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Journalist shares stories with students about her work in war zone
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Lisa Schnellinger, right, answers a question Wednesday for East Hall Middle School student Monay Byrd. Schnellinger, a Big Canoe resident and journalist who has been working in Afghanistan, gave a presentation at the school. - photo by Tom Reed

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East Hall Middle School teacher Meg Norris talks about her friend, Lisa Schnellinger, talking to seventh-graders about her journalism experiences in Afghanistan.

A hand shot up among the group of East Hall Middle School seventh-graders.

“Why is the U.S. still in Afghanistan?” the student asked.

It was a pointed question asked to a longtime journalist, Lisa Schnellinger, who started Pajhwok Afghan News in the country’s capital, Kabul, several years ago.

“That’s a complicated question,” said Schnellinger, who now lives in the Big Canoe community near Dawsonville.

As part of her answer, she said that because of the terrain, “it’s very hard to go in, figure out who the enemy is, find them and get at them.”

Schnellinger spoke to seventh-graders Wednesday morning and afternoon, describing her experiences in the war-torn country, including work covering national elections, and showing pictures she has taken over the years.

In an interview after her hourlong presentation, she said she wanted to do more than merely lecture the students in current events or geography.

Schnellinger hoped they left the media center understanding that “not everybody is a terrorist in Afghanistan.

“There are people there who are just like them. ... Kids go to school, parents have jobs, moms raise kids, people want to have peaceful lives. ... These are human things and they are the same everywhere.”

In her presentation, she talked about education’s importance in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

“This is, to me, a huge part of the answer,” she said. “The more Afghans are educated, the more they will be able to make good decisions. They’ll be good voters; they’ll be good citizens.

“They’ll be able to have jobs and ways to make a living. They won’t want to get hired out as soldiers by the Taliban.”

Schnellinger, 50, an Ohio native, worked for years in U.S. newspapers, including in Seattle, before becoming a freelance journalist in 1996.

“One of the things I did was go to new democracies (formed particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union) and train journalists,” she said.

“After 9/11 and we invaded Afghanistan, I knew that (the country would be) building the media from the ground up, and I wanted to go.”

She went to Afghanistan in 2002 on a two-month contract and ended up staying two years.

In 2004, Schnellinger and her husband started Pajhwok, which can be viewed at www.pajhwok.com.

These days, she serves as an adviser to the agency.

New York-based Open Society Institute “came up with the money to send me back there specifically to help them with the elections,” Schnellinger said.

“Covering a national election is a big deal for any news organization, but particularly in a country like this.”

She worked through August, training editors, reporters and photographers.

Tired of working overseas for five years, Schnellinger and her husband were looking to settle back in the U.S. Unfamiliar with the South, her husband suggested North Georgia, where he had trained as an Army Ranger at Camp Merrill in Dahlonega.

They moved to Big Canoe and, after couple of weeks, “we just fell in love with (the area),” Schnellinger said.

“It’s the perfect combination of wilderness and civilization,” she said. “... It’s a perfect place to come home to from places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

In Big Canoe, she met East Hall Middle teacher Meg Norris.

“She came to be part of our family,” said Norris, who teaches language arts to seventh-graders.

“When I started teaching here, I discovered that Afghanistan and the Middle East was a big emphasis in the social studies standards for seventh grade,” she said.

So, she decided to see if she could get her friend her speak to the students.

“We did this last year and it was such a hit, we decided to do it again this year,” Norris said.

In the process, she hopes she has broken some preconceived ideas students might have had about people from that region of the world.

Norris said she believes Schnellinger has “changed a lot of attitudes.”

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