By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007
One day last fall, Felix Herrera was teaching science at Wakefield High School when a helicopter rumbled overhead. The Army reservist's war instincts kicked in: His adrenaline surged, and his eyes shot to the window.
Nothing out there. Most students had not even noticed the chopper. But one had. Herrera exchanged glances with the 14-year-old from Baghdad.
"That's how my country sounds, Mister," Ameer Abdalameer said.
"I know," the teacher said.
Herrera has served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. His English for Speakers of Other Languages class, which a reporter observed over several months, has many teenagers who have arrived in Arlington County from homelands torn by civil strife or war.
In the class, they learn not only English, science and math but also deeper lessons about how to forge an identity and a future in an uncertain world. Ameer came to the United States after war blasted his life apart, and he found an unlikely mentor: a teacher who shared his story in more ways than one.
Herrera, 35, who started working at Wakefield last fall, does not hide his military service. The staff sergeant keeps his hair shorn to a tight fuzz. His classroom wall displays pictures of soldiers in camouflage, including himself, some holding semiautomatics.
His military background fascinates many students. But some seem troubled, too.
"Some of them make fun of me," he says. "Others want to know how come I made it back." Most common is: "Did you kill anybody?"
And sometimes: "Was it you who bombed my neighborhood?"
* * *
In November, a rumor flies that the new teacher -- "Mister," they call him -- killed civilians during a tour in Iraq. Several students burst into his room. Did he do it? Why?
Herrera tells them that he didn't kill anyone and that his civil affairs assignment meant he would only kill to defend himself or other soldiers.
"They think that every soldier kills, that that's their job," he says later. "I try to tell them that no soldier wakes up going, 'Oh, I wish I could kill people today.' It's more like, 'Oh, I wish I could go and play PlayStation 2 today.' "
Herrera tells them his unit built schools, hospitals and banks.
The students calm down. But it's not the first time Herrera has defended his role as a soldier. His friends and family hadn't understood why he joined the Army, particularly because, as a teenager, he had fled a land gripped by a brutal civil war.
In the 1980s, as Herrera was growing up in El Salvador, the sound of a helicopter would send him and his friends racing to the graveyard to watch the chopper bring in bodies.
When he was 16, the Salvadoran army tried to recruit him. His worried mother sent him north to safety. He paid a dollar to a man to float him on an inner tube across the Rio Grande. He made his way to Arlington, where his brothers lived, and applied for asylum.
He enrolled at Washington-Lee High School and worked as a busboy, then went to George Mason University, earning a bachelor's degree in government and politics and a master's in conflict analysis and resolution. He also became a U.S. citizen.
But as his classmates gravitated toward nongovernmental organizations, Herrera surprised them and his mother in El Salvador by joining the Army Reserve.
"Everyone asks me, 'Why, why?' " he says. "Man, I grew up in war. That's what I know."
* * *
Dress-Up Day arrives at Wakefield in December, a chance for kids to play at suiting up for the work world. Most show up in business attire, but a couple of ESOL boys wear army clothing from their countries: a Tunisian uniform, a Hungarian parachuting pin.
As he often does, Herrera eats lunch in the cafeteria with some of his students. The room vibrates with kids talking, chewing on fried chicken and playing games. For newcomers to the United States, Herrera's table, with its broken English and an adult shepherding conversations, offers a portal into the social world of high school.
Ameer, a compact boy with a shadow of a mustache, wears an oversize suit on this day instead of his customary jeans and sweatshirt.
"Mister, can you show me how to tie this?" he asks, holding out a tie.
Herrera, also in a suit, practices on his own neck, then drapes the red silk around Ameer and starts tugging.
"He doesn't know how," says one boy, laughing, as Herrera pulls apart a failed knot.
"He's gonna kill me, I know," Ameer says. "He hates all Iraqians."
Ignoring him, the teacher loops the silk under, tightens it and steps back with a satisfied nod.
