A bus in Brest


I have a slew of blog posts I need to write and I promise I will. I’ve been without my computer for over a month so even this post is coming from the notes page on my cell phone.

I decided to share this post first because it was a moment in my week that has been weighty on my mind.

I was on my daily bus ride from my home to the center of Brest. Robin was away in another city so I took time by myself to go explore my new home.

When I was waiting for the bus by my house a women from North Africa and her adorable son maybe 2 years old came and waited next to me. When an older gentlemen from France came he gawked over the precious child. When we got onto the bus the woman sat down the little boy next to her and all the people flocked to the sweet child. He wasn’t doing anything particularly funny or extravagant he was just exuding that childhood innocence and tenderness that makes you forget the mundane parts of everyday life.

I became emotional observing this but I couldn’t articulate why. When it was time to exit the bus the woman and her child got off at the same stop as me, and as I started walking I felt a little hand grab mine. I looked down to see this smiling little face looking up at me. His mother rather embarrassed looked at me, but I assured her with a smile that it was okay. “Where you go I come.”
And I was all of a sudden transported back to my very first day on a refugee camp when a little girl grabbed my hand and began dragging me through rows of tents and invited me into her home. A tent where 6 adorable children and a pregnant momma and baba slept.

This beautiful little girl walked with me on a journey. She approached me with openness– she knew nothing about me, but she wasn’t scared. Because of that little girl my eyes and my heart became ripped open to a radically different way of life.

So here I was continuing on that journey. I left Serbia and Greece 3 months ago completely worn out. A huge part of me has bent towards apathy as a way to deal with the grief and trauma I experienced. I went home to Chicago feeling really helpless and was met with a lot of criticism from my community and I learned this sort of submissive position because I was exhausting myself trying to come up with the right words to help people understand my cause.

And I think by shutting up I’ve realized that it’s never been my cause and there are never going to be right words. Even though I want so badly for people to open their hearts and minds to other people and to help one another I cannot convey humanity in all of its complexity in a blog post.

But a little boy on a bus can. He can come to you as a baby with all of his innocence to remind you that it’s not about where you come from but the journey we are all walking on together.

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We didn’t chose France it chose us and I’m learning the power of being present and resilient wherever I end up.


Life Update: Being myself and showing up

I’m struggling.

I’m struggling to articulate all that I’m feeling.

Last year on World Refugee Day I wrote a blog post about my first 6 weeks as a volunteer in Greece:  https://brothersunandsistermoon.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/ducks-rivers-and-flower-crowns-reflections-on-my-first-six-weeks-in-greece/
In that post I wrote

“The work I am doing here is about communion. It’s as much about crying together as it is about laughing together or sitting in silence together or cooking and eating together or going to the river and playing together because the time we spend doing life together is the most important thing I will ever do in my life. “

I had no idea at that point of my own personal journey the way in which I would continue to invest and to give myself to this ministry. I spread myself out between Greece, Serbia, and Croatia doing my best to be present with people where they were at… meeting them at the table of communion. I offered myself up as an agent of mercy and grace. I sat and I listened. Again I never did anything special I just kept showing up.

There have been times throughout this year when I have felt so incredibly powerless.My year has lacked stability, safety, and freedom and I’ve been forced to adapt to injustice because I’m powerless to actually fix it. I allowed myself to be stripped almost entirely of the things that were comfortable and stable for me– as I so immersed myself in the life of the other who I was changed. I’ve struggled to care about a lot of things I used to be passionate about or enjoy doing because it honestly seems so small. I feel like a hollowed out frame of who I used to be. I am the shell of my over arching narrative without all the adjectives that make up the story. I’m readjusting and learning to adapt and accept my new self and that is a way more difficult and painful journey than what I expected.

It’s about the process though. As I recap the year and sort through all the memories and stories that have been stored in my mind and heart I painfully recover from the labors of love. My physical body is seeking rest and is loving having an actual and consist bed to rest my head on. My mind is trying to reconcile a lot of things and is working really hard to not be crushed by the weight of everything I’m feeling. I’ve been doing some self care things which feel really strange because I barely know what myself is and that makes it really hard to know how to care for it. It has not been about me for a really long time and I am relearning what it means to do things that make Jessica happy. And I am learning to have grace for the ways in which that has changed. Like soccer makes Jess happy now, but my record collection just really stresses me out. And that is fine. I have to keep telling myself that. And as my soul comes to terms with things I take solace in the manner by which Jesus showed up too.

Because here’s the thing about the past year I broke almost every rule imaginable. Everything I did broke some social work code of ethics, an immigration law, or police imposed policy. Here’s the other thing after a year of watching the justice system fail people, but moreover abuse and hurt people I had to make a choice about what is right and what I could live with myself over after it was all said and done. All the systems were broken and left vulnerable people in most instances more vulnerable than what they were before. I couldn’t live with myself when I was living within the bounds of these oppressive systems that expected me to leave unaccompanied minors to be preyed upon by predators, that wanted me to keep professional distances from people, that expected me to think of everyone as beneficiaries, that demanded me to settle for the corruption and brokenness of what this world was offering me.

