Find Your Alps

T Time: II of VII

Don’t lie

 Don’t cheat

Don’t create a life for yourself based on those things

If you do you will never know

Peace

You will have to constantly check yourself

and that is no way to live

-D.J.

In the past month and a half, I’ve had an unquantifiable number of experiences. I rediscovered my spirituality under the vaulted ceilings of Sagrada Familia and Saint Peter’s, and witnessed a never ending sunrise over the North Sea. I’ve received a Papal Blessing; studied the Cradle of the West in the shadows of both the Athenian Acropolis and the Roman Pantheon; and contemplated life, love, and friendship in the French Riviera – turns out the fifth floor in Marseille has some great views.

Barcelona is as vibrant as Rome is mighty. Florence is as moving as Luzern is stunning. Venice is a curious city, and Milan has some righteous pizza; word on the street is that it’s known for fashion, but I digress.

These experiences will be covered in due time. In my last entry, you probably gathered that I am a longwinded person. As such, never doubt that I’ll find an excuse to talk about things of the above nature. But those stories and all they contain are for another entry.

For it was in the Alps where I found my peace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Rockies guy. Those mountains are in my blood, and I truly believe that some of the most beautiful sights on earth are in the great state of Colorado. However, there’s just something special about wandering through the jagged peaks that appear to have sprung to life from the words of Tolkien, with lakes and clouds alike winding lazily through the stone behemoths.

Our program had an excursion during which we were able to hike through the highest Alpine Pasture in Austria. The timing could not have been more perfect as we were arriving when the people of the Salzburg area were taking their herds down from the mountains for the river and giving thanks – imagine something akin to Thanksgiving, but with more cows.

Every year at this time and only this time, a mass is held in a small chapel set in the middle of this meadow in the clouds. The organ plays and the congregation sings on what seems to be the top of the world, as cattle graze peacefully in the foreground set against a backdrop of majesty.

It was within this moment, with music and sights, that I found peace. This isn’t to say that it is a peace that will be felt forever – life is full of unprecedented shifts and unpredictable turns. But it reminded me of an exchange I had a few weeks ago in Nice, France.

Good friends are want to clash on occasion, particularly when they travel in such close quarters for extended periods of time. But it was during this mild conflict that my old friend reminded me of something – be at peace with who you are. Don’t just own it, celebrate it.

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“I put it to you then – defend who you are” – Socrates on the Acropolis, most likely.

Often we are faced with to urge to justifying the essence of ourselves, what we believe in, or who we aspire to be. Too often we shy away from these challenges. We laugh away the discomfort, belittle ourselves, construct walls to shut people out of the most critical portions of what makes us who we are.

I put it to you then – defend who you are, and be at peace with who that is. For the record, this is not about “Finding Your Beach”.  The Study Abroad Department couldn’t land me the rights for that slogan in time for the release of this entry. This is about finding your Alps. Finding your peace. You don’t have to be around a chapel and alpine bovines – all you have to do is be unafraid of what makes you, you.

Don’t try to lie to others about yourself, and absolutely don’t cheat yourself from being the person that you are meant to be. Don’t second guess or yearn for the past, but be at peace with everything that you are in the present, and continue to develop that into who you are meant to be. You owe it to who you are in the now and who you will become.

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A group of us at Postalm, the Alpine Pasture. Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.

Additionally, I need to provide a disclaimer: The University of Denver is not responsible for mishandled or lost Amazon shipping orders of Austrian Cattle.

-Your meek conductor and Watchword Guide, T. R. E.

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We Found Love in a Hope-Filled (Za’atari Refugee Camp)

This post is long overdue for many reasons. I have been in Jordan for three weeks now and have not had the urge to write down my experiences and share them. Well, that’s not true. I’ve had so many moments and times and inspirations to put my experiences into words, but I’ve been scared. I’ve been scared because I want to do these experiences justice. I don’t want to let people down. Then I had a dear friend remind me that this space and this blog isn’t a place where judgement is welcome. It’s my space to invite you in to take a peek at the wonderful moments that are perfectly imperfect. That’s all. And there is one moment, one day in particular that is imperative to share and frankly, I have a responsibility to do so because of the life-changing, eye-opening capacity this day embodied. So – here it goes.

