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West L.A. students forge relationship with Afghan school

Working with Marines, private school makes a friendship video and soon will send backpacks filled with school supplies with the help of the L.A.-based nonprofit Spirit of America.

January 14, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Danielle Katz has a limited Pashto vocabulary — limited but significant.

Katz, a 17-year-old senior at Windward School in West Los Angeles and soon to attend Northwestern University, looked directly at a video camera recently and, roughly translated, said, "We want to be friends."

The video is being sent to a school in the Garmsir district of southern Afghanistan, deep in Helmand province, an area once under the control of the Taliban, whose hatred of education — especially for girls — is documented.

Now, Marines from Camp Pendleton are in Garmsir and schools that had been closed by the Taliban are being rebuilt and reopened.

One of them is called Kodola Drab School, where since summer several hundred boys are now attending. (Drab is a twisting of the word "drop," a reference to a nearby irrigation canal that relies on gravity to keep water flowing.)

Through a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization called Spirit of America, Windward School is establishing a relationship with Kodola.

Windward, a private school with 525 students in seventh through 12th grades, emphasizes community service by its students.

Jim Hake, founder and chief executive of Spirit of America, has two children at Windward. His foundation has been active in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing millions of dollars in support to projects to help civilians.

For the Windward-Kodola connection, the school video is a start. Soon there will be backpacks filled with school supplies sent to Kodola. A video conference is being arranged so the students can meet.

A projector and laptop computer are on their way to be used for a screening of " Shrek," possibly the first movie ever seen in Garmsir.

On Thursday, Lt. Col. Ben Watson, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, came to Windward to thank the students for their efforts. His battalion returned to Camp Pendleton in November after a seven-month deployment.

To two dozen students and half a dozen teachers, Watson explained the austere, isolated life of Garmsir: no electricity, no running water, no sewage system, no telephones, mostly mud-walled structures and virtually no contact with the outside world.

"You're opening a window they've not had access to," Watson said. "They're eager for it."

Although there are other schools for girls in Garmsir, the village elders are not ready for Kodola to be coed, Watson said. "If you try to force it before they're ready," he said, "it will make it potentially more challenging."

The Windward video shows its students reading, playing soccer and at a blackboard in a mathematics class.

"Whether the war was necessary or not, we need to go in and give them support and help them rebuild their culture," said Shea Clark-Tieche, 18, a senior who hopes to attend Yale University.

When the village elders in Garmsir agreed to the school project, they signed with their thumbprints. None could write.

Zak Levine, 15, a sophomore, said he hopes that Windward "can show them a new normalcy, that education and literacy are a way of life."

Progress in Afghanistan is a slow, incremental process, Watson said. Throughout the Soviet occupation and then Taliban control, Garmsir was wracked with violence.

"The folks who are left are survivors," Watson said. "They're slow to trust. They'll trust when they think it's a good investment."

It was a message that the Windward students, even in their youth, seemed to understand.

"It's one step at a time," Katz said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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