Since 9/11, one of the greatest challenges facing the United States and Western countries has been trying to bridge the polarization between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. In Afghanistan, the media has focused on the war between U.S./NATO forces (now being supplanted by Afghan fighters themselves), and the Taliban. But behind the headlines, there is a furious psychological battle being waged on both sides to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population. As one example, there are many Afghan youth as well as adults who view Western military forces as occupiers, rathe than liberators. The sources behind such beliefs feed on the ignorance and fear of Afghans to build their case.
In place of ignorance and fear, one of the best non-violent weapons we have is building cultural bridges of respect and understanding between Afghanistan and the Western world. Since 2005, HTAC's cultural exchange program brings together Afghan and Western students in creating, sharing and discussing meaningful and often life-changing projects and sharing their stories. Bonds between students, teachers, and schools are created, perceptions are positively changed, and the seeds for future collaboration and peace are planted in this next generation of children from both sides of the world.
One such partnership has been between Sorya (girls) High School in Kabul, Afghanistan and Jerome Case High School in Racine, Wisconsin, USA. The first exchange seemed benign (and safe) enough - sharing the geographical features and landmarks of their respective cities and nearby region. But what shocked the girls at Sorya wasn't geography, but the photos of girls and boys at Case High School together in the same class. In Afghanistan, boys and girls are segretated once they reach middle school. The geography project soon became a fascinating back and forth discussion about the mixing of girls and boys. The Afghan girls asked many questions and the American students (who had learned about Afghanistan's highly conservative society), responded respectfully. Shock turned to intrigue and the girls at Sorya became more comfortable communicating with boys and girls.
A second exchange project addressed a simple, but profound question- What does democracy mean to you? The American students were surprised to learn about Afghanistan's relatively new constitution, requiring a percentage of delegates to be women. They were also surprised at how passionately the girls spoke about women's rights; seeking higher education, participating in elections, having careers, and becoming productive members of society. Common ground was established when the Case students shared the history and the fight for women's rights in America.
Last month, the students and their teachers conducted a historical Skype broadcast with one another. In Kabul, the girls at Sorya arrived at their class one Saturday,morning at 9AM.in front of a computer screen. In Racine, Wisconsin, a group of Case High School students and their teacher sat around a large table in a restaurant on Friday at 11:30PM. Through the magic of technology, the students could see and speak with one another for the very first time and a 'forever' bond was formed.
Cultural exchange projects at HTAC-supported schools have become a powerful tool for students to appreciate other views and ideas that may be different from their own, while often discovering that they may also share common values and core beliefs. Over time, perceptions are changed for the better.
Although much has been made in the general media about the increased enrollment of Afghan children in schools, the sad fact remains that only a very small percentage of these children are gaining the kind of knowledge and skills they will need to become productive citizens in a country that remains a fragile democracy. This is especially true of girls.
HTAC-supported model schools like Sorya High School represent a bright spot in giving thousands of Afghan girls an enriched educational curriculum that all girls deserve, but only an estimated 5% receive.
This mostly girls school was established in 1961 as a middle school (grades 7 through 9), and ten years later, was enlarged to accommodate the educational needs of many older students in the surrounding neighborhoods. In 1992, during the Afghan Civil War, the school was burned and badly damanged and lay dormant until 2002. Two years later, an international non-profit organization made several structural and other renovations.
In coordination with Afghanistan's Ministry of Education and local school officials, HTAC began providing additional educational support and teacher training for Sorya High School in 2008. Since then over 10,000 girls have directly benefited from our programs- including peace education, computer education, environmental education, literacy and cultural exchanges.
Today, Sorya has an average yearly enrollment of over 2,500 girls and 270 boys from grades 1 through 12. The school boasts 65 classrooms, has 107 teachers, a principal and 8 administrative staff. For recreation, Sorya has a playground for both volleyball and basketball. Recently a team of girls competing with other schools captured first place in volleyball and third place in basketball.
HTAC has put a premium on establishing and supporting centers of learning that make it possible for Afghan girls to thrive and succeed. Supporting our model schools will allow HTAC to continue providing quality education to many thousands of girls and boys.
Over three decades of war have not only killed tens of thousands of Afghan children, but have decimated the land. Centuries-old well-conceived water and irrigation systms have been destroyed; drinking water has been contaminated and Afghans in urban areas are exposed to many of the worst toxic and carcinogenic air pollutants known.
