Spending Time in Kurdistan, Iraq

I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in Kurdistan, Iraq while I was in the military. Most Americans have a view of the Middle East (and Iraq in particular) as a hot, unending desert that is devoid of beauty. Images come to mind of a harsh sand-colored land plagued by dust storms. Like most things in life, there is so much more to this story. My experiences in Kurdistan brought this truth to light for me and I will share some of my recollections with you. Some pictures will highlight these facts.

Kurdistan, Iraq


I had the opportunity to travel to Kurdistan in 2004. I had been in Mosul until that point. Someone asked me to go to Kurdistan to work with the Peshmerga. While working, I had the chance to travel to Irbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and the surrounding countryside. Having not been in Iraq long, I really did not know what to expect. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I had spent a couple of years in the Middle East beforehand, so I had grown considerably in my ability to adapt, communicate and connect with others from the Middle East. I had never worked with or been around Kurds, so I knew I had some learning to do.

I initially arrived in Sulaymaniyah. Here, I was to meet with the Peshmerga I would be working with. As I’d already spent time in Central Iraq and Mosul, I felt shocked by how different it seemed and how different the people acted. The Kurds were extremely welcoming to me. Bear in mind, that the Kurds have suffered as a people for a long time and are still suffering as a culture.

Their hospitality, kindness, and respect that they displayed is something I will always remember. Their dignity as a people, especially in light of all that they have gone through, speaks to their resolution. They welcomed me, fed me, and quickly helped me settle in. They wanted me to see what Sulaymaniyah was, and I had the chance to go into town and see it with my own eyes. I felt like I stepped into another world compared to Central Iraq or Mosul. The Kurds had largely kept the conflict away and so the experience was akin to being in Aman or Beirut.

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

After Sulaymaniyah, we made our way to Irbil for some additional meetings and training. During our journey to Irbil and Dohuk, I had the chance to see the countryside of Kurdistan. I felt like I was in Switzerland at times: there were rolling hills covered in grain, grazing sheep, mountains, and beautiful lakes. To say that I did not expect this is an understatement. I felt like I was a million miles from the war. I had the chance to let my guard down and relax because the next turn or next day did not feel dangerous. This was such a luxury at the time for me. Having the chance to live side-by-side with the Peshmerga and hear their stories gave me the chance to hear their perspectives on Kurdistan and Iraq.

Irbil, Iraq

These conversations were certainly eye-opening for me and taught me so much. We, as Americans, like to simplify things so we can understand them quickly.  In the case of the Kurds, Kurdistan, and the Middle East in general, this has not served us well. Unfortunately, this was true 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and is still true today. We, as Americans, need to understand that it is wrong to lump people together based on national borders, as the truth about people is very different. Rather than national borders, it comes down to a sense of place and identity.

Canyon in North East Kurdistan, Iraq


Surviving the Storm

Dreams Abroad: Surviving the Storm

Hello, it’s me again (Adele pun not originally intended), your local, friendly, hopefully not-too-hipstery nomad.  (I absolutely loaaattthhhe hipsters but all the internet quizzes tell me that I am one. So Grrrr. ) Originally I had planned to talk about my six month stint as a live-in au pair, but I have discovered that I cannot at the moment do this.  Everytime I try to think of a witty, clinical, cut and dry process to talk about the cultural differences and the conflicts that followed, I find myself just wallowing and wanting to mostly verbally bash the family.  That’s not fair because the problems we had weren’t just their fault.  I think.  ANYWAYS, I said all of that to tell you to stay tuned for next time or the next ( or the next next next time) if drama and negativity is your thing.   Instead I want to focus on something different, lighter perhaps, but no less significant for me.  

A photo of me in Oklahoma before my trip to Spain began.

For Better or Worse

Whatever my experiences here in Spain have been, they have been nothing if not rich.  Perhaps at times they were rich in pain and despair or perhaps rich in joy and wonder, but always poignant nonetheless.  For every moment that I have cried myself to sleep, I have found myself in breathless wonder.  I shall try to convey my meaning as precisely as possible but if things turn out cheesy instead capturing the artistic feeling that I desire, I apologize ahead of time.

