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Arabic teacher makes difficult journey from Iraq to Baltimore classroom

International Military InterventionsIraqFirearmsJustice System

December 31, 2011

Eleven-year-old Sy'Keirra English strides confidently to the front of the classroom and greets her teacher in his native language — Arabic.

Atheed Azzet could not be more pleased. It has been three months, and the kids are grasping phrases that few of them had ever heard before he entered their lives.

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.

He later learned that Hussein's henchmen had taken him so they would have leverage when they questioned his father, who was imprisoned the same day. "But he didn't confess any of his friends," Azzet says with pride.

Azzet says he also refused to provide information about his father and family friends. Day after day, he says, his captors slipped a blindfold over his eyes, bound his wrists and dragged him to a room where they barraged him with questions. Had he talked with his father about opposing the regime? No. Well, then, had he overheard the general's conversations with other rebels?

On frigid nights, the guards, stinking of alcohol, cast Azzet outside in scant clothing.

He saw his father twice while in prison, he says, once so the old general could observe that his son really was in custody, and once as they stood together before a military judge. The judge asked Azzet only if he was a member of Hussein's Ba'ath Party. He said he was. The judge then told him he would be executed.

"Congratulations," his father said cryptically as Azzet was hauled from the chamber.

Two weeks later, Azzet was freed as abruptly as he had been taken. The family received no word of his father's fate until three months later, when the phone rang and a voice told Azzet to come and retrieve the patriarch's body. The man who had taught him discipline and self-respect was gone.

Tears well in his eyes as he recalls that day and the last day he saw his father alive. Azzet believes his father said "congratulations" because he had agreed to die so his son would be released.

The family was not allowed to mourn Ali Azzet publicly. They buried him quietly, beside his parents. It was a story all too familiar to Iraqis who lived under Hussein's capricious reign.

"Saddam was the enemy of Iraq," Azzet says. "No son of Iraq would do these things."

'A new birth'

For the next six years, Azzet lived in a kind of haze, irrevocably scarred by his country's ruler but unwilling to leave until he saw Hussein toppled. He carried his father's 9 mm pistol everywhere he went, determined never to be captured again. Azzet lived as quietly as possible, finishing his computer science degree and working for a private company that specialized in translating documents.

Azzet's hopes swelled in late 2002, when U.S. troops began to mass in Kuwait. He welcomed an invasion, believing it would be Hussein's last stand. He remembers walking around Baghdad a week before the Iraqi army surrendered, staring in disbelief at the bodies of Hussein's former security officers. After decades of imposing terror, they had succumbed more quickly than anyone dreamed.

"It was just like a new birth," Azzet says. On the day Hussein was captured, he celebrated by firing six shots from his AK-47 into the air.

Azzet's English impressed a Chicago reporter who spoke with him outside his home during the early days of the war. She referred him to Richissin, who needed a "fixer," one of the natives who help foreign correspondents translate, navigate and talk their way out of hairy situations.

"He was the first person I saw in Iraq wearing a suit," says Richissin, laughing at his memory of their first meeting. But the Sun reporter was quickly impressed with Azzet's grasp of the nuances and colloquialisms of English. It was obvious, he thought, that Azzet had watched plenty of American television.

The men quickly built a rapport.

Richissin was beside Azzet at one of the most difficult moments of his life, the day when he revisited the presidential palace where he and his father had been imprisoned. Nooses still hung from the ceiling, with sweat stains on the rope.

"It was just so vivid," Richissin recalls. "I think that allowed him to wrap his arms around something that he would never have been able to otherwise."

"For a moment, I wished I was there again," Azzet says, "so I could see my father alive."

He pauses as the emotion of the day washes back over him. "I had to go back there to put it behind me," he says finally.

Most of his days as a translator were a lot less solemn. For six months, Azzet worked with a succession of reporters from The Sun and Denver's Rocky Mountain News.

"It was like a dream to work with Americans," Azzet says. "Their enthusiasm about knowing our culture and traditions, how much they wanted to know about people."

While working with journalists, he met other Americans who helped him get consulting jobs in the effort to rebuild Iraq. In the three years he performed that work, he saw terrifying sights as the insurgents grew bolder in their attacks. Once, Azzet says, a U.S. Army Humvee in front of his vehicle flipped into the air, propelled by an improvised explosive device.

His mother asked him to quit.

"Mom, it's an obligation," he remembers telling her.

