A third-culture kid, artist, chef, and Senior Developer for Passages, Rima Jabbour is a woman with many talents and a passion for making everyday life rich. She joins me for a conversation on the many places she’s lived and traveled, how to interact with new friends from different cultures, why being an artist is more than just a career choice, and what it looks like to value what you create.
MATTANAH DEWITT: Let’s start with your Passages experience. What was your introduction to Passages—what brought you here?
RIMA JABBOUR: I’m one of the staff members who was one of the first non-alumni hires. My connection to Passages was [the Director of Trip Operations at Passages] Serene Hudson. My family is from Syria in the Middle East, and I studied abroad in Israel for 10 weeks. I fell in love with everything Israel and the Middle East, because my heart’s already in the Middle East. So, when Serene told me about the position with Passages, I applied immediately, even though I hadn’t been on a trip.
MD: But you still had those 10 weeks in Israel, so you really knew what you were getting into. You had the Israel experience, just no Passages experience.
RJ: Correct…I kind of grew up with the Israel experience, hearing about it, hearing about Palestinians, knowing Palestinians, living life with them.
MD: That makes sense. Can you talk a little bit about your background in Syria? I know you’ve lived in Sweden and now the U.S., so you’ve experienced a lot of different cultures. Can you talk about what it’s like to have parts of your identity rooted in many places and cultures?
RJ: Even though it doesn’t feel very typical, my background is very typical of anyone who is a third-culture kid—which is a child of anyone whose parents are recent immigrants to a country, and they hold ties to two different primary cultures. One being their parents’ culture, and one being the culture they were born in. One of the terms I like to use to describe myself is “a cultural chameleon.” Because you put me in a culture, and culture shock isn’t really much of a thing for me. I know how to adapt.
The other thing is, it’s not just two primary cultures. I’ve had a lot of family members immigrate to Sweden, and so I’ve been going to Sweden since I was like 12 years old. So, between Sweden and Syria and America, I’ve been exposed to the primary cultures of the world…Europe, the Middle East, and America. And all the other ones have some sort of overlap with one of those cultures in terms of adaptability for me.
To be honest, it was really difficult as a kid, growing up that way in America. Because, when you’re growing up as a child, you don’t really understand what you have. But now, as an adult, I’m so thankful to have had such a culturally diverse upbringing, because it changes how you view humans, how you view the world, how you travel—every part of your life is, in my opinion, enriched.
MD: That’s amazing. What is one thing from each of the cultures you’ve grown up in that you can really appreciate?
RJ: I know recent movements have been critical about American individualism, and while there are extremes that came from that, I think there are benefits that we’ve forgotten. A lot of that is the ability to identify who you are, to not have to follow in your parents footsteps, and also to have privacy—which does not exist in a lot of cultures.
For example, I am a young, single, unmarried women, who is standing on her own two feet and able to pay my bills and do whatever I want in life with no restrictions, because we live in a culture, in a country, where your hard work pays off. But also, you can define that for yourself. I didn’t have to fit a stereotype in American culture. Any stereotypes placed upon you, economic barriers, social barriers, cultural barriers—if you want to break it, you can break it here.
On the flip side with Middle East culture, I appreciate the hospitality aspect so much. I was explaining to someone a few weeks ago that I never was specifically taught hospitality. I remember growing up hearing from people who had to go to etiquette classes. Technically, I was taught, because my mom and my culture taught it to me, but because hospitality is so engrained in the Middle East mentality, you learn hospitality by osmosis. Everybody has these unspoken, agreed-upon rules of what hospitality looks like.
For example, one of the things I’ve struggled with in America is any time I’ve had a difficulty in my life, I’ve had to reach out and ask people for help. Whereas in Syria, if someone dies in your family, you’re not cooking food for a month, and you’re not asking for food.
I still remember when I was a kid, seven or eight years old, we were in America at the time, and my grandmother in Syria from my dad’s side died. There were people in and out of our house for a month, bringing us food, flowers, and things. Helping clean. Helping take care of everything. There’s something very beautiful about that level of hospitality. With that, you don’t get a lot of privacy, so there’s this balance that plays out.
MD: What about Sweden?
RJ: With Sweden, not necessarily other European countries, they have such a sense of rest and slowness. I don’t think they even realize that they’re doing it, but they take everything very comfortably slow. Everything closes down around five o’clock. They take care of themselves very well—going on walks, making sure their stress levels are low. Their lives are very mellow, which allows them to appreciate things, because they’re not always rushing. They even have five weeks of paid vacation, regardless of their job. Anytime I visit, I don’t make plans. I just know when I’m landing and when I’m leaving. For the rest of the time, we’ll just see what happens!