At some point I had to ask myself “what do I know to be true about God?” and even at the weakest points I knew that God was present. Moses used to pitch a tent for people to go to and have communion with God. He created a safe space for people to encounter God. Ezekiel preached that God would make his dwelling amongst us, and John speaks of the way in which Jesus pitched his tent amongst his people. The same God who entered into the bowels of humanity and took on flesh was still present with me in the trenches of some of the worst stuff I have ever encountered.

So now a year and six weeks from when this all began for me I come to you humbly. I ask you to continue to tread with me as I seek wholeness for myself. I ask that you would show up not just for me, but for the people in your community who are being oppressed no matter how hard it is for you to understand their oppression. As I reencounter myself and enter into a new stage of my own journey I pray that the table remains an open and sacred space where we all meet.

I’m not in a place where I am settled yet. I’m engaging in a new project that is focused on building a bridge between those seeking refuge in new communities and locals who are willing to give up a bit of themselves for the sake of the other. I’m really excited to see what happens when radically different people all open themselves up to sit at the table together. It’s my life’s goal to create safe spaces for people and I think it is going to be really exciting to see my friends who are trying to create new homes for themselves throughout Europe and bring people into their lives that will reassure them they are not all on their own. I’m hoping to see communities come together and actually thrive despite their differences.

After that travel trip is done I myself will move to France and figure out what it looks like to be present within my own community and root myself some place that is unfamiliar again. YES that is right I am moving to France!!!! I will continue to plant myself in refugee communities and seek to grow community, but also I will learn what it is like to be the partner of an incredible Kurdish man whom I love. Inshallah/God willing I will be jumping into some pretty exciting writing endeavors and maybe finding some sort of job.

I’m really excited and also terrified about what the future may hold, but I know as I continue to show up so will God and that’s enough.


As always if you would like to know more just comment or reach out to me.


Not Anonymous Pt. 2

I was walking around Belgrade with my brother Ahmad one day. We were just talking about life and our dreams and then out of nowhere he got a call. It was time for “game.” Game is the term my friends use to talk about being people smuggled through jungles to cross borders. An accurate name for the way in which they are manipulated and handled throughout their journeys. Before justifying a lack of empathy for my brothers situation because they are crossing borders illegally I want to mention that they have every right to enter into a country as an asylum seeker looking for refuge because of dangerous and threatening countries of origin.

I’m not a lawyer but I have spent countless hours of the past year familiarizing myself with immigration and asylum laws and how they vary throughout the different European countries. I have tried my best to educate my friends on their rights and services that are supposed to be offered to them. I think that’s what makes it all the more frustrating when I hear about the ways my friends are treated by European officials and authority because it is completely ungrounded based upon their own written system. With the laws that are in place it cripples me to do anything as an American, but good samaritans of Europe there are ways you can hold your legal systems accountable in assuring the rights of asylum seekers in your country. Before Ahmed left I gave him the number to a group of lawyers in Zagreb who gathered a group of volunteers willing to escort asylum seekers to the reception center. They coordinate rides, translators, and other legal services to ensure they do not get wrongfully deported before making their asylum claims and with a final hug Ahmed departed.

I hadn’t heard anything about Ahmed again until that little boy awoke panting in the back seat of a taxi. “Ahmed is he okay?” “I don’t know he’s in the jungle somewhere.” “No no no my sister. I saw him in the jungle he was so sick. He couldn’t move, he went back.”

And sure enough the next day I received a message:

Hey lawani charta ye? Hey lewani I am home te cherta ye? I am here.

He kept telling me he was okay but he didn’t want to see me he was too tired. That was when I was positive something was wrong. I eventually found him bundled up in blankets in a friend’s room in the barracks. His dark skin had gone almost white and was so ashy. He was shaking and puking. I looked into the eyes of my brother but they were not his. They were not the eyes I had met 4 months ago in the dead of winter. He had just arrived from Bulgaria maybe a month prior, but quickly began helping volunteer organizations because he spoke incredible English. His eyes were bright and full of hope and eager to help anyone. He worked harder than anyone I knew to make sure all people were taken care of.

The eyes I was currently staring into were dull. His words expressed a similar change of heart “My sister I’m done. I’ve got to take care of me.” “My sister I’m tired.” O Lord, how long will you look on? : rescue me from the roaring beasts, and my life from the young lions.— But yet when I stared back at him with the same helpless eyes he was quick to say “no no my sister I will not give up. I’m strong. Do not worry.”

“God will protect you my brother.”

