During my time in Batumi, Georgia, I met a number of strange and wonderful expats from a variety of countries, mostly young and full of piss and vinegar. I remember with great fondness one night listening to young Ukrainian and Moldovan backpackers playing “Buena Vista Social Club” on their way to Iran. Places like Batumi attract those of us who are intoxicated by the lure of ‘the road not taken,’ and while I may have not wanted to take all of them home to mother, my life is far richer for having encountered each and every one of them. One or two, like K (not so young) in Berlin, have become a somewhat regular feature in my life, but most of the others just passed through for a shining moment and are now either back home or in some other far-flung corner of the universe. One went on to the Peace Corps in China and is now in grad school in Philly; one went back to Canada where he is ‘being the change;’ one became a Fulbrighter in Bulgaria and now studies at the LSE, another Fulbrighter headed to Malaysia and is now (I think) in Somaliland. You get the drift.
But perhaps none of them has touched my heart and impressed my mind as much as my Lithuanian friend, J, seen below.
It was sheer random glorious chance that I managed to be in her home country this very week during one of the rare short times that she also inhabited it. We met for coffee and a chat this morning before she had to run catch a plane.
When I met J, she was working for an NGO in Batumi which ostensibly was trying to help “eco-migrants” in Ajara (the region in which Batumi is located). Like me and every other Western female I met there, she was exasperated by how women were treated in the country in general and in her office in particular; we, along with the others, kept our spirits up through the conversation club and other venting get-togethers whenever possible. She didn’t stay long; she soon had a better offer and off she went.
The better offer was with Oxfam in the West Bank and Gaza, helping with the allocation of water resources, where she has been working for the last two and a half years. Today I learned a lot more than I knew before about the situation there, one that makes the news occasionally, but which gets lost under the clash and pounding of all the other world catastrophes.
The West Bank, I learned, is divided into three parts. The first is governed by the Palestinians; the second by a joint Palestinian-Israeli group, and the third (60% of the whole) by the Israelis, where the new settlements are built. Her office is located in the first part, in a compound, which is as safe as it gets, but she, like everyone else, is subject to checkpoints and long waits inflicted by grumpy young Israeli soldiers (universal conscription between the ages of 18-21) when she moves about the area. She works with a colleague in Gaza via Skype and teleconferencing, but she never actually goes there; she can’t, *because no one can.* What I hadn’t realized until today is…no one enters Gaza, no one leaves it. There are 1.8 million people in Gaza, an area roughly twice the size of Washington, DC, who are in virtual prison for life, with no hope of anything aside from the 140 square miles along the coast. And, not surprisingly, there is very little water available, or food, or fuel. No wonder there are intifadas. Here’s more if you are interested:
During her time in the West Bank, J has learned spoken and written Arabic, this adding to her (at least) Lithuanian, Russian, and English. I asked her what was has been the biggest surprise in her time there, and she answered “the resiliency of the people.” She is amazed at how the Palestinians, for the most part, admittedly, are normal people living normal lives with normal concerns. She has not gotten to know any Palestinians particularly well – like Georgia and most of the world, the family is the basis of social life – but after two and a half years, and some careful observation, I don’t doubt her words. I asked what she misses about life in Lithuanian, and she said occasionally the “easiness” of the west, meaning control of time and availability of resources.
What I also learned today is that she is finishing up her work in the West Bank, and is shortly moving on. She has taken a six-month (renewable) position with the French branch of Action Against Hunger (ACF International) working as an “advocacy expert in public health and nutrition” in….Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in the north of the country, near the Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan borders. Sigh. Gulp. She smiled as she delivered the new, saying “You probably don’t want to hear this.” Hey, it was hard when she told me she was hitchhiking back to Lithuania from Georgia, but I just had to let that go. And I just have to let this go, as my dear friends just have to let me go as I climb on yet another plane to yet another far-flung destination. As her airport bus was approaching, I told her that I loved her, that I supported her, that I was always there for her, and that I stood in awe of her contribution to world goodness. Please hold this wonderful human in your heart for a moment.