Sunday, November 17, 2013

International Day at DBGS

International Day is always fun.  Even though I've learned how deeply culture runs in our bones, it's always fun to have days where you get to show off your traditional clothing and eat good food!  One of the benefits of working with the little ones is that they are so enthusiastic and adorable!

From Sudan--wearing the clothes for prayers.


The big parade--Turkey and Egypt are leading.

The Welsh daffodils are in the lead.

Australia (!) and China

Another Egyptian!


Saturday, November 09, 2013

I Saw God's Gracious Face in Each of Your Smiles

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, IA is where Mark's brother and family attend church.  It is a big, beautiful, busy congregation and they were a wonderful support for Mark during our time there. This article is in their current newsletter.

Mark and Carla Hillman left their long-held jobs in education in Minnesota, and packed up their three kids to move half-way around the world.

They went to build an orphanage in Tanzania. They went to China and worked with kids there, too. Now, the Hillman family is in the process of moving to Saudi Arabia.

But there was an unexpected stop along the way – five months in the Quad Cities at the home of Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Steve and Jen Hillman.

Cancer can do that – put a person in a place they didn’t think they’d be, accepting the kindness, love, generosity of family, friends, strangers.

So can a lot of other circumstances.

And that, Mark says, is one of the most important lessons he’s come to understand: God doesn’t care where we are – our physical location on this planet. What matters is that we are serving God by serving others.
You might have seen Mark, Carla, and the kids around St. Paul. Mark has a bald head, and for awhile, a mask to protect his fragile immune system as he battled lymphoma. He came to worship, a book group, and Bible study, volunteered to help the building crew clean on Monday mornings – he vacuumed a lot of doughnut crumbs.

Just after his last hospital stay, he joined the Tuesday morning book group at St. Paul. The group read The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser.

"One of the strong points he makes is that the incarnation continues in and through each of us,” Mark said in his note to friends sharing the news his lymphoma is in remission and is cleared to travel to Saudi Arabia. "When we show love, support, encouragement, etc... to others, we can do so because of Jesus's love for us and when we do, we continue directly Jesus' incarnation –He lives.”

Rolheiser suggests that God needs our "actions of love for each other" in order to answer prayers.
"I found his words describing exactly what I experienced this year,” Mark said. "God became more and more real to me as you visited me, fed me and my family, wrote letters, liked my health updates on Facebook, and as you prayed for me and my family. I saw God’s gracious face in each of your smiles and my prayers have been answered.”

Mark saw God’s grace when his family was robbed in the middle of the night in Tanzania. His neighbors came to the family’s rescue, and then guarded the Hillman’s compound night and day for weeks – without being asked.

He saw grace in the families of his family’s church in Beijing. When Mark was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment, people he never met from that church brought his family meals.

And when his family needed a place to call home while Mark finished his treatment at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Steve and Jen Hillman welcomed them into their home. Their church, St. Paul, welcomed them too.

So as he and his family begin their journey in Saudi Arabia, Mark Hillman knows this: "It doesn’t matter where I am, the community of Christ is there.”

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

We Kicked It!

I certainly know that I would not be able to survive if it were not for the fact that I am being upheld by the prayers of so many people.

I thought these 2 quotes were suitably juxtaposed together.  It is true that there were so many times that there didn't seem to be anything to cling to except the knowledge that so many people, known and unknown were praying for us.  At the same time, there times when I was so angry and scared at what was happening that keeping calm was a joke and I wanted to kick everyone's ass.

When someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them does, too.

On October 4th, Mark complained about some pain that seemed to be a possible bladder or kidney infection.  55 weeks later--almost 13 of those spent in a hospital bed--he kicked cancer to the curb.  Actually, I'm not ashamed to say that we all did.  I can't say I would rather have had cancer than watch someone go through it, but cancer infected every one of us.  Like its spread through the body, cancer spread through our lives, our church, our family, and our friends.  We are "those people," the family relative, that friend from college, that former colleague--the one who had cancer.  And even though it's gone, it will never be gone, at least for me.  It will always lurk just around the corner, unseen.  Maybe just waiting, maybe out of sight for good.  There will never be a doctor's appointment, a pain, a fever, that won't cause cancer to rear its head in my heart.

