In which I describe how to set up an awesome writing computer for just $175.

A $175 Chromebook writing computer

Last month I advanced to candidacy in my PhD program, which means I’m done with coursework beginning my dissertation. Because I’m a productivity nut, I’ve been sharpening my tools and setting up the most efficient workflow possible. As part of that, I started rethinking my daily computer. Since 2010 my workhorse machine has been a MacBook Pro. It has aged well thanks to a RAM upgrade and SSD, but is still heavy, big, limited in battery life, and too expensive to take just anywhere. It’s also filled with distractions.

For my dissertation, I wanted an ultraportable computer that would be ideal for doing just one thing: writing. My requirements included small size, light weight, a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, a good screen, long battery life, and sturdy build. It needed to run all the tools in my workflow: R, Python, Zotero, LaTeX, SublimeText, and Scrivener.

An 11.6″ MacBook Air would be a natural choice, but the $899 price tag seemed extreme for a machine that would only be used for writing. Next I looked at inexpensive, ultraportable PCs, but they had lousy reviews or were missing key features like two-finger scrolling.

Then I discovered Chromebooks. I learned these little computers are inexpensive, have quality keyboards and trackpads, have a long battery life, earn stellar reviews, and can run Linux. Sold. I’m now writing this on a high-quality little machine that cost less than $200 and perfectly meets my need for an ultraportable dissertation writing computer. The machine is not powerful. It is not fast. But it is absolutely perfect for doing just one thing: writing. In this post I’ll walk through exactly how I set it up.

1. Purchase a Chromebook

I opted for the Acer Chromebook CB3-131-C3SZ, an 11.6″ laptop that includes a 16GB SSD and 2 GB of RAM. It is the latest in a line of high-rated Acer Chromebooks, has a great screen, and advertises a battery life up to nine hours. The keyboard feels wonderful. The trackpad isn’t quite as smooth as my MacBook Pro, but is close enough. The computer cost me about $175, which I supplemented with a $10 32GB SD card.

2. Install new firmware

It is possible to run Linux on the top of ChromeOS with relatively good performance, but I had no need for ChromeOS and wanted a clean Linux install. That entailed downloading and running new firmware. After consulting the GalliumOS supported hardware list, I identified my processor as a Bay Trail, and followed the instructions here. The process went smoothly and I had new firmware in about five minutes.

3. Install GalliumOS

GalliumOS is a lightweight distribution of Xubuntu built specifically for Chromebooks. It has excellent reviews, seamlessly supports the trackpad and function keys on my Chromebook, and delivers fantastic battery life.

4. Update the OS

Open the terminal, and run the following commands. These will update the packages in your Linux distribution:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

5. Make the trackpad feel like a Macbook

By default, touchpad scrolling works in the reverse direction as my Macbook Pro. I switched this behavior to match my Mac by searching for “Mouse and Trackpad” in the Gallium search window, then clicking “Reverse Scroll Direction.”

I also can’t stand tap-to-touch functionality, as I am constantly tapping by accident while typing. I disabled this from the “Touchpad” tab of the same menu by deselecting “Tap touchpad to click.”

6. Install Dropbox

Because this isn’t my primary computer, I wanted a quick and seamless way to keep my files in sync. I already use Dropbox to store most of my files, so that was a logical solution. However, because of the Chromebook’s limited storage capacity and becuase I want syncing to go fast, I used Dropbox’s “Selective Sync” to only sync a couple key folders.

You can download Dropbox for Debian Linux distributions here. To activate selective sync, right-click on the Dropbox icon in the accessory tray, selective “Preferences”, click the “Account” tab, and press the button for “Selective Sync.”

7. Install Software

That’s it! We’re up and running! You can now install any software packages that will run on Ubuntu and other Debian distributions of Linux. Below are instructions for setting up the various tools in my workflow:

LaTeX

Open a terminal window and run the following commands:

sudo apt-get install texlive
sudo apt-get install texlive-latex-extra
sudo apt-get install texlive-bibtex-extra
sudo apt-get install latexmk
sudo apt-get install biber

R

From the terminal, run:

sudo apt-get install r-base

The ‘r-base’ package above completely installs R on your system. You can open an instance of R simply by typing “R” from the terminal. You can also open R consoles within SublimeText (see below).

