FARAH PROVINCE, DELARAM, Afghanistan --
School officials here were only hours away from reopening a boys’ school when Taliban members crept to the school site at night and etched death threats into the newly-constructed concrete walls.
This effort by the Taliban to dissuade school officials from reopening the school proved futile, and the school’s opening marked the first cooperative effort between the local Afghan community and U.S. forces to restore the education system.
Together with support from other local residents and the Marines of Task Force 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Afghanistan, school officials have shown the Taliban they are eager to take back control within their community. They understand the importance of education and remain committed to strengthening the minds of their youth – young males whom the Marines feel may be more easily influenced by the Taliban.
Despite the threats, hundreds of local school children, ranging from age seven to 15, were excited to get their first look inside the new school.
“It felt absolutely gratifying to go into the school and see more than 650 kids just waiting there with big smiles on their faces,” said Gunnery Sgt. Omar Palaciosreal, Team 2 chief, 3rd Civil Affairs Group, TF 2/7.
In an effort to ensure a safe environment, the Marines of Company G and Weapons Company maintained security by patrolling outside the school. Members of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army were also on hand, but mainly to interact with the children and to show support for their community.
Following the opening ceremony, ANP and ANA officials passed out soccer balls to the children and distributed gifts that included backpacks filled with school supplies.
“We’re just here for support,” said Gunnery Sgt. Palaciosreal, a Moreno Valley, Calif., native. “We want them to take the lead. This is their show. It’s their people handing out stuff to them. It’s another image that will be etched in their minds. They’re going to start thinking different about the Taliban. They’re going to think, ‘The Taliban is wrong.’”
School officials were determined not to let the Taliban death threats scare them or their students away from the school. One teacher said he wanted to send a message to the Taliban that nothing can stand in the way of a child’s education.
“School is where kids learn right from left and right from wrong. It’s where we open our kids’ minds,” said Abdul Ghariv, a teacher at the boys’ school.
Through the use of an Afghan interpreter, Ghariv was able to express his excitement and tell the Marines how he felt about educating the youth in his community.
“We teach them about math; we teach them about religion and physics; we teach them about everything. The school is important because it is for everyone,” Ghariv said.
The Marines who provided security said the school wasn’t always a learning environment for the Afghan children. It was basically left in shambles, and used for almost everything but gaining an education. Gunnery Sgt. Palaciosreal described the facility as a “run-down, hollow building with no outer wall, broken windows, and old cracked paint.”
“It just didn’t look like a place where any learning occurred,” the CAG team leader said. “The building was dilapidated. Now, the students have an outer wall for protection, and a clean, newly-painted school that is bright and inviting. It’s definitely going to create a strong learning environment.”
The building is now fully operational thanks to an estimated $23,000 in grants from Afghanistan Regional Security Integration Command-South (ARSIC-S) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent government agency that conducts foreign assistance and humanitarian aid. Funds for the outer wall construction were provided by ARSIC-S, while various items purchased to refurbish the school’s interior were funded by USAID.
“The grant was used to renovate and enhance the inside of the school with desks, chalkboards and school supplies, and for the labor workers to put the desks together,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Gonzales, project coordinator, 3rd CAG. “Rather than sitting down on a dirt floor and not being able to study, the children now have a chair and a desk where they can learn.”
The Marines expect the school will further benefit the local economy. In addition to providing the children a new and improved learning environment, it creates more job opportunities for Afghan educators and local residents.
“We’re facilitating the boys’ school project,” said Staff Sgt. Gonzales, a Torrance, Calif., native. “We’re making it happen with monetary means, but the ANP and ANA are handing out the school supplies so the children can see the local support and gain trust in their own system.”
School officials are planning to install heating, venting, air conditioning, and lighting systems in the coming months to make the school comparable to many U.S. schools. They expect the facility to be instrumental in educating Afghanistan’s future — the children. Because the need for an education is not only a problem faced by Afghans, the Marines could relate to the significance of this event.
“These people are brought up in life thinking violence is the only way,” Gunnery Sgt. Palaciosreal said. “In my opinion, education is the only way to change their situation. It provides them an opportunity and a way out of poverty, and a way to grow to develop an understanding about the world around them.”
Afghan residents know poverty all too well. As they go about their daily lives, they strive to survive amidst the chaos and confusion caused by constant violence in a war-torn and grief-stricken country.
As Afghan parents see the value in getting a good education, they realize the school provides them the tools necessary to continue educating their youth. Showing they are anxious to start making improvements, Afghan citizens held first Parent Teacher Association meeting at the school’s reopening. School officials, parents and Marines were all invited to the meeting to discuss future plans for the school and how they can improve the education system.
“Here we are halfway around the world, and we’re having a PTA meeting,” Gunnery Sgt. Palaciosreal said. “That’s a start. I think the people are excited and truly want to get things done.”
The decision to hold a PTA meeting was initially met with some resistance. Afghan residents were hesitant to work with Marines on reopening the school, because they thought the service members would abandon the project once construction of the school’s outer wall was complete. To address these concerns and assure commitment to the project, the Marines coordinated a ‘shura,’ or meeting, with top Afghan officials. Once the project was complete, it was important for the Marines to find out who was going to make sure the school remained operational.
“Who’s going to make sure that these kids get their education and have a place to learn?” Staff Sgt. Gonzales asked. “Who’s going to make sure 10 years from now this school isn’t going to be knocked down and become something else; that this place is going to stay a school?”
These concerns caused the Afghan community to form the PTA, an association of parents and teachers established to supervise school operations and make decisions that would aid in providing the Afghan youth a better learning environment.
“Now that they have a PTA, they can continue to facilitate the education of these young boys,” Staff Sgt. Gonzales said. “This is a great example of the local community coming together.”
Following the meeting, teachers allowed the students to go outside and play with their new soccer balls. Although the Taliban continues to force its opinions and ideals on the Afghan people, many of the residents say they are not afraid and they remain committed to making more positive changes within their communities.
“You need a break from listening to the teacher all day,” said Cpl. Ericka L. Garcia, a Santa Ana, Calif., native. “It’s like the only time the kids get to be free. When they are in the class with the teachers, they have to be quiet and listen and just sit there. When they go outside, they can have fun.”
Garcia said it was important for her and others to interact with the young students, adding that the school reopening offered a perfect opportunity for the children to see the Marines are regular people under their body armor.
“I think it shows the other side of us,” Cpl. Garcia said. “They see us with all the weapons and gear, but when we interact with them, they see that we’re human, too. When we interact with them, it puts them at ease.”
Although the Taliban continues to force its opinions and ideals on the Afghan people, many residents are committed to making more positive changes within their communities. The school reopening is a tell-tale sign of this.