At about 11am yesterday, 1st March 2012, I missed a call from my journalist friend Sebastian Meyer. On returning the call, I was informed that an American teacher at a school that I had not heard of here in Sulaymaniyah, had been shot dead by a student, who had then turned the gun on himself.
Over the next few hours, vague details emerged via the expat community here, substantiated facts from eye witnesses alongside rumour and specualtion.
Less than 24 hours after the incident, what is known is this.
Jeremiah Small was a 33 year old teacher at The Medes School, know locally as the media school. It is a private, Christian establishment that educates the children of local wealthy and powerful families. The claim that it is neither an evangelical nor proselytising institution appears to be bourne out by the 95% Muslim Kurd students. Although initial reports stated Small was a gym teacher, he was also a history and literature teacher at the English language school.
The gunman has been identified as Biyar Sarwar, an 18 year old student. He shot Small several times with a handgun he had concealed in his clothes before shooting himself. Small died at the scene, whilst Sarwar died sometime later in hospital.
This is a trgaic occurrence, and my first thoughts are with the families of both parties. Because of my proximity to the school, I’ve taken a keen interest in developments, and I’ve come to few conclusions and many questions.
Firstly the contradiction at the heart of The Medes School project. Jeff Dokkestul, a board member of Servant Group International, the organisation that runs the three Medes schools, insists that the mission of the school is to provide a classical education, not to proseltyse to the students. However, on the group website, this mission is declared, “Through outreach, education, and discipleship, SGI teams work to share the truth and beauty of Jesus with our Muslim friends. Our hope is to see the gospel bless and transform Muslim families and communities for generations to come,” as well as “We believe in this as the Christian distinctive: belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord, and as the only way to receive the grace and salvation of God.”
Jeremiah appears to have come from a deeply Christian family, and unnamed students claim he frequently praised Christianity and prayed in the classroom. But in a recent email to friends, he wrote that he “explained that it wasn’t my place to tell her to be a Christian,” in response to a student who had been reading about Jesus but knew her parents wouldn’t allow her to convert. It is still far too early to ascertain whether or not there was a religious element to this shooting, but Jeremiah’s father wrote that his son had been “martyred”. I must stress that I feel for the family, but I sense Small senior is writing through tears, and not fact. And facts appear to be in short supply, or willfully ignored across the Atlantic.
His father told The Daily World in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, “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.” This willfully gives the impression of Kurdistan as Iraq. Federally, this area remains part of Iraq for the time being. Culturally it differs significantly and its hard-won autonomy means that the place is safer than many parts of America. The emotional language that Dan Small uses is not excusable by ignorance, as his son would have told him of the safety of this city and region. I cannot understand why he would make such a provocative statement.
But then, it seems that the comments sections of many US newspaper websites are filled with diatribes from the ignorant that commonly populate the space, and it angers me. A dedicated desire to not understand is all pervasive and terribly depressing. On one website the student’s family name was incorrectly given as al-Talabani,
“”Beyar al-Talabani”. Beyar (of the) Talabani? You really have to be kidding.
My condolonces to the family although I find the name of the murderer some what ironic.”
The poster doesn’t know that Talabani is the name of the President of Iraq, and a local Kurd. The issue should surely have been the possibility that the two were related, given the fact that students come from the families of local dignitaries. Another poster adds,
“The Americans are sending gym teachers to Iraq? The Iraquis(sic)spend half their time running in the streets and shouting slogans, they don’t need gym teachers.”
I’ll make the point that people here prefer to be considered Kurds, before leaving the ignorance and casual racism for you to digest. The final comment I want to share is another steeped in misunderstanding, willful or otherwise,
“I’m surprised that they even allow Christian schools given the fact that they are being bombed by Christians and Christian evangelicals are fanatically bent on converting them to Jebus (sic).”
This is Kurdistan, not Iraq. The coalition actively protected this areas skies. And for all the will in the world, the wars here weren’t crusades, they were about oil. And all these comments come four days after three people were killed by a student shooting in a school in Ohio.
In amongst all the confusion, one thing seems clear. The world will be a slightly poorer place without Jeremiah. He was setting up a library, which will reportedly be named after him, and students and colleagues alike recognised him as a good man. However, every statement about him makes reference to his belief, and as one Kurdish friend said to me in the immediate aftermath,
“The teacher was in a conversation about religion with the student, the student didn’t like the teacher’s opinion and he became angry then he shoot the teacher… So, don’t talk about religion.”
Post script. At the memorial service help for both Jeremiah and Biyar, Jeremiah’s parents embraced Biyar’s and told them that they forgive him. Forgiveness is uncommon in this part of the world, and I for one thought it beautiful. Not so one British worker I know, who thought it an evangelical act. RIP both Jeremiah and Biyar.