Columnists > Voices

Homesteaders needed

Time to stake a new kind of claim in Iraq

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

This issue's cover story illustrates how a crisis arises when the streets are not safe for girls to go to school and for men to run a business. Thankfully that's not the story everywhere in Iraq, but where it's true it has forced millions of Iraqis to shutter their stores and to leave their homes (not to mention bury their loved ones), many of them for good.

Soldiers on the street make an immediate difference. Following recent violence, Iraqi army units beefed up their numbers in Mosul to 35,000 and things are improving again. One of the lasting lessons of the Iraq War is that the United States did not put enough boots on the ground when it should have. It built concrete walls around Baghdad's palaces and the Green Zone, sandbagged checkpoints at the airbases and government offices when it also should have been paying attention to the neighborhoods, the schools, the mosques, and the churches. But as one Iraqi recently told me, "The government can protect the church and it can protect the school, but it cannot protect every square meter."

If civic institutions, small businesses, and ordinary folks don't recapture their communities as places where children can play without being shot, where men can repair cars without being blown up, then Iraq's cities won't work again. The United States will leave the country poorer than it found it-possibly even a failed state someday like Somalia. No matter how strong a war opponent one is, this shouldn't be acceptable from either side of the aisle in Congress or from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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So as U.S. forces look to begin a significant withdrawal of troops culminating in 2010-2011, I say: Now comes the hard part. Who will help Iraq remake itself?

One of my great privileges in Iraq was to spend a morning in September with about 20 high-school students who want to start a student newspaper. They attend Classical School of the Medes (, one of three schools in the north supported by Nashville-based Servant Group International (SGI). Working with an Iraqi clergyman, SGI started the schools in 2000-2001 and regularly sends American faculty to augment the Iraqi leadership. (Servant Group ads sometimes pop up in WORLD's classifieds, and I know at least one teacher who is there as a result.)

In 2002 I visited this school for the first time. It had 60 students in elementary grades. Today it has over 500 students, K-12, mostly Kurdish Muslims who are taught using a classical Christian curriculum with emphasis on humanities, English, math, and sciences. The school has just moved into its third building, a beautiful facility on a main thoroughfare built with the help of U.S. nonprofits and Kurds. All three schools, located in three cities, are succeeding because they are offering something wanted by the community-a college-prep education with emphasis on English language training-and because they are doing it with excellence. Note that I did not say they are doing it with ease and comfort, or behind blast walls. Last year a bomb did go off near enough to the home of a teacher to interrupt a regular game night with high-schoolers. This week the school is suffering through random power outages and water shortages. But as the community responds with appreciation and good will, security also grows.

Soon some of the students I met will be the school's first graduates, and they are starting a paper, among other things, because they want to leave a legacy. They are counting on the future of Iraq, and so should we.

The United States has had its regions of lawlessness-dominated by bandits, con men, squatters, and outlaws. No cavalry of any size could have settled the place alone. It took a Homestead Act and families by the thousands to stake a claim and settle down. To own it.

One difference is that the United States was not also climbing out of decade upon decade of dictatorship. For that, there are not enough groups like Servant Group staking a claim. Doctors Without Borders, World Vision, TEAR Fund, CARE, and others, despite long track records in war zones, pulled out along with the UN in 2003 or before. Some of these groups actually made a pact not to work in Iraq-too costly, too risky, and no one liked the politics associated with it.

So when readers tell me they feel helpless about the war, I mention the small but serious works of a few like Servant Group International (, Barnabas Fund (, Open Doors (, and Christian Aid Ministries ( You don't have to be a great Samaritan to make a difference in hard places, just a good one.


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