Hope Travels: AOI Balances Service, Art, and Leisure in the Middle East

In her travels to Israel, Nancy Bartosz proves that making an impact with Hope Travels can coexist with a more conventional vacation before ramping things back up for her visit to Iraq.

Nancy, friends posing with Kurdish children in front of the hope mural in Halabja. Photo: Muhammad Kurdy

Nancy, friends posing with Kurdish children in front of the hope mural in Halabja. Photo: Muhammad Kurdy

As the founder of Hope Travels, Nancy Bartosz has dedicated months to working within communities to improve awareness surrounding mental health and suicide. This work has left lasting impacts across Africa and the sheer amount of time and work Nancy has devoted to Hope Travels is rewarding for all involved. Traveling somewhere for the singular intent of helping to strengthen a community is a uniquely gratifying experience well worth the amount of time it requires.

Relaxing with a drink in Lebanon. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Relaxing with a drink in Lebanon. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

For many people though, stepping away from work and family for such an extended period of time may be unrealistic. Vacation time is tough to come by and spending the entire time away from work to volunteer to work more is a tough sell. However, making a difference does not have to mean sacrificing leisure and vacation time. Hope Travels is as much about taking a few hours out of a week-long vacation to volunteer as it is about year-long outreach missions. In Israel, Nancy struck a more relaxing balance. For a few weeks around Christmas time, she and a cast of friends travelled around Israel, as well as the West Bank and Lebanon, to visit the tourist destinations and trek through the countryside. Compared to the rewarding but often busy and taxing work she has done throughout Africa so far, the leisure time in the Middle East was a welcome change.

Israel also afforded the opportunity for Nancy to do a simple and effective service project. Nancy coordinated with students back in the US to collect craft supplies that would be donated to different organizations. One of the organizations was Yemin Orde Youth Village,  which provides housing and education to over 400 at-risk and immigrant children.

Nancy and Racheli with donated supplies in Yemin Orde. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Nancy and Racheli with donated supplies in Yemin Orde. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

This sort of work is something anyone can do with a few minutes of research and a bit of preparation. Find a few community locations or organizations with positive missions and a couple hours of time. Making a difference can be as simple as starting a conversation about mental health or handing out information on local resources. Ending the stigma requires a group effort and even the smallest of impacts can become a part of a greater whole.

Nancy’s visit to the Kurdistan region of Iraq saw a return to the murals and community outreach. The Barzani Charity Foundation oversees camps for both refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) across the country. Hassan Sham’s Barzani Charity Foundation Center is an IDP camp for people primarily from the Mosul area that have been forced to move due to ongoing conflicts in Iraq. The camp itself was a refuge from the surrounding chaos and destruction. Inside the fences music blared and children played soccer. The camp has a clear emphasis on ensuring children’s safety and happiness. Nancy and her friends brought kites that were eagerly decorated and then flown. In all, Nancy visited 3 Barzani Charity Foundation camps during her trip through Kurdistan. In addition to Hassan Sham, she visited the Domiz camps that house Syrian refugees and the Dawidiya IDP camp that houses Yazidi people fleeing persecution from ISIS. Everyone in these camps has faced immense hardships and hold uncertain futures. Despite the challenges faced, these camps have an incredibly strong community. There is an emphasis on creating safe and nurturing spaces for the children of these camps. The kites that Nancy and her travel companions brought provided an outlet of self-expression through art and play.

Artist Mira Graff creating a mural in Kurdistan. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Artist Mira Graff creating a mural in Kurdistan. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Throughout Kurdistan, Nancy was joined by Jason Everett who founded the More Friends Than Mountains campaign to link Kurdish people in Chicago and Kurdistan, and Mohammed “Mo” Hawar, a Kurdish architect who is now the Chief Education Officer for the Barzani Charity Foundation helped to guide and educate them. Jason has travelled with Nancy to several countries during her Hope Travels journey, providing kites, skateboards, and a friendly attitude.

Aside from being a charming and knowledgeable guide through the Kurdistan region, Mo is also an accomplished architect and speaker. He recently gave a TEDx Talk in Rome about destroying real and imagined walls while replacing them with bridges between communities and people.

Mo encapsulates the resilience of the Kurdish community. The region and its people have long faced conflict. The March 16th, 1988 Halabja chemical massacre perpetrated by the Hussein regime has left lasting impacts upon the area and further conflict has continued to plague the region since. Despite this, they continue to survive while demonstrating generosity and openness.

The two kurdish artists at work on the Erbil Citadel Hope Mural. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

The two kurdish artists at work on the Erbil Citadel Hope Mural. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

“They see themselves as overcomers who have been tested time and again. As you drive through the region, homes, bridges, and even mountains are decorated with the Kurdish flag that shows pride in their indomitable strength and interconnectedness. In many ways, it seems during visits that Kurdish people do not take anything for granted. In all of my travels, they are the most generous and kind people I have encountered.” Nancy said of the Kurdish people.

Mohammed “Mo” Hawar engaging and educating Kurdish children. Photo: Jason Everett

Mohammed “Mo” Hawar engaging and educating Kurdish children. Photo: Jason Everett

Nancy’s Kurdish adventure reached its apex with the Hope mural at the UNESCO world heritage site The Citadel at the center of Erbil. In collaboration with Jason Everett, the Barzani Charity Foundation, four artists, from the US, Melissa Marie Collins and Mike Steneron and Kurdish artists, Awa F. Bakr and Vanila Van, each painted one letter of the word “HOPE” in their unique style. While the artists worked, Nancy and Jason worked with a number of families in Barzani Charity Foundation camps and flew kites that were decorated in the US.

In Kurdistan, Nancy found compassion, hospitality, and a strong sense of community. Those traits along with a clear emphasis on nurturing and educating children are what Hope Travels looks to cultivate in communities around the world. Mental health is only one of many hurdles facing this region, but Kurdistan is well situated to continue to move forward and eliminate the perceived barriers surrounding mental health.

Make Hope Travels a part of your next trip by becoming an Agent of Impact with HFTD. Your impact can be as simple as handing out resource cards and wristbands, or organizing a community event. Share your Hope Travels outreach with us by using hashtag #HaveHope on social media and by joining the Hope Travels Facebook page here.

Now that we’ve caught up with Nancy’s travels, the Hope Travels blogs will be released every-other week starting with coverage of her most recent Jordan mural project in Amman. For more Hope Travels coverage visit Nancy’s personal blog.  

The completed Erbil Hope mural. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

The completed Erbil Hope mural. Photo: Nancy Bartosz

Jackson Kilpatrick