Pelham ROTC helping Afghan counterparts

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

A group of children take their seats on a small blanket under a tarp in the desert sand, barely shielded from the intense sun beating down on the Afghanistan countryside.

The classroom, one of the few in the country lucky enough to have an adult teacher, listens on as their instructor teaches the class of more than 20 students using little more than a pen and a piece of paper.

The class is one of the first in Afghanistan to allow female students, which was outlawed when the Taliban ruled the country. Several years ago, a teacher likely would have been put to death for straying from the Taliban’s educational curriculum.

“The schools were just devastated when they were under Taliban rule. The Taliban was controlling the schools,” said Maj. Aurelia Garcia, instructor of the Pelham High School Junior Navy ROTC program. “The Taliban beat, tortured or killed the teachers that didn’t teach exactly what they told them to, and a lot of the teachers either died or left the country.”

Since the country has been occupied by U.S. forces, Afghanistan’s schools have been steadily improving, but are still far from perfect, Garcia said.

“I was deployed to Iraq, so I knew what the schools looked like in that country. They were pretty bad,” Garcia said. “But after talking to some of my friends who were deployed to Afghanistan, it sounds like Iraq was a metropolis compared to Afghanistan.”

Garcia and members of the PHS Junior ROTC are looking to help Afghan children obtain a better education by collecting basic school items and shipping them to the 1st Marine Division Civil Affairs Group, which is currently serving in Afghanistan.

The Marine division will then distribute the items to students at a high school in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

“The school has about 100 students, both male and female,” Garcia said. “They sit on the floor, and if they don’t have a teacher, one of the older students gets up and teaches the class.

“The schools over there aren’t like they are here, where the government subsidizes them. The village sheik pretty much runs the school,” Garcia added.

The Junior ROTC program will be collecting writing paper, pencils, pens, erasers, pencil sharpeners, non-wired notebooks, rulers, protractors, chalk, small chalk boards and erasers, scissors, colored pencils, clear backpacks, binders, hand sanitizer, tissues, soccer balls and red field cones.

“The donated items can’t have any logos on them, and we have to have clear backpacks for security reasons,” Garcia said. “The notebooks can’t have metal spirals on them, because they could potentially be used to make IEDs.”

Because the price of shipping boxes of supplies to the Middle East can be steep, the Junior ROTC program is also accepting monetary donations.

“We are doing some fundraisers, too. It costs about $69 a box to ship to Afghanistan,” Garcia said, noting the shipping price is about half of what it would be if the class did not ship on government flights.

“And we are talking like a Dell computer-size box,” he added. “We would like to pack the school supplies into a backpack, so we can give the students everything in one package.”

The Junior ROTC program will collect monetary and school supplies donations for about a year before boxing and shipping the items overseas, Garcia said.

For more information about the project, or to donate, call Garcia at 682-5488.