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Horrors a World Away Set East L.A. Students Into Action

Moved by the plight of Afghan women, Ramona High School reaches out with helping hands.

October 18, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The girls at Ramona High School have troubles of their own. Troubles with gangs, with grades, with truancy, troubles with drugs, with foster homes, with babies. That's why they're here--the tiny campus in Boyle Heights was founded half a century ago as a haven for troubled girls.

But a month ago, its 150 or so students were shown "Shroud of Silence," a documentary about the plight of women and children under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the girls at Ramona High found out that--as difficult as life may seem--there are places where it is much, much worse.

Under the Taliban's draconian interpretation of Islamic law, Afghan women--once doctors, teachers and members of government--have been forced to leave their jobs; girls have been forced to leave school, all are confined to their homes, the windows of which are painted black. On the few occasions they are allowed in public, they must wear burkas, head-to-toe coverings broken only by a small square of mesh at eye level. Because they are not allowed contact with men other than their husbands, not even doctors, many reportedly die of easily treated illnesses; others, unable to endure the isolation, commit suicide. The penalties for breaking any of the Taliban's drastic laws, (men are not allowed to be cleanshaven or wear bright clothing) range from public flogging to death by stoning.

Because of such human-rights abuses, the world community, with the exception of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, refuses to recognize the Taliban as the official government.

For most of the girls at Ramona, however, the film marked the first time they had even heard of the Taliban.

"Everyone was in shock," said Linda Sabori, who, at 18, is a wife and mother of a 2-year-old and a 2-month-old. "I kept thinking how can they survive?"

"We couldn't believe something like that was happening," said Berlyn Castillo, 17. "I tried to put myself in their position, and I just couldn't. But we all wanted to help. Right away, we wanted to help."

That was the point, after all. Ramona's principal and staff had been asked to participate in an adopt-a-school program organized by the Foundation for the Feminist Majority as part of its Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan. This year, the campaign--which is chaired by Mavis Leno, wife of Jay--has been encouraging schools across the country to "adopt" schools in the Pakistan refugee camps to which many Afghan families have fled and the few underground schools in Afghanistan. As the only all-girl public high school in Los Angeles, Ramona seemed a perfect place to launch the L.A. campaign.

Principal Sherry Breskin agreed at once. "We try to get the girls involved civically whenever we can," she said. "It helps them feel part of society, helps them feel they can make a difference."

But neither Breskin nor teacher Ruth Castro, who helped organize the screening of "Shroud of Silence," expected the force of the girls' reaction. The film--produced by Michel Cicero, a Feminist Majority foundation staff member and Lorraine Sheinberg, a board member--uses archival footage to document the Afghan women's previous freedoms. To show conditions under the Taliban, which seized control of the Afghan capital in 1996, the filmmakers obtained footage by a woman working for Physicians for Human Rights, and other images smuggled out of the country.

The film, which won awards at the Santa Barbara and Telluride film festivals, has been shown on campuses around the country. Everywhere, the reaction is the same: "Somewhere between tears and horror," said Cicero. "As a filmmaker, it has been very gratifying to know the film can evoke these emotions."

Blurred images of executions and beatings are testimony to the physical brutality of the regime, but even more horrifying are the cloaked figures of the women, barely recognizable as humans, scurrying along the edges of roads, through the marketplace.

At Ramona, the girls watched in complete silence. "It was amazing," said Castro. "They were just shocked, and all of them wanted to know how this could happen and what they could do to help. The first thing they asked was: 'Can we send them money?' "

Money is not exactly abundant among the students at Ramona--nor in the surrounding neighborhoods--but in a few weeks, the girls were able to collect more than $200, which they presented to Mavis Leno last month. They had also collected 200 signatures on a petition asking the U.S. government to do all it can to aid the women and children of Afghanistan. Many of the girls had taken the petitions door-to-door to their neighbors and friends. Once they explained what it was about, they got lots of support and encouragement.

"Even the men reacted. They couldn't believe it either," said Castillo, who was sent to Ramona because she was skipping school and failing most of her classes at Roosevelt High. "And I was really proud of the fact that we were able to do this in East L.A. So now, maybe people will know we're not as bad as they think."

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