HTAC believes that part of our educational investment in Afghanistan must address the issue of teaching children that awareness of and concern for the environment is crucial in the establishment of a civil society. Our environmental education program is designed to give Afghan youth hands-on experience in applying eco-learned concepts at their schools and in their homes.
3 years ago, the physical conditions at eight middle schools and high schools in the Paghman District (about 30 miles West of Kabul), were horrendous. School grounds were covered with litter and in some cases, contained hazardous waste. School gardens, normally a source of pride, had dying plants and poor irrigation. Our team discovered that the overwhelming majority of students lacked even the most basic understanding of health and environmental concepts, did not comprehend many of the eco problems in their own communities and had little or no knowledge of basic health issues. It was no wonder that many of them and their family members were constantly getting sick.
Today, the conditions at these schools have changed dramatically, thanks to the successful implementation of our environmental education initiative and the fact that students have taken ownership of the program. Few, if any traces of litter can be found at any of the school sites, and most-importantly, hazardous waste has been removed. Students have transformed their school gardens and young tree saplings have been planted. During field trips into their neighborhoods, boys and girls can spot toxic waste and have called attention of these problems to local officials. Furthermore, students are teaching parents and siblings good hygiene practices and preventing untold numbers of illnesses among family members.
In small, but profound ways, HTAC's environmental education program is giving Afghan youth the knowledge and tools to take personal responsibility for their personal health, improving environmental conditions in their local communities, and as they become adults, help influence environmental legislation in Afghanistan that will help protect and restore the country's forests, wildlife, air and waterways..
Every year, HTAC provides educational support for about 3,000 Afghan girls, and for every one of them there is a personal story of a girl striving to complete her education, gaining marketable skills and hoping to make a better life for herself.
Narges, an incredibly bright, hardworking student at Sorya Girls High School in Kabul, is part of a new generation of Afghan girls who is destined to make a difference for her country with our help. Her story inspires all of us at HTAC to work hard and continue giving Afghan children opportunities to succeed. Narges shares her story:
"First, I want to thank the HTAC organization that helps Afghan children. My name is Narges from Ghazni Province and a student of Sorya Girls School. I always put my full effort into everything I do. I am enthusiastic, friendly and cooperative, both in and out of school, but I still try to improve myself more."
"Ever since I was little, there have been two careers that have sparked my interest and that I wanted to pursue. My first choice is to become a teacher. Many of the teachers I've had in the past have made it clear that their job is rewarding and interesting. My one goal in my life is to find something that I weould love to do for the rest of my life and stick with it and that would definitely be accomplished if I went into the education field. I love working with people and can absolutely see myself as being a teacher."
"The second career I would consider is nursing, which I got from my aunt who attended Illinois State University in America. She enjoyed her courses and loves her nursing job today. We've always been really close and she's inspired me to pursue my education beyond high school and gain a profession where I can truly help others in need, such as nursing. She is the one person in my family whom I have a lot in common with, and it would mean so much to me if I could follow in her footsteps."
HTAC is proud to be a continuing partner with schools such as Sorya Girls High School in providing enriched courses and giving girls like Narges a chance to dream and achieve their goals.
Salima is an 11th grade student at Mirman Nazo High School in vastly underserved Farah Province in southwestern Afghanistan. Like the overwhelming majority of girls in the region, Salima had never seen or touched a computer, but she had heard wonderful stories about how computer training was transforming the lives of thousands of Afghan girls each year, throughout the country.
The chances of Salima getting her hands on a computer, let along learning any computer basics seemed like a distant dream; that is until HTAC launched a new computer education program at six Farah Province school sites, including Mirman Nazo, where Salima was attending classes.
"I had been hearing a lot about how learning computer skills could change our lives and help us get job, but I knew that in Farah Province, girls' access to computer education was almost impossible", Salima told us. "Then I heard the wonderful news that Help the Afghan Children was planning to provide a computer class for our school. I rushed to the Principal's office to sign up for the class, but was told that I would have to get a letter of permission from my parents."
Salima wasn't sure what her parents' response would be; especially her father's. In many of the conservative regions of Afghanistan, including Farah Province, long-standing cultural norms and traditions typically mean that a girl's place is in the home; even if they graduate from high school. But that night, when she spoke with and shared her deep wish with her father, Samima was surprised to hear his very positive response. Salima, to say the least, was overjoyed.
Today, Salima is enrolled and thriving in her computer class and when we asked her how she was doing, a big smile came to her face. "I feel powerful, confident, and hopeful. Many thanks to HTAC for giving our school such a good program."
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