U.S. Soldiers and Iraqi Students Navigate Uncertain Friendship

Jan 6, 2004 by

Christina Asquith

Christina Asquith

Abu Lohker Village, Iraq- Before setting off for school, Sgt. Michelle Greek gears up with a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, 20 grenades, 10 illumination rounds, surplus water, and an M16 rifle. Two armored Humvees accompany her for the three minute drive down a dirt road bordered by swaying date palm trees and mud huts.

Teacher Zanah Ali peers out the broken window of her 1st grade classroom of Al Iza Primary School as the Humvees pull up. The site of 12 booted and armed U.S. soldiers is well, incongruous, to say the least. The headmistress Iman Jabbar stands at the gated entrance, her long black skirt brushing the ground, polite, yet wary.

Sgt. Greek is on a mission to donate 100 school backpacks- green, vinyl, zippered, double pouched school bags- boxed and shipped to Iraq by congregants of her Dodgeville, Wisconsin church.

“These are gifts from America’, says Sgt. Greek, stepping into Ms. Ali’s classroom of six-year-old girls. She hands out the Lands End school bags to one 1st grader, who immediately unzips it and sticks her head inside.

Both Sgt. Greek and the pint-size beneficiaries of her goodwill are forging a critical if not confusing relationship. Like most Iraqi schools, Al Iza primary needs windows, new desks, electricity and clean running water. The soldiers needs support and intelligence. But neither side knows for sure if they can trust the other.

The Iraqi teachers have reason to be hesitant. Not to seem ungrateful, they say, but the mere presence of U.S. soldiers invites the possibility of someone throwing a grenade into the courtyard or retaliating against a headmistress perceived as cooperating with U.S.. forces.

At the same time, thanks to the hard work of Sgt. Greek, Iraqi schools in the Iskandiriyah province have received more support in the last eight months than Saddam gave them in the last 10 years. At the moment, Al Iza primary is slated to have a new paint job, four new classrooms, a new bathroom and hopefully much more- all by Iraqi contractors hired by Sgt. Greek.

“In the beginning we were afraid. Maybe they’d shoot us,” says headmistress Iman Jabbar. “But now it’s more usual. She is very good. Very beautiful,” she says, looking at Sgt. Greek’s freckles and strawberry-red hair.

The soldiers too have reason to worry, even on a good will mission, as attacks against them are as random as one unfriendly soul laying a homemade bomb on the road. In some cases, the same soldiers offering aid to school children during the day, will find themselves raiding their homes for brothers, fathers or uncles who could be insurgents, at night.

So far, the U.S. military has doled out $22 million for 2,532 school projects in Iraq. While the big spender in the schools is US government agency USAID, individual soldiers are the eyes and ears on the ground and are in day to day contact with the thousands of schools nestled into tiny villages or scattered about the desert. The funds are mostly Iraqi, either seized from banks, companies or cash found in palaces and buried underground. It is given in the form of grants to U.S. soldiers to hire contractors, launch projects or hand over directly to headmasters.

Sgt. Greek doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional soldier. She hasn’t seen combat. She also served in Kosovo, where she launched a toothbrush drive. In Iraq, her weapons of choice may be school bags, but no one would suggest she’s not playing a critical role in winning a war that has long been about more than military might.

“We’re artillery- we just blow things up,” says a fellow soldier. “This rebuilding is a new experience for us, and Michelle has great knowledge in her field of schools. The officers always come to her first.”

Back home in Dodgeville, Greek worked for a school supplier, so she is well suited to help Iraqi schools. In December, Greek applied and won a $890,000 grant of Iraqi funds given by the U.S. government in Baghdad to fix up 19 schools in her district- the largest grant given to a soldier for schools thus far.

During the day, she canvasses some of the 60 schools in her region, meeting with principals and assessing the school needs. At the gate of her army base, Iraqi construction workers line up to submit bids, usually handwritten on slips of paper. Greek reviews contracts with Iraqi translators and doles out money, then must later check up on the work of the contractors. All this, and she’s only 23 years old.

