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Bahrain RPCVs Dennis and Debbie Hickman living in Kuwait comment on preparations for war in Iraq
Bahrain RPCVs Dennis and Debbie Hickman living in Kuwait comment on preparations for war in Iraq
Life in Kuwait: Dennis and Debbie Hickman went overseas to teach. Now they live in a war zone. They describe air raids and Arab culture, and give their thoughts on war with Iraq.
BY MATT HICKMAN
In the spring of 2001 my parents, Dennis and Debbie Hickman, were teachers in the Sierra Vista school district. My father was an English teacher at Buena High School, and my mother was the district gifted teacher.
That summer they turned in their resignations and left for Kuwait for teaching jobs in a school more or less designed to prepare wealthy Kuwaiti children for enrollment in American universities.
This sort of venture was nothing new for them. For most of their working lives, they taught at places unlike Sierra Vista.
They were in the Peace Corps in Bahrain when I was born, and prior to that had taught in places like India, inner-city Seattle and remote Alaska.
In the late 1970s, they were teaching assistants at Arizona State University and in 1980 moved to Ganado, Ariz., on the Navajo Indian reservation. We lived there for 12 years before coming to Sierra Vista in 1992.
A month after they arrived in Kuwait, Sept. 11, 2001, struck. They came home last summer for vacation but returned in the fall to fulfill their two-year contracts.
When the drums of war began pounding, I didn't expect them to evacuate.
They seem to be doing all right in their Kuwait City apartment. Via e-mail, I asked them a dozen question about their present state.
Question: What's the general mood like in Kuwait now?
Dennis: Life is pretty normal. I think people were a little shocked by the air-raid sirens -- around 11 a.m. -- but after the third or fourth one, people got used to the idea. When the first one went off I went in to our bathroom/safe room and started closing the door and taping the door shut. But then I noticed that people were still wandering around outside. Construction workers across the street were still constructing. So I decided not to overreact. We went to a restaurant (Wednesday) night. People were sitting around smoking sheeshas and relaxing. There was no apparent tension in the place at all.
Debbie: I, on the other hand, was returning from a shopping trip to Kuwait City with a friend. On the way home we heard the sirens for the first time and wondered if we should we seek shelter. The other drivers were just as surprised and seemed to have the "I don't know either what to do" look. The police/military along the way seemed more alert than usual, but by the time we got closer to home we were relieved to see the Kuwaiti military drinking tea and casually conversing on their mobiles.
Question: Are there many Americans or westerners left in Kuwait?
Debbie: We've heard there are around 1,000 Americans left. We think that usually there are around 10,000 civilian Americans here. The other westerners have left in similar numbers. We are here because our school is still open. Unlike the other large American Schools here, ours did not close. However, as of March 19 the faculty had left in significant numbers to cause the closing of the middle and elementary schools. Most of the high school faculty is still here as well as nearly all the students although at this writing we expect the high school to be out of session for at least a day or more. There's lots of mixed reaction to leaving or not. Although we seriously considered it, we decided that it was safe enough here and we trusted the U.S. military to handle any Iraqi missile.
Our information said that the chemical warfare would be limited to a small area, and since we don't live close to Camp Doha (the military base), we were in little to no danger.
Question: How are the natives treating these Westerners now?
Debbie: The Kuwaitis have been extremely kind and willing to help us in any way. All the American and other Westerners have been welcomed to a Kuwaiti home to live for the duration of the war. The director of our school (a Kuwaiti with her own family) has opted to live in one of our apartments during the war to show her concern and solidarity with us. At our recent parent-teacher conferences I was impressed with the generosity of the parents and their expressions of concern and willingness to help us in any way.
QUESTION: Do you see much American military personnel in the streets?
Dennis: No. The only soldiers we see on the streets are Kuwaiti. There are Kuwaiti soldiers along the streets of Kuwait City, protecting embassies and palaces and several are at intersections. These soldiers are lightly armed with machine guns and armored vehicles.
QUESTION: What precautions are you taking concerning possible weapons fired from Iraq?
DENNIS: We have a "safe" room and we have more or less figured out the air-raid siren system. I didn't realize until yesterday that every time a missile crosses the border, we will hear a siren, even if the missile lands 40 miles away from us.
QUESTION: What is the name of the school you work at? Is it staying open?