Lord rise up and protect your children. Because if I’ve succumbed to anything this year it is my own powerlessness and that sometimes expresses itself as hopeless, but more often than not it equated to me falling to my knees in prayer. Lowering myself before God who I know will do abundantly more than I could ever dream of doing. Listen oh God to the cries of your children praying to you.

Not anonymous pt. 1

There was a night when we had a bunch of friends over for dinner. The younger boys and I called one of our little brothers who had just been deported back to a camp after making it to Croatia. He kept saying “mamagon (police) big problem”. I could see the relief come across his face to hear from his friends after five days of crawling through a jungle. Then out of nowhere his call dropped and we couldn’t get ahold of him again. The kids all assumed he ran out of data. Yet I couldn’t shake this sick feeling that swelled up inside my gut. I had to excuse myself to my room for a minute because anxiety paralyzed my body in such a way that all I could do was curl into the fetal position. Most days I end up here in the fetal position wishing I could crawl back inside my mother. I felt like the great psalmists who were crying out to a God that felt really far away. My heart screamed God has forgotten: he hides his face; he will never notice. I regained control of my body and kept moving.

But then like a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from 24 hours later I received some messages.

Missed call

Missed call

It was the boy… I could see he was typing.

Jess can you come get me?

Sick feeling.

Police kidnapped me, beat me, and stole all my clothes and money. I’m so scared.

And the nightmare continued as I travelled to the camp terrified. The whole car ride I kept thinking about what I would do if I saw the person who hurt him– the people who were supposed to monitor the safety of the camp yet they abuse their power and do things like this. I thought of the last time I went to the camp and I witnessed a police officer run a migrant over with his police vehicle rouse yourself O Lord? Why do you forget our affliction? 

Sick feeling.

When we arrived to the camp he was sitting on a curb; when he saw me a smile came across his tired face. He was older than before I could see that. I found us a taxi and I rode with him back to Belgrade.

As we got in the car he began to share with me what happened. It is going to sound like a nightmare, but I assure you it is worse than that…. because it is real.

In the jungle we had to crawl. There was so much water. I saw flashlights. Zap.

He then showed me all the battle scars: a broken and still bloodied ankle wrapped in makeshift gauze, he showed me his back which had three visible taser marks burned into his back as well as lashes and bruises probably from a baton. He was starving and so tired. He then curled into a ball in the back seat of the taxi and put his head on my lap. He held my hand and asked if he could sleep. I told him of course.

I could tell this 15 year old boy was holding on to something heavy still.

Then with a deep breath right there on my lap his hand clasped tighter with mine  he said,

My sister. At the camp… they dragged me off by my ankles and they touched me. Everywhere.

With that he released himself of what was keeping him awake and drifted into sleep.

Sick feeling.

Save me O God : for the waters have risen up to my neck. 

My body felt paralyzed but I held him close to me until we made it safely back to Belgrade.

In all psalms of lament there is a direct address to God regarding some cry for petition, for God to vindicate the situation at hand, and a vow to praise God when His trusted mercy reigns.

Psalm for the anonymous brethren around me:

God of exodus hear our cries.
We do not count on the politics of earth to redeem us.
We do not rely on the ways of man to lead us to promise.
We depend on you.
Have you also forgotten our name O Lord
Were we not so perfectly knit in the wombs of our mothers?
When will you free us from the borders of our lives;
Relinquish us from the prisons we are shackled to;
Light the paths of our journeys;
And shield us from our enemies.
We have heard the tales of the freedom you brought to those who look upon you
We believe in the promises our ancestors shared with us
We hold you as the mighty king
that will guide us through the wilderness
and protect us through the storm
We will rejoice at the mercy you have shown us
and spread your goodness wherever you guide us O Lord.
Call us by name
unlike the world which has abandoned us!
And hear our cries for justice
for we are your children my God.

I want to share these hard stories with the world because I believe it is my duty to share the cries of my brothers with the world. The boy in this story has had to sell his body to survive because the world has neglected his vulnerability and his humanity. There are 10,000 missing refugee children in Europe and I hate imagining how many of the young eyes I have looked into that have vanished now. This boy is more than just another Afghan refugee child who has been abused by the world politic.. he is special. His laugh will make you laugh. Stuffed animals bring him more joy than any person I have ever met. He is a good brother and a natural leader and peacemaker amongst his friends. He’s an amazing attan dancer and loves learning other dances. He cannot fall asleep if someone is mad at him. He makes incredible green tea. He’s never been to school but he loves math. I want him to be more than anonymous to you all. I want you to imagine his tanned torn apart skin, the way his hair falls over his bright eyes, how he stands strong even though everyone has tried to make him feel weak, and this giant smile that cannot be taken from him.

