Steve Slocum, Founder of AMFF
After a Masters degree and 10 years working in the aircraft design arena specializing in composite materials, our family of five took an adventure of a lifetime and moved to Kazakhstan for five years (1992 – 1997). We were serving as humanitarian aid workers and Christian missionaries.
Having been trained according to the LAMP method for language and culture acquisition, we moved into a village outside of a city known today as Taraz, knowing a little Russian and no Kazakh, with only one suitcase apiece. Literally needing to learn the Kazakh language in order to survive, we learned. Those first few months were pretty stressful, but our hard work paid off, and within about six months we were reasonably fluent and functional.
A key component of the LAMP method is complete cultural immersion. We were trained to spend as little time as possible with our American comrades, ultimately working towards the goal of having our emotional needs met by our friendships with nationals. The first six months or so produce a lot of character development, as one learns to let go of virtually every comfort zone – food (amazing how much we use this to provide emotional comfort to ourselves), hobbies and activities, friends and family, etc.
Again, the hard work paid off. My children had many national friends and played all of their games with them. I developed deep personal relationships with many Muslims from all over Central Asia – mostly Kazakhs but also Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Uighur, Turk, etc. It was a profoundly life-changing experience.
Many, many stories…
Our first social engagement was a birthday party for a five-year-old in the village. The party started in the late evening with tea, only we didn’t know it was tea, we thought it was the main event. Wonderful salads and snacks all homemade, lots of tea, and the vodka came out early. After several hours of this, at about 11 PM, I gathered my family and said thank you very much we had a great time, at which point our host looked at us in horror, literally, I remember the face, and told us it was impossible for us to leave now we hadn’t even had dinner yet. Oops! First major cultural snafu. Dinner was not served till maybe 1 AM, and we didn’t get out of there until about 3 AM. At some point along the way, I have a vivid memory of the host passing out mid-sentence while giving a toast, having consumed more vodka than I have drunk in my entire life.
The late nights and early mornings were a tough adjustment…..
There was the wedding party of our neighbors – wealthy but very traditional Kazakhs, a family of 12. Somewhere between 100 and 200 guests, music and dancing, and lots of traditional food. I especially remember a drink called shobat. Fermented camel’s milk. It’s actually pretty good. And this one guy kept trying to ask me something using sign language. I eventually figured out he was trying to ask me if my son was circumcised. This was very important to him. And, as always copious amounts of vodka.
After five years there, it was starting to feel like home to all of us, but eventually we had to say our goodbyes and resume our lives in the US in September 1997. We all had a difficult time readjusting to life in the United States after being away for five years. A lot of things had changed, both in us, and in the USA. I always felt like I left a piece of my heart in Kazakhstan.
On a personal note, my marriage ended a couple of years after our return. A little over a year after that, my 21-year-old son committed suicide. We were all deeply traumatized, and it took years to recover, and be able to get back to looking at life with a positive outlook.
But the loss of my son awakened a passion in me to do what I could to prevent others from feeling the pain that I felt. Only months after losing my son, the 9/11 attacks occurred, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan, and the daily ticker of lost lives of American sons. I knew what each of those parents was going through – and I thought about it. And I knew what the parents of the sons and civilians being killed in Afghanistan were going through – and I thought about that too.
Having lived for five years immersed in the Muslim world, these were not strange others, who somehow didn’t matter as much. I knew from experience, that they were crying the same tears that I was crying.
Now, having witnessed 15+ years of the “War on Terror”, resulting in the deaths of approximately 1.2 million Muslims, and the rising tide of Islamophobia in the USA, promoted now at the presidential level, I realized I could no longer sit on the sideline.
I began my book project, and have started to get back to cultural immersion with the Muslim community in the United States, which I find exhilarating. I saved my shekels, traded in my house for a small condo, and took an early retirement so I can do this work full-time.