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Afghan students discuss war-torn home

POSTED: October 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Khadija Safi, right, and Shamim Siddiqi, center, smile as Brenau University classmate Najia Nasim speaks to a group of North Hall Middle School students Thursday.

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In the same day Americans got a glimpse of the National Intelligence Estimate report that paints a grim outlook for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, three Afghan girls were planting seeds of peace at North Hall Middle School.

Three Brenau University students from Afghanistan echoed the findings of the national intelligence report draft. Khadija Safi and Shamim Siddiqi, both juniors at Brenau, and Najia Nasim, a freshman at Brenau, said despite the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the safety of Afghanistan civilians has declined drastically in recent years.

"When I went to Afghanistan this summer, it was worse than it was in 2006," Safi said. "Since 2001, there has been no peace. It is worse now than in that time. Now when we go outside, we don’t know if we will come alive to home or not. With bombs, anything can happen in the street."

With a dual view of the conflict in Afghanistan, the university students spent Thursday morning at North Hall Middle School answering a barrage of questions from curious students and staff.

The students were offered scholarships from Brenau University to attend the school. During the summer, the girls return to Afghanistan to visit family and promote the education of women in Afghanistan.

Kathy Mellette leads a directed studies class for gifted students at the middle school and invited the Afghans to speak to students about war-torn Afghanistan. Mellette said the structure of the directed studies class allows students to pursue their interests in international issues and current events.

From the school’s library, the Afghanistan natives told students how the Taliban terrorist group dictating their country in the late ’90s oppressed women and prohibited them from attending school. Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Brenau students said women now are allowed to attend school again.

Yet, the Afghan education system remains very different than the American education system in terms of resources, they said.

"Most (students) study under tents, and they don’t have books, but it’s OK," Siddiqi said. "Teachers teach the best they can without books, and students study the best they can."

The Afghan students described the difference between their lives now and during the early ’90s before the Taliban ruled their country.

"At that time, we had everything. It was not destroyed," Safi said. "Now it is completely destroyed. Right now some places are getting restored, so that’s getting better."

Nasim said many Afghans have lost their homes due to terrorist and U.S. bombings. In addition, she said when some people moved out of the country during the Taliban reign, they returned to their homes to find the Taliban had fabricated documentation and seized their properties. As a result, Siddiqi said many Afghans now rent houses.

The families of Siddiqi, Safi and Nasim all moved to Pakistan in the early ’90s after Soviet troops were forced out of Afghanistan but before the Taliban was in complete control. Nasim said her family left for Pakistan in 1993 because violent ethnic groups were scrambling for power after Soviet troops were removed.

Now all three of the students’ families have returned to either the Afghan capital of Kabul or to Knar.

"The situation these days is not good in Pakistan, either," Siddiqi said. "So it makes no difference if they are in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Their jobs and their homes are in Afghanistan. They make good money there."

Siddiqi said knowing violent terrorists are camouflaged in civilian garb in the marketplace and in streets terrifies everyone, including the U.S. soldiers she sees near her parents’ home located near the U.S. embassy.

"Before (the soldiers) used to walk around and talk to beggars and children. But now they drive in cars and walk on narrow sidewalks instead of walking on the main road," she said. "We usually see them on the narrow sidewalks when there are no cars and no people. That’s how we know they are scared."

When offered the scholarship, Siddiqi said she quickly seized the opportunity to study in the United States and help bridge the culture rift between Afghans and Americans.

"I believe you should know everything for our country because you are ruling our country. People are losing trust in the U.S. because the situation is not getting any better," she said.

As for the American presidential elections, Siddiqi said Afghans are more focused on their presidential election slated for next year than the U.S. election. Yet she did say Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s remarks during Tuesday’s presidential debate suggesting he may intend to invade Pakistan have not won him many supporters in neighboring Afghanistan.

Callen Little, 13, is an eighth-grade North Hall Middle School student who attended the question and answer session. She said she’s glad to be able to connect with the Afghan students.

"People think of the country we’re at war with as a whole, not about individual people," Little said. "It makes me feel more bad about it because you never really get to hear how it is for them. I wish more people could hear their perspective on it."

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this story.



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