The collective choice of the world has been to stay anonymous to one another and to not allow the suffering of others to penetrate our own lives. I think part of solving this crisis is to begin believing that our liberation is bound together with the liberation of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

I have seen the delicate way in which God has woven the human story together, and is demanding the action of God’s own children to do what is right in its commission to love one another and tend to all of creation.

Watan awoke abruptly in the car panting.

Ahmad is he okay?!?!? he said.

Link to anonymous pt. 2 coming soon.


The Peace Prayer– my new normals

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

One time in 8th grade I saw two girls fighting. There was this one girl at my school who used to think getting in fights and into trouble made her really cool. One of the “popular” girls stood up to her and ended up with her face smashed into a locker. It happened to be the locker next to mine, which was empty. For the rest of the school year there remained an imprint of her face. It served as a reminder– 1 to never mess with Sam and 2 that there is brokenness in this world not just in objects but in people.

12 months ago I thought that the world was not peaceful because my parents used to argue, not everyone at university wanted to be my friend, and there were wars in my history books.

Now every person I see has left imprints upon my heart that remind me of both the brokenness and tenacity of the human. I do not know every person’s Sam that has brought violence upon them or which ones of them are the “Sams” of this world, but my new normal is to treat them all the same.


My little brother and I have a secret handshake

And what is even crazier is that I remember 9/11/2001. I was sick at home with pneumonia– laying on the couch next to my mother begging her to turn on cartoons, and she kept saying “after the news.” She went to the bathroom and during the broadcast it happened. I called to her so confused like “Mom something is wrong.” My nine year old brain rationalized that maybe the pilot got sick or fell asleep, but then it happened again. I remember thinking it was a villain like Mojo jo jo from the cartoon “Power Puff Girls”. My mom was sobbing and kept whispering my brother’s name over and over again. Several hours after the incident I heard



I answered the phone. It was my brother and he quickly said “Jessi give the phone to mom.”

I sat so close trying to listen, but I could not hear anything passed my mother’s sobs.

And just like that two years before the actual “Iraq Invasion” in 2003 my brother was being sent to Iraq. It was his duty.

He ended up serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The pictures he would paint of what was happening there was so gruesome. I could tell the way the “war” before it was even properly called a war was tearing him apart. He was held by a duty to find and fight the bad guys, but I think somewhere along the way that line got really confused.

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

I have felt hatred towards a lot of people in my life for a variety of different reasons. What I have learned about myself over the years is that I have quite a justice complex. My number one strength is reconciliation and I see broken things through a lens of redemption. When things are not just I hate them and the entities that make love disordered.

When I was small I remember starting a recess revolution against this girl who guarded the tire playground and would not let anyone else play on it. I got a bunch of people to circle it and chant “Let us play” until she finally got annoyed and “let us play.” I remember thinking that was real sacrifice. All those recesses spent going in a circle and getting nowhere until one day we finally got somewhere.

My brother told me a story once about how in Iraq the village children used to come up to them when they would have bonfires, and they would share roasted marshmallows with the children. He couldn’t help but to think of how there parents might be mixed up into this whole thing happening. Whatever this thing happening was. Because yes there were radicals, and yes there were bombings, and yes there were fathers, and yes there were soldiers, and yes there were sons, brothers, mothers, daughters and none of that was guaranteed to be anonymous from one another.

He told my mom on the phone one night that there are kids my age who will grow up thinking this is normal. That such violence and chaos is just normal.

where there is injury, pardon;




I used to talk a lot. I was a very precocious child and thought I knew everything. I would preach people’s ears off about causes that were certainly noble, but my words were empty because while I was challenging people to do something I myself was not doing anything.

I’m no longer on the playground– I’m up against enemies I can’t even see. The problem is it is no one person’s fault, but everyone’s fault. The migrant situation has been a collective effort that reveals the global failure of humanity to protect and serve our neighbors at large.  The worst part is that because the problem is so expansive that it’s hard to strategize about large scale solutions. So volunteers and aid organizations are left to scramble and try to put a cap on a bottle that has already started exploding.

By the time migrants get to Serbia they have been on a long and dangerous journey already. They come to us tattered from harsh Bulgarian prisons and a rough jungle. Then the next step is to attempt to move through either of two incredibly dangerous borders. If they do not succeed they most certainly return to us with battle wounds. Not just little cuts but often bashed skulls, torn up legs, whipped backs, and damaged bones. I’m not a doctor, but sometimes I’ve had to be. In the last 12 months I’ve learned to never leave the house without at least the essential first aid stuff like bandaids, gauze, aspirin, and Neosporin.

I listen to the cries of hurting people all day long. I sit with people and throughout the day probably drink 100 cups of tea and just listen. I can’t do much talking because my words won’t make anything better, but there is something powerful and meaningful in me sitting there and just stating that they are heard.