All who call on God in true faith, earnestly from the heart, will certainly be heard, and will receive what they have asked and desired.

There were so many time when I could not do anything but pray.  I was terrified of articulating what I really wanted, which is the cancer to be gone, because so many have prayed for that, to no avail.  I prayed mostly for peace and strength,  patience and courage.  I looked desperately for blessings and opportunities to be thankful.  I tried to push away the thought that maybe I really don't want God's will to be done, if that meant an outcome that I didn't want.  I didn't want God to give me more than I could handle, because some days it seemed that that was what was happening.  Some days there was nothing I could do but just cry and ask for more strength than I had.

In those 55 weeks I worked full-time and ran back and forth to hospitals.  I took care of my kids and my husband.  I packed a house and sent it to two separate countries.  I drove my kids from Seattle to Iowa.  I took my son to Missouri (twice) and let him go to start college.  I imposed on my family as we moved in on them in Iowa.  I left them all behind to start a new job in the most challenging place we've lived to date.  And yet although very little has happened in the way I thought it would, everything did happen.  The rough places were made plain.  I have no idea why so many hurdles were thrown up, or why the load was so heavy, but at every stage, those obstacles have been moved aside.  It's not luck, or coincidence...I do believe it is God working in and through my life and the lives of the people around me.

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.

If you hope for happiness in the world, hope for it from God, and not from the world.

I can't wait to move forward.  We're in a new place, new jobs, new experiences....a new beginning.  I want to put worry behind me and soak up the sun and the joy of being with my family.  I want to relax, something I can't even remember doing.  I want to be more than I've been this past year--a better wife, mother, teacher, and woman.  I can finally look ahead at the possibilities again!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How it Works in Saudi

It's the Golden Ticket!
This little gem is my iqama and getting it is a BIG deal.  Your iqama is your ticket to being a human entity in Saudi.  It can take a month to get one, so getting mine in a week has made life much more enjoyable.  Without your iqama you can't get a phone, internet, cable, a bank account or a visa to leave the country.

Saudi's bureaucracy may be bigger than either China or Tanzania.  As in any country, some companies have pull (wasta) that makes things happen more quickly.   Here's how it goes...

First, you have to apply for an entry visa.  The paperwork is astounding and mystifying.  It has to pass through a visa agency (whom you've paid to "manage" your application), then the Cultural Mission, and finally the Embassy.  One of the things we had to do was provide official transcripts and copies of our college degrees and diplomas.  Then, we had to go online to a company and pay to have them certify that we did in fact attend those schools.  THEN, we had to have each college write a letter saying that we did in fact attend the school and did not receive an online degree.  And that was one small piece!

When you finally get your visa, you're off to the Kingdom!  Within a couple of days of landing, you have to repeat the entire medical checkup that you just completed and submitted for the visa application in order to get your iqama.  Our school provided us a short-term internet connection and our TV had 3-4 channels.  They also took us to a bank to get our first check cashed and provided us with start-up funds.  Because you can't get a SIM card, I was hesitant to go out on my own with a taxi or driver.

After a week, I had my iqama--very quickly!  I ran out and got my phone, my internet, and my cable, so life is now more comfortable.  Still no bank account, as I'm waiting for some mysterious letter that I need to bring with me to the bank.  Now it's time for the next round of paper, because you need the iqama to process your entry/exit visa.  As of right now, I can't leave the country because I don't have my passport or a visa.  That process takes about 3 weeks, so by the first week in November, I'll be able to leave the country.  Since Bahrain is only an hour away by car--and filled with choice goodies such as bacon, booze, and movies, I'm kind of looking forward to being able to go over!

Also now that i have my iqama, I can start to process the application for Cameron's visitor visa.  THAT requires a whole new set of documents and can take 2 months at least.  It's very doubtful that he'll have his visa in time to be here at Christmas.  It also means that by the time Mark and the kids arrive, they will not have all of their documents processed in time to leave Saudi for Christmas, so it seems that we won't be spending Christmas as a family this year--a year that we desperately need to be together!  Mark and the kids can't leave, Cameron can't come, and I'm the only one who can travel.  SIGH.