However, I also like having access to the power of RStudio, a complete IDE for R. You can download the most recent .deb file at https://www.rstudio.com/products/rstudio/download/. You can install it either by double-clicking on the .deb file in your web browser or file manager, or else install it from the terminal by navigating to the download location and typing:

sudo dpkg -i filename.deb
sudo apt-get install -f

Scrivener

Scrivener is a gorgeous application designed for writers, which breaks complex documents into a tree-like structure of smaller snippets. It also features powerful outlining and metadata tools. Now that I’m using LaTeX my writing workflow no longer includes Scrivener, but I do use it for organizing research. Scrivener has paid, highly-developed versions for MacOS and Windows. The developer also experimented with a Linux version. He recently abandoned it, but decided to release the final version for free. You can download the .deb here (and if you like it, should consider purchasing a paid version to support the developer).

Run the following lines at the command line, which will install some prerequisites. Then install the .deb file just as you did with RStudio.

sudo apt-get install python-gtk2
sudo apt-get install python-gpgme

SublimeText

SublimeText 3 is my new favorite application for doing almost anything. It is an extremely powerful, customizable, and extensible text editor. Its real power comes from its massive set of hotkeys. There is a learning curve, but once you climb it, you can rapidly switch between projects or project files, navigate within files, compile code, review results, and do many other things—all without your fingers leaving the home row of the keyboard. Even better, you can use the same interface and same hotkeys to seamlessly jump between Python, R, LaTeX, Markdown, or many other file types.

Sublime Text 3 also has a very nice full-screen mode, which makes everything disappear except for the active writing window. This is perfect for a distraction-free writing computer.

One more advantage to Sublime Text 3 is the customizable hotkeys. For me, high productivity requires mastering keyboard shortcuts, which makes it very difficult to swap back and forth between a Mac and a PC (for example, CMD-C versus CTRL-C for copying text). With SublimeText 3 I was able to remap my most common hotkeys so they feel identical to my MacBook Pro–at a small fraction of the price.

SublimeText 3 costs $70, but you can download and try it for free here. Then install the SublimeText package manager by following the instructions here.

I plan to write a separate post later explaining how I customize my ST3 environment. For now, key packages to look into are SublimeREPL and LaTeXTools.

Evince

This is a PDF viewer that integrates well with SublimeText and LaTeXTools, a SublimeText plugin. With Evince installed, building a LaTeX document in ST3 will result in the compiled PDF opening in Evince.

sudo apt-get install evince

Zotero

Zotero is free, open-source citation management system. You can automatically pull citations for journal articles and books using various web browser plugins, sync them across your devices, and automatically generate LaTeX .bib files for inclusion in your LaTeX documents. I paid a modest fee for increased storage, so all of my PDF versions of journal articles and reports are attached to Zotero bibliographic entries and automatically sync across my computers.

You can download a stand-alone Linux installer here.

Pin key apps to panel

You can pin your favorite apps to the panel by finding them in the OS menu, right-clicking them, and selecting “Add to Panel.”

#Monday musings

July 4, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’m proud to finally join so many friends and colleagues over at The Strategy Bridge, with a few thoughts of my own. Now that I’m done with PhD coursework, I hope to have more time for professional writing.

You can read my offering for #Monday Musings here.

Brad Edmonson at Leading Edge Airpower has published an analysis of my short story The Wasp Keepers, from an airpower theory perspective. I was glad when Brad reached out to me with the idea, because I always intended the story to be more than just science fiction. The story grew out of a question I deemed critical, as the Air Force was posturing itself for the future: What if we had perfect sensing and perfect strike, and could still lose? Read Brad’s analysis at the link!

