Alumna crosses cultures, builds faith in Asia

From Islam to Communism. Debra Marovitch, a 2008 La Sierra University Global Studies graduate, recounts the richly varied, endlessly surprising and faith-building experiences of teaching English in Afghanistan and China over eight months. Her journey began Sept. 11 last year and ended in June.
From Islam to Communism. Debra Marovitch, a 2008 La Sierra University Global Studies graduate, recounts the richly varied, endlessly surprising and faith-building experiences of teaching English in Afghanistan and China over eight months. Her journey began Sept. 11 last year and ended in June.

July 24, 2009
By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( ) As the jet on which Debra Marovitch was traveling descended into Kabul, Afghanistan, she looked down at a mountainous desert environment not unlike that of Southern California’s. But upon closer inspection the miles of barbed wire, sandbags, military camouflage and guns reinforced the surreal truth: Marovitch was entering a war zone.

“Here military presence is everywhere. When we enter the living compound, the guard at the gate stops us and uses a mirror to check under the vehicle for bombs or other unwanted foreign objects ­ a new experience for me,” Marovitch wrote in an e-mail to family and friends.

Marovitch, a 2008 La Sierra University Global Studies graduate, recounted through numerous e-mails and an interview the richly varied, endlessly surprising and faith-building experiences of teaching English in Afghanistan and China over eight months. Her journey began on Sept. 11 last year with her arrival in Kabul and ended in early June this year when she returned home to the Inland Empire.

Marovitch is interested in a career involving international development. During her tenure at La Sierra she participated in the university’s Honors program through which she conducted a scholarship project titled “The Workings of International Development: Grassroots Beginnings or Imported Implementation.” The project involved an internship near Cusco, Peru where Marovitch volunteered with ProPeru Service Corps. The organization is part of ProWorld Service Corps in Billings, Mont. ProWorld and its volunteers from around the globe helps communities in several countries better their education, increase food production, improve health and propel social and economic development.

Between Sept. 11 and Jan. 5 Marovitch resided in Kabul where she taught various levels of English to several hundred medical professionals at the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. She flew to Hangzhou, China on Jan. 5 and through the first of June taught English to medical personnel at the Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital and Zhejiang University Children’s Hospital.

Loma Linda University operates the hospital in Kabul and is affiliated with the Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital and the children's hospital. A grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington D.C. covered Marovitch's expenses in Afghanistan and paid her a small stipend. Loma Linda administered the grant. The hospitals in China covered her housing, costs and stipend in that country.

The cultures in Kabul and Hangzhou, one a war-torn society driven by fundamental Islamic beliefs, the other a secular, materialistic, close-quartered world, contrasted sharply. In Afghanistan, in keeping with moral codes, she avoided eye contact with men and wore the requisite long pants, top and headscarf. She struggled to understand appropriate female behavior. By contrast, women in China wore short-shorts and “everybody is pushing up against everybody else,” she said. In Afghanistan, she associated with her group of expatriate colleagues in the hospital compound. “In China, it was just me,” Marovitch said. In both environments, her faith was put to the test.

In Hangzhou, she struggled mightily to communicate with the masses who spoke little or no English, a dilemma that made long sight-seeing trips to Xi’an and Beijing stressful.

In Kabul, she was frustrated by complaints from students and the demands of doctors who needed an English program certificate but who didn’t want to attend class. “I look forward to yet another week of patience-building and tolerance testing as God works on my character even further,” she commented in one of her e-mail updates from Kabul. Patience won out in the end, however. “I love my students,” she wrote on Nov. 14. “I’m not so hot on teaching itself, but I definitely love my students and getting to know them.”

In Afghanistan, she celebrated Eid, a three-day holiday marking the end of Islam’s Ramadan, and learned to eat spicy Afghani food with her fingers out of communal bowls. During a rare trip outside her living compound, she traveled to the city of Bamyan, headquarters of an Afghanistan project by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. In Bamyan she climbed to the site where two ancient Buddhas carved into a cliff had stood firm for hundreds of years, only to be bombed by the Taliban. She witnessed extreme poverty contrasted against beautiful mountains around the isolated village of Panjao, an ADRA project site a bumpy, seven-hour ride from Bamyan. In one of her e-mails, Marovitch described dirt-poor Panjao farmers stockpiling crops as well as manure for fuel ahead of icy winter months that close roads and force animals into homes to share and generate warmth.

