Family, students mourns man's death in Iraq school

March 2, 2012 - 4:55 AM
Mideast Iraq

Students cry in the schoolyard after a fatal shooting of an American gym teacher at a school in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March, 1, 2012. An American gym teacher was killed Thursday when a student in the crowded classroom pulled out a gun, shot the teacher and then shot himself, officials and eyewitnesses said. (AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed)

COSMOPOLIS, Wash. (AP) — Jeremiah Small spent six years teaching at a private Christian school in northern Iraq, sharing his love of history, literature and Jesus with the primarily Muslim students in his classes. He didn't worry about his safety, even if his family in Washington state did.

The popular 33-year-old teacher was gunned down Thursday in his classroom by a student who then killed himself — cementing the worst fears of Small's deeply religious parents, as well as those of his six brothers and sisters.

"Our oldest, Jeremiah, was martyred in Kurdistan this a.m.," his father, J. Dan Small, wrote on his Facebook page.

The shooting at the private, English-speaking Classical School of the Medes marked the rare violent death of an American in Iraq's most peaceful region. The motive remained unknown, though students said the gunman, 18-year-old Biyar Sarwar, quarreled briefly with Small before opening fire.

"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 newspaper of Aberdeen, Wash. "He was doing what he loved doing, and his students are testifying to that."

Witnesses described chaos in the classroom, with some students fainting.

Ahmed Mohammed said he was sitting in the front of the classroom and paid little attention to the argument, which he could barely hear because Sarwar was at the back.

"Then I heard the gunshot," said Mohammed, his face pale as he recounted the scene. "I turned my head and saw the body of the American teacher on the ground with blood near it. All the students started to run out of the room. Seconds later, as I was running to the reach the school gate, I heard another gunshot."

A short time later, another student shouted that Sarwar had killed himself, Mohammed said.

"So I rushed back to the class with other students to see the teacher on the ground with three bullets in his head and chest, and bloody, and Biyar with a bullet in his head."

Sulaimaniyah police spokesman Sarkawit Mohammed, no relation to Ahmed, said Sarwar hid the gun in his clothes before the lecture at the Medes School, an academy of elementary through secondary grade levels.

Sulaimaniyah is in Iraq's comparatively peaceful Kurdish region, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. The region has generally been free of the bombings and shootings that have plagued the rest of Iraq. Foreigners, including Americas, usually travel freely around northern Iraq without armed guards or armored vehicles.

The Medes program runs three schools in the provinces that make up Iraq's northern Kurdish region, boasting an enrollment of about 2,000 students. An estimated 95 percent are from Kurdish Muslim families.

Students described Small as a religious man who frequently praised Christianity and prayed in the classroom. Sulaimaniyah Mayor Zana Hama Saleh said Small was not a missionary and cast doubt that the killing was motivated by sectarian issues because Sarwar "had no radical religious tendencies."

Nashville, Tenn.-based Servant Group International, which employed Small, confirmed his death and described him as a mentor to more than 1,000 Iraqi students he taught since 2005.

Jeff Dokkestul, a board member of the organization, said its teachers are Christian, but he maintained that they do not proselytize their students.

"We believe this is an isolated incident, just like (what) happens in the U.S.," Dokkestul said. He said the school operates "as a Christian school serving the Muslim and Christian community, a mixed community."

Servant Group's website listed its mission as using "outreach, education, and discipleship ... (to) work to share the truth and beauty of Jesus with our Muslim friends."

Small's friends in Washington said his evangelism motivated him to teach in Iraq. In time, he grew to love the country as well, said Caleb Small, one of Jeremiah's six siblings.

"He hated the temperature and dust storms year-round, but he loved the people," Caleb said, adding that the family insisted that Jeremiah return home twice a year for visits. The family was considering burying his body in Iraq, he said.

Heather Johnson, another teacher who lived with Small's family for a time, said that Jeremiah Small was deeply interested in his students.

"He was so interested in each individual student and making sure they felt the love of God in their lives," she said.

Caleb Small said one of his brother's recent projects had been working with students to create a library in Sulaimaniyah. The family is setting up a memorial fund to accept contributions for the library, which students decided to name after him Thursday, Caleb Small said.

Medes student Neyan Kamal said Small was highly respected, and described Sarwar as smart.

"I'll never forget these cruel moments," said Kamal, who was in the classroom during the shooting. "I have no idea what the motive was — both were good people."

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Johnson reported from Seattle. He can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle.

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Kaminsky can be reached at https://twitter.com/jekaminsky

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AP reporters Lara Jakes and Yahya Barzanji in Iraq, and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tenn., contributed.