Prior to my journey back to the United States I received a message from a family member reminding me, “Before you come home you need to remember that you’re the one who changed- not us.”
Those words rattled in my brain as I sat in Vienna during my layover and followed me all the way into my dreams my first night back in Colorado. As I walked around a buzzing Walmart the following day I could not help but think to myself, “I am not a stranger it is just strange to be here.”
Just short of a year ago my dad passed away from cancer and shortly thereafter I made the fateful decision to move across the world to fulfill my dreams of living and studying in Morocco and Jordan. I stumble trying to articulate the impact of my past year in cognitive terms however the most accurate description is a shift in paradigm.
A paradigm can be described as a way of thinking, a standard or ideal model in which basic assumptions operate within a framework. Basically a shift in paradigm means a change in how I view my life.
Nearing the end of my time in Jordan after I had spent four months in Morocco, I noticed that my priorities had radically changed along with my definition of inconvenience. It was not one experience of discomfort or a particular story I heard over tea that was the impetus for my paradigm shift but rather it was all of it.
Every tear, every bit of embarrassment, every conversation I had Arabic and English, every stranger who became a friend, every laugh I shared, every goodbye, every taxi, bus, train, tram, donkey, bicycle, boat, jeep and airplane ride, every moment of homesickness and every kiss on the cheek I received were reasons I am now a different person.
I remember my time spent in the 1968 Baqa’a refugee camp just north of Amman, Jordan. The camp, which now functions as more of a small town, serves as the largest Palestinian refugee camp with overcrowding, lack of resources (building materials, water, clothing etc), high unemployment, systemic poverty, a poor education system, but more importantly endless stories of heartbreak, hope and homeland.
During a historic snowstorm in Jordan (yes, I said snow in the Middle East) reports came to me every day of the scores of mostly children and elderly who died in Baqa’a, Zataari and other refugee camps due to freezing temperatures, lack of heating and proper clothing.
Politics aside, when human beings suffer and do it with dignity there is a tremendous amount of respect that needs to be given.
I was freezing myself during that epic week of cold in Jordan and when I sat in my apartment I remember I could see my breath even with the “heater” blasting. At night I was forced to boil water to then put in empty bottles to sleep with in order to stay warm on top of about six layers of clothing and blankets.
Streets were impassable, universities closed, my internet was out for weeks, my apartment lacked central heating and insolation, the electricity proved unstable and subsequently did not have hot water. All in all, the snow was a huge inconvenience for even a Colorado native like myself.
However, that was just it-it was an inconvenience for me- not a matter of life or death like it was for so many refugees across the country. During that week of cold my dreams were filled with the faces of the beautiful children of Baqa’a. I woke up every morning with the knowing that any of one of those precious souls I met could have frozen to death the night before.
I do not complain about the cold anymore.
Even on days where I felt the greatest sense of entitlement as an American while living abroad I was humbled into reality by the most obscure situations.
Twas in a cave buried under a mountain of blankets and my farwa I fell asleep with the distinct smell of fire and chicken which followed me even into my dreams. On Christmas morning I woke to the sound of a camel whining and Hussein, a man who claims to have been Sadaam Hussein’s personal chef, mumbling to himself in Arabic about the day’s duties.
I blinked my way to consciousness and thought to myself, “I don’t recognize my life anymore…”. And in the desert of Wadi Rum in the south of Jordan on Christmas day I remembered a line from my favourite artist, Conor Oberst, “Life’s how it is, not how it was.” Alhemdulilah (thanks God in Arabic).