By the way, you have to renew your iqama every year, and while it's being renewed, you can't leave the country and they freeze your bank account.  You get to renew your visa twice a year, meaning for those couple months, you also can't leave the country.

They make it very hard to get in--and very hard to get out!

Monday, September 30, 2013

What to Wear?

One of the things that people asked a lot about was how I would feel about wearing an abaya, the long black robes that are required in Saudi for all women.  In Saudi, the abaya is black, although I have seen some with black lace and a colored underlayer, or a very dark blue.  The bling comes on the trim--lace, beading, embroidery, etc. that can make them more interesting.  I saw an Asian woman wearing one with obviously Hmong trim, and I've Indian women wearing them with distinctive trim as well, so I think you can customize them at a tailor.  I wish I had some Chinese silk or weavings to add to mine!

The truth is, it's really not that bad.  If the choice is to cover up by wearing pants and long sleeved shirts, or wearing shorts and a tank top and throwing on an abaya when it's 100+ degrees out, the abaya wins.  Think of your graduation robes, but longer, since they have to brush the ground.  I spend time wondering how I'm supposed to survive the escalator (or stairs) without raising the hem too high, or remembering to not hike it up over my knees when I'm sitting in public.   It's also a constant challenge to keep your sleeves out of the food at a restaurant, since you can't just roll them up!

There is a verse in the Quran that says,  "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, to cover themselves with a loose garment. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them."  I'm not sure what "recognized" means in that verse--maybe recognized that they are in fact women--but you do feel invisible.  Little black ghosts floating through the mall.  Foreign women do not have to cover their heads, but the Muslim women do--and many (most?) do cover their faces.   Given that shopping seems to be an Olympic sport here, I assume that many of them are tricked out underneath, but it's impossible to even tell someone's age, let along what they might be wearing.

Saudi men also wear robes, called thwbs (thobes). It's eye-catching to walk into a bank or a store and see every employee wearing white robes and a red head covering!  I've seen so many Arabic-looking men wearing Western clothes and wondered if it was just a preference, but I was told that Saudi men are supposed to wear the traditional clothing, and the men that aren't are likely not Saudis.  

Children can wear Western clothing--girls start to wear abayas about the time they become teenagers. 

The mutawa are the religious police, charged with making sure that everyone follows the Islamic laws.  That covers everything from how you dress and behave, shop closings during prayers, watching for banned food, drink, and media products, and preventing the promotion of any other religion but Islam.  Even Saudi men can be stopped for not wearing the traditional clothing.  Foreigners are not exempt, although all my colleagues say they have never been stopped, although some have had a man tell them (or actually, they tell the husband) to cover their heads (I carry a scarf in my purse, just in case).  There seems, then, to be an understanding that it's generally OK for non-Muslim women to leave their heads uncovered.  Western men, of course, romp around in (knee-length) shorts and t-shirts.  They're lucky, I guess, although to for me to go out wearing my regular hot weather clothes, surrounded by women in abayas, would make me feel uncomfortable! At work, on our compound, and on the bus to and from school, we don't have to wear them (and the bus has curtains to prevent us from being seen).

Monday, September 23, 2013

First Days, First Impressions

Day 4 in Saudi and you may have noticed that there is a dearth of interesting photos of our new home.  That’s because…well, I haven’t really seen that much.  And I’m finding it hard to see what to photograph.  Of course, people are the most interesting subjects, but I’m very hesitant to photograph anyone.   I’ve been out and about a bit each day, and have some very early impressions.

Clothing—Yes, I wear the abaya, and it’s really not that bad.  You can wear whatever you want   Mine is still a tiny bit short, so my next one I’ll get so it actually drags on the ground.  I don’t have to wear a head covering, but I do bring one in my bag, just in case someone would make an issue of it.  It is interesting how the black abaya (and often covered faces) make people invisible.  Today I was in the older part of town and saw a woman wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and already she stood out in my eyes!  Women are indistinguishable, so you don’t notice them (so I guess, mission accomplished, men).  Men wear either Western clothing or the white robes, often with the red headscarves.  In the compound and at school I can wear whatever I want, although at school there are no uncovered shoulders. 
A decorative version of face masks worn at weddings.

underneath and when everyone’s doing it, you’d feel strange if you didn’t have one on!