The barracks and every refugee camp I’ve ever been to are marked with evidence of the war against migrants in Europe. From messages written in marker on tents and the graffiti on the walls of the barracks it is clear that these people are prisoners of a different war than the ones they escaped in their home countries.


where there is doubt, faith;

I never know if I am stepping in mud or human waste anymore. 12 months ago I never had to doubt that because it was most certainly mud. Now it is more than likely human waste with a little mud.

Everyone I spend time with is not where they want to be. They don’t know what is happening at home and do not know what is going to happen to them.


Part of airstrike missions is to drop giant missiles and bombs down in territories that are supposedly held by the bad guys. So the point is to wipe out entire areas that are potentially dangerous, but this is a big move when there are also most certainly innocent people held there.

Some people cling to their duty to protect and serve their own country.

I pledge allegiance to the Lamb and to the kingdom for which he stands. I am called to create a kingdom out of the rubble and to stand firm alongside those who have lost everything.

For 12 months I have been going in circles and while I have not gotten any tire playground kings to step down I have broadened my circle and made something out of the mess. It may not be much but “za maco staco, staco za maco” my house is your house, your house is my house.


za maco staco


staco za maco

where there is despair, hope;

Being hopeful was a lot easier when all that was at stake was a grade on a test I did not prepare enough for or when I just had to have enough hope for myself.

I have a hard time thinking of my brother in a war zone. He’s my brother. He’s the same man who gave me piggy back rides and took longer to get ready for dinner than I ever could. He’s calculated, refined, and kind.

When I used to think of war I thought of monsters in far away lands and time periods. The images didn’t carry flesh because I could not comprehend a humanity in that light.


Now when I think of war I see skin and bones. I see death and destruction. I see life all around me falling apart. I see people living in tents all across Europe. I see smoke billowing out of the abandoned barracks. I see vulnerable people having to beg and fight for shoes and other necessities. I see myself in the middle of all of it trying to clasp onto whatever hope I can find and I look around and I am not alone.

where there is darkness, light;

My first day on a refugee camp a little girl came up to me while I was waiting for my passport to be cleared. She dragged me along narrow rows of tents in the middle of nowhere Greece. Our destination was her family tent where a large group of people were gathered sharing sambosa. After taking off my shoes I was welcomed to sit and share life with their family.

Navigating the predator drone I imagine looks similar to a video game counsel. There’s a dark screen with a lot of buttons. The person beside the pilot is the one who stares at the dark satellite screen and waits for a red light to signal that there are potential hazards or threats in that area. They quickly must zoom in and hit the button to release the bomb. The next bit of light they see is from the fire of the explosion.

It’s no game counsel. It is a very real BOOM that causes very real destruction.

I used to be so afraid of everything. I never liked to try new things because I was afraid of failing at it or of the threat of danger.

I really did not like the girl who guarded the tire playground. She did not even play on it she just said inside the dark little cave and would not let anyone else enjoy it. However, I think my little recess revolution helped to bring something out in her that was much kinder. Throughout grade school and all the way through high school she was one of the popular girls, but because she was nice and really welcoming to all people.

The day Sam got in that fight it was because the entire day she was tormenting people by the only water fountain on the floor of the building. Threatening them and stealing their lunch money. She wasn’t letting people use the water fountain. And the popular girl who later got her face smashed in a locker was the same girl who controlled the tire play ground.

People are filled with both darkness and light and it is our human opportunity to be light and help to bring it out of others.

The people here have made me brave enough to see light in a really dark world.


So much of my life now is following people into the corners of society where no one else is looking or has forgotten about. My first night in Belgrade I was helping with an evening food distribution.  A young attractive man saw me struggling to communicate with a small child. He said “he speaks Pashto, I’ll help you what do you want to say?” After communicating with the boy for awhile he then told me all about the history of Pashto. He was so excited and so smart and energetic. When he found out I was from America he said I love history and all my history textbooks are English. I know everything about America. He started listing the Presidents and facts about them. He then excitedly said, “come, come let’s drink cola.” I followed him along a set of train tracks for over a mile until we came to an old decrepit building. “Sit, drink, be happy” he said.

It was so dark in the room. I used my phone as a flashlight so I could see him and the people he shared the room with. We sat for awhile and I just listened to the story of his journey. About all the darkness he had seen, all that he had lost, all that he dreamed of becoming, how much drive he had, and when he finished speaking I finally saw him for what he was… a light before me.

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I’ve had to be brave here. I’ve had to block out any fear or darkness that comes into my head because now my new normal is creating that boom of light where it has been forgotten or destroyed.

where there is sadness, joy.

Depression runs in my family. My mother struggled with depression her entire life and it controlled her life until it destroyed it.

I remember her asking my brother how he was doing? He would chuckle and say “Mom there is no joy in a war zone.”