The first 10 months of my time in Spain were very difficult for me.  After having gotten settled into the perfect apartment that I found in  Idealista, a popular website for rentals, set up in the perfect village and reveling in finally living in my perfect dream, I got kicked out.  It turned out that the landlord’s mother was going to come live in the apartment and didn’t want to share which is understandable.  I have a hunch that I was being illegally subleased to because after two months and after excuse after excuse, my roommates never did give me the landlady’s contact information.  I suspect that they knew from the beginning and just wanted extra money.  They themselves were in their own strange situation.  They were a couple from Chile with a small daughter.  The mother was supposed to go to England to study English but since she didn’t speak said English, when customs asked if she was there to work, she allegedly misunderstood the question and answered, “Yes.”  They *permanently* denied her entry and turned her away even though the dad and baby were already through the gate. Therefore, they came to Spain for three months before having to go back. Naive, trusting Amanda had no contract, no rights, and barely any money aside from my monthly income and I already had bills back home. That was completely on me.

In orientation, they strongly suggested we get a contract but apartment hunting in Madrid in September specifically and, well, also year round (except in August) is a bitch so I settled. So, after a month of desperately searching for cheap accommodation, I found work as a live in au pair.   I am grateful but I should have just tried to live in hostels for a while. While all of that was going on, two people in my family passed on, one from a drug overdose and the other from cancer.  Complete and total devastation ensued for a time. One death took me completely off guard and ruined me for awhile. The second death was somewhat expected but still very difficult as the person, my grandpa, was and is my favorite person. It is from him that I got the travel bug in the first place. He deserves a post of his own so I will leave it at that for some other time.  Needless to say, these sad events probably manifested in toxic and subtle ways that made interacting in such a new physical and cultural environment more complicated than it had to be.  The last blow came circa April when I found out that the teachers at the school did not want me to come back.  I can not pretend that it was all their fault. I have made mistakes.  But this was a huge shock and disappointment.  With this auxiliar program, if you don’t renew in the same school, then you can’t work in the same region as an auxiliar.  They wanted to send me far south to Murcia!!! The only good thing about that would have been teaching near the ocean and Andalusian culture but even that was thwarted because they assigned me to some dry, isolated desert school.  On top of that, payments to auxiliars in the south of Spain are NOTORIOUSLY 2 or 3 months behind. I had found love and a new life in Madrid just for it to about to be taken away.   I could not afford to get uprooted again and this time so far away.

Needless to say, I was broken hearted for a majority of my first year.  Fortunately, I was able to travel and those experiences among others and the ease of having them are what originally convinced me to stay a bit longer.  Otherwise, before I met Esteban, I probably would have given up and gone home.

What follows is a mezcla of memories that I was able to focus on during these turbulent times. Stay tuned for these memories in my next post!

Love forever,

Amanda (Squirrel)

To see more of Amanda’s posts, click here. Thanks for reading and keep living your Dreams Abroad!

by Amanda Whitten

A Remarkable Experience Studying Abroad in Tallahassee, FL

by Dalal Boland

So, the day had finally arrived and I will be Studying Abroad in Tallahassee. After overcoming multiple obstacles, from the F1-visa not being issued on time, to me rebooking another ticket because of that, I finally managed to get on that airplane where a subtle feeling of comfort had struck me as it was time for takeoff. After an overall flight of more than 16 hours spent on multiple airplanes, I landed in the beautiful capital of Florida, Tallahassee. Due to the overwhelming feeling of excitement, I immediately went on a tour around campus. My acquaintances and I drove under the hot sun of August witnessing the students’ joy of starting their new college adventure. After that, I rented an apartment where I dropped off my luggage and went grocery shopping to buy a few things. After running all of those errands like getting into an American line for grocery shopping, and opening up an American bank account, it was time to settle into the new place I called home: Tallahassee.

studying at FSU

Making Friends and Learning Culture

When school started, I encountered some hard times making new friends, especially since I appeared to be a closed-off person due to my formal behavior/encounters with others. Because of that, I had the chance of becoming close to my instructors. They had the kindest hearts that made me feel like I have a family away from my home country. Then, with time, I started to get to know my classmates. The type of class activities that my classes were based on encouraged me to open up to people, especially since most of the activities involved group work and discussions. To me, each class was viewed as a tool to establish and bolster my social grounds with the people around me. Moreover, I had the chance to learn more about different cultures and even pick up a few words in Chinese and Turkish, because my classes included people from different parts of the world.

Studying Abroad in Tallahassee Has Come to an End

TallahaseeThe time had passed and the chapter of living in Tallahassee was about to come to an end. Even as I am writing this piece, my heart still remembers the difficulty that it felt saying goodbye to my friend that I cherished so much, Mr. Michael Magro. Even though we keep in touch from time to time sharing posts and pictures about our lives, I miss the days that we spent laughing about certain inside jokes that no one understood but us, and the intense feeling that we shared of having to work for late hours in the library with the purpose of putting together a class project.

