Motherhood in an Age of Terrorism

Motherhood in an Age of Terrorism

By Rachel Pieh Jones

peace 1Three days after terrorists killed seventeen people in Paris my daughter said at lunch, “Muslims can kill anyone they want, right?”

Terrorism and religious extremism is not hypothetical for my family. A week after suicide bombers blew up a restaurant in Djibouti my daughter asked how we could be sure the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab wouldn’t blow up our airplane. My kids go to school behind barbed wire, the walls guarded by armed soldiers and policemen. Sometimes a tank shows up to guard the entrance. We’ve received death threats and people have made throat-cutting motions at us. A man on a bus once shouted that I would be the first person he would kill.

This child asking about al-Shabaab and Muslims killing people? She was born on September 11. Not the September 11. Four years later but we will never be able to mention her birthday without thinking of 2001. She was born in a Muslim country and a Somali midwife delivered her. She is our light on a dark day.

“Can your teacher kill you?” I said to my daughter in response. Her teacher is a Djiboutian Muslim. “Can Safa?” Her friend. “Can Sagal?” My friend.

“No way,” she said. Those were people, friends, coworkers. They played marbles together and came to birthday parties, gave spelling exams.

I don’t know where she picked up the idea that Muslims can kill anyone they want and she didn’t know where she had heard it either. But at nine years old she was already absorbing the climate of hate and fear that permeates our world. It was my job as a mom to counter that, to provide a new climate.

I thought I had been doing exactly that. We are immersed in Islam, surrounded by Muslims. The call to prayer governs our working and sleeping hours. Our weekend is Thursday and Friday because Friday is the Islamic holy day. We have a Quran nestled onto a wooden cradle at the highest point of our living room, next to the Bible. Our coworkers and fellow students and running partners are Muslim. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, airline employees, teachers, policemen and women, politicians. We celebrate weddings with Muslims and grieve at funerals with Muslims, we pray with Muslims and fast with them and spin dizzy on the merry-go-round with them.

I assumed that this lifestyle was enough. If I showed empathy for Muslims and developed authentic relationships with them, I thought that would communicate a certain worldview to my children. A worldview that said Muslims are not ‘others,’ they are not people to be afraid of or judgmental toward, they are not different from us. We have different faith convictions but we have a shared humanity.

But my daughter didn’t draw a connecting line between Safa and al-Qaeda or between her teacher and al-Shabaab so when she said Muslims could kill anyone they wanted, she didn’t realize her words lumped them into the same category. That wasn’t her intention and I realized she needed more than an example lived out in front of her. She needed me to talk about the relationship between Islam and our faith, Christianity, about the call to prayer and our protestant church service. She needed to hear from me about terror attacks and how to respond to them. She needed me to give her words and language that could specifically counteract the words she heard from the broader culture.

An article in Newsweek, Even Babies Discriminate (focused on race) debunks the idea that raising kids in a diverse environment naturally helps them embrace diversity. I expected the ‘environment to become the message.’ It didn’t. I needed to address the diversity around us directly, openly, and verbally.

So what do I communicate with her and my older kids when violence strikes close to home? When terrorists, claiming to be Muslims, attack in France (where we attended language school) and slaughter seventeen people? Or when the Somali terror group al-Shabaab, claiming to be Muslims, attacks a shopping mall in Kenya (where we used to live) and kills almost seventy people? Or when this same terror group detonates a bomb in a restaurant down the block from our favorite ice cream place?

First, I tell them what happened, they are old enough to know. I use the real names of the real terror groups involved. They are going to hear about it at school anyway, I want first dibs on how things are presented.

In the telling, I emphasize certain things. A Somali Muslim man rescued dozens of people from the mall in Kenya, he went back and back and back, risking his own life to get others out. Djiboutian taxi drivers, also Muslims, were the first responders at the site of the suicide bomb, they rushed the injured to hospitals. The rector of the Great Mosque of Paris denounced the attack in France, a Muslim policeman was killed trying to protect people.

I don’t promise these things will never happen here and I don’t promise I will keep them safe. I do promise that we will remember those who are grieving, we will not be swayed in our conviction that ‘muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ are not synonymous, we will pray for peace and pursue peace.

What does that mean practically for parents: pursue peace? It starts with these kinds of conversations with our kids but it can’t end there. I don’t know what it will take for the violence to end but as I think about my own need to improve my mothering in this area, four action points come to mind.

Uprooting the Darkness

The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is an extremist militant Christian group, they belong on the same religious spectrum as me. They rape, maim, kidnap, use child soldiers, and destroy villages in the name of establishing a Uganda based on the rule of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament.

