- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

MANDAN, N.D. (AP) - Nestled between a lazy creek and a vast prairie where hills disappear into the horizon, an orange brick building bears the words “Judson School.”

Children used to come from nearby farms and Judson itself, a sleepy town across the road in the heart of Morton County.

Though long shut down, the empty building is far from becoming yet another dilapidated structure on the plains. A Mandan family seeks to breathe new life into it as a home and farm, where the animals outnumber Judson’s human residents, the Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/28Bs0x5 ) reports.

Right now, the family - the Alduleimis - live at a mobile home court in a unit they remodeled.

“We want to get out of town,” said Mahmood Alduleimi, who has spent the past 10 years there with his wife and two children. “You can’t even have a dog over there without a leash.”

A contractor he met through his paint and drywalling business introduced him to the Judson property. The Alduleimis purchased it from the contractor’s daughter, the previous owner.

Alduleimi said he loved the property the second he saw it, but not all felt the same. The bottom floor lies in shambles, the heating system needs to be redone and the building lacks light switches.

“I didn’t like it,” said his 12-year-old daughter, Sophia.

But as she recalled her first impression on a recent spring morning, she couldn’t help but smile as she hugged a baby goat. She adores the little animal named Eva, who has warmed her up to the place. The goat is one of more than 100 animals the family has adopted since buying the property in November.

The Alduleimis are not the first family to acquire the schoolhouse after it closed to students.

Children used to trek across the bridge over the creek each morning to start their studies. They stopped in 1976 when the New Salem School Board voted to close the school and bus the students to the larger town nearby.

The schoolhouse passed into ownership by several families before the Alduleimis bought it for $110,000, including the four surrounding acres.

Previous owners converted it into a home. They remodeled the upstairs with modern features, including a kitchen and bathroom.

But it was far from a complete job. The food pantry lacks insulation. The walls need to be redone with a layer of sheetrock. The bottom floor requires a complete makeover. Sparrows have taken to nesting under the roof.

“It needs a lot of work, but it has a lot of potential,” said Stephanie Mehl, Mahmood Alduleimi’s wife.

Her husband plans to do the remodel himself and hopes to start this summer.

“It all depends on money,” he said.

Though it may be a while before the family can move out of their mobile home and into their new home, the Alduleimis wasted no time on their other dream: starting a farm.

Whenever they drive across the rickety wooden bridge to their property, a zoo of creatures greets them from the grove of trees behind the schoolhouse.

The kids gave them some names, like Eva the goat and Huggie the sheep. Other animals include dogs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and guineas - a type of fowl.

“It’s good for bugs and ticks,” Mahmood Alduleimi said, adding that the goats and sheep help keep the grass mowed.

But the most revered animals can be found inside the schoolhouse in a small room that once stored textbooks on the bottom floor.

There roost nearly 50 Iraqi pigeons, many full grown and others babies that fit in the palm of 10-year-old Talab Alduleimi’s hand.

He cares for them and may even train some to race. One recently had a string tangled around its claw, so he held the bird while his dad cut the knot loose.

“That’ll build up and he’ll lose his fingers,” he explained before letting the bird flutter free.

The family found a breeder for the species in California via YouTube.

Shortly after acquiring a number of the birds, an owl finagled his way into their coop and murdered 19, leaving just five alive.

Mahmood Alduleimi has since replenished the population, moving them indoors temporarily until he builds a new structure for them outside. He’s raising the animals with his son the way his father did with him growing up in Garma, a town near Fallujah, Iraq.

Fighting in three wars had taken its toll on Mahmood Alduleimi by the time the young Iraqi soldier found himself in the midst of the Gulf War.

“I said that’s enough,” he recalled. “This is the last war. I’ve got to get out of here.”

So he surrendered to American soldiers. He found asylum in the United States in 1991 and said he’d be willing to live anywhere - just not the desert.

He was placed in North Dakota, where the frigid winters mark a stark contrast to blistering summer days in Iraq.

In fact, he was so startled by the North Dakota weather that his first year here his instincts told him to abandon his shift at Sears when he saw snowflakes.

“I drove my car and went home,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Now he’s accustomed to the area, having married a woman from Mandan, raising kids and starting a business.

“I love North Dakota,” he said. “It’s just peaceful.”

The prairie resonates with Mahmood Alduleimi - it’s a place to settle down, garden and one day retire.

He’s already found welcoming neighbors in Judson, including one who recently helped the family locate a sheep that went missing.

He’s aware his Muslim faith could cause concern in his new community but said he hopes to be judged on his own merits. The actions of a few terrorists don’t speak for all Muslims, he said.

Faith, no matter the religion, and culture are two values he holds in high regard.

“If you lose those both, you lose everything,” he said.

He hopes to maintain the schoolhouse as a place for people to reflect on the old days and even invites them across the creek for a closer look, so long as they are respectful.

When the family bought the property, it came with a sign that read, “Private land. No trespassing.”

Mahmood Alduleimi didn’t want to send that message. He tore it down.

Like so many brick schools built in small prairie towns after the turn of the century, the Judson schoolhouse sports two stories, tall windows and several rooms inside.

Meredyth Werchau attended school there. The 74-year-old resides on a farm south of Judson and passes by frequently as a bus driver transporting the area children to school in New Salem.

“It was a fun place to go to school,” she said of her studies in Judson.

She and her friends played games such as “kick the can” and baseball. They hosted an annual Christmas program for the community, except for the year the school opted for a Halloween program instead.

Werchau spent grades one through eight at Judson before transferring to New Salem for high school. She graduated in 1959.

The Judson school, at one point, offered high school classes, but those stopped long before she was a student there.

It was a good school, she said. Many New Salem valedictorians started their education in Judson.

The schoolhouse had two classrooms on the second floor, one for grades 1-4 and the other for grades 5-8. The district kept two teachers employed.

While Werchau attended, the school had 40 to 50 students. In winter months, the children who lived in the country arrived at school on horses because the gravel roads were too difficult to navigate by car.

Werchau liked being in the same room with older kids because it served as an advantage when she reached their grade level.

“By the time you got to that class, you knew the answers because you had heard them for four years,” she said.

The Judson school joined the New Salem School District in 1959. The school board voted to close the school in 1976.

Werchau said the schoolhouse has since been owned by several families. They remodeled it into a home, now owned by the Alduleimi family of Mandan, who plan more renovations.

___

Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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