Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The fish was staring at me and I was staring back. Fortunately, my fork gave me the upper hand. The venue was Balbaa, one of Alexandria’s many seafood restaurants. The occasion was something of a farewell dinner as Karen, Aaron, and I joined two Egyptian pastors for one last round of seafood before we head out of Egypt. That meal was not my last farewell and certainly not the only one. Two days later, Karen and I were invited to the home of Sanaa, one of our English students, so we could share a meal and say goodbye. When I return to Cairo I’m sure there will be at least one more such meal to mark the end of a year in Egypt. However, friends, coworkers, and fresh fish aren’t the only things I am bidding farewell. There are many more things (both good and bad) that I will be leaving behind as I return to Virginia.
Over the past few weeks I have been preparing myself for my departure and have been noticing all the things I will miss about Egypt – in season produce year round, fresh strawberry juice from the stand across the street, young students who write me love letters when they are supposed to be paying attention in class, freshly baked bread on every corner, the hospitality and generosity to strangers that are a huge part of Egyptian culture, taking taxis across the city for less than a dollar, sunshine nearly every day, conversations in broken Arabic with the friendly old lady with two teeth who sells tomatoes at the market, walking almost everywhere, and regular opportunities to meet and interact with an amazingly diverse community of Christians. Of course, there are also many things that I am looking forward to about my return to Virginia – spending time with people I haven’t seen in a year, air conditioning, shorts, trees, silence, clean air, driving, being able to understand and speak to people, and walking outside without being harassed.
In preparing to leave Egypt, I am not only sad about the things I will leave and excited for the people and things I have missed for a year, but I have found myself growing anxious about transitioning back into American culture because of the ways I have changed in Egypt. At this point, I have no way of knowing how significant these changes are, but for the past eleven months, I have learned to live with only the material goods that fit in two suitcases. I have grown accustomed to living more simply, to functioning without certain modern conveniences like fast food, cable TV, and a car. I have learned to appreciate what I have and not take so many things for granted. This is a valuable lesson that I hope to bring with me from Egypt, but I fear when I am surrounded by advertisements and people telling me I need all these conveniences, it will be harder to appreciate what I have.
In addition to my view of material goods, I think being in Egypt has also helped me appreciate the non-material blessings of my life. Every day in Cairo or Alexandria I encounter people who don’t have nutritious food to eat or well-built homes in which to live. I see people who are not here by choice, but because they were forced to flee their homeland due to violence and war. Here in Alexandria I am working at a school for children with disabilities. Despite the challenges they face daily, these kids are extremely fortunate not to be among the majority of disabled Egyptians who end up begging for handouts on the street or homebound with no one to care for them. The two maids who work at the school where I live in Cairo and clean my apartment are both, like most lower class Egyptians, completely illiterate. Although seeing these people struggling around me is not something I enjoy, it has caused me to be thankful for my caring family, comfortable home, well-stocked pantry, stable political environment, education, and any number of other blessings that we tend to take for granted in the US.
Currently I am struggling with the anxieties of not having a job, of acquiring the responsibilities that come with marriage, and of returning to my own culture, having been so deeply affected by another. Amidst these fears, I am reminded of Anthony, a Sudanese man I met just a few weeks ago at the Alexandria Community Church. He fled his home in Sudan seventeen years ago and has been living in Egypt, not a citizen of Egypt, and not having refugee status, which could enable him to be resettled in a western country. After seventeen years in this limbo, he has decided it is time to return to Sudan and plans to leave Alexandria at the end of this month, the same time I return home. Unlike me, however, Anthony does not know where he will live when he returns to Sudan. In fact, he does not know if the village from where he came still exists. He does not know what kind of work he will find, how he will support himself, or even how many of his friends and family members are still living. With such a new peace in Sudan, he cannot even be assured that that he will be going home to a safe political climate. As we shared our prayer concerns in church this week, I found myself inspired by his faith and reminded that God has promised to provide for our needs. Whether it be an uncertain journey into a war-ravaged country after seventeen years away, a plane ride across the Atlantic to an eagerly waiting fiancé, friends, and family, or some other life transition, we can trust God to guide us, provide for us, and give us peace.
Please continue to pray for all the volunteers as we return home and begin a new chapter of life.
June/July newsletter of Lisa Burke, serving as a YAGM with the ELCA in Cairo, Egypt