Leaving his home

As pleased as Azzet was by the fall of Hussein, he was perplexed by American decision-making in the wake of the invasion: Why did the U.S. fail to cultivate the Iraqi army to manage security? Why were the ascendant politicians men who had lived outside the country for years?

Darkness quickly returned in the form of sectarian violence, which erupted right up to the doorstep of the comfortable brick house where Azzet's family had lived for nearly 40 years.

One day, he came home to see a dog feeding on a mutilated body in the street. "We could not live here anymore," he says simply.

First, he sent his mother and youngest brother to Egypt. Three months later, he departed for Jordan, where his uncle was a successful physician. Azzet still harbored dreams of returning home once Baghdad settled. But then a call came from neighbors — the Azzets' home had been ransacked in the night, their two cars stolen from the garage.

Azzet and his mother returned one last time to survey their losses. "We gave away the rest of our stuff to neighbors, we locked the doors, and we left," he says. "That was the last time I saw my country."

He went back to Jordan for a few months, but his mind had turned to the U.S. and its comparative multitude of opportunities. With Richissin, who left The Sun in 2007, nudging State Department officials, Azzet secured a work visa. In July 2008, he stepped off a plane outside Baltimore, where he would sleep on Richissin's couch for the first month.

Azzet expected to get a job working with computers, but he arrived at the dawn of the worst recession the U.S. had seen in decades.

Jason Bridges, a Columbia accountant who befriended Azzet, tried recommending him to various companies. "He has all this education," Bridges says. "But a lot of people just didn't know what to do with his resume. I think it bothered him. It would bother me."

He survived on odd jobs, translating documents, teaching Arabic to adults, guarding warehouses.

Azzet made connections with Baltimore's small Iraqi community, but socializing wasn't always easy either. He didn't have a car at first, and American dating customs were unfamiliar to him. "You know, it's stuff as simple as 'How do you flirt?'" Richissin says, describing his friend's adjustment pains.

A proud teacher

But Azzet's life has eased in the past year. He met an Iraqi woman whose family lives in Northern Virginia, and they married. They live in a White Marsh apartment. His mother, Nawal, came to the U.S. in January, and he expects his youngest brother, Aws, to arrive this year.

Bridges recently hosted the Azzets for Thanksgiving, where they infused the standard meal with traditional Iraqi favorites such as dolmas. "My mother-in-law, who's not easy to please, said it was the best Thanksgiving ever," Bridges notes. "If we had more people like Atheed, it would really help the understanding between our cultures."

This summer, Azzet responded to an advertisement on Craigslist for the teaching job at William C. March. He worried that the students would reject Arabic as a frivolous subject with little connection to their lives. So he couched it practically, telling them that if he hadn't mastered a second language, English, he would have been out of luck when his computer degree failed to pay off.

"After the first two weeks, they began realizing, 'This is an opportunity for us,'" Azzet says. "Now, they want to learn something new every day."

Terrell Carr, 12, likes the way Arabic letters look when he scrawls them on the board. "This is one of my favorite classes," he says. "My top No. 1. When I grow up, I might want to go into the Army and be a translator there."

The only thing classmate Damonte Matthews, 11, doesn't like about Azzet is the swiftness with which he issues warnings for talking out in class. "I've learned a lot from him," Matthews says, before reeling off a string of Arabic words.

Azzet beams, describing how well the students performed during a recent visit to the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington.

All is not settled, however.

William C. March Principal Iona Spikes describes Azzet as "awesome" and says that "we absolutely anticipate having him back." But his contract will run out in January, and the school is scrambling to find money to keep him.

Maybe his life will take another turn, something he's used to by now.

It's a Friday in mid-December, the day after the U.S. declared an official end to the war in Iraq. Azzet sits with his mother in the cozy living room of his apartment, watching the news on a flat-screen television with deep ambivalence. He wants to believe that his country can stand on its own feet, that it might be a place to which he could return. But his gut tells him that day lies many years in the future.

"I miss my house, my neighbors, my family," says his mother, a regal woman whose face brightens when she's asked about Azzet's following in her footsteps as a teacher. She is happy to be with her son in a safe place, but really, she never wanted to leave.

"We're always optimistic," Azzet says. "It's normal for any human being. When you're pulled out of your home, you want to go back."

He also misses Iraq every day, even more since he began telling the students stories of his country. He wants to visit his father's grave and pray for him. That inability tears at him more than anything.

"It's not a victory," he says, as images flicker of American troops arriving back from war. "When you say mission accomplished, that means you fight to the end. And it's not the end in Iraq."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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