It was 11 a.m. when an SMS arrived from the secretary of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (my guru and a global spiritual leader). It said, "Call back asap."
The secretary said, "Sri Sri wants you to travel with him to Iraq. Are you free?" Without thinking, I said, "Yes, of course. Please confirm my seat."
My native mind instantly went into interrogation mode:
- "Do you know how dangerous it is in Iraq?"
- "You have kids and a company of 120 employees."
- "They even blow up planes nowadays..."
Then, the startup entrepreneur in me spoke up. I had done this several times and this trip was a reiteration of Lesson #1: When you believe in someone or something, just do it, without thought or reason.
On the morning we arrived, we checked into a luxurious 5-star hotel, as guests of the Kurdistan Government. After showering, we got into black SUVs and drove to the Parliament to meet the members. As our SUV hit the road, I saw a long black pillar of smoke just ahead of me. "That doesn't look good," I told my co-passenger.
When we reached the Parliament, we were well greeted but simultaneously found out that the smoke came from a suicide bomber who had exploded herself not far from us. We were now officially in a terror death zone!
None of us gave it much thought, but the scariness lingered on...
At night, while staring out of the window, Sri Sri chuckled softly and said, "Like the Mahabharata, we are in midst of a battlefield." The thought gave me goose bumps. Unlike him, I was still shaken up.
Lesson #2: You never know what can happen. So make every day your best day.
The next morning, we drove to refugee camps run by the UN and other agencies. The situation was heartbreaking. There were thousands of beautiful children, stranded and parentless. The place was dirty and smelled awful. There was nothing around except the harsh sun and dusty grounds.
Sri Sri stopped at a small dingy shop where two handsome young men were standing and asked them who they were. One of them said, "We are brothers and were studying psychology in Syria. We had to leave everything and escaped to this camp. Now, we have nothing..."
My mind seized up. This reality was unimaginable. Students on their way to becoming psychology graduates now reduced to refugee camp residents in a week? And to think, in Mumbai, I constantly complain about the road conditions or the cable operators' black wires that crisscross our paths...
Lesson #3: Appreciate what you have and where you live. It could be much worse than you could ever imagine.
At night, we went to meet the Kurdistan Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani. He received us at his gorgeous palace. I had never ever been to such an opulent setting before. The pathway to his house took us through long winding roads, a fairy-tale setting to me.
PM Barzani looked dashing. He was positive and forward in his thinking. He said, "I am coining a new word 'Shunni' -- it's a combination of Sunni and Shia so that no one discriminates anyone on the basis of their backgrounds anymore." He then asked me what I do and said, "Send us some proposals! We like business. We want to promote business in Kurdistan."
I reflected on the meeting. Here was a PM talking to a guy who made gaming apps (me) with the same fervor he spoke to a global leader (Sri Sri) -- all while suicide bombers were blowing up his backyard and terrorists threatening all kinds of things.
Lesson #4: Never lose your enthusiasm or positivity; no matter how bad things may be.
On the last day we drove to the historic town of Lalish and met the Yazidi people (an ancient community) who were being specifically targeted by the ISIS militant group. Lalish was like the mountain city in Lord of the Rings -- medieval and magical. The Yazidi leaders lamented about their losses and spoke about how they had been the victims of genocide 74 times in their history.
We stopped at another refugee camp. I smelled something odd. There was the distinct smell of petrol in the air. I asked my guide and she replied, "Yes, we are standing on an oil field and the level of oil is almost as high as the ground." As she spoke, I saw disheveled refugee children walking the same ground, aimless and homeless.
Lesson #5: Unfairness is the operating system of the world. Just help yourself and others as much as you can.