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Servant Group International

A rush of life

Iraq | For Jeremiah Small, an American teacher killed in Iraq, six years became long enough to build a legacy

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

He ate sheep brain soup in the bazaar and pulled all-nighters with his students. He chaperoned high-schoolers on camping trips and joined in Kurdish folk dances with third- and fourth-graders. And although he came to teach English among northern Iraqis, he spoke the local Kurdish dialect well enough to barter in the street markets, where he found a tailor who could fashion the traditional Kurdish men's baggy trousers and sash to fit his non-traditional trim waist and lanky frame.

In six years teaching at Classical School of the Medes (CSM) in Sulaymaniyah, a city of 1 million in northern Iraq, Jeremiah Small brought to his classroom lessons steeped in Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Joseph Conrad, C.S. Lewis, and American-made movies. All the while, the sandy-haired American himself was becoming more a Kurd.

"He knew the mountains surrounding the city better than we did," observed Amed Omar, a 2010 graduate of CSM. "He was very Kurdish, very hospitable, very connected to all our lives."

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"He became not only the ablest and favorite teacher of the school but also one of the community's friendliest faces," wrote former student Meer Ako Ali, now studying in Lebanon.

That connection deepened the shock and trauma for students and colleagues when on March 1 an Iraqi student shot and killed Small as he bent his head to pray at the start of a morning class. The 33-year-old teacher from Washington state took bullets to the head and chest and died at the scene.

Eighteen-year-old Bayar Sarwar, an 11th-grader, then shot himself. He survived for several hours but died at Sulaymaniyah Emergency Hospital. The assailant was a grand-nephew of Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq and head of the region's most powerful party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Small's death was a powerful blow not only to his own community but to other schools in the CSM network across northern Iraq, and to the region's tiny contingent of non-governmental aid workers: Many survived the despotic years of Saddam Hussein and the following eight years of U.S. occupation and radical Islamic insurgency. They have worked to keep a low profile amid the region's ethnic and religious tensions, and the changing winds of U.S. policy. And now, two months after the departure of the last U.S. troop unit from Iraq, that perseverance suddenly appeared threatened by a lone teenage gunman whose motive for the shooting might never be known.

Remarkably, in the days following the incident, family and friends looked past ethnic and religious identity for healing. A funeral for Sarwar in a downtown mosque the day after the shooting turned into a joint service to honor Small also.

CSM teachers who shared a house with Small opened it in the afternoons so that students and others could come to mourn his death together. "There we sang worship songs and celebrated Jer's homegoing," one 2011 graduate told me in an email. "Everyone was surrounded by loved ones, to support, and be supported by. We all entered the house with tears on our eyes and left with a smile."

Small's family chose to bury him in Iraq. The March 6 service at the Art Hall in Sulaymaniyah, besides family and students, included leaders of Servant Group International (SGI), the U.S. organization that helps to support the schools, the Kurdish regional minister of education, and members of the killer's family. Fellow teachers led the singing of hymns and read from the psalms and New Testament. Students gave tributes to Small and family members also spoke.

But most remarkable was the reconciliation evident between Small's family, who are Christians, and Sarwar's, who are Muslims. The shooter's father, Rashid Sarwar, apologized to the Smalls for the killing. The teacher's father, Dan Small, said, "We do not have any hatred for the family of the student who killed our son." At one point both men embraced.

The idea of a school in northern Iraq using mainly Christian curriculum got started in a Nashville bagel shop, says author, pastor, and educator George Grant.

The 1990s was a tense period for northern Iraq: Saddam Hussein had ravaged the Kurdish population with chemical weapons and mass slaughters. A U.S.-led no-fly zone offered general protection from Baghdad but put the normally hard-working Kurds at the mercy of an international aid bureaucracy that rationed food, supplies, and medical care.

An Arab Christian pastor from Kirkuk named Yousif Matty decided he wanted to help the Kurds, and he linked up with SGI in Nashville, a relief group created originally to assist Kurds chased from their homelands by Saddam Hussein. But nothing in the region really was working. "The Kurds were harassed by [Arab] Muslims on every side," recalled Grant. "The idea of starting a school where their children could earn American high school diplomas would be like gold for them."

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