I would like to put as much distance between myself and the LRA as the east is from the west. The moment I recognize this darkness in my religious system it becomes easier to recognize that the majority of Muslims would like that same amount of distance between themselves and ISIS or al-Qaeda. Yes, there is a violent strain of Islam. And yes, there is a violent strain of Christianity. It isn’t helpful to say, “they aren’t real Christians” or “they aren’t real Muslims.” This excuses us from wrestling with this violence in our religious systems and from dealing with our own darkness. But it is in us, too. At least in me.

Some Djiboutians have treated me poorly. Stoned me, spit on me, insulted me, robbed me. In my angry humiliation I respond poorly. I take that anger and direct it, indiscriminately, at everyone. I start to see everyone in the light of the one who wronged me, like personal religious and racial profiling. I need to uproot this. Occasionally I see it rise up in my children and I need to address it in them, too.

Refusing Ignorance

Ignorance leads to fear. What we don’t know and don’t understand, we fear. Fear drives us toward isolation. But the time for living like an ostrich with our head buried in the sand while all the world crumbles around us is long past. It is too late to run for a cabin in the woods.

“Are you afraid?” is one of the most common questions people ask about my family living in Djibouti. They look different, dress different, eat different, talk different, worship different. They live over there. We should be afraid.

But we aren’t because they don’t live over there, they live right here and we have spent more than a decade learning about Islam and local culture and figuring out how to teach our kids about the faith of their peers. To my kids Muslims aren’t anonymous people in turbans and face veils waving machine guns. They are Safa and fourth grade teachers and we aren’t afraid of them. We stand next to them at interfaith prayer gatherings where priests and pastors and imams plead with God for peace. We hold their hands. They hold ours.

There is no excuse for ignorance, for not knowing the ‘other,’ the Muslim or the Christian. Most people today live, work, shop, or travel within meters of this other person. As parents we can slip our family out of the world, become isolated, disappear into homogenous enclaves of people who live, look, and believe like us. We can believe the lie that this will keep our children safe. Or, we can engage. We can insert ourselves into situations that require courage, humility, and intention.

Messy Relationships

Peace rallies and solidarity marches and protest tweets are good. I’ve been to them. I’ve tweeted #bringbackourgirls and #jesuischarlie. But they aren’t enough. Not even with forty world leaders linking arms. During the rally people feel less alone, less afraid, united across divisions. Afterward they go home. And then what?

Then we need to get into relationships. Messy, disagreeing, mutually-improving relationships. I rarely see eye to eye on religious matters with my Muslim friends. That’s okay, this isn’t about agreeing or forcing someone over to our side of a debate. It is about developing empathy and compassion. Brené Brown says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

As parents forge compassionate relationships across religious and other boundaries, our kids will follow in our footsteps. They’ll have play dates with Muslims or Christians, Americans or Djiboutians or French. They won’t know the ‘other,’ they will know their friends and will call them by name.

Casting a Vision

We are raising a fresh generation and this is what gives me great hope. Motherhood in an age of terrorism is an incredible opportunity to cast a vision for our kids of another way to live. Differences in religion and politics and race and gender and economics all have the potential to explode into unending violence. Are we going to raise our kids with fear, cowardice, and isolationism? Or are we going to grab hold of this broken world with one hand and our children with the other and commit to being part of healing it?


Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

By Rachel Pieh Jones

santa's goats1

Stories of Christmases past get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.


Christmas in Djibouti came with swirling dust storms, mosquitoes, the Islamic call to prayer, and 90-degree temperatures. It felt almost cold after the 120-degrees of summer. It was 2004, our first Christmas in Djibouti, second in Africa. We had a one-foot high Christmas tree to share with another American family and a handful of miniature ornaments. Near the tree were small packages wrapped in birthday wrapping paper or colorful t-shirts, doubling as paper for the day. White athletic socks hung along the air conditioner like stockings over the fireplace.

Our kids, four-and-a-half years old, made popcorn strings and paper chains from computer paper that they colored with green and red crayons. My husband is a master snowflake cutter and paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. We had one CD of Christmas music and one borrowed Christmas movie, Elf. We did not have fast enough Internet to watch something online or to listen to music or purchase new music from iTunes. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. That first year in Djibouti, the best Christmas item belonged to our American friends. A Santa Claus costume.

After lunch on Christmas day the other dad disappeared. None of the kids noticed, they were too busy playing with the snowflakes and paper chains. And then! A faint jingle, a deep laugh, a knock on the door.