When I was trying to find my apartment in Greece for the first time we were locked outside. A woman wearing a leopard print hijab walked up to us with her husband she said “Ahlan wa Sahlan… welcome welcome. Are you stuck?” We explained yeah we were going to have to wait awhile for the landlord to come open the apartment. She then said “my home is right there come sit, eat.” She fed us a chicken and rice dish and started to teach us basic arabic after she learned we were here to volunteer on the camps and in the community. What I found most interesting is how Arabs respond to the question how are you? Rather than saying fine or good they almost always say “Alhamdullah” all praise be to God. She explained that Muslim people for all their history have made it apart of their faith to thank God in all circumstances.

I spent most of my life seeing the world through a really bleak lens when in reality things were not so bleak. Our mind is a really powerful weapon that controls how we live in this world. Whether we navigate through this life with strength, grace, and courage or run through it being trampled by the weight of it all is really up to us.

There is no joy in war zone yet every day I’m looking at the tired smiling faces of those in a war zone.


and it is a big yet because it a powerful yet. I have more joy in my life now than I have ever had before because it is my practice, it is my way of life to proclaim Alhamdullah, All Praise be to God.

Even though now life is actually very bleak. I am living in the side effect of the war my brother served in that has spread like wildfire throughout the middle east. The war that has taken millions of lives in the past 15 years. The war that has no clear Mo Jo Jo, no clear red light on a satellite screen, no mercy, no heroes, and no resolution.

The same children my brother looked at and couldn’t help but think of how destructive their normal was are the same children that grew up alongside me on the other side of the planet, but now stand before me as men and women who have only known that such violence and chaos is just normal.

They are the same faces I am now staring at every day. I watch their cracked lips and worn out faces recount the stories of the same war from the opposite side of things. The one that isn’t about duty and eliminating threats but about survival and fear and destruction. About running away from the violence and leaving their life behind in hopes that they don’t die or be forced to fight in a war they’ve never understood because the lines have never been clear.

These are the same people who have offered me incredible kindness. Who have fed me, clothed me, adorned me, and loved me. The same people who have persevered and found a way to bring joy into a situation that feels like a crack in the windshield of humanity.


My new normal is every day picking up the remains of humanity that have been destroyed by war and choosing to say Alhamdullah no matter how badly I want to succumb to the brokenness. Instead I fall to my knees in Praise

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


All photos in this blog were taken by Stephens Hiland and used with permission

Allah Akbar: Rejoicing in God’s splendor

She heard the all too familiar sound of barrel bombs dropping in the distance. Her and her husband saved every penny they had to get their sons out months earlier. As her body shook from the intensity of evil itself hitting the ground she grabbed her husbands hand and they both knew it was their turn to go. They would meet their sons in Holland.

Another blast destroyed the back half of their home.
She cried out:
There is no one who prays In the name of God,
He is the All-Hearing the All-Knowing…
Whose Name nothing on earth or in heaven harms
and is then harmed by anything.
Allah Akbar!”

She then grabbed the backpack she had packed for months and departed on her journey. After many long and tiring months she found herself in Greece with no clue what the future would hold for her.

I believe life is an intricate narrative woven together by God. I think whenever we believe we have control over the tapestry being sewn that’s the very moment it starts to fall apart.

There was another girl on the opposite side of the planet whose life could not appear to be more different. She was a university student watching the war from afar. She would hear about the conflict… the proxy war… the mass migration. Her heart felt like it was being ripped from her chest when she saw the images of Alan Kurdi wash up on the Turkish shore.

She cried out
“God Show me the right path, O Lord;
point out the road for me to follow.

Lead me by your truth and teach me,
for you are the God who saves me.
All day long I put my hope in you.
God is Great!”

I then grabbed the backpack I had packed for months and departed on my journey. After many long and tiring weeks I found myself in Greece with no clue what the future would hold for me or the level of intimacy I would be invited in to.

I found myself pitching my tent at a refugee camp in Northern Greece. A beautiful location where the artistry of God is truly visible. The view of mount Olympus is perfect, the farm land is peaceful, and the gentle flow of the Hercules River can be heard in the distance.

I watched the camp grow from 250 to 500 to now a loyal 38. I celebrated next to them when they got registered, I cheered when someone got the precious relocation phone call, I cried with them when a little girl was killed in a terrible accident, but I have also been there for the day in and day out routine of it all. The mundane and unimportant reality of waiting for ten months starring at the same mountain knowing it will never move. I’m amazed that after all of this time we can still find things to talk about… that we can keep going deeper and deeper into our own hearts and find things to share. The capacity of the human being to preserve is well beyond whatever I  knew before.

