As an avid whitewater kayaker I have always found rivers inspiring. They have provided me many new perspectives, whether stuck upside down in a rapid, peering down the edge of a waterfall, or lazily floating in calmer waters.
A river even inspired me where I least expected it– in the heart of the insurgency in Iraq, during my two-year tour there. I was marveling at the river called Euphrates, whose waters fed the ancient land of Mesopotamia and which is mentioned in the Bible as one of the rivers flowing through the Garden of Eden. Ancient history and religious theories aside, the Euphrates appeared miraculous in its ability to continuously channel water through the endless desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar province.
Sitting along its banks one afternoon in the spring of 2004, I was struck by the pastoral scene of the gentle, deep blue river framed by lush bulrushes, the sounds of moving water and wind breezing through the grasses transporting me to a place of quiet and calm.
Just a few weeks prior, I mused, nearby Fallujah had experienced the mini-war between the US Marines and the insurgents. I couldn’t imagine how any two scenes could be more different. Yet, even through downtown Fallujah, the Euphrates River flowed, surging on, untouched and unstopped by the chaos, death, and destruction happening around it, still bringing life and sustenance to the desert.
Since that day, I’ve marveled at the symbolism I saw in the Euphrates and I have tried to fully appreciate what seemed a powerful lesson. I often wonder how we can be more like the river. How can we press on despite obstacles? How can we relieve those in the midst of dire circumstances? How can we offer hope and life and beauty?
The purpose for which the Euphrates Institute was founded is to answer those questions by emulating the river in its other capacity, as the ancient bridge between civilizations. The Euphrates River provided the westernmost border between the “East” (civilizations of Sumeria, Babylon, and later the Persian Empire) and the “West” (Israel and Palestine). Another way to look at a border is as a link. The West and Middle East desperately need links right now. In today’s global era, where technology has made time and space obsolete, links are as easy to establish as a satellite connection. But the links of understanding and respect between two seemingly opposed civilizations are more difficult to forge.
Connecting cultures is something I’ve been passionate about since I was twelve years old, when my parents sent me off to France for a year to stay with a French family as part of an ad-hoc international exchange. (My parents assure me that they weren’t trying to get rid of me.) Not knowing a word of French, never having met the family I was about to live with for a year, and never having traveled abroad before, I was at first shocked at the differences and the isolation I felt. Everything was different, which meant to my inexperienced and juvenile mind, “worse.”
During that year, however, I learned not only how to survive, but to thrive. Thriving meant understanding things from a different perspective, letting go of my sense of how things ought to be done, learning to communicate in their “language” (whether literally or culturally or historically), having a sincere interest in others, in their backgrounds and in their needs.
I’ve carried those skills and that experience with me through my extensive travels and time working abroad, whether for a human rights organization in Western Africa or my five years focusing on the Near East and South Asia for the US government.
Through the Euphrates Institute, I seek to broaden the application of those skills and capitalize on the growing need and desire of many to bridge the divide between the Middle Eastern and Western worlds. Like the Euphrates in Iraq, I hope the Institute can bring inspiration, even where you’d least expect it.
Janessa Gans Wilder, Founder and CEO, The Euphrates Institute