The door opened and in walked Santa Claus, jingling as he walked. He carried a plastic bag from the Nougaprix grocery store filled with pastel-colored candy coated almonds and lollipops.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “why are you wearing my daddy’s shoes?”

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. In future years, Santa visited Djibouti barefoot. He tried to pat her on the head and she screamed and ran to hide behind her mom.

Santa sat in the living room in a plastic chair and pulled out his grocery sack.

“Ho-ho-ho,” he said and passed out candy.

My husband Tom stood at the window and looked down into the neighbor’s backyard. Three goats had been slaughtered that morning and brown and white hides now stretched over the barbed wire fence, drying.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “you sound like my dad.” She started to cry, confused and frightened. Her infant brother was already wailing.

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. Her mother suggested it was time for Santa to leave. As Santa stood to go, Tom tried to distract the kids and called them to the window.

“Look,” he said, “Reindeer.” He pointed to the goatskins.

“Santa’s reindeer got skinned!” my son shouted. Henry turned away from the window just as Santa opened the door. “Santa, wait,” he called. “Wait! Your reindeer! Someone killed them.”

Screams from the baby and the little girl echoed down the hallway and Santa couldn’t hear Henry. Henry shouted louder, desperate to let Santa know what had happened to his poor reindeer but Santa stepped outside and closed the door, oblivious.

“Oh no, Santa.” Henry started to cry. He ran to the window to get another look. “How is he going to get home?”

“You told them Santa’s reindeer got skinned?” I said to Tom.

He shrugged. “I wasn’t really thinking, I guess.” He grew up on a farm and no one in his family would have been upset over skinned reindeer.

Three of the four kids were still crying when the other dad slipped back into the house. “What happened?” he asked.

We told him the story of Santa and the Skinned Goats. By the time we finished, the kids had wandered off to play and the adults were almost in tears from laughter.

*   *   *

We slowly did what Americans do, accumulated stuff. We gathered more Christmas memorabilia. Stores in Djibouti began carrying Christmas candies, decorations, and wrapping paper. Our holiday celebration started to look ever-so-slightly like the ones I had grown up with in Minnesota, including strings of lights and candy canes and Christmas music and patterned Christmas stockings, which continue to be hung over the air conditioner with care. And stories, that part of Christmas that doesn’t need to be packed up and stored away, the part we actually want to accumulate. Stories of Christmases past that get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.

I could forgo all the decorations, all the Christmas-themed foods and songs and movies. No snow, no holiday parades, no white elephant gift exchanges. They all fade away into the background of my pre-expatriate life. Even the decorations we do have, all the physical items we cherish, might one day be lost or stolen or destroyed or left behind. We’ve evacuated before and we know that when you have two hours to pack and are allowed a single suitcase, the Christmas tree isn’t a priority. But the stories are.

Holidays are story times, story-bearers. We sit around the holiday dinner table and tell stories about Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, July Fourths past. The year we went to the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest on the planet, where the salt was so pure white we pretended it was snow and tried to feel cold. The year we were in Minnesota, once in a decade, and Henry went hunting for the first time in his life and brought down two geese with a single bullet and we ate one for Thanksgiving dinner. The Disney World family reunion Christmas when we sang our personalized version of the 12 Djibouti Days of Christmas. The whale sharks that we swim with every year the day after Christmas, when we camp at Arta Plage under the wide starry sky.

Each year we live a new story and we add it to the pile of stories we can tell about the holidays and these stories become the links in our chain. The chain tethers us to one another, across borders and time zones and nations, across history. This is our story. This is who we are. This is how the Jones family rolls. Because we share this past, we share a sense of belonging.

The story of Santa and the Skinned Goats is retold every Christmas and every Christmas we are freshly shocked that Dad let Henry think the goats were reindeer. Every year we laugh at Henry’s earnest and useless appeal to Santa to listen. Every year we laugh about the crying kids. And every year something new happens that we add to our repertoire of story links that tell us we belong right here, in this expatriate family. Merry Christmas, joyeux noel, eid wanaagsan.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Daunted Yet Determined

Daunted Yet Determined

By Rachel Pieh Jones


Can climbing twenty-two flights of stairs lead to quick deliveries?


The day I gave birth to twins I walked down twenty-two flights of stairs. I was twenty-two years old. We lived on the twenty-second floor of an apartment building in downtown Minneapolis. The building had two elevators that were often broken and on July 26, 2000 both were broken. I was thirty-eight weeks pregnant and roughly the size of a beluga whale. Stretch marks crisscrossed my stomach in between faded temporary tattoos of stars and planets, and blue ink marks where my husband had drawn a map of the world, boundaries of continents loosely guided by the stretch marks.