At 5:30 everyone’s phones go off with the call to prayer. I usually lift my head up from the pillow and smile at everyone and go back to sleep. The next time I open my eyes is again to the sound of Dhuhr or the midday call to prayer. It has become routine for me to wake up to this one. I watch the women on the camp cover themselves and lay out their mats; as they pray I begin to read my morning devotional. I sit on my bed and pray alongside them. After they finish a woman who I call Mama makes us both coffee and we go sit in one of the common areas and read our holy books. She reads the Quran and I read the Bible. I often find myself slipping away because I am so moved to tears by the ritual of it all. Because that’s just it, where I expected it to feel ritualistic and forced I have been moved by the brevity of the dedication. To wake from slumber… to bow before your maker in holy reverence for the morning God has granted us, the midday, the afternoon, the sunset, the night that is a beautiful practice of faith. It is apart of what makes Muslims holy and pleasing before God and truly sets Muslim’s apart.

Mama and I do this every day. We usually sit and talk about what we read or what we are praying for and then pray for each other.

There was one evening when a majority of the camp was gathered around drinking espresso and we were all chatting and joking. The conversation gradually shifted to more serious conversations about politics and culture… a pretty natural shift when you throw Syrians, Palestinians, Kurdish, and a token American in a room in Greece together at midnight. They were all telling me that I was crazy for pitching my tent there amongst them.

They were like “Jessica it has been ten months and you keep coming back here. You have a home and a life… we love you but you are so crazy. You have given up everything… Why are you here?”
I told them in my best Arab-nglish “Honestly I don’t know how I got here. I remember being at university and my heart breaking for the war in Syria. I asked God to lead me and promised I would follow. He broke my heart all the way to here. I saw the atrocity that was Idomeni, I’ve watched babies being born, and I’ve seen the unmarked graves of those who died along the prison that is the balkan route. I have held dead children and watched young men being carried away on stretchers. I have heard a thousand stories and shared a million cups of tea. I have volunteered on 9 different camps doing whatever has been needed. I have been invited into a culture completely different than mine and I have fallen in love. My whole life has changed. I take each and every step one at a time and each one God has taken with me. I don’t feel like I have nothing… ‘ashkur allah ealaa kl wahid minkum (I thank God for all of you). ” And with a deep and heavy breath I said “Allah Akbar.”

And I realized in that moment that this was the first time in ten months I had told them that. My backpack has gotten heavier on this journey as I take a little bit of each person’s story with me, but I never took the time to open up the backpack and give them the part of the story that weaves me into this whole thing.

I felt us all take a deep and heavy breath and together we all said again “Allah Akbar.”

With that some people went off to bed or went on to sit in another part of the camp I don’t really now, but now there was just three of us: my mama, a nice young man, and me. He told me about how he grew up with a lot of Christians so he really likes the prophet Jesus and that I remind him of Jesus because I welcome the poor and hurting into my life, and that he believes that is apart of his faith as a Muslim also. He wanted to show me a Kurdish Christian worship song he really liked and translated the lyrics for me. They were so simple but so utterly the gospel and so completely the Lenten season.

We are so lucky, when we cry
we are heard. 
We believe in a God who comes down, 
Oh God you come with. 

And then in their own language I was able to convey to them what continues to draw me to the Jesus narrative. They’ve witnessed me marvel at their incredible faiths in the face of suffering and wondered why I do not just switch, but this was the reason. It is beautiful and overwhelming to think of a God who created all and watches over all, and it is a powerful thing to worship and be transformed by such a God– I am too. However, to believe God would be so willing to descend into the bowels of humanity and all of its brokenness and all of its suffering is the crux of the Jesus narrative. A God who not only calls us upward, but is there dragging us through the trenches along the way.

Believing in Jesus as fully God is the very thing that sets us apart. It is that belief that forces us to not just look at war zones, slums, and refugee camps but to pitch our tent amongst them. The story of Christianity has always been rooted in the idea that a person would completely die to themselves and their comforts. From John’s head on a platter, to Jesus on the cross, to Peter, Mark, and Matthew dying, to Paul in a prison proclaiming that Christ is his strength. Paul reasons that through Christ’s death, Jesus brought the discordant elements in this world together. To Paul, Jesus was God’s imperial moving force for reconciliation and is the very needle that has woven us all together. Jesus reunited person with person and humans with God.

I have no clue what I am doing in Greece. For me it has become the place where I have felt and witnessed the greatest suffering but it also where I have been surrounded with the deepest and most joyous love. It is the place where I look out from a hill top and see both the mountains and the sea and I take a reverent breath in the midst of God’s glory only to be crucified by it. I’ve spent a long time there, but it is not home… home is in the people who have welcomed me in to their suffering and shown me God’s love.

I stared into the eyes of a woman who when her body shook with the intensity of a bomb blast and whose house fell down before her; I held the hand of a man who has a scar and bullet shrapnel in his leg to constantly remind him of the brokenness of this world, and I sat in the middle, a girl with a really heavy backpack who has learned to value nothing other than human hearts that beat of God’s goodness…. together with a deep and heavy breath we still proclaim “Allah Akbar.”