Weather—Yes, it is HOT.  And surprisingly humid, although I’ve noticed it most in the morning and after the sun goes down, so that would be fine.  You definitely want to get most of your things done before noon and after 3.  But even wearing the abaya, I’m not overly hot and not sweaty.  The pool is like a bathtub, but I’m able to lay out for a bit and not sweat.  They say that by November the pool will be too chilly to swim in.  Hard to believe—I guess the weather by November to April is very nice.

Activities—Hmmmm…no idea.  The heat does factor into outdoor activities.  It’s strange to live on the coast, but not be able to be at the beach and swim.  There is a private beach, I guess, and for $60 or so per person, you can use it.  Yikes.  I expect I won’t see many locals running (although I guess some teachers do), the abaya prevents women from running on the roads and I haven’t seen any bikes (women are allowed to bike here, but not for a specific purpose, such as shopping).  Desert camping is a popular activity here—Mark and Ava are crazy about camping, and it’s something we can do as a family.

Shopping—THIS is obviously an activity!  If there were any anti-Western sentiments, it doesn’t extend to things you can buy.  My biggest surprise was a real Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids!  Additionally, Gap, H&M, and Ikea can help you stay looking good and living well.  Malls are   There is also an old-town that looks a little like Dar es Salaam or Arusha—little storefront shops with metal grates, streets that sell hardware, streets that sell computers, etc.  Some haggling is permitted there.  Prices are higher than in China.  Some things might be worth spending the $ on, others you can tell the quality is not great for what you’re paying.  But you can get it all here—including very fancy lingerie—although some of those sections are hidden behind frosted glass.
shiny and new and not “off” like the big glitzy EMPTY ones in Beijing.

Eating—Again, welcome to the mall!  Outback, Fuddruckers, Red Lobster, Hardees, McDonalds, Burger King, Popeye’s, KFC, Chilis, Applebees, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme…all right close by.  All of the workers here seem to be Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, etc., so there must be places where they eat, but I haven’t seen too many.  One of the issues is that there has to be a family section in the restaurant or women can’t go in, so that may limit a bit of where we can go.  Maybe Mark will run out and get stuff—it’s strange to think that we don’t have to make that crazy commute into Beijing for things we want anymore!

I love the name of the grocery store near our compound—Hyper Panda!  There is a supermarket called Tamimi, which is a Safeway (and pricier), and at either one you can get just about anything you want.  You do want to watch the labels, though—I saw a bag of Dole salad for $12 because it was organic and imported!  The one thing that seems to be missing is tortilla chips (which people get from Chilis).  There’s much more Western and American food here than in Beijing.   There’s tons of olives, yummy soft cheeses, interesting crackers, and decent bread.

Living—We have a gated compound with reinforced gates and armed guards.  The compound is quite small, only about 36 houses, and the houses are big, much bigger than our house in Beijing (I think maybe 3,000 square feet).  We have 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and 2 living rooms.  The furniture right now is minimal (and pretty ugly), but it’ll do.  I have a real washer and dryer that work great so that’s wonderful!  We have a backyard that we share and the grass is terrible—one of the things that can keep us busy is working with the gardeners to keep some things whipped into shape.  We’ll have a housekeeper, but not full-time.  Some people have a full-time live-in help and I think you have to pay for their visas and sponsor them that way.  We will hire another teacher’s live-in, or find someon 
This pool and I will be best friends!
e to do bathrooms, floors and iron.

Driving—People drive big American SUVs…Explorers and Expeditions, Tahoes, Suburbans, etc.  Gas is…get this, $10 to fill a tank for one of those babies!  Women can’t drive, of course, and while I think that will be annoying, it will be more bothersome for Mark, who will have to chauffeur me around along with the children.  Taxis can be called, and once I have a phone (I need my residence card to get a SIM card) I’ll feel more comfortable going out on my own.  It’s not as crowded as Beijing, but drivers are much more aggressive here.