If these babies didn’t come out soon my stomach might explode. My belly button had long ago spread flat and had been turned into an imaginary mid-Atlantic island on the map. I ate meals with my plate balanced on top of my belly. I wore a dress my mom sewed for me. I called it a dress because it had flowers but it was a tent with holes cut out for my head and arms.

The apartment was ready, as ready as it could be for one bedroom and four people. My husband and I turned the bedroom into the baby room—two cribs, a double stroller, a rocking chair. No room for a changing table. The dresser was in the closet. We placed our two bookshelves side by side in the living room to form a makeshift wall between the two-person table and our bed. We had a two-seater couch rescued from the garbage dump, a television, and a bicycle.

It would be cramped but it would be home. Kind of like my belly had been for the past nine months for these two little people.

I had a doctor’s appointment, to strip my membranes a second time, on the morning of July 26. The morning the elevators were broken. With my husband’s hand on my back and my belly looming before us like a hot air balloon, I teetered and tottered down those twenty-two flights of stairs.

The apartment building primarily housed east African refugees. Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali. The stairwell reeked of fried onions, cumin, and sweet smoky incense. During the first months of my pregnancy, I would be crammed into the back of the elevator behind people going to work and these smells that I otherwise would have enjoyed, triggered violent morning sickness. I would lurch from the elevator toward the laundry room wastebasket to vomit before going to work. I don’t remember the smell from this particular day. All I remember thinking is, “I hope I don’t fall down. I hope I don’t give birth in the stairwell.”

I had exercised on snowy winter days on these stairs. I ran down them to the ninth floor to watch the Olympics with friends. My husband and I used to race on the way to work, one of us taking the elevator and one of us taking these stairs. Who would get to the parking garage first?

I walked up these stairs the day I thought we were loosing the baby, before I knew there were two babies. We went to the hospital, the baby/babies was/were fine. We came home, the elevator was broken. My husband half carried me up the stairs and I stopped on every other landing to rest on the stained gray tile floor, to breathe, and to try not to vomit.

I don’t know if it was the twenty-two flight descent that morning or the stripping of my membranes. I don’t know if it was simply the day the babies were ready to come or if it was the threat of being induced. All I know is that same afternoon back at home while my husband watched after-school cartoons, I started having contractions.

This time, we rode the fixed elevator down.

Five years later in Djibouti when my water broke with our third child but contractions failed to ramp up, the Somali midwife sent me home. It was September 11, 2005 and approximately 115 degrees with high humidity. My feet had bloated to the size of water-logged mangoes and I had gained more weight with this one girl than I had with the twins. I wanted this baby out. Out!

We lived on the upper floor of a duplex. The staircase was made of mismatched brown tiles and chipped cement and had an aluminum banister that was disconnected from the wall on one end and clattered each time I gripped it. I stood at the bottom of the staircase and looked up. How badly did I want this baby out? Sweat dripped down my back, sweat dripped down my front, streaming over my rounded belly like a waterfall. I took a lumbering step. I took another.

I climbed up and down those stairs twenty-two times, a practice I don’t recommend to anyone. I might have lost track of the number, it might have been twenty-seven times. I was twenty-seven years old and I like when numbers match.

And, I gave birth a few hours later after an intense labor experience that lasted exactly twenty-seven minutes.

Twenty-two? Twenty-seven? What I know for certain now is that climbing up and down staircases while nine months pregnant is incredibly difficult. I stood at the bottom, or top, of those staircases daunted yet determined. I also know now that daunted yet determined is ultimately the only way to enter this parenting gig. Grab that rickety banister, slip your arm around your partner, one step in front of the other. And start to climb.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

The Mouth of My Grave is Open

By Rachel Pieh Jones

non-muslim cemetary in djibouti1

A Djiboutian custom during pregnancy, and for forty days following childbirth for restoration, protection and health.


“The mouth of my grave is open.” This is what Djiboutian women say during pregnancy and the forty days following childbirth. “Qabrigayga afka ayaa furan yahay.” They mean that they could die, or the baby could die, at any time and they’re right. The infant and maternal mortality rates in Djibouti are among the highest in the world and aren’t helped by rampant female genital mutilation and limited access to quality healthcare.

I learned the phrase when I was pregnant with our youngest, Lucy Deeqsan, who was born in Djibouti. My friend Awo taught it to me and explained it as a request for prayers for protection and health.

