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Woman sued for leaving Kuwait

Naomi Havlen

A Carbondale woman who left her teaching position in a Kuwait school after fearing for her life in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is being sued by the school for breach of contract.Laura Mace signed a two-year contract to teach art at the Universal American School near Kuwait City. But she and three other educators decided to leave when some of the students expressed hatred toward the United States – sometimes chanting anti-American phrases in front of fellow teachers from the states.Mace, 29, grew up in Aspen; her parents owned and operated the Pine Creek Cookhouse in the Castle Creek Valley. After getting her bachelor’s degree in fine arts, she decided to pursue education and to teach overseas. Arriving in Kuwait in August 2001, Mace dealt with some culture shock in her new surroundings.”Being a woman in a Muslim country is a major difference, and it’s hard to get used to being stared at while walking down the street,” she said. “I found it intriguing and interesting, but I was definitely a second-rate citizen.”Mace taught elementary art at the school. She said Kuwaiti children were similar to American kids, but were not as familiar with the concept of freedom of expression.”Art is about thinking outside of the box, and that’s not embraced there like it is here,” she said. “I would give out assignments and they would always do just like I told them to.”A dramatic climate shiftOn Sept. 11, 2001, school had let out for the afternoon. Mace was with friends when people began crowding around television sets, learning about the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.Knowing that there is a large military base in Kuwait, Mace said she worried about being in the middle of the United States’ attempts to strike back against the Middle East.And immediately, she said, the climate in the Universal American School “shifted drastically.””It’s important to note that there are people there who love Americans and people who hate Americans in Muslim countries,” Mace said. “I got sympathy and support from some people, and families brought me treats. But to the opposite extreme, other kids were very happy it happened.”I didn’t know who to trust – you never know which face is a good face, or a face of someone who wants to hurt you.”Mace said every day after the attacks was difficult.”I was afraid for my life because it was like a roller coaster – something would happen like a riot on the streets, or someone would get killed and everyone would get scared and nervous,” she said. “Then it would calm down.”Betty Tsamis is Mace’s attorney in the lawsuit, and also represents Michael Hayes, a fellow American teacher who decided to leave the Middle East.”Some of the kids there were supporters of Osama bin Laden, and some dropped out of school after the attacks,” Tsamis said. “Some students were chanting ‘Death to America’ and ‘Bin Laden is great,’ and I’d be terrified if I was over there teaching.”Eventually, Michael and Laura saw a window of opportunity to leave, and they did.”Mace said she made every attempt to complete her contract, staying in Kuwait through that first school year and coming home to Colorado for summer vacation.”My intention was not to bail on people, but there’s only so much you can do,” she said. “I had a good relationship with my students, and I’m in touch with many of them still. I didn’t want to walk out on them, but most of them understand why I did what I did.”When the threats of war with Iraq began mounting during her second year at the school, tension also mounted for Americans in Kuwait. The U.S. government publicized information about terrorist threats and targets in Mace’s area, and when a New York Times article listed the school as an al-Qaida target, Mace realized she didn’t know what to do for her own safety.On Nov. 7, 2002, she decided to come back to the United States. Three other American teachers had already parted ways with the school out of fear – two of them are now Mace’s co-defendants in the lawsuit.”I didn’t think they’d do this. I thought they’d let it [be],” Mace said of the lawsuit. “It feels vindictive. They’re not going to make money from us – we’re not rich people, so I don’t know why they’d do this.”She said she and Hayes both feel that rather than pursing this lawsuit, they’d rather see the school spend money improving the facility itself and opportunities for the students there.Rachel T. Rowley, one of the school’s attorneys, said the school was left in a lurch when the teachers abruptly left.”There were kids left without teachers, and the school had to find quality teachers to take their place,” Rowley said. “It’s an accredited institution, so they needed certified teachers. The school wants to take action about this because when they left without giving any notice, the school had to incur costs to replace them.”Rowley said school officials have said that they would have worked with the American teachers, and helped address their concerns if the teachers had stepped forward for help.”The school was aware of no threats made against teachers,” she said. “There are 65 North American teachers there who stayed, and nothing was brought to the school’s attention.”Tsamis said she is arguing that the contract her clients signed includes an act-of-God clause that excuses the teacher from performance.”But it’s broader than that – in this case the clause says the parties will be excused if the following occurs: war, riots, strikes and acts of God. We say that terrorism and the global fallout that resulted falls under that clause,” she said. “It says ‘including, but not limited to’ and that’s meant to be expansive.”In the meantime, Mace is back in Carbondale, trying to get into nursing school at Regis University in Denver. Hayes, her co-defendant, is part of a teaching program in Alaska.”I never finished getting my teaching certificate, and now I don’t want to finish,” she said. “But I love kids, and I think it’s a huge sacrifice that teachers make.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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