I’m a week late sharing the link here, but if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my new piece at War on the Rocks: How to Discover Defense Innovation. In this article, several coauthors and I discuss how our involvement in the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013 conference led to unforeseen successes that directly benefit the Department of Defense. How? “Discovery activities” are the raw material of innovation–activities that broaden our horizons, relationships, and experiences, even if we have no idea how they will serve us later. DEF is a change to engage in three straight days of discovery with a group of fantastic people. That’s why I’m so excited to board a plane in a few hours for DEF2014. I’ll see many of you there! And for those of you who can’t make it, I’m coming out of my social media hibernation to participate on Twitter. Look for us at  #DEF2014.

War Stories Cover

For decades, the holy grail of many military innovators has been “perfect sensing, perfect strike” capability. If you could identify and destroy any target on the face of the Earth, the logic goes, how could you possibly lose? Recent history has not been kind of this belief, because the dynamics that matter most in war lie within the individual human soul. They are beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated military hardware. I spent a lot of time pondering the question: what if a country really could develop perfect sensing and perfect strike capability, but still lose?

I put my vision into a short story titled “The Wasp Keepers”, which appears in the magnificent new War Stories anthology edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates.

I’ll be honest: other than the usual classics (like The Forever War, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, and Old Man’s War), I don’t read much military science fiction. That’s largely because so much of the genre doesn’t fit my experience of war. I have spent my military career navigating the shadowy, ambiguous world of “war among the people”, so I can’t relate to interstellar ships re-enacting the Age of Sail, futuristic WWII platoons fighting conventional battles, or Cold War-style superpower confrontations. With War Stories, the editors deliberately sought to break the mold and expand the genre, by telling war stories that are about more than just soldiers and battles. I was excited when Andrew and Jaym first articulated their vision and fervently hoped to get published in the anthology. The very fact they accepted my story says something about their unique perspective; “The Wasp Keepers” is about a Syrian civilian mother.

You can buy the War Stories ebook DRM-free here and preorder the trade paperback here. You can also find my military SF novel The Lords of Harambee here.

I have a new piece up at War on the Rocks, written in conjunction with Nate Finney and Ben Kohlmann. I situate the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum within the broader context of military history, and answer the question: Does DEF have any significance for the Department of Defense?

My answer is yes; large hierarchical have always depended on informal, peripheral networks to generate fresh thinking. DEF is only the latest iteration of a very long trend. Check it out!

By the way, if you aren’t already following War on the Rocks, you should. My friend Ryan Evans has done a spectacular job launching this resource, which bridges the gap between operations and policy.

Also, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum has a new permanent website! Check it out.

What I Learned at DEF2013

October 15, 2013 — 2 Comments

As someone who sits on the DEF board, I have a little confession to make: I wasn’t sure this would work.

Ben Kohlmann and his colleagues were already hard at work planning DEF2013 when they invited me onto the board, and I don’t think they knew what they were getting. If they’re the passionate idealists, I’m the detail-minded critic who questions assumptions, pokes holes in plans, and makes himself an all-around pain in the ass. I loved what the DEF board was doing, but I also had real concerns about strategy and execution. We had many discussions about these subjects over the past few months, all the way up through the final morning of the conference itself. All that to say, this has been a journey for me.

Now that DEF2013 is over, I’m delighted to call it a success. I’m convinced some of my concerns were valid, but I also need to admit that I was wrong about a lot of things too. DEF2013 stretched me past my limits; it defied almost all military best practices for strategic planning, but it worked amazingly well for precisely that reason.

DEF2013 introduced me to an entirely new way of operating. I’m still sifting through the wreckage of some of my prior beliefs, and trying to figure out what to build in their place. In the meantime, I’d like to share some tentative thoughts about what I learned at DEF2013.

