Eleven-year-old Sy'Keirra English strides confidently to the front of the classroom and greets her teacher in his native language — Arabic.
This tall, slim Iraqi clearly holds the allegiance of the sixth-graders at William C. March Middle School, located in a tough section of East Baltimore. When he beckons, they flock to the blackboard to draw Arabic's unfamiliar swirls and dots. When he approaches in the hall, they utter the greeting "Marhaba," hoping to impress.
Azzet's encouraging manner and gentle eyes belie the roiling story that brought him from Baghdad to Baltimore. It's a tale of harsh prison cells, unspeakable loss, adventures in war correspondence and uncertain days in an unfamiliar land.
Azzet is 38, but he has already lived at least four distinct lives.
After a youth of peace and privilege, he learned just how cruel life could be when lived at the whim of a murderous dictator. Hope returned on the wings of American invaders only to be stained again by the blood of sectarian violence. And then Azzet fled the country his forefathers had built, defended and cherished. As he approaches middle age, he is trying to build a new life — as an American.
He brings all of that with him every Monday and Tuesday to his classroom at William C. March Middle. When Azzet began teaching in August, his sixth-graders knew little of Iraq besides televised images of war. But their curiosity about his beloved country has touched him. He laughs, remembering how one student handed him a list of questions and asked him to fill it out. "Did they watch 'The Simpsons' in Baghdad?" the boy wanted to know.
"I can tell them things about the region," says Erin Divers, a media specialist at William C. March who initiated the search for an Arabic teacher. "But we're really grateful to have a native speaker on board. The kids love him."
Though the number of U.S. schools teaching Arabic has increased in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks, it's still minuscule compared to the numbers teaching Spanish, French and even Chinese. William C. March is the first Baltimore public school to pilot an Arabic class. Anne Arundel County recently won a $35,000 grant to create after-school Arabic programs.
Divers says that by broadening the students' horizons, she hopes to put them on more even ground with peers from affluent districts.
"I'm very grateful for this opportunity to share the culture I lived in for most of my life," Azzet says.
Though the part-time job is not guaranteed to last past January, it has helped him feel peace and joy that were hard to come by for great portions of his life.
"He wanted to come here, he's a good person and he wanted to do nothing but right," says former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent Todd Richissin, who worked with Azzet in Iraq and helped bring him to the U.S. "Now, the right thing is happening for him. That is satisfying."
Imprisoned in Iraq
Azzet was reared in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood, the eldest son of an army general and a physics teacher. His grandfather had been mayor of the capital city, and Azzet knew little but peace and comfort as a youth. The family even lived in McLean, Va., for five years when he was in elementary school and his father was stationed at the Iraqi Embassy.
He felt little need to question Saddam Hussein in those years of stability and prosperity. That began to change after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Azzet's father spoke out against the regime's aggression. Friends warned Ali Azzet that his words were not worth the risk.
"My father was a stubborn guy," Azzet says. "But no one can stand in front of a mountain. Saddam was a mountain."
It was 1996 and Azzet was a senior in college, on his way to class one December morning when a police officer stopped his car. He wondered what was amiss as the man examined his identification papers. Then, four dark vehicles surrounded them. "It's him," the officer said to red-and-white-scarved agents, who seized Azzet.