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Life in the Middle East different from the Western world

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Bernie Reith Barker talks about her experiences living in the Middle East as a teacher.

For Sunnyside's Bernie Reith Barker and her husband, living in the Middle East was going to provide the couple opportunities to travel.

The couple didn't know, however, they would find themselves in some rather adventuresome situations when they first accepted teaching positions with International Schools Group in 1977.

Barker was the guest speaker at last week's meeting of the Sunnyside Nouvella Club.

The couple's first place of employment was at the Tehran American School in Iran.

Barker said the couple was recently provided the opportunity to remember what it was like in Iran because of the movie "Argo." She said the movie is very accurate.

The Barkers were in Tehran when Americans were being evacuated from the country because of the revolution taking place there.

"We were on the second 747 to leave Merabad Airport before it was closed for Ramadan," said Barker.

She and her husband left Tehran on Dec. 7, 1978, just one month before the Shah fled as his rule was overturned.

Barker said the revolution came about because the conservative Muslims believed the Shah was too friendly with America. Civil unrest also occurred because of social injustice perpetuated by the nobility.

Barker said those who evacuated left with just a suitcase, meaning many of their personal effects were left behind.

"We had no way of knowing we wouldn't return," she said, stating she and her husband were told in January 1979 they could not return to Iran. They were provided one month's salary and had to seek work elsewhere.

Six Americans in November of 1979 barely escaped the U.S. Embassy, which is depicted in the recent release of the film "Argo."

In 1980, the Barkers found themselves teaching again in the Middle East. The couple found positions at a school in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia.

They were in the country for a year, but when their daughter was born they left again. Their return to Saudi Arabia was made when the youngest of the Barker family was 8-years-old.

They spent a year in Damman, along the Persian Gulf and worked with the U.S. Consulate there.

In 1990, the Barkers ventured to Khamis Mushait and lived in a compound for people of several nationalities. Because the compound was a tight-knit community of its own, Barker said the teachers and parents developed an open line of communication, and parents had a sense of security and allowed children to play in the recreation area without concern.

Barker said she and her family learned much about the culture in Saudi Arabia during the four years they lived in Khamis Mushait, which is located 9,000 feet above sea level.

The Saudi women wear abayas, which cover them from head to toe. They are second-class citizens and must sit in the back seat of a vehicle. The women are legally forbidden from driving and when giving testimony, must have a witness because one man's testimony is equal to two women's.

"A lot of women in Saudi Arabia don't mind their lifestyle because many are pampered," said Barker.

She said the culture is about conformity and laws are written based on the Quran, the holy book of the Muslim faith.

American and Saudi children do not attend school together because the two cultures are not allowed to mix. In Saudi schools, children are taught separately, based on gender, and the curriculum is based on religion.

"They learn by rote, whereas our children are encouraged to ask questions and explore," said Barker.

While living in the Middle East, Barker's family did have the opportunity to travel. They took trips to India, Egypt, Nairobi, Kenya and several other countries.

During the Persian Gulf War, particularly during Desert Shield, the family hosted Thanksgiving dinner for several U.S. troops.

"That was fun," she said, stating the family had the opportunity to see some of the jets up close and personal. They also tried on gas masks and a female soldier was stationed at the gate to the school's compound.

When the stealth fighter jets were cleared, the students from the school where Barker taught had an opportunity to see one.

Barker said the experiences she had while living in the Middle East provided her insight into another culture, which she views as an education in its own right.

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