Students get taste of life in Afghanistan
January 12, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN What is it like to live in a mud hut with no electricity? Without access to a car, no running water, central heating, or refrigerator? No video games in sight?Julia Bolz gave Aspen fifth-graders an opportunity to find out Friday.Bolz works with a nonprofit that builds schools in Afghanistan. Her recent visit to Aspen was part of her mission to raise awareness about life in the two-thirds of the world where people live on less than $2 per day.Bolz divided the fifth-graders by gender, as they would be in Afghanistan. And Bolz gave kids a chance to try on traditional hats and carry heavy buckets of water to see what it would be like to have to supply water needs from a faraway well.”I was dying in there,” fifth-grade teacher Debbie Kreutzer said. Bolz invited Kreutzer to try on a traditional burqa in front of the class and asked others to try on hats and headpieces that represent important markers of identity, class and region in Afghanistan.
“I felt called to help the poor and the oppressed,” Bolz said. In the wake of 9/11, she felt the need to get involved, and she chose Afghanistan as the place with the greatest needs.Bolz gave up her law practice and moved to northern Afghanistan, where she joined a team of Americans working on the Journey with an Afghan School project to build schools for Afghan children. The project now is affiliated with the American Friendship Foundation.Bolz’s stories put the audience in another’s shoes and showed how alike we all are, Kreutzer said.Bolz showed the fifth-graders a photo of a typical Afghan village: “Do you see a highway? Big buildings? Cell phone towers?” she asked.”No,” the kids shouted.
Bolz wants to show the West that we’re living in a bubble. She explained Islamic culture, and taught the children how Afghans greet one another with a hand to the heart (hands are considered dirty), and how to sit respectfully on the floor.”It’s up to those of us who’ve been there to tell the stories good and bad,” she said. And raising awareness is key.Bolz told of one young Afghan girl whose father forbade her from going to school. The girl went to school anyway, and when an important letter arrived for her father (who was illiterate) the girl stepped forward and read the letter. Instead of punishing her, the father embraced her. That story inspired an increase in enrollment from 420 girls to 1,000 and an increase in the school’s staff from eight to 24.Bolz hopes to educate girls in Afghanistan and save them a fate of indentured servitude to an older husband or outright slavery – at the going rate of $14 for a young woman.”Engage, educate and empower,” is the vision she borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King, and part of Bolz’s job in Afghanistan is to be an ambassador. While U.S. soldiers and advisors live apart from Afghan people, Bolz wears traditional Afghan clothing (and keeps her head covered in public), shops in the market and travels unarmed.
Sometimes Afghan people are not sure what to do with her, Bolz said: “My hope is to show we’re not all ‘Baywatch’ women.”Schoolchildren from Bolz’s native Seattle raised more than $30,000 to build a school in the north of Afghanistan. Bolz is raising funds along with the National Geographic’s Afghan Girls Fund for a high school that will serve 3,600 girls. She hopes people in Aspen will get involved.”If we change it there [Afghanistan], it will stabilize the rest of the region,” Bolz said. And the real job is not up to military, but people giving help and support from their own backyard.For more information, search for “Journey with an Afghan School” on the American Friendship Foundation website: http://www.affhope.org.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.