Family—Mark is hoping to apply for his visa this week.  He needs to make sure his blood levels are within the normal range and get some boosters for vaccinations.  With any luck, he will be approved quicker because I’m already here!  The kids will hopefully come with him as well (they can come when I get my iqama).  I will start the iqama process this week as well, and hopefully within a month that will come through.  Until then, I’m flying solo…and not liking it too much!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

2013...truly an annus horribilis, to quote the Queen.  We were going to spend our last year in China traveling, spend spring break in Paris or Rome for our 25th (and first) wedding anniversary celebration, and thoroughly enjoy those last months with Cameron and our friends before moving on to the next phase of our lives.

Here's what happened.

Mark had a wicked appendicitis attack that knocked him off his feet for several weeks.  His eventual appendectomy found a tumor that turned out to be an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.  Of course, that whole appendix thing turned out to be what alerted us to the fact that he had cancer.

Mark needed a LOT of chemotherapy, meaning he was sick for most of the spring.  We were so fortunate that the chemo could be done in Beijing where we could be together and have the support of so many friends!  And he bounced back enough to be able to be at Cameron's graduation!

Changing jobs meant a stressful and frightening coordination of multiple insurances and the uncertainty of how our new school would react and support us.  We had such great care and assistance from both ISB and ISG as well as the insurance reps that negotiated all the challenges for us.

Mark needed a stem cell transplant and we needed to be together.  We had wonderful care at the University of Iowa hospitals and the overwhelming gift of being able to spend the summer with family so that we could be together.

I was set to leave August 19th with the kids for our new jobs and schools, leaving Mark behind and hopefully joining  us by Christmas.  Embassy bureaucracy meant that we were/are delayed indefinitely, leaving us unsure about what to do and eventually enrolling the kids in their first American schools, where they started 2 weeks late.  I was able to take Cameron to college and get him settled in.  We had over a month together as a family with Mark, and the kids have found that they are very well-prepared for school, thanks to their time at ISB!  We've been able to follow Cameron and send him care packages as he settles in to college, too.  There are doctors in our new city in Saudi who can do the checkups that Mark will need for the next couple years.

Now I'm set to leave for Saudi tomorrow night...alone.  The kids will have to wait until I get my work permit and then come.  Mark will be applying for his visa shortly, hoping to fly by the end of November.  It will be so hard to adjusting on my own, away from my family--but it does allow me time to get settled into a job that I'm a month late for, so that whenever the family does show up, I can spend my time and energy helping them get adjusted.

I don't know why all of these things have happened.  I would not wish this year on anyone.  It has pushed all of us to the breaking point over and over.  I'm sure that the recovery will be much more than Mark's physical health.  But there has never been a time in my life where I've seen the rough places made plain like they have been for us.  I'm a slow learner, but I have more peace about going alone and Mark's potential visa issues than I could have had in the past (which is not to say that I'm not worried, because I will ALWAYS worry), but to those who wonder...God does have a plan for us.  I don't know what that plan is, and I can look back and see all the intersections where things could have thrust us into a much darker place...but the path has been cleared for us as we've needed it.  And the things that have tested us have yielded other blessings and opportunities.

I will continue to plan, and continue to worry, and continue to not trust fully, I suppose.  Everyone has their weak spots, or their sins, and these are mine.  My goal is not only to seek out the blessings in life, but to seek more peace with the unknown.  After all, that's what's ahead of me!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Winds of Change

Back in January, Mark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.  For all the things we've done in our lives, this was the most heart-stopping terrifying thing I have ever heard  It still frightens me--I don't think there will ever be a cough, a sniffle, or a pain that won't bring CANCER back to the forefront of my thinking.  At the same time, we have been blessed immeasurably--from having health care in Beijing to insurance that bridged 2 jobs and 3 countries over the course of 4 months.  Two employers that have been staunch supporters. Friends that carried us through the months of chemo.  Family that has supported us in so many ways, including having us live with them for what was supposed to be a couple months, but will turn out to be 5-6 months total.  Prayers have been lifted up around the world from friends and strangers and it has given us so much strength and peace.  At every step of the way, God has made the rough places plain and we have been so fortunate.

