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Finding common ground

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Posted on December 2, 2010 |
By Tamara Hilmes



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FERRISBURGH — There is an old Balti Arab proverb that goes, “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.”

This proverb inspired the title of humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s popular book, “Three Cups of Tea,” which in turn inspired Ferrisburgh resident Mary Kerr, who has made it her mission to build connections between the United States and the Middle East.

Just last Friday, Kerr returned from her latest travels in Syria, where she spent two weeks meeting people and immersing herself in the culture.

“I’ve traveled all over the world by the seat of my britches,” Kerr said. “I’m not the cruise, tour type. I go with ‘Lonely Planet’ by my side. I travel for people and culture.”

Kerr, who has been traveling since she was four years old, has been to all 50 states in the U.S., as well as Europe and South America. She has also visited Turkey, Oman, Bahrain, The United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, and most recently, Jordan and Syria.

“It’s just always fascinated me,” said Kerr, 77, who wrote her senior thesis on Afghanistan in 1954 for the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It was not until 2006, though, that Kerr was finally able to visit the troubled country that had always captivated her interest.

Kerr traveled under the authority of the humanitarian organizations Afghans for Tomorrow and Global Exchange that arranged for all of her accommodations and meetings once on-site.

“Afghanistan in 2006 was just a real shocker,” Kerr said. “We just screwed up so badly in not taking care of the Afghans and not doing for them as we should have.”

During her time in Afghanistan, which she spent mostly in Kabul, Kerr interviewed people at 12 different humanitarian organizations to find out what kind of support the Afghani people truly needed.

“They wanted food, shelter, security and education and use of the young people who were already educated,” Kerr said. “I think it’s sad today that most people equate the word ‘Taliban’ with Afghan. And not all Afghans are Taliban, and not all Taliban are Afghans.”

For Kerr, it’s important for people to understand Middle Eastern culture in order to dispel the fear that surrounds it.

“One of my purposes in travel when I come back is to bring a message of friendship and peace,” she said. “I’m not a member of any organization, I just do things one on one.”

When she left her home on Lake Champlain on October 24, and headed for Jordan, Kerr aimed to meet regular people, rather than the leaders of various aid organizations.

In Jordan, Kerr worked with Habitat for Humanity to build a home for one son of a large family all living under the same roof. While there, Kerr stayed in the home of the family along with the other Habitat workers. Each day, the women of the family prepared large buffets of food, which they laid out on cloths on the floor. Kerr and the others sat or knelt on cushions as they indulged in what Kerr described as “the most delicious food you ever put in your mouth.”

The Jordanian family offered Kerr her first cup of tea — they welcomed her into their home and treated her like family.

“These people, by nature, are welcoming and hospitable,” Kerr said. “They would protect you. You’re under their roof.”

SYRIAN HOSPITALITY
Once the new home was complete, Kerr made her way north to Damascus, Syria, where she joined a friend, Sarah Widness of Barnard, and met her second set of hosts, Deborah Felmeth and Mouawia Bouzo.

The couple lives for six months in Damascus, and the other six months of the year in Waltham. According to Kerr, the couple every year conducts a couple of tours in Syria that several people from Middlebury have taken. Though Kerr was unable to go on one of their tours, Deborah and Mouawia helped plan her trip.

“She wanted to know where I wanted to go and they had suggestions for where we should go and how we should go,” Kerr said.

The couple also arranged for a guide and driver to accompany Kerr and Widness on their two-week excursion through Syria, and welcomed the visitors to their Damascus home for dinner one night.

“Deborah and her husband had a Thanksgiving feast,” Kerr said. “They had about 10 guests, both American and Syrian.”

Even a Butterball turkey came all the way from Beirut, Lebanon, for the occasion.

“It was extraordinary,” Kerr said. “I had no idea that was going to happen.”

Together, the Syrians and Americans feasted on traditional Thanksgiving foods like mashed potatoes and turkey, along with rice, yogurt and desserts, including apricots and date syrup.
Moments like these, said Kerr, are what keep her hopping back on that plane time and time again.

“I enjoy this culture, and I would just like to see people understand it better,” Kerr said. “And particularly the Arab and Islamic culture. They’re just like we are. I hope I’m as friendly and hospitable as they are.”

The third group to offer Kerr and Widness a cup of tea were a family of Bedouins, or nomad sheepherders, who live two hours outside of Damascus “in the middle of the desert,” Kerr said.

Kerr had expressed an interested in visiting a Bedouin camp earlier in the trip, and her driver was happy to oblige. He drove along the desert highway, honking his horn when he saw a camp. If a person came outside of the camp upon hearing the horn, it would be the sign that visitors were welcome. Luckily for Kerr and Widness, a person exited the first camp they happened upon.

“So we went in, and we were there almost an hour and a half,” Kerr said. “They spoke no English at all. None. There were two sisters, their two husbands and two daughters. We sat there and had the traditional tea.”

The family of six lives in an oblong tent, about half the size of an average conference room. Makeshift walls are formed out of colorful blankets and rugs, and the living space becomes the communal sleeping space by night.

Though she would have liked to keep in touch with the family that had welcomed her so warmly, to maintain a strong cross-cultural connection, Kerr said that this would be impossible.

“There’s no way to keep up with them,” she said. “These people are nomads. They don’t have an address.”

But not all Syrians choose to live as nomads in the desert regions of the country. Damascus, Kerr said, is a very modern city.

“Anyone going to Syria would be very comfortable,” she said. “There’s no reason not to be. There’s a misconception that these people are backward, and they’re not. I saw very few ramshackle cars and I only saw one beggar in the five weeks I was gone, and that was a woman in Damascus. I’ve seen more in Italy and Paris and New York.”

Though Kerr has had only experiences in her visits to the Middle East, she understands that a level of risk is involved. Each time before she sets off to a new destination, she writes her family a letter.

“Before I leave I write a letter to family and friends and say, ‘I know I’m choosing to go to a country that my country would prefer I didn’t go to.’ Syria for instance — we don’t even have an ambassador in Syria. With Afghanistan, I knew that I could possibly be at risk,” she said.

According to Kerr, she does not expect either her government or her family to bail her out should she get into trouble.

“I have chosen to put myself at risk, therefore other people shouldn’t have to bail me out,” she said. “Although, I did say to my son, ‘I bet if I were kidnapped, you wouldn’t pay the ransom.’ My son said, ‘Mother, after 24 hours with you, trust me, they’d pay us to take you back.’”

But even with a chance of danger, Kerr believes her visits are rewarding in a priceless way.

“If I could, I’d go to Baghdad tomorrow,” she said. “I am on a mission. With Syria and Jordan, I just want people to understand people of the Islamic culture. It’s a beautiful, beautiful culture. And it’s just like in our country, and the difference between a Fundamentalist Christian and your run of the road Congregationalist. There are extremes in all fields.”

Tamara Hilmes is at tamarah@addisonindependent.com.

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