Sometimes the best strategy is anarchy. This principle feels so dangerous to me that I’m having trouble even typing it, but I’m now convinced it’s true. If you want to stimulate creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, a clearly articulated strategy with well-defined goals can be fatal. An ambiguous strategy means flexibility, intensive experimentation, and rapid learning. You don’t want to run an organization that way forever, but during the “discovery” phase or for an organization that requires a creative culture, anarchy can be vital. When Gordon MacKenzie was brought onto Hallmark management to foster innovation, he insisted on the job title “Creative Paradox” and had no formalized list of job responsibilities. He drove senior management crazy, but the very ambiguity about his role is what made him so successful. We need creative paradoxes.

Success can be intangible. Traditional business says, “Show me the return on investment” and traditional military thinking says, “Show me the mission impact.” I can’t do that for DEF2013. I have no idea what the impact will be. What I can tell you is that every single DEF attendee is fired up to do great things in his or her organization, and each of them is now better equipped with tools, experience, and relationships to do that. DEF2013 also ignited a spirit among its attendees. Anyone who has experienced that elusive phenomenon called “morale” should understand what I mean.

Effective leadership takes a diverse team. Most of us know this in the abstract, but it can be challenging when you’re up against hard decisions, the stakes are high, and you have fundamentally different viewpoints and approaches. Still, that negotiation among diverse viewpoints is essential. The bottom line is that teams typically produce better work if they include diverse types of individuals. You need visionaries and critics. You need analysts and artists. You need hammers and you need goofballs. Major kudos to Ben Kohlmann for assembling a diverse team in the DEF board.

Innovation needs the right conditions. Innovation does not happen on its own; studies are clear that creative thinking occurs best in a semi-structured environment. The challenge is knowing what that environment should be. I’m still struggling with that. In one sense, DEF2013 itself created the right conditions for creative thinking on a large scale. Within our small groups, each group differed. We saw failures where the topic was too open-ended or too narrowly tailored. There seems to be a sweet spot in the middle, where the team is focused on a specific topic with specific constraints, but has unlimited freedom within those constraints.

Trust is scary but worth it. DEF2013 was an experiment, and we had to put a lot of trust in our attendees and speakers. A few of us were concerned about the possibility that somebody show up with an axe to grind, who would poison the atmosphere with bitterness or ranting. We didn’t have a single case of that. Without fail, our attendees and speakers were professional, courteous, and interested in positive, collaborative solutions. I also was worried about the Ideation groups, because we didn’t have a clear model for how the groups would work, and I questioned the viability of certain topics. We had to let go of control, and at each stage I was amazed at the teams’ creative problem solving. Some teams spontaneously dissolved and recombined; others took their topics in totally unplanned directions. The results were not at all what I expected, but everybody came through with results that were quite impressive for the compressed timescale.

Diversity is powerful. The military will always be a hierarchical organization for good reason, and subordinates should always respect superiors. But there is a time and a place for setting rank aside (we do it in crew aircraft all the time). DEF attendees wore civilian clothes and their name tags did not indicate rank. Our attendees included Cadet through Brigadier General, a few enlisted, business professors, veterans who became entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who later commissioned, government civilians, defense contractors, and more. We let those people sit down together in a variety of settings to exchange knowledge and hammer out ideas. That was pretty remarkable to watch.

People thrive when empowered. I’m convinced one main reason people attended DEF2013 is that they feel disempowered. They are frustrated because their voices aren’t being heard. DEF2013 extended the promise that every attendee would have a voice, and it’s amazing how people responded to that promise. Maybe your idea will be a good one, maybe not. Maybe it will see the light of day, maybe it won’t. But the simple knowledge that somebody is respectfully listening to you, and treating you as a valuable source of ideas for the organization, can be life-changing. One of DEF2013’s greatest successes was creating an environment where that held true, and I hope our attendees will spread that culture back to their home units.

