An eclectic mix: Schools, commerce, cemeteries, and ice cream – Day 4 in Iraq

Our schedule was shifted for today when we noticed our school visits were on the itinerary for Friday when schools are closed for the weekly religious day. So off we traveled to three different schools. The elementary school principal met us but had to check with the local Ministry of Education before giving us access to the classrooms. Since the class we visited was 6 year-old girls, Joan Haan brought out the pictures and notes written by children from St. Paul’s Pilgrim Lutheran Church.

The girls beamed with excitement because of the attention they received from visitors from far away. I gave them each a packet of Skittles or Starburst candy from an after-Halloween sale but none of the girls opened it right away, carefully watching their teacher interact with these strangers. We couldn’t stay very long with two other schools to visit but did manage to photograph the water filter in the bathroom installed a year ago by the Muslim Peacemaker Team. Sami checked it out to make sure it was functioning properly and to check to see when the filter would need to be replaced.

As we gathered to leave, a cowbell was rung to signify either class change or recess time and young girls piled out of the dozen or so classrooms, some bold enough to come close to these visitors – some staring, some smiling. When we took out our cameras, they definitely were interested and acted as all kids from elementary age would – embarrassment, pleasure, curiosity, … . It was clear that after we left, the other classes were going to ask the students from the class we visited what these Americans were like.

The second stop was at a school for the blind and the Principal told us there were only 6 or 7 of them in the country and this school provided services for about 30 children. One student demonstrated how he used the computer with headphones and other adaptive equipment while a younger student read letters from a braille sheet after instruction from a teacher. This school too had a recently installed MPT water filter.

At the High School we discovered the Superintendent was an old classmate of Sami Rasouli, Sameera served as an Administrator, and Mohammed was a graduate of that program: an MPT triple-header. Our delegation split up to go to different classes and I went to a biology class and then an English language class. The students were bright and engaged. The Superintendent asked Kathy McKay if our Sister City program could secure 5-6 scholarships to colleges in Minnesota and we will certainly pass their interest on to the University of MN and other Twin Cities area schools.

Next stop was at the Najaf Chamber of Commerce and a visit with my good friend, Zuhair Sharba, the Chairman of a bustling and growing enterprise. Besides seeking new business partnerships and job opportunities, the center also has a small business program, a special program for women looking to start businesses or needing expert advice and assistance, and an arbitration center to resolve disputes which might arise when international companies try to fit their programs into Iraq’s reality.

After meeting their board and staff, touring their facilities, and exchanging greetings and gifts, we were treated to a delicious lunch of fresh-grilled carp, chicken, vegetables and spreads, and fresh fruit. We didn’t sit down to eat until after 3 PM so some of us were fairly ravenous.

Trying to return to our previous schedule, we decided to drive by the world’s largest cemetery – it literally goes for miles – and then ended up on the upper deck of a parking ramp which overlooked a vast section of the place where most Shia Muslims hope their family members can be buried. The cemetery is more than a thousand years old and one looks over a sea of graves stretching into the horizon. In the background from where we stand at sunset is the brightly lit golden dome of the Shrine of Imam Ali (at top), the reason for the popularity of the cemetery. After posing for the requisite photo, the group decides since we ate lunch so late – and most of us ate too much – that we’d forgo supper and instead stop at “Ice Pack”, an ice cream shop opened by a cousin of Ali, our photographer and media liaison for the delegation. Never needing a reason to celebrate with ice cream, we at least had the excuse that Deborah’s checked luggage finally arrived from the airport this morning and she now has a fresh set of clothes and other essentials – four days after first arriving.

I arrived back at the guest house tired but also needing to download my photos and write up another report for friends back home. Iraqis continue to want partnerships with us and make us feel so welcome despite the recent war and all the suffering which ensued. Iraq still has many needs but they are striving everyday to try to regain what they had before the wars and economic sanctions. Our delegation is a tangible sign of hope that a new a vibrant relationship can be had with at least some Americans. Hopefully, as we get over our fears and stereotypes, those relationships can grow and blossom.

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Steve Clemens's picture
Steve Clemens

I'm a resident of Minneapolis and a peace and social justice activist.