And in Kabul she witnessed the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack very near the hospital where she worked. The blast occurred on America’s Thanksgiving Day. The explosion killed and injured many people who were taken to the hospital. “We were sitting in the office safe and sound when we heard the blast,” she said in an e-mail update. “I had to go to class shortly thereafter and it was extremely sobering to push my way through the crowd of people in our foyer ­ loved ones waiting as the patients were wheeled in, doctors and nurses rushing around taking care of the casualties, tearful employees trying to reach loved ones on the phone to ensure that they were still alive.”

She lived with other expatriates inside a walled, guarded housing compound which in turn existed within the Wazir Akbar Kahn Hospital’s walled, guarded compound. Violence in Afghanistan made travel outside the hospital compound dangerous and thus infrequent. “The social event of the week was buying groceries. Going out really wasn¹t that common.”

Some travel was available through so-called safe taxis whose drivers practice evasive driving around Kabul¹s lawless streets and who “are not going to kidnap you,” she said. “People do what they want on the road, including going the wrong way down a one-way street, making a u-turn where there is a barrier and completely ignoring any and all traffic signals and signs,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Afghanistan is a developing country that during Marovitch’s stay was suffering from a drought. Diminished snowmelt needed for drinking water and hydro-powered electricity resulted in diminished supplies of both. City residents had access to electrical power only three or four hours every third day. But the hospital and its compound had power most of the day partly through use of a backup generator. Because of Loma Linda’s involvement, the hospital in Kabul operated “on the higher end of things” but most likely wouldn’t pass muster with U.S. zoning requirements, Marovitch said.

Afghanistan forbids foreigners from proselytizing in any manner. However some of Marovitch’s students inquired about her religious views while asking myriad questions about U.S. culture. She decided to stop such discussions to curtail any activities that might ultimately lead to harmful situations. “Families get violent if family members are considering another religion,” Marovitch said. “I would emphasize, we’re not here to convert you, we’re here to teach English.” But the students shared their Muslim views with her including the belief that Jesus will come back as a prophet and continue his ministry, she said. The Muslim students struggled greatly to understand the Christian belief in Jesus as God as well as in the Trinity.

Marovitch arrived in China the first week of January. After living with Afghanistan’s restrictive cultural mores, poverty and violence, Marovitch found contact with the crowded yet safer world of a modern Chinese city to be a “sort of ‘culture shock’ meets ‘re-entry’ in a weird sort of way,” she wrote. During her stay, she celebrated China’s Lantern Festival during which residents decorate the streets with hundreds of paper lanterns. And from the seventh floor of a friend’s Shanghai apartment, she watched 45 minutes of fireworks explode for blocks and blocks around the city as the country celebrated Chinese New Year.

Despite the stress of a significant language barrier that challenged all aspects of travel, she flew to Xi’an and Beijing and visited the famed terra cotta warriors, the Great Wall, Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. After one long and harrowing return journey to her hotel in Beijing, Marovitch wanted to throw in the towel and spend her remaining vacation days in safe seclusion until time to board her plane back to Hangzhou. “But God helped me through it, and I decided I needed an attitude adjustment,” she wrote.

While teaching English to medical staff at the two Chinese hospitals, Marovitch encountered discussions about divorce, death, taxes and religion. As in Afghanistan, she had to use caution when discussing religious topics. But unlike her exclusively Muslim classes in Afghanistan, Marovitch’s Chinese students held various and ambivalent spiritual views. One student believed in ancestor veneration while another was Buddhist. “Most of the medical professionals have no idea what to believe,” she said. One man said he hoped, in a way, that ghosts were real simply because “that would mean there is some supernatural power to depend on, to right the injustices of the world,” Marovitch wrote.

Overall, Marovitch’s adventures proved a lesson in faith. “It was a broadening experience to see God through their eyes,” she said, “and to rely on Him when I didn’t have anyone to rely on.”

 Click here to view more photos from Debra Marovitch's travels.


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  • Last update on  December 07, 2009