Educators learn of Afghanistan needs

More than 50 educators and others learned about the needs and opportunities for rebuilding Afghanistan in a workshop at Portland State Saturday.

The needs are monumental, they heard. Afghanistan is trying to rebuild after more than 20 years of backward sliding, especially in education. The country finds itself riddled with landmines, with most of the victims children. American teachers can do, and are doing, much to teach students about the country and motivate students to take positive helpful action.

The one-day workshop, titled, “The Many Faces of Afghanistan: Past, Present and Future,” was presented by a long roster of sponsors, headed by the PSU Middle East Studies Center and Mercy Corps.

The program was coordinated and directed by Marta Colburn, a consultant in international affairs, with offices in Portland and Yemen. She appeared here as educational consultant to Mercy Corps.

“I’m helping them develop an educational outreach,” she said. The workshop recognized that Sept. 11 and following developments brought Afghanistan to the attention of the mainstream media. This generated what the sponsors saw as a tremendous demand for accurate information on an impoverished Central Asian nation.

The workshop’s activities were organized to help educators introduce a range of topics about Afghanistan into the classroom.

Most of the materials introduced are available for loan from Building Bridges, a resource center that contains a lending library, and materials of the PSU’s Middle East Studies Center.

Colburn provided a 1997 study of Afghan children that showed that 72 percent had experienced the death of a family member in the past four years. A total of 95 percent do not attend school. Half suffer from chronic malnutrition and a quarter die before the age of five.

Among the educational topics suggested was a study of prayer beads, suitable for students as young as first grade. PSU Multicultural Resource Center had prayer beads on exhibit, available for loan.

Among other suggested educational topics were nomadic dwellings, water conservation, the tragedy of war, carpet weaving and studies of Badshah Khan, who is called “The Frontier Ghandi.”

A procession of speakers illuminated such topics as the history of U.S.-Afghan relations, the refugee crisis and the Talibanization of Pakistan and its impact on women. One speaker, Nadia Maiwandi, described life for urban Afghan women before 1979. Maiwandi, a journalist, is a former PSU student and was a writer for the Vanguard.

An especially poignant presentation was a slide show and lecture about landmines in Afghanistan, presented by Mette Eliseussen. She works as a freelance journalist for European-based publications. Until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, she worked in the Save the Children project to remove and ban landmines there.

Her slides illustrated how Kabul children are encouraged to paint or draw the dangers of landmines. The program to educate children about landmines reminds them to leave strange metal objects alone and to be especially careful when playing.

She said 85 percent of landmine victims are children and many landmines have been planted in residential areas. Children may have legs blown off while walking to school. There are 50 such accidents a day around Kabul, she said.

The landmine education campaign uses art and other activities interesting to children to warn of the dangers. There is a board game to map out what may be danger areas. There is a memory game to test children on how much they remember about safety.

In response to a question, she said to her knowledge there have been no landmines disguised as toys. Such mines had evidently been reported elsewhere.

Mohammad Khan Kharoti, born in Afghanistan, told of returning there in 2001 to start two schools in his boyhood village, one for boys and one for girls. He currently is a medical doctor with Kaiser Permanente in the department of nuclear medicine at Southwest Washington Medical Center.

Kharoti said of American-Afghan relations, “We must have respect for each other. We must help each other. We have no choice.” He said all Afghans, whether in Afghanistan or out of the country, have a responsibility to take care of the people of Afghanistan.

Recalling his trip last year, he said, “It was very hard to see the young children hit by bombs.” Afghanistan is really not one nation, but many nations, he said. “We need to learn from each other, work together as a team. We need honesty, love and understanding.”

The horror of landmines and attempts to relieve the suffering of the people were highlighted by Waseel Azizi, born in Kabul in 1971. Now a Portland resident, he works for Evergreen Aviation in sales and also as Director of Evergreen International Humanitarian Relief.

His project has worked to bring together tons of much-needed winter supplies for Afghanistan. He mentioned particularly blankets and medical supplies. Up to now, the flight there has been delayed because of security problems. He said the Kabul airport was surveyed and the necessary 11,000 feet of runway have been cleared of landmines.

“Around the airport there are still about 10,000 to 12,000 mines,” he said. “I witnessed people working on clearing up the mines.”

He urged educators to organize letter-writing projects with Afghan students. “Lots of Afghan students speak good enough English,” he said. Despite the destruction in Afghanistan, he saw a lot of progress being made in reconstruction. Afghan youth are very energetic, he said, and they are injecting new energy into rebuilding.

“It is there, I think, that there is hope,” he said.

Attendees had favorable comments on the workshop.

Mary Ann Schwab, a retired school secretary, said she attended because she is interested in peace.

“I’m interested in any development that’s on the table,” she said. “I don’t trust the filtered news in the media.”