DENNIS: We work at the Universal American School. The school has a big sign on the outside that identifies it in Arabic and English, but now workers have draped huge Kuwaiti flags over the signs. The hope is that terrorists looking for something to blow up won't have any idea that the school is an American one. That means it has an American curriculum, American textbooks and mostly native speakers as teachers. It's about half American, half Canadian, and some New Zealanders. The students are Kuwaiti or students from another Arab country who speak Arabic as their first language although many hold passports from Canada and the U.S. The high school is still open. The middle and elementary schools are temporarily closed. I think ours is the only American school still open. We may have the only group of high-schoolers who won't have to make up a lot of time later in the year or in the summer.
QUESTION: How are people reacting to the sirens?
DENNIS: People are getting pretty used to them, I think. Last night about midnight, I heard a siren. I decided, perhaps foolishly, it wasn't worth it to get out of bed and in to our safe room so I didn't even wake Debbie up.
QUESTION: How difficult would it be to evacuate if need be?
DENNIS: The owner of our school is arranging Saudi visas for all the teachers. I imagine we would go to Saudi (in buses) only if there were a genuine attack, either by missiles or by wandering wackos. The idea of going to Saudi in a bus doesn't appeal to anyone here. We could drive to Saudi and even Bahrain in our car, but I imagine getting through the border by ourselves could be a real nightmare. Most airlines have suspended flying out of Kuwait for the time being.
QUESTION: Do you have any backup security plans?
DEBBIE: We could probably find a flight out if needed.
QUESTION: Is this war good idea? Why?
DENNIS: Sure, the war is necessary, and it has taken way too long to get it started. Saddam has been supporting terrorists forever, and it is perverse to pretend that we need a clear connection to al-Qaida to go after him. He has violated most of the agreements he signed at the end of the last war. There is no way in a million years that inspectors could search out all the weapons Saddam has, unless another informant who knows all the secrets should happen to defect from Iraq. Saddam still has hundreds of Kuwaiti POWs locked up in his prisons.
People who think diplomacy could solve this problem need to spend a couple years in the Middle East. The war will give this area a chance to stabilize. And I'm hoping that the aftermath of the war will lead to greater modernization and rational government all over the area.
DEBBIE: It took me much longer to see the sense of the invasion. It's hard to say I'm for war. And it still is. However, living among people who have been a victim of Saddam Hussein and knowing that my students still have relatives who are POWS in Iraq quickly shades my thinking. Without the U.S. presence and others constantly guarding the border, Kuwaitis would be overrun again. Only this time Saddam would be much better equipped. Even if the inspectors could find and remove the weapons, Saddam or his sons would just rebuild as soon as they left.
QUESTION: What are Americans' greatest misconceptions about the Arab world?
DEBBIE: Arabs talk and talk and have a charming presence. However, I've never seen such gifted people when it comes to airing convincingly their views even when their facts are wrong. The impact of the Muslim religion is powerful enough to stop rational thinking. I've experienced many students who insist that Allah causes disasters. To insert basic science into the discussion requires them question the role of Allah and the doctrines of their religion. We are not allowed to discuss evolution, Arabs having slaves or the Holocaust where Jews were the main victims. The hatred of the Jews even by many of my 9-year-old fourth-graders is shocking. I hear stories of how the trees will talk to the Muslims on Judgment Day. These trees will tell the Muslims that a Jew is hiding behind them and then the Muslim will shoot them.
Last year I was shocked to hear students talk about bringing back Hitler's ovens. An often heard joke around hear is "What is the difference between a Jew and a pizza? Answer: A Jew screams when you put it in the oven."
Of course many find that talk abhorrent, but their voices are quieter.
DENNIS: I think when you tell people in America about the wealth and the apparently modern furniture of Kuwait, they naturally assume that Kuwaitis are modern people. They are not. Virtually all Muslims are scriptural literalists, so to call them "fundamentalists" is a little redundant. They may drive Beamers and they hang out a lot at Starbucks. They literally think that pigs are dirty and unhealthy and that this is a fact. They do not make a distinction between politics and religion. My students are eager to convert me to Islam. My response is "When pigs fly."
If it were not so dangerous, their attitude of innocence and devotion to their faith would be charming.
QUESTION: How do you deal with talk of terrorist threats? What precautions do you take?
DEBBIE: The level of concern about terrorists comes and goes. Some days we joke and wonder whether that latest pizza delivery man was a disguised terrorist, and at other times we look cautiously out the door before we leave. But for the most part we don't think about it and daily life goes on as normal. The war will raise our level of concern somewhat but we have guards at our gate armed with cell phones. We used to have an armed military man but, we haven't figured out what happened to him.
DENNIS: We are told that we should keep a low profile when we move around Kuwait, but most of the people of this country are very used to having westerners around, and they don't act hostile most of the time. We would have to be very unlucky to run into a terrorist, but we are vigilant nonetheless.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.