Djiboutians had other ways of procuring protection during these vulnerable days like observing a mandatory rest period of forty days following childbirth during which mother and infant remained indoors. This sounded like paradise. Forty days to rest, bond, and recover.

“If you need to go outside before the forty days are over,” Awo said, “put a nail behind your ear. Or a knife like the one people put under their pillows at night. That way you can fight off the jinn who might attack.” Jinn are mischievous devils, or genies who wreak havoc on humans.

“Also, don’t look at the baby when you nurse her,” Awo said. “The jinn will know how much you love her and will make her sick or take her away.”

Seven days after Lucy’s birth our neighbors planned to sacrifice a goat and have a feast to protect her and guarantee a long, healthy life.

“The blood of goats can’t protect her,” my husband said. He explained that our faith relied on the one-time, all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. “But we’d love to have a party.”

The men came to an agreement that since we believed God had a plan for Lucy’s life or death and since our neighbor believed a sacrifice would help, he would sacrifice a baby goat instead of an adult. There would be less blood, my family could enjoy the meat without believing in its saving power and the neighbors could enjoy the meat and feel relieved that they were contributing to Lucy’s well-being. Plus, there could still be a party.

Friday morning a halal butcher slaughtered a tiny goat in our front yard. During the feast I remained indoors and ate blue, yellow, and pink rice with hot sauce and broiled goat from aluminum platters the neighbors carried into our living room. At the end of my forty days of rest there would be a party for women but this feast was primarily for men and for Lucy.

Outside, neighbors and friends lounged on pillows and sipped Coke, smoked, and dug into the feast with their right hands. My husband read prayers from the Bible and the Quran. The men took turns holding Lucy, taking pictures with her, and whispering blessings over her.

Lucy and I (mostly) stayed indoors during the forty days postpartum. We ate the goat meat. I never placed a nail behind my ear and I stared at Lucy while she nursed, devouring her with my eyes. We prayed for health. After forty days the mouths of my grave and Lucy’s grave quietly closed. We had survived.

Nine years later, our graves are still closed. I still pray for health. Sometimes I am half-tempted to slip a nail behind my ear, if that would guarantee a long and healthy life for my daughter. Anything, to guarantee I will never lose her. But I don’t believe in guarantees. I don’t believe in magic-like phrases or nails or goat’s blood.

Sometimes I wonder if it might be easier if I did, at least I would feel more in control. But this would only be an illusion, I don’t believe in control either. How can I? I don’t know who will carry a gun into the elementary school or who is wearing a bomb underneath their business suit in the restaurant. I can’t see malaria or ebola or cancer cells. I can’t decide who is too drunk to drive every time I enter the freeway or how long prison sentences should be for pedophiles.

Djiboutians know this too, that’s why they say the mouths of their graves are open. That’s why they sacrifice goats and put nails behind their ears. We all attempt to wrangle whatever sense of authority over our lives we can muster. Maybe that is why I find it natural to have faith in something I can’t see or touch. I have no confidence in my own authority. Some trust in nails, some trust in the blood of goats, some trust in their own competencies, I trust in an unseen God. I’m weak, I might and probably will, make bad choices. I can’t save my family from the train barreling down on us. I choose faith.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

I Don’t Promise to Keep My Kids Safe

By Rachel Pieh Jones


The line in movies, books, and television shows that drives me most crazy is when a parent says to a child, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” There are variations on this theme:

“Everything will be fine.”

“You aren’t going to die.” (or daddy or mommy isn’t going to die)

“You will be safe.”

“I promise, nothing will go wrong.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” is what I want to say in response.

I hope real life parents are wiser and more forthright than fictional parents but I can’t be certain. Real life parents might not verbalize these kinds of promises, but many do everything they possibly can to provide the illusion that nothing harmful will ever happen to themselves or their children. I think this is dangerous.

The world is not a safe place. Whether a child is on the slide at the playground in suburban Minneapolis or a child is at the grocery store in a country like Somalia, there can be no guarantees. Pretending like there are, pretending like a child will never get splinter (and the parents will sue the city park and recreation board if he does!) or that a child will never experience illness, violence, grief, pain, or loss is dangerous and deceitful.

May 24th there was a suicide attack at a restaurant in Djibouti, where I live. This was the first terrorist attack ever to occur in Djibouti. Ever. School was cancelled the next day and police checks popped up all over the city. People were on edge, nervous, scared. When school did reopen, there were armed guards, concrete barriers, searches at the door, restrictions on parents entering, limited parking.

