Visitors to Bernheim get to experience many wonders, from trails through its vast forest to the Edible Garden and of course the Forest Giants. But not many visitors get to have personal encounters with our staff to learn their stories, so that’s why we’ve created Pathways to Purpose, a series of interviews with Bernheim staff by Director of Education Kristin Faurest. This week’s conversation is with Mak Mahdi, IT/Operations Team Member.
Where do you think your strong connection to nature came from?
I know my connection to nature stems from my childhood. We moved a few times, but each home had trees and a garden. In Iraq, we would say that trees are the souls of homes, so you would hardly see a home without trees. One home that sticks out in my mind is the home we had next to the Tigris River. It had a big backyard, with a massive tree towards the rear, a swing for my siblings and I to play on and a bistro set for our family to have afternoon tea. My dad tended to his flowers and fruit trees so much that it was a neighborhood attraction! Couples would walk along the bank of the Tigris River and stop to take pictures next to my dad’s flowers. The weather was quite beautiful in Iraq during that time. The site of the palms lining the river, the feel of swimming in the water, and the smells from the huge feasts we prepared made it feel very magical.
How did you end up in Kentucky? And then end up here at Bernheim?
When the U.S. Military invaded Baghdad in 2003, I had a job as a computer engineer. A friend of mine told me he signed on as an interpreter with the U.S. Military. Through conversation, he also mentioned the interpreters the military brought with them were not from Iraq, but other regions of the middle east and they had caused both sides considerable damage from being poor translators. I felt it was my calling to save lives on both sides, so I quit my job and enlisted as a local interpreter and cultural advisor. Following seven years of service, militias were targeting interpreters and it was no longer safe for me to remain in Baghdad. I applied to the U.S. for a special immigration visa and while I waited for a response, I traveled. Nearly every location I visited was in or around nature. For instance, while in Malaysia I visited Langkawi Island which is possibly one of the purest places you’ll ever see. This island was nearly untouched by humans. I’ve been to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Philippines. After applying four times for a U.S. visa, I was finally approved, but I couldn’t just hop on a plane and move anywhere. I had to choose a “home state”, preferably with someone I knew. An Army buddy I served with in Iraq suggested I come to Kentucky.
Since I worked with computers most of my life and had a degree in computer engineering, it was only natural to work for a computer service center. That job wore me down. My lady encouraged me to pursue the ranger position at Bernheim since she saw how the stress of working “in a box” was making me feel. Nature healed me. And the rest – as they say – was history.
Being from Iraq and now a U.S. Citizen, how do you find your center?
Finding balance was difficult. I was perpetually in the middle. I was an Iraqi man that couldn’t go home. On the other hand, many Americans only saw me as the immigrant despite being a U.S. citizen. The internal conflict was arduous, and I had to do some serious soul searching. Wading through these emotions was even more problematic because I was on my own, in a new country and barely able to speak to my family. Trailing the end of my third year in Kentucky, I was fortunate enough to meet my soulmate (Amanda). When I found Amanda, I found the family I craved. I still missed my family in Iraq, and I have been trying for a decade to bring them to the U.S. by filing and re-filing the documents necessary make that happen. Unfortunately, the immigration laws here are extremely difficult to navigate, the “red tape” seems to never end, and the paperwork becomes overwhelming. But, I have faith that I will see my family again.
Do you have a favorite spot in Bernheim that you like to visit?
The limitless fringe of the horizon has always made me feel free. Be it if I’m driving or hiking, seeing the endless line ahead gives me a sense of connectedness to the world. At Bernheim, there’s a scenic small fishing dock nestled by Lake Nevin, near the Sunset Amphitheater. I like to walk out onto the dock and stare to where the water meets the sky. The ripples of the lake, movement of the clouds and the subtle sounds to nature melt any stress I may have from my shoulders. For those few minutes, I am free and connected back to what is important in my life.
What does Bernheim mean to you?
Bernheim feels like home to me. There’s a sense of peace I can capture while at Bernheim that grants me a memory into my childhood. When it rains, saturated soil reminds me of the Tigris River. I can recall memories of my father’s garden and being surrounded by the smells of flowers and fruit trees, while the earthy aroma wafts in from the river. Being at Bernheim awakens memories of the childhood home I cherish but will never get to see again.