Ameer and his family are among a growing number of Iraqis in the United States on various types of visas. Most live in the Detroit area, but close to 3,000 are in the Washington region, up from fewer than 2,000 before the war, according to the local Iraqi American Alliance. Many live in Fairfax County, where about 200 Iraqis attend public schools. Arlington schools have 15; Prince George's County schools, 10.
Herrera talks with his Iraqi students about the war. He knows that when U.S. troops first arrived, some kids befriended them, but the Americans later came to be seen as the bad guys.
He and Ameer can talk about Iraqi food. Ameer says the dolmas his mom makes don't taste as good in his new country, and Herrera says he misses the raisins he added to his food in Iraq. "Kishmish," he says, recalling the Arabic word, and Ameer's face lights up.
They also talk about bombs. Herrera first heard them in El Salvador when guerrillas occupied his town. On his second day in Iraq, a Katyusha rocket struck his compound.
"BOOOOOOM!!!!" Herrera says. "And then the tinkling glass. . . . It's a feeling that never goes away, and all your cells just go back to that time, and you can feel it and hear it. . . . And the quietness. For some reason, you always remember how quiet it was before."
"Yeah," Ameer says. His family replaced the glass in their Baghdad home three times after bombings. From his window, he watched helicopters land on his street during a battle. "The American people got shot, so they were carrying them to the plane," he said. "One of the ones carrying them stepped on a bomb, and they all got killed."
Herrera understands swatches of Arabic, and he recently started studying it. He asks Ameer how to say "America."
"Amrika," Ameer says. "Well, sometimes I say al Wilayat al Mutahida -- the United States -- but that's too hard for you."
Herrera smiles. He often feels grateful to his students for letting him into their lives. He has taught at elementary and middle schools, but this job is different -- it lets him teach practical lessons to kids who share some of his own teenage experiences.
"My idea of a relevant teacher, for people that age, is one who is a culture broker -- someone who's been through that, who's overcome the same obstacles." It's kind of like Army service, he says. He is helping people survive.
He is also helping them shed easy assumptions. When he and Ameer share childhood stories about cooling down in local watering holes, Herrera in a spot called La Bruja, Ameer in the Tigris, Ameer mentions that he also swam at a Baghdad club.
"After the war, I heard it was hit," he said. "Maybe you hit it."
He glances at Herrera. This is Ameer's way -- little jabs, accusing his teacher of being personally responsible for the violence that upended his life.
"You know I didn't," Herrera says, a little wearily. "We already went through this. I was building schools."
Ameer stops teasing. "Yeah," he says. "I heard that, too."
* * *
Saddam Hussein has been hanged. The ESOL students are buzzing about it at school after winter break.
Ameer doesn't know what to think. Before the war, his textbooks praised Hussein. "I thought he was good," he said.
And now? "He's very bad."
And the execution? He is quiet. "Yeah," he says. "It's a good idea."
But he sounds unsure. Up to age 11, he had a peaceful life. Then, one day, he saw U.S. troops on the road to Baghdad. "Horrible," he recalls.
Within a couple of years, the city was so dangerous that Ameer's father accompanied his children to school with a pistol. Even now, a year after they left, their old house is still a target. Soon after Hussein's execution, gunmen entered the house and killed the son of a neighbor who was taking care of it.
In the family's Crystal City apartment, Ameer's mother cries about her sister, who was injured in a car bombing back home. But she smiles when she talks about her daughter, Alzahra, 8, a special education student thriving at Oakridge Elementary School. In today's Iraq, a student with Alzahra's needs wouldn't be able to find such help; even before the war, Ameer's father says, only the elite had access to it.
The father, who does not want to be identified for security reasons, visits Baghdad these days via Google Earth. His cursor zeroes in on a neighborhood called Dora, where a whitish square at the end of a street marks what was home until foreign armies came. Now, the area is one of Baghdad's most dangerous.
After the family left Iraq, Ameer heard that his close friend Zeid had been killed by insurgents who also killed Zeid's father and older brother.
Perhaps all this loss explains why the photos of soldiers in fatigues bother Ameer in class -- although it takes until January for him to say so.