I did not tell my 8-year old daughter everything was going to be fine. I didn’t promise her that I would always keep her safe. I didn’t pretend like nothing happened, like nothing had changed. I didn’t simplify the horror (though I didn’t show her the gruesome photos online). I named the name of the terror group who had taken responsibility. I named the name of the restaurant, which was on a street she knows well. I told her what they did and who died.

I didn’t promise to keep her safe because I can’t guarantee that and God forbid, if something should happen, I don’t want her to think that Mommy and Daddy failed or lied or simply didn’t try hard enough. I don’t want her to believe that I am in control, that I’m a god-like mother. I don’t want her courage and her choices and her reactions to be built on the faulty foundation of an illusion of security or invincibility.

I want her courage, choices, and reactions to be built on the confidence that no matter what happens, we love her. No matter what happens we will do everything possible to keep our family safe, protected, healed. But I am not in control of drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, bullies. And, we are people of faith. I believe that no matter what happens, there is a plan in place and it is a plan that has our ultimate good in mind. If our efforts at keeping safe, protected, and healed don’t work, my children need to be able to fall back on something unshakeable, not a foolish promise I could never possibly keep.

The world is scary and anything horrible could happen at any moment but we will not live in fear. If I promised nothing bad would ever happen to my children, and if I wanted to not be a liar, I and my children would be forced into a world cut off from relationships, travel, nature, sports, aging, service, work, all the things that make life beautiful and true and connected.

Some people might look at the choices we have made as a family and conclude that we don’t care about safety, that we take foolish risks, that we not only don’t promise safety but that we lead our children directly into danger. We live in the Horn of Africa and travel to Somalia. Two of our children are at boarding school in Kenya.

I care about safety. I pray every day, sometimes through tears, for the protection of my family and I battle fear, nightmares of what-if tragedies, and anxiety. But safety is not my highest aim for my children. If it were, I would lock them behind a white picket fence and throw away the key.

I want my children to be brave, engaged, compassionate, aware of the world, open to diversity and challenge. I want them to know that a life working for justice, serving the oppressed or downtrodden, fighting to create beauty requires faith and courage and that these practical goals and these character traits trump the need for personal safety.

I want my family to be safe but I will not promise it. My promise to my kids is that their father and I will do our best to make wise decisions, that we will pray for protection, that we will work toward a safer and more peaceful world, and that no matter what happens, we will walk through the valley of darkness, when it inevitably comes, together.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

A Baby at an American Military Camp

A Baby at an American Military Camp

scouts at camp lemonier1

When my youngest was born one of the highlights of our weeks was going to Camp Lemonier, the American military base in Djibouti. Officially, we went for chapel—English sermon, semi-familiar songs. But honestly? We went for the two hours of free, frigid air conditioning and the possibility of a quick stop at the store for American snack foods and maybe a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine.

In those days there weren’t many non-Djiboutian American kids in Djibouti, three of them were my own. Children and women in civilian attire were rarely seen at Camp Lemonier and we drew quite a bit of attention on those Sunday evenings.

For our kids, this was fantastic as it meant they left the base with pockets stuffed full with candy bars or jellybeans or Halloween candy or cans of root beer. Once as an American family was leaving, a couple of armed soldiers shouted, “wait, wait!” and shone searchlights on them. The family wondered what they had done wrong, security is tight, and waited. The soldiers ran to them and handed the kids fistfuls of candy. “We just wanted to say have a nice night,” they said.

I’ve never felt quite at ease at Camp Lemonier. Military life isn’t something I thought much about until we lived here. I don’t like guns or violence and I’m ambivalent about war. Yet the longer I live abroad, the more grateful I am for the freedoms I have in America, even while I recognize that so many other nations enjoy similar freedoms. There are a lot of bad guys out there and I don’t think they should be allowed to roam free kidnapping schoolgirls or taking Saturday afternoon mall shoppers hostage. Al-Shabaab in our region, Boko Haram further west in Nigeria, al-Qaeda to the north in Yemen.

I know military and force is sometimes necessary. But watching my children receive Butterfingers from men holding automatic rifles and dressed in full fatigues is something I don’t think I will get used to.

Sometimes I feel like we are suffering as civilians in Djibouti and that the military personnel have it easy. What a life! Air conditioning, American food, movies in an actual movie theater, Subway sandwiches, strawberries and ice cream. But what a fool I am to think that. These are trivial perks that bring momentary relief. These men and women are working far from their families and loved ones and they don’t have the time, off-base freedoms, or opportunities to engage in the local culture very often.

