The phone rang one evening at home. “We would like you to go to Bahrain to work with the Vocational Education Sector within the Ministry of Education.” It was my friend Enzo. “Not so fast” I said. “I am retired.” Three weeks later I found myself reading the documentation provided to me before boarding a flight to Bahrain.
Arriving in Bahrain I was met by the project manager and driven to my accommodation. Next day I was introduced to the staff and a small group of Bahrain Curriculum Vocational Education specialists (BCVE) from the Ministry of Education. After lunch, I was driven to my workplace, a very large Vocational Education College. (BVEC)
It was there that I first meet Khalid Yaqoob, one of 5 young men, educated in England at different universities. Initially, Khalid merged into the 5 people I was to work with. He did not stand out from the group. He was not the first person to respond to a question, or to provide a possible solution to a situation. He appeared quiet, a little reserved.
A week later I was to discover Khalid had a younger brother. When planning to meet with the Automotive Teachers, I noticed the family name of Yaqoob. Could Hassan be a brother to Khalid I wondered?
In a casual conversation over a cup of coffee, I asked Khalid if he was related to Hassan. “Yes” he responded. “He is my half-brother. He has a different mother, same father”, came his response. From that moment on our friendship blossomed.
As we talked, asked questions, challenged his brother Hassan, we slowly introduced change to the teaching methodology in the automotive department. Khalid the architect, Hassan the implementer. They made an exciting team challenging the status quo.
Khalid had a favourite café, a small shop front, brightly coloured painted signs advertised the best smoothies in town. It was in a back street away from large shopping centres. Khalid would wander around to my desk. “Time for a mango smoothie” as he walked past my desk. Work was pushed aside, a short walk to Khalid’s Lexus and we were on our way. Khalid placed our orders over the phone as he drove. Arriving at his favourite café a few minutes later two mango smoothies were delivered to the car; a joke shared with his Pakistani friend from the café.
It was at these moments, smoothies in hand, parked somewhere, Khalid was most at ease.
He shared his concerns about the Iraq war, an American naval base in Bahrain, the growing divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Bahrain society. Then there was the love of his life, a nurse working in a military hospital in Bahrain. It was this that occupied most of our conversation. “This will not be an arranged marriage”, he said, “I will marry for love and have children. All I want from life is to live in peace, my children to have a good education and find meaningful work”.
One day he arrived at the college, unusually excited. I could not figure what all this pent-up excitement was about. “Time for a smoothie” said Khalid. With smoothie’s in hand he told me he was engaged. His excitement was infectious. He talked about wedding plans, and a place to live with his beautiful wife-to be.
The more time I shared with Khalid the more I realised that while we came from very different cultures and backgrounds, our goals in life were very similar.
Khalid was selected by the Ministry of Education to spend two weeks in Melbourne looking at and talking to teachers and administrators involved in the Victorian TAFE system.
Arriving back in Bahrain, Khalid was excited about his Melbourne experiences and became immersed in the daily routine of managing change with the teaching staff.
Prior to my departure from Bahrain, Khalid presented a series of slides on his vision for the Bahrain Vocational Education system. This shy and reserved person presented a very clear and detailed plan for the future of vocational education in Bahrain.
We shared a last mango smoothie; said our goodbyes and I boarded a plane for Australia. Arriving home, my final project report completed, I settled back into life in Donvale. An occasional email would arrive from Khalid, memories flooding back, comments shared, stories told.
Then, quite unexpected, I received an email from Hasan Seleh Sulaibeekh, the Head of Vocational Education in the Ministry of Education. The email was brief. It read “I am saddened to have to inform you that Khalid Yaqoob has passed away”. He had taken his own life.
I was devastated. As I sat in front of my computer, I struggled to find the words to express my great sadness. So many questions. So many “if onlys”. I asked myself, could I have supported him differently. Had I stayed longer; would things be different. A sense of guilt enveloped me.
As I worked through my grief, I was drawn back in time to that of a 12-year-old boy. Very unexpectedly, my mother packed a small case, and drove me to Uncle Ed and Aunt Gert’s home to stay for a short while. About 2 weeks later, mum arrived back to pick me up and we returned to our home. Life continued much as before. But something was different.
It took me a while to workout that Aunt Jess, my mother’s sister was no longer around. Over many years, I was to understand that she had been suffering from depression and while in Melbourne, jumped from a bridge and drowned.
This tragedy was never discussed by my family in my presence, it remained locked away in family history. Then I meet Khalid. As sad and difficult as his death was, it took me back to an earlier time. I wanted to know more about my Aunt Jess. I searched my memory, to pick up little pieces of information.
I remember she was a fun person to be with, the carefree way she rode her bike, her smile, the warm welcome when we visited her in her flat shared with her best friend Hazel. These fleeting moments I now cherish.
It is as though Khalid has enabled me to glimpse my family’s grief all those years ago. It is this tension between a grieving family and a child protected from grief. Information not shared, to protect, creates its own grief. To learn more about Aunt Jess from family, is to uncover, to touch grief, to visit deeply sad moments.
Was my removal from family to protect me? Was separation from family to protect me from my family’s grief? Was there a sense of guilt within the family? These are questions I have no answer for. I do remember a deep sense of sadness lingered over my family. It was never discussed but deeply felt by a small boy. Simon Peter, a proud weather-beaten fisherman arrogantly announced to the world he was prepared to die for his friend Jesus. When challenged by a servant girl, he denied he ever knew him. A cock crowed. Peter’s grief was immense, private and coated with shame. I have drawn great comfort from Peter’s encounter with his grief as I recognise a loving God gently breathed new life into Simon Peter. There are no answers to my questions but there is a loving God who gently breathed on a small boy