MD: I love how you’ve taken those positive aspects of each culture and incorporated it into your own life. Also, I love the “we’ll see what happens” motto. I could use some practice with that myself.
RJ: Go to Sweden! It will force you to practice it.
MD: Good to know. You actually help lead a workshop at our Leaders Conferences on cultural awareness, training our peer leaders how to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds. Being a third-culture kid, you’re a great person to speak into this topic. What is some advice you would give people who want to build more diverse friendships and make sure they’re approaching people from different backgrounds in a way that is sensitive and kind?
RJ: First of all, ask about their cultural foods. People will talk for hours about their cultural foods. I can talk to you right now for hours about the food I love to make and the food I love to eat and the food I’m too lazy to make because it’s too hard to make for a single person.
But in all seriousness, if you come to someone, and you say, “Hey, I don’t understand your culture, but I want to love it and love you,” people will talk to you, because it’s a huge part of who they are. It’s not a matter of coming knowing everything, but coming with a heart that says, “I don’t know what I don’t know, and I want you to teach me.”
I’ve had so many people come up to me and those who came and said, “Hey, I know this might be a stupid question, but…” and they come with that spirit of humbleness, it’s no longer a stupid question.
MD: So good! Ok, you mentioned cooking. I know that you’re into art, you’re a creative. I’m sure you include your cooking as part of your artistic expression.
RJ: [nods emphatically]
MD: [laughs] Great. I’m curious what kinds of art you make and what inspires you. Were you always inclined toward the world of art of did you develop a passion for it later on in life?
RJ: So, it’s a both/and. I grew up on the more artistic side of life, but when I was going to start high school, being a good little Arab child, I decided to give up art. Recent generations of Arabs and Middle Easterners stopped valuing art as much as the STEM programs. I say recent generations, because historically art has been such a huge part of Middle Eastern culture.
So…I stopped creating anything for years, which honestly, is a regret that I had until I rediscovered art. Because even if art isn’t a career, or something you make money off of, if that is the gift you’ve been given, then you owe it to yourself to improve on it. It’s such a huge way to express yourself, especially as a Christian, a huge way to express your relationship with God.
I didn’t come back to art until my senior year of college…my stress levels were so high and adult coloring books were only adding to that stress. Too small. Too small! It took three hours to color in those lines, and by that time it felt like homework.
So, I went to a local art store, wanting to find a new art hobby. I thought, oh I already know my alphabet, so I’ll just try calligraphy. Calligraphy is just fancy letters. Something about it just clicked, and I really enjoyed it. Now, I’m going deeper in calligraphy, improving on illustration skills, coloring, painting, and watercolors. And it’s just been really wonderful to have that gift back.
MD: You know sometimes, a lot of people think that in order to get into the arts, they have to be able to “do something” with their art or be the best. I recently started sketching and it’s not good. I’m probably never going to be great for my sketching, but it’s really relaxing and helps me express myself, even in a small way. What would you say to people who may have an interest in a certain art form but have avoided getting into it, because they don’t feel like they’re good enough at it?
RJ: The only thing you should ever do when you look at another artist is look at them for inspiration or tutorials. Other than that, there is no reason to ever compare two artists. At the end of the day the value and quality of art is only defined by society, and their definition is wrong. Something that is created to be defined as beautiful is not something that needs to rival Picasso or Michelangelo or any of those great artists. You don’t need to sell your pieces for thousands of dollars for it to be beautiful.
I have drawings from my three-year-old nephew. I promise that what he drew is not impressive compared to other people, but the value of that piece of art that he created…if something were to ever happen to it, I would be seriously devastated. The emotional and heart value of your art can only ever be defined by you as the artist. Don’t let anyone ever convince you otherwise. If you love it and if you’re proud of it, it’s worth getting attention.
MD: Wow, thanks for that. You mentioned that art is a way for Christians to express their relationship with God. How do you do that?
RJ: There’s something about creating within the physical, “God’s creation,” that no matter what I’m doing I just feel closer to him, because I’m literally sitting on the grass, or a bench, looking at his creation.
Another thing, my attention span is normally all over the place, so it’s hard for me to focus on one thing at a time. So, meditation doesn’t come easily to me. But when I have a Bible verse that I want to focus on and I calligraphy it…that is the one time in my day when I’m actually just focusing. There’s something about focusing on every letter in a verse that helps me really slow down my brain and really consider.
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