colleen: Yeah, I mean it was a surprise to me too.
Hannah: Yes. SAME!
Colleen: But, I think if you know doing work overseas or moving is part of what you want to do, start dropping that into conversation sooner rather than later. Get them used to the idea that you are looking for where God wants you to go and that you’re gonna follow him there because it’s God you’re following.
Hannah: Yeah. And I think the big thing is to trust God for your parents, too. That’s a conversation my mom and I have had off and on since I’ve been back and even while I was there. She’s told me it was really hard for me to trust God for you. And I was like I know I know that it was like I don’t know entirely, because I’m not you, but I also had to trust God for you, that you would be fine that he would grant you peace about this and that it was not my job to make you feel OK.
Colleen: Well and that’s something else that I have in conversations with people also recommended that you pray for your parents hearts to be soft towards you going.
Hannah: Yeah believers or unbelievers alike.
Colleen: Yeah, regardless, God can work in hearts to help them be supportive of you and the direction He is calling you to go.
Hannah: Yeah. Yeah. So start praying for your parents. I think that is something that gets left out is we get focused on what we’re doing and we forget how it affects the people around us. So pray for parents; pray for your family. It can be hard for you but it’s hard for them, too.
Colleen: And parents, realize that this is a difficult conversation for your kid to bring to you and that as much as you might see them as eight years old at least if they’re applying to go with us to Iraq they are not eight years old, and they’re an adult and if God’s calling them, yeah, you need to trust God with them no matter where where it ends up taking them.
Hannah: There’s a lot of prayer and crying… there’s so much crying.
Colleen: I don’t think there has to be crying!
Hannah: I mean I guess you can make it fun and you can do like a like a prom-posal. And do a like, Surprise! Guess what I’m going to Iraq!!!
Colleen: Oh, like all of the boy or girl baby reveals.
Colleen: You could do, Which country am I going to??
Hannah: That would be too much!
Colleen: Pop the balloon and out pops like little maps.
Hannah: Now I wish I could go back in time and do it that way because do you know how awful and hilarious that would be. Oh man!
Colleen: I don’t know. I think my tears worked well for my family. I mean it seems a little manipulative and it would have been had I been crying on purpose .
Hannah: But yes, gender reveal, oh man, probably don’t do that! Probably don’t.
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 you! Thanks for listening.
Hannah: The country he lived in’s name fell out of my head. Anyway…
Colleen: Shall I start listing them off?