Family and friends prepared for an Iraqi burial of American teacher Jeremiah Small, scheduled for Tuesday in the northern Iraq city of Sulaymaniyah, where the 33-year-old taught for six years.
An 11th grade Iraqi student shot to death Small in his classroom last Thursday, then shot himself. Emergency workers transported the student, Beyar Talabani, great-nephew of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to a nearby hospital where he died several hours later of his self-inflicted wound. (See "Killed in action," March 1.)
Over the weekend, family members of Small flew to Iraq from Washington state to meet with U.S. Embassy officials and make arrangements for a burial in Iraq's Kurdish north. Small is the first U.S. civilian to be killed in Iraq since nearly all U.S. military forces pulled out of the country last December.
The U.S. Defense Department has reported one U.S. military death in 2012, while Iraqi civilian casualties have risen significantly since the pullout. Iraq's Ministry of Interior reported nearly 500 Iraqis killed in January due to bombings and shootings. Monday gunmen disguised as police raided homes and checkpoints in western Iraq, killing at least 27 members of Iraqi security forces. The rise in violence has been attributed to an al-Qaeda resurgence following the U.S. pullout.
In contrast, the shooting of Small appears to be the work of a lone gunman, whom fellow students described as having "personal issues."
Initial reports that the shooting followed an argument have been countered by those attending the school-including a teacher in the classroom at the time of the shooting-who said Small was opening class in prayer with his head bowed when the gunfire began.
"Mr. Jeremiah's hands were still folded in prayer when he fell," said a student. Others reported on the day before the shooting "a heated discussion" in the classroom, "during which the pupil threatened to kill the teacher because of conflicting religious views," according to former student Meer Ako Ali, writing in The Kurdistan Tribune.
In the course of teaching classes on literature, history, and humanities at Classical School of the Medes (CSM), Small frequently supervised discussions of religion. "Jeremiah was clear that he loved Jesus Christ," said Amed Omar, a 2010 graduate of CSM, "but he never demanded that we read the Bible or become Christians. But because Jesus Christ was ubiquitous everywhere in his life, he would reference it often."
Nashville-based Servant Group International supports and helps to run CSM, in addition to two other schools in northern Iraq. Students are nearly all Muslims but are drawn to the school's curriculum because of its emphasis on Western education and English language training. Servant Group this year has its largest team in the northern region-27 faculty members serving at three schools-since the first school opened more than a decade ago. In Sulaymaniyah, the school canceled classes following the shooting last Thursday, and it will not reopen until March 21, after the Muslim holiday of Nowruz.
On Friday, traditional Muslim burial services for Talabani became a joint service also honoring Small, according to Servant Group spokesman Jeff Dokkestul. "This was a statement of the community's acceptance of Christians, the schools, and a signal that Jeremiah was loved there," he said.
A statement from Servant's Group said that family members, including Small's parents and several siblings (Small was the oldest of seven), decided to travel to Iraq and bury Small there, "to demonstrate forgiveness and reconciliation to Beyar's family" and "to make sure Jeremiah's work is blessed to continue in the lives of those he loved."
In addition to tomorrow's service, a memorial service will be held in Nashville on Sunday.
"Although it's very difficult to fill his shoes, he left a legacy for his students," said Omar, currently a student in business management at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. "He left a void but at the same time he left a legacy for us to follow."