I thought I would keep notes during this time and write about it.  I actually started during the first 2-3 weeks when the diagnoses were coming in, but I was too frightened and overwhelmed to keep it up.  Now, I look back and I can't remember many specific details.  I have a sense of feelings and emotions, of certain conversations, but I'm amazed at those who can recount such specific memories.  I realized that I could write about  cancer but I couldn't recount it.  Maybe that's because I don't want to.  My story wouldn't be the story of  a warrior, one who met the challenge head on and fought hard.    It wouldn't be the story of a caring nurturer, one who lovingly tended the sick with patience and gentleness.  I would write about the person who somehow held it all together, who packed two international shipments, who managed every detail of a full-time job, 3 children's schedules, and an impending job change from Beijing to Saudi Arabia.  Who booked 3 camps and 10 flights during the month of June and drove from Seattle to Iowa, also during that same month.  Who refused to read anything about the type of cancer that took up residence in our lives, but threw herself into the details of life, something that she could control when everything that mattered most was at-risk.  Maybe that wouldn't be the sort of thing people would want to read, but that is what is was and is.

Now we're at the beginning of the end.  The stem cell transplant started today, bringing hope and anticipation of the end, and worry and stress because we will head to Saudi Arabia to our next adventure without Mark.  I let blogging slide in Beijing--strangely, it seemed life there was too "normal" to find something to write about.  Looking back over the posts from Tanzania, I found so many memories that I had forgotten!  I regret not writing during the past 5 years and I want to make time for blogging again.  I should set other goals (neatness, better eating, exercise, and oh-so-many others) and I probably will have the most stressful 6 months of my life, but I want to capture our lives in "the Kingdom."  I want to share more than just a few snippets on Facebook and do some writing to think about what we're seeing and experiencing.  Check back in and see what we're up to!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Those Other People

You may have noticed that my blog has been neglected for a long time.  Work, life, family, Facebook...all took their toll.  Our lives in China just didn't seem very exotic or interesting enough to write about, and Facebook provided a forum for pictures and a few sentences that were easier, albeit less thoughtful.

Our decision to move to Saudi Arabia made me want to get back to my blog.  Even if no one else reads me, it's a travelogue (of sorts) of our lives.  The change--and oh, how I hate change--and a glimpse of a country and a culture rarely seen and often misunderstood might be more interesting than my daily lesson plans and my irritations at the driving habits of the locals here.

Then, last Friday, we joined a brand new club.  I call it the "Other People" club.  Chances are good you're not in this club.  You know, "those people" who--and then fill in the blank.  Things that always happen for better or worse to "those people."  A few days before he went into surgery to remove his appendix, Mark said, "Are you worried?"  And I said, "No.  Bad things don't happen to us.  They happen to 'other people.'"  I am an inveterate worrier, one who worries about things that I really do understand will probably work out OK in the end.  So, no--worrying about severe medical crises would not catch my attention.  I would be saving that for disasterous airplane crashes or terrorists (also on the plane)...serious things.

Now we belong to the "Other People" chapter called "cancer."  It's been 4 days since Mark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and I'm already understanding that I don't have a temporary membership.  Whatever will happen, cancer has come to stay.  It will lurk around the corner and raise its nasty head every time there is a health issue.  Fever?  Maybe it's cancer.  Pain?  Maybe it's cancer.  Routine medical checkup?  Maybe they'll find cancer. 

And so we wait.  Wait for the day for more tests.  Then wait to see what those tests might show.  Then wait for treatment to start. Then wait for treatment to end.  Then wait to see if it worked.  Then wait to see if it comes back.  And hold the thought at bay in the back of your mind that someone might say the worst possible news of all.

Suddenly moving my family to Saudi Arabia seems much easier and much safer than the journey that we are beginning.  Because I guarantee, no matter what you have ever thought about living overseas with children, whatever dangers or ills or troubles you wouldn't be willing to put up with or can't imagine why we's nothing to this new place where we've found ourselves.

The blog about living life overseas will now necessarily include chapters on living life with cancer.   I pray that it will be a short chapter, but I can't know that.  No one can know.  It is what it is, and we will be what we will be...blessed, challenged, frightened, and hopeful.