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A rush of life

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

A rush of life

Jeremiah Small (Servant Group International)

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."

"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."

Matty agreed to run the first school, and the next logical step was to borrow from the Franklin Classical School-the school founded by Grant in 1992 that became a trailblazer in the Classical Christian education movement. With its curriculum as a foundation, students from downtrodden Kurdish families could receive English language instruction and perhaps American-made opportunities. Matty recruited Iraqis to help run the school and to teach, while Servant Group and Grant began to recruit and train teachers from the United States.

The mostly Muslim Kurds, predisposed to like Americans for the protection and help they received during the first Gulf War, seized on an education taught in a language other than Arabic, which under Saddam had become the language of oppression. In 2001 Classical School of the Medes was born-first in Sulaymaniyah, then the far northern city of Dohuk, and in 2003 in Erbil, the regional capital.

"Those schools have grown faster than any Classical Christian school in the United States," notes Grant, who has used the same model to help start Classical schools in Indonesia. The three Iraqi schools this year have over 2,000 students-nearly all Muslim-with 27 American teachers supplementing the Iraqi faculty. Matty serves as senior director of all three schools.

From the beginning the schools have been an anomaly, with Christian faculty from the United States teaching in classrooms that are 95 percent or more Muslim. The Classical formula puts emphasis on critical thinking, asking questions, and developing a worldview-in a culture where classroom activity centered on rote memory and repetition at all ages. Yet when I visited the Sulaymaniyah school in 2002, it had 60 students; today it has over 600.

Matty remains the on-the-ground visionary holding it together, and without playing down his Christian beliefs. Over the years he has successfully licensed each school with the Ministry of Education and demanded that the schools be given equal footing in their communities, and judged by their product. More than once he has left a rigorous meeting with government officials only to discover that some of them have just registered their own children to attend his schools.

"What we tell the Kurdish officials is we want to work hand in hand with Kurdish Muslims, we want to live with you but not at the edge of life. We want to be at the heart of Kurdistan, and we want to work hard for the good of the community," Matty told me in 2007.

In the classroom, Small operated much the same way, never hiding his own Christian beliefs but unafraid to explore the Quran and other religious texts with his students, along with the book of Romans and works of Western literature. "Inside and outside the classroom, Jeremiah made clear that he loved Jesus Christ," said his former student Amed Omar, "but he never demanded that we read the Bible or become Christians. You did not have to be a Christian to be a part of what he was doing, but Jesus Christ was ubiquitous everywhere in his life."

That may have led to tension with Sarwar, who several students said described himself as an atheist. A week before the shooting Small told an Iraqi friend, "I have a student who wants to kill me." When the friend asked him about it several days later, Small said he thought the issue had been resolved.

Small was the oldest of seven children and grew up moving around the country, including Alaska, until his parents, Dan and Rebecca Small, settled in southwest Washington to run a Bible camp. He graduated from Central Washington University and worked as a substitute teacher before attending an SGI presentation about the schools in Iraq. "I think I am supposed to go there," he told an SGI staff member.

In late 2005 Small arrived in Sulaymaniyah to teach English and history and, according to a statement released by Servant Group after his death, "continued to return to Iraq to teach year after year because of the great changes and hope he saw in the lives of his students."

G.K. Chesterton, in a quote Small liked to repeat for his students, said, "It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life." It was the theme defining Small's time in Iraq as he filled after-school hours, taught students rock climbing and organized trips to Europe over summer break. He helped to launch a student-run newspaper called Median Ink, and graduates Omar and Ali went on to launch a monthly newspaper in the region called Awat.

At one point Small and a fellow teacher helped to train and recruit first responders after he learned of a critical shortage of firemen and ambulance crews in the city. When he discovered the city had no real library, he encouraged students to launch a drive to create one. The students now say they will name the library after him.

Small returned to the United States twice a year, during summer break and at Christmas. "Every time he went through the airport scanner, we knew we were having to let go, not knowing if we would ever see him again," Dan Small told The Daily World of Aberdeen, Wash. "He was doing what he loved doing, and his students are testifying to that."

His last trip through the scanners, in January, turned into a nightmare of canceled flights and lost luggage that delayed his return to Iraq by almost a week. It gave him extra time with his family in Washington. Recounting the story, he concluded in an email to friends: "Even the things that don't feel good are good, because He has purposed them and will work-all-things for good."

Listen to a report on Jeremiah Small on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.