One thing leads to another for Hoover ... in Iraq

PAT FRIDGEN
Joanna Hoover brought back souvenirs from her year in Iraq. The pots were handmade and the scarf is traditional to the Kurdish tribe.

Joanna Hoover just spent a year in Iraq, and she's going back. The young Greencastle woman served as a volunteer English teacher from August 2010 until July, and is back home to visit her family. This month she will move to the Middle Eastern country for a job.

Hoover, a 2010 graduate of Eastern University with a degree in business management and history, wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. One plan to go on for a master's in museum studies fizzled when she hated an internship in that field. She decided to take a year off to figure things out. The SALT program of the Mennonite Central Committee (Serving and Learning Together) gave her the opportunity to help at a kindergarten in northern Iraq in the mornings, and teach English to adults in the evenings.

Her classroom was filled with 30 to 60 youngsters at a time. Some children were as young as two and a half.

"If you could go to the bathroom by yourself, you could come," she recalled.

The students came from internally displaced families, and most of them were Christian. They moved to northern Iraq, to the city of Ankawa, from the more dangerous south and Baghdad. Many were also transient, applying for asylum to other countries.

The school had to add three tents in the backyard to accomodate all of the children up to age five.

"It was pure insanity," Hoover said. While she didn't know Arabic, she did learn the words for sit, enough and behave.

As she helped the teachers at night with their English, she was surprised how much grammar they already knew. Hoover's daily conversations were as helpful as anything, and she worked on vocabulary with the group, mostly women. She noted that they were overqualified for their jobs, many engineers who could not find employment in their chosen occupation.

Hoover found time to travel, visiting the Holy Land, Turkey, Cyprus and Jordan. No one from the United States made it over to see her because of the extremely high flight expenses.

The last month she went to Sulimaniya to observe another MCC program, and taught business English to adults, which she enjoyed since it was an area of expertise. One client was "not a billionaire, but a multi-millionaire," she said. He needed to learn the language for his import/export business. Two weeks after Hoover started tutoring him, he offered her a job. For one year she could be a marketing consultant, and help the company understand terminology and nuances of the English language, and American culture. The firm specializes in many lines, including Toshiba products, coffee, tea, rice, medical supplies and oil. It is branching out to pharmaceuticals.

Hoover will be the only American on staff, but there are employees from other countries besides Iraq, and everyone is fluent in English. After she has been working for a bit, the boss wants her to learn Kurdish. Hoover plans  to find social outlets through the many universities, theatres and other offerings in the community of 1.5 million people.

"Sulimaniya is a progressive city," she said. "It's the cultural capital of Kurdistan."

She will benefit from the economics of the oil-rich country. Medical care is free, as is education, and there are no taxes. The population is diverse. At work she can dress casually. Of the Muslim residents, some women dress conservatively with head scarves and some do not.

Hoover is the daughter of Paul and Shirley Hoover. Her mom is glad the assignment has an end date for her independent child.

"She's 23. There's no danger of her staying forever. But it is concerning she's not going with an organized group and won't have support. She's going on her own."

Hoover is excited about the offer. She already discovered one thing about the plan for her life. "It's not children," she said with a laugh.

She is anxious to put her business knowledge into play.

"It's hard to find a job in the U.S. Why not take the opportunity? It's going to be a very interesting experience, I'm sure."