Rapid failure, adaptation, and iteration is extremely hard. I wish I could tell you that it was fun leading a small Ideation group, but it mostly wasn’t. My team members themselves were great, but nothing went as I expected. I spent weeks beforehand developing what I thought was a perfect topic for Ideation, and it was a spectacular failure. After an hour, we were gridlocked. We took a break, tried again, and hit another dead end. The next morning, I talked offline with another member about when we should admit failure. We kept at it that afternoon, trying new directions, and finally we found a little gold and started digging. Within the final hour, we developed two actionable ideas that will likely become part of DEF’s future. These ideas had almost nothing to do with our starting place. I’ve never before experienced this degree of failure, iteration, and learning on such a fast timescale. This stuff sounds great in the innovation literature, but actually doing it is hard work. It is emotionally and mentally taxing for somebody accustomed to careful planning processes aimed at clearly defined ends.

Nothing motivates self-starters like relationships. Because of the high barrier to entry, our attendees were all self-starters. It takes a lot of intrinsic motivation to give up a three-day weekend and pay for a trip to Chicago. These are people who will innovate because it’s in their blood, not because someone is dangling an OPR bullet or a quarterly award in front of them. So how do you reward those people? Can you show that you value them, in ways that satisfy their intrinsic motivations? Our Ideation group realized that self-starters are largely motivated by relationships. They want to make a difference in the lives of others, they like to meet other people who appreciate their work, and they like to meet people who can lead them to new opportunities. That is why attendees loved DEF2013; it offered no tangible “reward”, but it connected them with like-minded people and created new opportunities for collaboration. This is not just about “networking” in some pejorative sense of the word; it is about the joy that comes with being part of a living community.

Informality is fun and liberating. One of my favorite moments of the weekend came at the start of our small group presentations. We had a very impressive judging panel, and I was worried about setting poor-quality products in front of them. At the very least, I was expecting some real awkwardness. But then, before the presentations started, a fellow DEF board member showed the audience the prizes: cases of cheap beer with Doctrine Man cartoons taped to them. My fears dissolved in the uproar of laughter. Genius! I thought. It was the perfect way to set the right tone for our presentations. The pressure was off, and we could have fun showing off our half-baked creations and sharing what we’d learned. That is just one small example of the fun we were able to have at a tiny conference on a shoestring budget. And if you’ve never been to a Twitter-enabled conference, the freewheeling audience interaction and sidebar conversations totally transforms the conference experience.

It’s often hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. It’s kind of amazing; I’ve been studying strategy both informally and formally for years, and I’ve never grasped this fundamental principle until this weekend. We all know von Moltke’s quote that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but that took on a new meaning for me at DEF2013. If you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you simply don’t know if it will work. Carefully planned and executed ideas may crash and burn, and some absurd sketch on a bar napkin may evolve into a major success. So you need to think on your feet, watch for feedback, adapt quickly, and continually try new things. Practicing this in the safe laboratory of DEF2013 probably did as much to prepare me for high-level strategy jobs as any formal strategy course I’ve taken.

For other reflections on DEF2013 see Peter Munson, Joe Byerly and Kristen Rouse.

Day one of DEF2013 is complete, and so far I think we can call it a success! Last night SoFi generously hosted a social for us at a local bar, so I had the opportunity to talk with many of our attendees about their impressions in a relaxed environment. Without fail, everyone was thrilled.

The most common reaction I encountered was gratitude. I found that surprising, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. After all, what would lead a hundred people to shell out a lot of their own money and sacrifice a three-day weekend to attend a work-related conference? Clearly, DEF appealed to something deep within them; it went right to the core of their identity, to that place from which their intrinsic motivation springs. Our attendees are talented and energetic self-starters, which means they are brimming with ideas and thrive on challenge. They want to do good things for their organizations and their country. However, I suspect that almost all of them feel disempowered to do the kind of work they most care about. They have been suffering from the soul-sickness that comes when some of their highest intrinsic motivations go unsatisfied.