Leaving This Beautiful City

Finally, the day was here and it was time to pack and leave. Although I did not spend more than two years living in Tallahassee, the memories that I made are priceless. Yes, I admit that there were days I spent sobbing and crying my eyes out because I was missing my family, yet the purpose of going home with a diploma to make them proud always made me hang in there. I would describe the time I spent in Tallahassee as a remarkable experience. It is true that I had left Tallahassee, yet the beautiful memories and the friendships that I have made will forever stay with me.

Learn more about Dalal studying abroad in Tallahassee, Florida in upcoming posts!


Being Amanda Whitten

We asked fellow Dreams Abroad members what they would do differently if they were just starting out on their adventures now. Amanda shares her journey in a two-part piece about the unique circumstances in her life that challenged her to be where she is today. Here is what she had to say.

My Story

I arrived in Madrid in September 2016. This piece describes what I’ve overcome to get here, and how I managed to build a life, find work, and discover love in a new country.

Some of the things that I write about apply to me and very few others.  Other things may sound typical and oh-so-obvious. Hopefully, I can provide some advice for the next poor sod who is broke, naive, and terribly desperate to travel but, like me, can’t or won’t join the military.

First though, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself, as it may provide some insight into some of the decisions *internally shudders* that I have made. Spoiler alert: It’s nothing too exciting. I never had to sell a kidney or any other organs, thank goodness.

Who The Heck Am I Anyway?

I am a small-town girl. Ugh. This already sounds so wholesome that I want to barf. As I was saying — a small-town girl looking to see the big, bright world. Liberal-arts-educated in an obscure university in a town that no one has ever heard of. Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of money. Fortunately, I was motivated to get good grades and earn scholarships for college.

It wasn’t always that way though. I remember being in grade school and bringing home a lot of Cs (and worse). My mom began working with me using flashcards, and I studied every night until I got my grades up. Once I began reading (mostly thanks to our school’s Accelerated Reader program in fifth grade) everything locked into place and my scores shot way up.   

Later, in my early teens (and I didn’t realize it at the time) I was dealing with some fairly crippling anxiety and mild depression. I have to give a lot of credit to our hard-ass school counselor for helping me with the scholarship process in high school and beyond. I felt so terrified of rejection that I didn’t even apply to schools (let alone for financial aid). I remember being in the library reading one day when the counselor walked in. She asked if I had applied to college or for scholarships. When I answered “no,” she put the forms in front of me and even turned them in for me. Not many people have that kind of support in their lives. I was, and remain, so very appreciative for her involvement.

Amanda Goes Abroad

While in college in Tahlequah, OK, I finally got my first chance to travel with a program called CIEE. Their study-abroad credits were the only ones accepted by my university. I scraped, begged, borrowed, and saved the money to be able to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina for six weeks to study Spanish. Damn, what an adventure. It was my second time being on a plane. Boarding that colossal hunk of metal alone was the most heart-racing, optical-migraine-inducing experience that I have ever had. In one of the essays that I wrote to land a scholarship for that project, I talked about wanting to visit ”The Paris of South America,” Buenos Aires. I wanted to experience South America and Europe at the same time. It wouldn’t be until I went to Spain several years later that I would realize just how much European culture I had already experienced having been to Buenos Aires. Being in Argentina got me out of my comfort zone. I had always thought that I wanted to see the world, but if I hadn’t been hooked before seeing Buenos Aires, I certainly was after. 

Lessons Learned

Going alone to a place so “foreign” gave me a confidence boost that was bigger than anything I had ever known. Plus, 70% of Argentina’s population lives in Buenos Aires, so the city is absolutely massive. Seeing real cathedrals in all their glory, smelling fresh bread on every street corner, riding a bike in such an enormous city, hell, even learning to navigate a public transportation system (something we don’t have back home) was a life-changing experience for me. Six weeks later, I was back in the United States, finishing up my degree and hoping to travel again soon. Although I didn’t know at the time, that would have to wait four more years. After graduation, retail work, more retail, breakups, family tragedies, depression, feeling mired in, stuck, unable to claw my way out or being able to breathe, therapy, medication, and then finally working in social services was the Molotov cocktail that led me to decide that I really, REALLY, needed to go to Spain. I had already been south and it was time to go in a different geographical direction.

Soon you will learn more from Amanda about her adventure in Spain and hear what she has to say about her experience.

by Amanda Whitten