The things I struggle with as an expat—loneliness, culture shock, language frustration … are balanced by the deeply satisfying relationships I form, by the moments of cultural success, by the broadening of my worldview as it is stretched in relating to people so different from my background. Plus, and significantly, I have my family with me. No amount of air conditioning or ice cream could improve on these perks of the civilian expatriate life.

When Lucy was seven months old we attended an Easter service at Camp Lemonier. The chapel was filled, almost to overflowing. Lucy cried. She cried and cried. It was past bedtime, she wanted to nurse, she didn’t like that free, frigid air conditioning. I bounced and cajoled her and eventually took her outside to the chapel porch, frustrated because I wanted to be in the service and I didn’t want to have sweat pooling in my lower back while I held the only crying baby at the camp.

After the service, people poured out through the narrow doorway. One man, a particularly large soldier in full gear, approached. He had tears in his eyes and rested a broad palm against Lucy’s back.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for letting her cry during the service.” He got choked up and swallowed hard. “My wife just gave birth and I haven’t met our daughter yet. A baby crying is music.”

That Easter was eight years ago and I have never forgotten that man or his words. I think of him every time we go to the base, which has been less often in recent years. In a way, his few but heartfelt words have influenced my parenting.

First, he reminded me that children are a gift, that the ability to squeeze my daughter close, to be with her whether she was cooing or crying, was a treasure. His words remind me of the beauty and I hold in my memory the picture of this tough, brave soldier crying for love of his baby, thankful for the crying of my baby.

Second, he exemplified a love that crosses miles, a love that is sustained despite painful choices and the career options, or anything else, that separate families. Sometimes when people hear my children are at boarding school they say, “I love my children too much to do that.” I have an assortment of snarky responses to this but in the deep waters of my soul I know that some people understand. There is a love that knows no distance. It is heartbreaking and reduces the strongest among us to tears, but it is true and unshakeable.

Lucy and I went back to Camp Lemonier in May this year. She participated in a Girl Scouts bridging ceremony at one of the only bridges in the city—a short wooden porch outside the coffee shop, we pretended it was a bridge. Then she handed out miniature American flags, this girl who was born in Djibouti and calls herself American African.  This girl who cried at an Easter service and brought a serviceman to tears. This girl who is a gift and who has crossed miles, who is learning about love over distances—siblings at boarding school in Kenya, grandparents in Minnesota, a dad currently doing PhD research in Somalia.

I still don’t feel quite comfortable at Camp Lemonier. All that barbed wire and the ‘Deadly Force Authorized’ signs and the weaponry. But at the same time, I feel an affinity for the soldiers, especially the parents. And somehow, though we don’t know each other, it is comforts me to know that just a few miles from my home in Djibouti there are other parents who feel what I feel when reduced to Skype calls with children and the occasional visit home. Parents who live with that stabbing love that knows no distance.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

Photo by: Lyn Englin

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The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

The Things Teenagers Leave Behind

By Rachel Pieh Jones

WO Teens Leave Behind ArtMy teenagers don’t live at home anymore and every time they go back to boarding school, every time they check-in under the Kenya Airways sign at the airport, I think, “How can something that is so good for them hurt me so deeply I can’t breathe?”

A silver brush filled with tangled long blondish-brown hairs rests on the IKEA shelf in my bathroom. The hairs are not mine, I have curly hair and never use a brush. There are more shoes at the front door than the three people in the house could ever wear. Candy wrappers are stuck to car seats and there is a load of salty, sandy laundry in the bathroom from our beach campout two days ago.

I walk around the house the day after my twin teenagers return to boarding school and pick up the things they have left behind, like brushes and towels and off season clothes. I fold bed sheets and tip mattresses against the wall so rats or cockroaches don’t take up residence over the next three months. I scrub toothpaste dribbles from the sink and scoop up still-damp bath towels. I rearrange books and replace game pieces from Settlers of Catan.

I pull open the refrigerator door to take inventory. They devoured fruits and vegetables, my fresh baked breads, cereal, cheese. They left dirty dishes in the sink from the quadruple batch of brownies we made yesterday, wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed into plastic buckets for the trek back to school.

Henry likes to drink out of the glassware, so there is a clear glass balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter. Maggie likes to use the teacups she puffy-painted with friends years ago, even though the puffy paint has mostly peeled off. She left one on the table and a damp ring is forming around the base.

They left behind sandals that no longer fit rapidly growing feet, t-shirts so beloved they are torn nearly to shreds, swim suits that they won’t wear in Kenya, far from the ocean that we drive by every day here in Djibouti.