Wouldn’t it be great to have 1,000 Michelle Greeks working for our impoverished schools in the U.S.?  Mind you, she’s using Iraqi money and supposedly we’ll benefit back home through the establishment of a stable democracy in the Middle East that helps fight terrorism (that’s the idea.) Yet, I can’t help but wonder if U.S. school administrators would give the Michelles the leeway and authority to make an energetic difference– or would they bury her in paperwork, union rules and politics? She’s in a war zone, but at least she’s free of state regulations.

Greek, who is attached to 1-32 10th Mountain Division, hails from a small town of dairy and cattle farmers in Wisconsin where her family has lived for 100 years. Her mom runs an antique carousel business, and her grandma has an apple orchard. As one of only two women on the base of 500 men, others soldiers say few of Greek’s activities go unnoticed. “She’s got a lot of pressure on her,” said one soldier.

Indeed, Sgt. Greek sometimes characterizes her education mission as heart fulfilling philanthropy. But when other soldiers are around, she tends to refer to it as highly targeted intelligence gathering. It’s an old rule of thumb among soldiers to look to children as the barometer of local sentiment. If kids wave and give a thumbs up, their parents are probably welcoming. If they stare silently, soldiers can expect trouble from the neighborhood.

“Watching the kids run around you just want to do everything for them, yet it never seems enough. You’re only one person,” she laments, sitting alone in a Humvees on the base.

Later, she says, “We do this to win them over by letting them know we’re here to help. These kids walk home and they’ll see the guys planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and they’ll tell their parents who come right up to our gate and tell us. We give them $50 to $100 for information.”

Al Iza primary school is not far from the Euphrates River, tucked into a particularly lush swath of the otherwise barren desert. The school was build in 1973 and is shaped in a U, with four classroom and two administrative offices. Each classroom has windows without glass, a chalkboard and desks of a bygone era: three-seat benches connected to table tops. There is one outdoor three-sided cement wall with a hole in the ground that serves as a toilet.

Most of the children’s father’s are date farmers. The children carry 8 thin workbooks on the Koran, Islamic education, Arabic reading, Arabic grammar, science, math and painting. The school is operated by women for girls from 8am until noon; when it switches to a boys’ school. A van brings in male teachers and a male headmasters, and takes the women teachers home.

Unfortunately, on this day the donated back packs and soldiers’ presence causes more chaos than calm. Many of the children already have school bags, with flashy cartoon characters. And Greek only had enough for half the school. The headmistress later says that while she’s grateful for aid, the girls who got the school bags were teasing those who didn’t, fights started and many children ended up in tears. Several parents came to the school to see why their child hadn’t received a bag.

Greek has her own frustrations over cultural differences that may boil down to Iraqi vs. American, or perhaps dictator vs. free enterprise or perhaps its just school culture vs. military.

“The teachers are used to someone telling them what to do. When we give them $500 they want to know ‘do I buy 200 pens and 200 pencils?’ We’re like, ‘just go buy what you need.’ Still, after they buy them they want to show each individual item to us, and we’re like, ‘no, just bring us receipts.’

Plus, most Iraqi educators call it a day at 2pm, whereas the military work ethic is “go, go, go” as Greek puts it. Her workday stretches from sunrise until sunset, and includes morning pushups and jogs.

Greek says she needs visual aids, posters flash cards, paper products, chalk and stickers. She’s trying to recruit the larger chain stores to help, but individuals can also “adopt” a school. To get involved, contact Sgt. Michelle Greek at michelle.greek@us.army.mil

It’s an interesting way to win a war- and one that suits Michelle Greek: “I think I’ve made a difference- the ball’s rolling and schools are finally getting fixed and money’s coming in. It does get frustrating, but I find most people usually do want to help out they just don’t know how. That’s were I come in.”


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