Herrera is surprised. "Should I take them out?" he asks.
"Yeah, you should take them out of there."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You didn't ask."
Herrera understands why a kid might have a problem with the military. He remembers feeling powerless in El Salvador, kicking the dirt, watching uniformed men from the corner of an eye, hungry for connection but also hoping to avoid trouble. Years later, he sought out children in Afghanistan and Iraq, giving them candy and learning a few words of their language.
"I wish you'd told me before," he says.
"Maybe you should have just one," Ameer concedes.
A couple of weeks later, all but one of the photos are gone.
* * *
On an overcast day in February, Milkias, a tall, soft-spoken Ethiopian, stuns his classmates with the announcement that his asylum application has been denied. He must fly to Italy that weekend.
Ameer suggests buying him a memory book. The students fill it with jokes that mask what many know -- that they might also one day have to leave, ready or not.
On Milkias's last day, Herrera takes six boys to a revolving restaurant with throbbing music and disco lights at a Doubletree hotel in Crystal City.
Guzzling Coke and Sprite, the boys ply Herrera with questions ("Hey Mister, you know what is kebab?" "Hey Mister, you know how to dance?") and discuss sports (soccer is their favorite) and immigration ("We all think we're going back when we come," Herrera says.)
Someone asks where Herrera was when the Iraq war began in 2003. Afghanistan, he tells them.
"You find Osama?" Milkias asks.
"It's hard to find Osama, man. We ask everybody, and nobody knows where Osama is."
"Have you been in a tank?" Ameer asks.
"A tank? Yeah."
"You like it?"
"No, it's not comfortable."
Outside after dinner, the classmates give Milkias quick hugs and manly handshakes. Each has experienced this before -- the leaving of friends, the uncertainty of meeting again. In more dangerous departures, families left without goodbyes, hoping their luck would hold until their plane took off.
* * *
By March, Ameer's English has improved so much that he transfers to a higher-level ESOL class. Herrera teaches that one, too.
It's tougher to get an A now, but Ameer isn't worried. He hopes to reach the level of his mainstream peers soon, as Herrera did in high school.
Perched after school behind Herrera's desktop computer, Ameer clicks the mouse a few times, and pictures of his family in Iraq bloom up. Beside them are photos of the U.S. Capitol and Statue of Liberty.
"The USA is the new place that I moved to," reads the text, a social studies assignment. "It was so difficult for me. All of my grandparents was crying, my friends was sad, too."
On Herrera's wall, some Army photos have reappeared. "By popular demand," he says. But fewer show guns. Ameer approves.
A new photo, taken in January, shows Herrera reenlisting in the reserves. "Another seven years of Army life," he sighs. He has applied to become a commissioned officer, which will keep his life up in the air, although he says he would find it hard to leave Wakefield.
Ameer, now 15, can't plan far ahead, either. He'd like to attend college in the States, marry someday and have a family. But all that feels a hundred years away. His father might have to return to Iraq soon because of his job. If Ameer and others in the family are not granted permission to stay, they will also have to go, despite the dangers.
"I don't know what's, like, next year," Ameer says.
"See?" Herrera says. "It's uncertainty all around."
So they plan their summers. Ameer wants to swim in the apartment pool. Herrera hopes to travel through Egypt, Jordan and Israel. He would like to see the Golan Heights. Isn't it dangerous there? Ameer asks.
Yeah, Herrera says, but he has always wanted to visit. Ameer says he would like to see the Kurdish city Soleimaniya, in northern Iraq. The two reminisce about Iraq's lovely spots.
"There is a place in Babylon," Ameer says. "You know how there are, like, seven things in the whole Earth? Like in Egypt there are pyramids?"
Herrera knows. "The Seven Wonders of the World."
Right, Ameer says. In Iraq there is a city of hanging gardens. They are unimaginably beautiful, built by a king hundreds of years ago to please his wife. Ameer has never seen them; in fact, it is unclear whether they ever existed or are a legend. But he wants to try to get there someday, just in case they're real.
Herrera nods and lets him dream.