Here in Djibouti, here at home. They still call Djibouti home but since seventh grade they have spent more of their time at the school in Kenya, the vast expanse of Ethiopia stretching between our borders. Every time they leave, at the start of each term after a month or six weeks home, I walk through the house and put back the pieces.

The last time they returned, after summer break, the flight left at 3:00 a.m. My husband drove them and they left behind their little sister, sleeping upstairs. I stood at the front gate and waved until the car turned the corner even though no one could see me in the dark. Then I leaned against the door frame and cried for a while, went upstairs to kiss Lucy on the cheek, and tried to forget that in the morning there would be only one cereal bowl stuck with dried milk to the table, not three.

The days following Henry and Maggie’s departures are foggy, slower, thick. The family members left at home start to shift; we rearrange our relationships with each other. There is less cooking, less laundry, less cleanup. I can return to writing projects that languished, friendships I’ve ignored, and organizational projects I’d only dabbled in during their vacation.

Lucy straightens her bedroom, she likes it more organized than Maggie does and Lucy carefully refolds her clothes and returns Littlest Pet Shop toys to their proper storage boxes. She stuffs the play clothes back into the basket and I am filled with gratitude that Maggie, though thirteen, still plays dress-up and tea party and giggles with her sister, their time together now precious not annoying.

Lucy moves squashed ping pong balls out of her path and rides Henry’s RipStick around the tiled porch. He, too, knows the time with his younger sister is special and he left behind the echoes of hours spent wrestling and hitting one another with padded sticks.

My husband, Tom, doesn’t change his schedule as much as I do while the kids are home, as a university professor, PhD student, and director of our organization in Djibouti, he doesn’t have that flexibility. But now there are fewer arms and legs flying around the living room during wrestling matches, fewer arguments over Wii remotes, fewer heated debates over Arsenal football versus Liverpool.

As I clean up the things left behind and as we transition our routines from life with two teenagers in the house to life without them, I recognize that they have left behind something much deeper and foundational, much harder to pick up and put back together.

They left behind a mother who feels like a failure, like an almost-empty-nester at thirty-five years old which is far too young, in my opinion. No matter that this is what Henry and Maggie want, no matter that they are thriving and excelling at this school more than they ever did at the French schools in Djibouti. No matter that this expatriate life has given them the gift of being loved, of having a home, and of belonging in at least three countries.

No matter that they are smiling, that the ‘I’ll miss you mom’ and the ‘I love you’ are sincere but the eyes are already turned toward school and friends. No matter that I knew from the moment I gave birth via vaginal delivery and c-section on the same day that wise motherhood choices are rarely the easy ones. Thirteen years later that scar is still sensitive, these twins left their mark.

The feeling that I have somehow failed them, or failed as a mother, flow from the lie that choosing boarding school means I have stepped out of the parenting role. But what I know, deeply, is that choosing boarding school is made everyday from that exact parenting role. And while the tears flow out of the feelings, the conviction and the strength to step into the next three months apart flow out of the knowing.

Because these teenaged twins also left behind a mother who knows she is a good mother. This choice isn’t me failing at parenthood, it isn’t me handing off the responsibility and gift of my children to someone else, it isn’t separate from my role as a mother. This choice of sending our children to boarding school is part of our parenting, it is what being responsible for the gift of these teenagers in our context and in our family and according to our needs and values looks like. It is me being the best possible mother I know how to be. And because it breaks my heart and leaves me crying against doorframes and into pillows and at stop signs, it feels like failure.

But just because something hurts doesn’t mean it is bad, wrong, or failed. This is, perhaps, one of the biggest things my teenagers leave behind. And I hope it is something they also take with. The realization that life won’t be easy, comfortable, or pain-free and the confidence that this is okay.

I am the kind of mother who used to look at a skinned knee and say, “Look at your beautiful blood. Let’s clean it out and get back on that bike as soon as possible.” I never imagined I could shelter them from pain and struggle, from what the world will bring to bear with force and grief and aggression. But I can create a shelter, a place for them to spread Legos out wide and to wrestle their little sister and wear clown wigs, a place for them to bring their messes and their gut-busting laughs, a place out of which they can gather courage and experience grace.

Now, with my heart in shreds and knowing that yes something that hurts this bad can be a good thing, I watch my husband drive the kids to the airport. Or, I watch them push their suitcases through security and I hold my hands over my grief and say, “Look at my beautiful teenagers. I want them to stay with me forever. Go with courage, go with grace.”

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

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