For these attendees, the single greatest gift DEF offers is a sense of empowerment. DEF gives them permission to throw out their ideas, to innovate, to experiment, to take risk, to fail without punishment, to get up again swinging. Even if their ideas don’t make it past the starting gate, the sheer freedom to explore these ideas is liberating in its own right. But DEF doesn’t stop there; it holds out the promise that successful innovation IS possible, though the journey can be hard. DEF gives attendees the tools and the mandate to be change-makers in their organizations. Finally, DEF gives attendees a supportive community to encourage them on the way.

I think the gratitude springs from this sense of empowerment.

So what are some highlights from day one? Nate Finney and Roxanne Bras facilitated an excellent group discussion about what defense innovation means, and whether the language of “disruption” is helpful or not. BJ Armstrong and Peter Munson gave excellent presentations about how to effectively create change in large organizations. What I really appreciated about these guys was their class and their professionalism; they are not trying to unleash renegades, but thoughtful and effective professionals who can get things done. That requires competency, relationships, and a lot of “grit”–a word that appears to have now permanently entered the military innovation lexicon.

I also enjoyed our afternoon ideation sessions, in which we explored a variety of problems facing the DoD and brainstormed potential solutions. We generated a lot of good discussion, and all of our attendees are getting hands-on training and practice in leading innovation. We are learning plenty on the way. When DEF is over, I plan to write a post about what I’ve learned personally.

In the meantime, we’re getting ready to launch day 2. Follow our live stream and follow us on Twitter at #DEF2013. You can check out yesterday’s videos on our YouTube page.

 

 

This afternoon I arrived at Chicago O’Hare for DEF2013, and enjoyed a lengthy cab ride into downtown Chicago in stop-and-go traffic with fellow strategist and blogger Nate Finney, aka the Barefoot Strategist. Among the many things we talked about were the challenges of blogging as we get older and move along in careers. We are busier than we were as junior officers. We have families. We have greater work responsibilities. We have to be increasingly careful about what we write. And then, of course, there is the intellectual humility that comes with age and experience; we are more careful in our research and thinking, are more concerned with quality over quantity in our writing.

All that to say, I have a lot of excuses for keeping Building Peace on the back burner. Still, I like keeping the blog open and knowing I have a home online.

So what’s been going on?

I’m several months into the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS), the Air Force’s year-long school for educating strategists. I love it. I was nervous about attending, because I’ve had such negative experiences with Air Force PME, so it was a delight to discover that SAASS is nothing like any PME course I’ve ever attended. This is a school about how to think, not what to think. I spend my days immersed in good books and in high-level discussion with peers and faculty who love to read and think. For most of my Air Force career, I’ve had to find nooks and crannies of time throughout my day to sneak in a little reading. Now, for this year at least, I’m getting paid to do what I love most: read, think, and write about global affairs. Of course, the program is also a ton of work and takes up most of my time.

Other than time with my family, my outlet from SAASS has been writing fiction. I recently completed a short story set fifteen years in the future in Syria, which I hope will see publication in the next few months. I’m tinkering with some more short stories and my next novel.

Finally, I’ve spent the past seven months on the board of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, helping plan the DEF2013 conference in Chicago. Now it’s finally showtime, and we will soon find out what happens when you lock a bunch of passionate and highly motivated emerging leaders together in a conference hall and let them to go to work grinding out ideas. You can tune into our large group sessions via a live stream on our website. In the afternoons, we will break into small Ideation workshops to tackle some specific challenges facing the DoD. It’s been a quite a ride helping plan this event, because nothing like this has ever been done before. Part of me is thrilled to see it come to life; part of me is nervous as hell. This whole thing is one giant experiment, and where there are experiments, there is risk; that is a fundamental truth about disruptive innovation. However, if there’s one thing our military needs today, it is the willingness to assume more risk as we find new and better ways of doing business.

I’m sure we’ll have some learning to do, but I’m equally confident that we’ll see some real value come out of this weekend. In the few short hours I’ve been on the ground in Chicago, it’s already been amazing getting to know people I’ve known online for months or years… people who are passionate about making their military more effective, and who have had the commitment and courage to enter the intellectual arena and defend their ideas in public. As much as I’ve enjoyed our online interactions, there is no substitute for sitting around a dinner table together and putting back a few drinks.