On September 19th, my study abroad group had the incredible opportunity to visit the Za’atari refugee camp, a refugee camp that currently is called home by about 80,000 Syrian refugees. I won’t spend this time delving into the facts about Za’atari, but take a moment to educate yourself about this particular camp because it’s commonly called a “model” refugee camp (if there really is such a thing). If included in Jordan’s population count, it is the fourth-largest “city”. In my opinion, Za’atari looks and functions as it’s own city.

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We started our morning with meeting with a member of the Jordanian police and a women from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who gave us a quick overview of how the camp runs and answered our eager questions. We were scheduled to then visit an NGO called Questscope.

Questscope is an NGO that is run by Syrians for Syrians within the camp. It is a safe-space where youth can come to seek mentors, knowledge, art, and everything in between. Syrian adults have the chance to be mentors and teachers of their craft to the Syrian youth who are seeking a haven to be themselves and regain some sense of normalcy.  Questscope offers alternative education for the youth who have lost years of education when “formal” schooling is sometimes not an option. We started by getting an overview and history of Questscope and what they are advocating. They are advocates of dreams. The selfless people who work/volunteer for Questscope strive to unlock the abundant potential that these Syrian youth have bursting from their souls.

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Some of the workers from Questscope we had the privilege of meeting. (Photo courtesy of Questscope blog)

After a quick tour of Questscope’s facility (which is comprised of caravans),  I was in awe. Syrian youth have access to a library, computers, art supplies, sports facilities and trainings, and most importantly, support. One of the most prominent images that stuck with me after this tour was the art space. The art work these people created wasn’t bleak or sad – it was joyous and unique. I didn’t see art that could have easily depicted the tragedy every single Syrian had been though. I saw dancers, mermaids, pride for Syria, and creations that proved hope was abundant in the camp. It was a moment that took my breath away.

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A sports field that provides a refreshing patch of green where kids can be kids. (Photo courtesy of the Questscope blog)

After lunch, we were invited to interact with the youth during some of their activities. If you know anything about me, I immediately rushed to the room where music was blasting and dancing was infectious. It was a women-only zone where the women, both mentors and mentees alike, could shed their inhibitions and own their bodies. They immediately turned on the TV and cranked the volume so all the women could participate in Zumba. Side-by-side, we danced, we sweat (a lot), we looked like fools, we laughed and smiled.  Zumba organically morphed into free-dancing where the women could openly express whatever their bodies wanted. We were taught dance steps from dances that you could tell were an important part of their identity. Every time I looked into the eyes of these women, pure joy was spread across their faces and their smiles never once left faded. I lost track of time because I was overflowing with joy.

Let me take a moment to be selfish. Dancing with these women meant more to me than I can put into words. Dance was re-introduced in my life when I was at a low point and it renewed my spirit and made me whole again. Being able to share such an intimate and personal moment with these women, expressing ourselves though dance, still brings tears to my eyes like it did that day. It was a truly magical, euphoric moment that I will never, EVER forget.

These women and these people could have given up. They could have said life treated them unfairly and stopped living it. But they didn’t. They continue to dance and they continue to smile and they continue to move forward because of their incredible courage and unwavering pride. I held their hands and I felt their strength. I shared moments with them that are forever etched on my heart. These people have not and will never give up. They want to return to Syria and resume the lives that were taken from them. They want to be doctors, lawyers, activists, and artists. They want the world to know that they’re simply mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and at the end of the day, people just like you and me. They watch the same sun set and dream of a better and brighter future because no one can take their dreams away from them. They are my heroes.

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Watching the sun set after a day at Za’atari.

Please, share this story. Not for me, but for the 80,000 Syrian people who have had their lives changed forever. They are not Skittles, they are not peanuts, they are not your next news story, they are not the enemy. They are HUMAN BEINGS with families, passions, hopes, goals, pride, dreams, and ambition I wish I had. They are true inspirations. Give them the autonomy and respect they so rightly deserve and share their stories. It is a small move that can have lasting impact. Hope is abundant at Za’atari and it’s time the world knew.

*None of the pictures within the camp our original or my own (only the sunset at the end of my day in Ajloun). I wasn’t going to Za’atari to take pictures and diminish these people to a social media post because they are SO MUCH MORE than that. I went to learn, listen, and observe. And to have my life changed forever.