Clothed In Righteousness: expelling myths about hijab



I’ve been debating this post for the past 8 months, and that’s about 8 months of silence too long. People ask me a lot what has been the thing that has surprised you the most about Middle Eastern culture and about people who practice Islam? So I want to answer that question now.

In Greece I spent my time with some of the strongest, most compassionate, and most independent women I have ever met. I don’t just say that in relation to all they had to endure throughout their journey to Greece– those stories are super human and have taught me to be brave.

No, I mean boss women who despite how rough things are on a refugee camp kept their heads up and continued to be the strongholds for their families. In my own ignorance I used to associate hijab with weakness. In my own ignorance I associated hijab with submission. In my own ignorance I associated all of that with Islam. What I have learned, through witness and life together, is a completely different narrative. It’s a beautiful sentiment of faith and an outward reflection of the inward transformation.

The book of Isaiah uses a lot of imagery about being clothed with righteousness, which points back to many Old Testament verses and Hebraic practices of faith. Our own faith is rooted in symbolic practice– we do these things to set us apart or to make us look different or theologically speaking to make us holy. Muslims share this crucial practice with us– their Quran shares the same sentiments of being adorned by God and coming before God clean and holy.

I think I’ve realized the very way in which my own culture is so sexualized.The Quran itself says nothing about a woman having to cover her hair and where it does tell women to dress modestly it simultaneously tells men to subdue their eyes (Reference Holy Quran Ayah 24:30-31). The women I spend time with are always so shocked when they find out that public breastfeeding is an issue in America; woman on the camp would breast feed in front of male volunteers because it’s about feeding their gift from God not some sexual or perverse act. Modesty for them, isn’t about avoiding objectification from the opposite human counterpart.  It’s not about resisting temptation. It’s not about social obligation. Modesty for them as well as  Islamic men is a way to worship God. Covering the body reveals the soul that’s been made clean before God. However, they don’t have too. It doesn’t make them any less of a Muslim and certainly doesn’t shape their humanity. The Quran reads “O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness. These are some of God’s signs, that they may take heed” (7:26). It’s not hard to find a passage in the bible that uses the same language. From the oldest book Job, to the prophets, to the letters of Paul and other early church letters, to Revelations you find this narrative of God clothing his people in righteousness. Dispelling their sin and covering them from it. I myself have worn the hijab because my own faith proclaims all the things the hijab stands for. I am not my body, my body is not something to be worshipped, and personally for me the hijab frees me of my own societal standards of beauty and has allowed me to feel beautiful at the core of who I am– a child of the Creator who has made me dignified and righteous before Godself.


One of my favorite moments of the past nine months was a month ago on my last morning in Greece before heading back to Serbia. I woke up really early and headed into one of the common rooms of the camp with my bible. I just wanted some quiet time to prepare myself for the goodbyes I would have to say that evening. When I walked in my beautiful mother from Syria. An incredibly smart Kurdish, Muslim woman sat reading the Quran and drinking coffee.

“Come sit my daughter.”
I sat and she got up and came back with a cup of coffee.
We sat in silence reading our holy books.
I put my head down in prayer and later she began her prayer ritual.
I watched as she knelt before God as she did the recitations. The words left her lips so gently.
I kept my head down and continued to pray alongside her.
There was a moment when I was praying “Great are you Lord” As the words left my lips I heard her mutter her own quiet prayer “Allah Ahkbar” which means God is great!
We then made eye contact with one another. I looked into the eyes of a woman who was clothed with dignity, who loved God, and who loved people. She had always been beautiful to me, but when I looked at her this time she was even more beautiful. She radiated the God inside her who has given her peace through the storm and sheltered her from danger, and who she trusted would reunite her with her family that was far away. After she finished her prayer she came and sat next to me. She gave me a big hug and with tears in her eyes said “God protect this precious one you brought to us to remind us of your love.”


I had to overcome some of my own ignorances. Just because it’s different doesn’t make it bad. I have a feeling you fear the things you don’t understand and that’s valid. But to allow your fear to become hatred is a problem. What’s even worse is too allow your hatred and prejudices to turn into action and rhetoric that is life taking and hurts others. Islam is different from my own faith, but taking the time to understand it doesn’t make me any less Christian. I have lived and practiced an openly Christian life in complete cooperation with practicing Muslims for the past 9 months. We have learned and helped each other through out the whole experience. We have met each other with peace, grace, and love the entire time.

The reason why I’m even taking the time to write this post is because I know it’s possible for people of different faith and cultures to live together in peace. I know because I’m doing it. And I’m learning, growing, and being made better because of it. I pray for open borders, but even more so I pray for open hearts. In my waking dreams I envision a world that stands by the oppressed, that welcomes the immigrant, and seeks justice.

May your will be done Lord. Inshallah.