I hope you’ll follow along this weekend via the live stream and our Twitter feed on the #DEF2013 hashtag. You can also follow me personally at @jacobsenmd. Others to follow include: @jbyerly81 @BareftStratgist @benkohlmann @jjgilz @mbgrinberg @kimballray @peterjmunson and @DEFconference.

A couple months ago, I was invited to lead a team of military translators in a June site visit to a partner Arab country.  We would help with military-military relationship building, and pave the way for sales of some military equipment.  It sounded like a fantastic opportunity, so I was more than a little disappointed when the trip was unexpectedly cancelled.  I keep looking for opportunities to use my Arabic/Middle East experience, and they keep falling through.

Fortunately, things have a way of working out.  The cancellation allowed me to participate in an alternative event: a weekend summer camp for Iraqi refugee families living in my local area.  When the last-minute invitation came on Thursday, my wife and I accepted immediately.  The next morning we dropped the kids with their grandparents, then drove to Sacramento to pick up carloads of Iraqi families.  We spent the next three days deep in California’s redwood forest, playing volleyball and basketball, roasting marshmallows over a bonfire, and listening to the stories of families who have spent significant amounts of their lives trying to escape the devastation of war.

During the opening session, the leader told us that we were about to enjoy a wonderful weekend together, and explained that there were three things that had no place in our forest retreat: cell phones, cars, and sectarianism.  You don’t hear that at every summer camp!  The remark met with laughter and murmured approval, in an audience that was half Muslim and half Christian.

By all appearances, these were ordinary families with ordinary lives.  Mothers and fathers sat around in groups chatting, while their kids played sports and laughed and made new friends.  But for many of these families, their circumstances were hardly ordinary.  I met one weary man who had brought his family to the U.S. only five days prior.  Several years ago, he’d made the tragic decision to flee from Iraq… to Syria.  Now his family had been uprooted by war a second time.  It was a little surreal, realizing that his children had probably only ever known life as refugees.  What is recent history to me comprised their entire lives.

Although most of the kids were too busy having fun to reminisce about their lives in Iraq, my wife and I wondered what some of them had seen or suffered.  One young man was eager to talk to anybody who would listen; if I asked him one question, he would respond by talking for ten minutes straight.  Unfortunately, his thick Iraqi accent was almost unintelligible to me.  I only caught moments of meaning, lightning flashes that illuminated the landscape of his life: friends left behind, his schools in Iraq and here in the U.S., the challenges of finding a community where he belonged, an explanation of how he obtained the three-inch scars on his forearms.

I was a little surprised to learn how much depression there is among Iraqi refugees in the U.S.  Many of them struggle to build new lives in an individualistic culture where they do not have deep family and community roots.  Most of us probably assume that these families are delighted to have a new beginning in the U.S., and in truth, I suppose most of them are grateful.  They are the lucky ones.  But the move is a radical disruption from everything they’ve ever known, and many are lonely and homesick.  A few weeks ago, the conference organizer visited a refugee at his home and discovered that he was in the act of preparing to hang himself.  More recently, a refugee family he knows flew back to Iraq… jeopardizing the likelihood of ever gaining American citizenship.

The retreat was a wonderful time, and hopefully a nice change of atmosphere for these families who are doing the hard work of building new lives in the U.S.  I enjoyed using my Arabic to make new friends and hear their stories.  Once again, I was reminded of how important it is for for students and practitioners of foreign affairs to keep on eye on the basic human aspect of these issues.  It’s easy to lose sight of individual lives when we study the affairs of peoples and nations, but these one-on-one encounters provide essential context for understanding our work.

The weekend was also a wake-up call for me about the seriousness of refugee challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the great need for support networks wherever refugees settle.  I tend to think in terms of large-scale government solutions to problems like refugee resettlement, but this weekend I met many quiet, unsung heroes who are doing great things for refugees their local community.