American Schools in Middle East Keep a Wary Eye on War

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 02, 2003 5 min read
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The U.S.-led war against Iraq has brought a world of pressing issues—from safety concerns to teacher evacuations—to administrators of American and international schools in the Middle East.

A number of those schools, which serve thousands of American and other students throughout the region, have temporarily closed over the past couple of months because of safety concerns connected to the looming threat of war. Some have not yet reopened. In some cases, the beginning of military action in mid-March corresponded with planned weeklong or two-week spring breaks, so the extended closings looked to students and faculty members like extra-long vacations.

Other schools are simply carrying on with little more than a wary eye on news events.

At least one American educator overseas reflected that while he has been able to take new developments in stride, at times he has felt disheartened to recognize what certain safety precautions represent—the fact that a war is raging in the region.

Robert A. Sills is a longtime administrator of international schools who is now the superintendent of the Barbour American International School, in Tel Aviv.

After the U.S. Department of State authorized voluntary evacuations for its employees and their dependents from Israel shortly before the war began, Mr. Sills arranged for any American teacher and student from his school who wanted to leave Israel to do so. Then he closed the school for 17 school days because of heightened safety concerns.

He’s been through similar circumstances while running an international school in Morocco during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. And he’s also survived a couple of government overthrows while working as a school administrator in other countries.

He says that his experiences have taught him that “there is a tendency to paint a much bleaker picture [than is true] because it sells more print, media time.”

“None of us really believe anything is going to cross the border here,” Mr. Sills said. “It’s like a war breaking out in Utah when you live in San Francisco.”

But at the same time, he said, he took very seriously a security drill that occurred last week after school reopened on March 24. All children and staff members temporarily occupied two safe, “sealed” rooms. And it was sobering, he said, to see the students and staff carrying gas masks with them at all times, a requirement of the Israeli Education Ministry.

Only about 95 of the school’s 500 students, who come from 50 nations, including the United States, were back the day the school reopened. Attendance was expected to increase with each subsequent day last week.

Evacuation Orders

Before the war began, the State Department authorized voluntary evacuations of its employees and their families in most countries in the region, including Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—all of which share borders with Iraq.

Early last week, telephone calls to various private American schools or international schools in those countries revealed that the schools were temporarily closed either for spring break or because of security concerns relating to the war.

The American School of Kuwait and the American International School of Kuwait—both in Kuwait City—had announced in early February that they would close from Feb. 10 through March 21 because of uncertainty surrounding the situation in Iraq. (“Uncertainty Prompts Kuwait School Hiatus,” Feb. 12, 2003.) The two schools, which serve children of diplomats and international business executives as well as Kuwaiti students, had not reopened last week. Classes at the American School of Kuwait were expected to resume on April 1, according to its Web site.

Meanwhile private American and international schools remained open in Turkey, which is across Iraq’s northern border. Administrators from the Koç School and the Üsküdar American Academy—two international schools in Istanbul, far from the border—said they didn’t see a need to close their schools even temporarily.

Both of the schools employ some American teachers, all of whom remained at their posts after the start of the war in Iraq.

Though the administrators don’t expect to use the evacuation plans they’ve drawn up, they say that the war is of vital concern to teachers and students.

“There is an active concern for the safety of civilians,” John R. Chandler, the general director of the Koç School, said in an e-mail. “There are many questions about the justification for the war and about the real reasons for it.”

Like many administrators in the United States, they say they’ve encouraged teachers to talk with students about the war, but to be careful not to try to sway students toward their own opinions and convictions.

He said almost all the 1,900 students in his school are Turkish nationals who seek a college-preparatory education in English.

Weighing Heavily

Mr. Chandler, who is from Maine, noted that the faculty and students of his school are also concerned about the current war because Turkey suffered after the first Gulf War. The United Nations trade sanctions against Iraq caused Turkey to lose a lot of revenue, which has contributed to the country’s current economic crisis, he explained.

Whitman Shepard, the director of the 1,500-student Üsküdar American Academy, which provides an education in Turkish and English for Turkish nationals, said, too, that while school life hasn’t been interrupted by the war, it is weighing heavily on the minds of teachers and students. “We have concerns about humanity in general—concerns for world peace,” he said.

The school employs 27 U.S. citizens among the 41 foreign-born members of its faculty.

Mr. Shepard said recruiting foreign-born teachers for his school has been a bit difficult because of what he perceives as distorted coverage of the region by the international media.

“They focus on sensationalistic news,” he said. “It may occur, but it’s not normal.”

Because of such reporting on the region, Mr. Shepard said, “there is a tendency for people not to want to come to this part of the world.”


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