The Kuwait wait
Chico woman tells of her brief stay teaching in the Middle East as war drew closer
Joyce Donoho says she’s always had a fascination for the people of the Middle East.
Donoho, a graduate of Chico State University, came back from Kuwait just last month after five months of teaching high-school students at the American International School of Kuwait in Kuwait City. She was more or less ordered out, as tensions mounted with the United States’ increasingly bellicose threats of war against Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein.
She fully expects to go back and even has her return flight ticket, dated March 18, which when issued to her in February was the best guess of her bosses as to when the big war would either be over or successfully avoided. With neither of those scenarios established, Donoho waits.
“It was really exciting when I arrived [last August],” she said. “The students and others were so welcoming. They took me out on little trips around Kuwait, to go shopping and get familiar with the country.”
Donoho said her first lesson was that a different teacher-student relationship exists in Kuwait. “Here you don’t socialize with students, and there it’s OK,” she said. “That is where I started learning the most about Kuwait.”
But it was not necessarily love at first sight with the nation of mostly wealthy families, most of whom live in comfort without having to work. The service sector, she said, is made up of immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines. In fact, Kuwaitis only make up about 45 percent of the population, the rest being from other Arab countries, America and the British Isles.
“I did go through a real negative culture-shock-type period in November and December,” she said, “where I didn’t like Kuwait.”
She said that, when she was out shopping, Kuwaitis would cut in front of her in line, and the streets were filled with aggressive drivers.
“I was getting frustrated, so I went to Bahrain for a long weekend and saw friends, and I saw Bahrainis who actually worked a little bit more than the Kuwaitis,” she said.
She also went to Syria in December and, in her words, fell in love with the country. “You didn’t have all the wealth, so there wasn’t the spoiled attitude,” she said. “I came back home [and went to Los Angeles] for the holidays and found the same things that bothered me in Kuwait back home—people cutting me off in traffic, road rage, people cutting in front of us at Disneyland.”
She said that, for the most part, even with the heavy military presence in this country that borders Iraq and whose invasion was the trigger for the Persian Gulf War, Americans are liked in Kuwait.
“Everybody tends to like America,” she said. “I counted 24 American food franchises, J.C. Penney’s and Sears.”
A majority of the people speak English.
When she left, she said, the people of Kuwait were dreading the looming war. “Students would tell me stories, though they were 5 and 6 at the time, of the Gulf War,” she explained. “They said it was just horrible. A lot of them had to flee through Iraq and Iraqis helped them. They remembered Iraqi soldiers knocking on the door begging for food and crying because they didn’t want to be the occupiers.”
Donoho said she’d always heard the horror stories of how awful the Iraqis were to the Kuwaitis, but now she was hearing the other side. “The families in Kuwait have given a number of Iraqis who fled Iraq refuge, and nobody talks about it,” she said.
“Nobody,” she added, “wants this war. I was in the awkward situation of teaching and having my students ask, ‘Miss, why is the U.S. going to war? Why do they want another war? Are they just going to go in and take the oil?’
“Kind of tongue-in-cheek I’d say, ‘No, they’ll pay for it.'”
She said that the Kuwaitis are concerned because of their geographical relationship with Iraq and a fear of the chemical and biological weapons. “Everybody wants [Saddam] out,” she said. “But they just don’t want to see another war; they don’t want to see the refugees. They fear the disruption of life. So many of them lost so much in the first invasion; they don’t want to see that again.”
Donoho was evacuated Feb. 10.
“They had made an announcement to our school on Feb. 1,” she said. “They called an emergency meeting after school and told us we were going to close for six weeks. They were just guessing when the war was going to happen. It was no longer a question of if, but rather when.”
She was flown home for her own safety, she was told, and did not have a choice in the matter. “The U.S. Embassy kept sending out notices saying to ‘rigorously evaluate your need to be here.'”
She said she believes the schools were concerned that American and Canadian teachers were “just going to bolt and leave the schools in an awkward position.”
Donoho lives in an apartment building filled with Canadian and American teachers. The Canadians, she said, make sure by the way they are dressed—flags, key chains, messages on T-shirts—that they are seen as Canadian and not American when walking in public.
“They don’t like that they are lumped in with Americans,” she said. “They look just like us, they talk just like us.”
She said other teachers were frightened, especially when Americans began getting ambushed and shot in Kuwait. There was one shooting in October, another in November, and in January an American building contractor was shot to death.
“At that point I was frightened [being an American],” she said. “In that case it was an American going through an intersection—not in a military vehicle or anything.
“I walked home from school that week with another teacher, who is from Colorado. These little Arabic-speaking kids looked at us and said, ‘Fuck you.’ I looked at Chris [the other teacher] and said, ‘Did they just say what I thought they said? He said, ‘Yeah, I hear it all the time.’ That kind of scared me.”
She said, however, the next night as she walked home alone, “the same kids saw me and said, ‘I want to kiss you.’
“I think they are practicing whatever [English] words they know. So it was really easy for me to get scared. I thought about it, and I don’t think there was any animosity there. Some things you think could be anti-American aren’t.”
Now she waits with a return flight for March 18; school is set to reopen March 22.
“I’m not afraid of the war; not afraid of the bombs. Kuwait is probably one of the best protected countries in the world right now. What scares me is that, because of the U.S. warmongering, that makes people angry at Americans because it does make us look so arrogant. So I fear being on the street more."