Almost a decade ago, while working at The St. Petersburg Times, I traveled regularly to the Middle East and other far flung places on assignment.
Sometimes the work was risky, often unpredictable but it was always exciting. The experiences have been the best education of my life.
Some of the most memorable trips include; Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power; three journeys inside Saudi Arabia; refugee camps in Macedonia; an encounter with secret police in Qatar; trying to explain our way out of Syria without an entry visa and the many, many excursions to my two favorite cities, Jerusalem and Istanbul.
The constant in these assignments has been the complication and sometimes utter confusion of working in places that have deep rooted conflict. The shining light and the thing I'll remember is the people. I was reminded of this in September when Oregonian colleague Rich Read and I traveled to Jordan and Lebanon for a series of stories about the Syrian refugee crisis. After more than 31 months of civil war more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, more than 4 million are homeless and two million are refugees.
This was my first trip to the Middle East since working inside Iraq during war-time about a decade ago.
At an overworked school in Mafraq, Jordan, I was reminded how quickly the feeling of helplessness can sweep over a country, a neighborhood, a family or a person. I was also reminded of the strength some have during these times.
The lessons came from a class of ninth grade Syrian girls who are coming of age during war.
Roqaya lost both parents and two siblings in a massacre in Homs. Three of Batool's cousins were killed by snipers. Julanar longs of the the songbird that flew outside her window. Some live now is orphans in Jordan, all lost something during the war in their country. Still the girls are filled with desire to educate themselves and return to Syria as doctors, lawyers or builders and make their country whole again.
Their faces, their voices and their stories will remain with me forever. My hope is that some of their spirit is in me too.