Wali Muhammad and other Afghan boys call out the letter their teacher points to during class at the Forward Operating Base Geronimo schoolhouse in Afghanistan, July 8. Most of the kids who attend school are younger than the current war. The children are taught by Marine, Navy and Afghan volunteers. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga)
OPERATING BASE GERONIMO, Afghanistan —Wali Muhammad doesn’t want to be a farmer.
This is a recent revelation for the eight-year-old Afghan boy. Wali’s father wished this for his son much earlier, which is why months ago he began ordering him to “go to school and learn something.”
At first Wali didn’t like it. The school is more than a mile away from where he lives in Helmand province. It’s not so bad in the morning, but in the afternoon the walk back home can occur in triple-digit heat. It could be worse though, some of the other kids travel from twice as far away.
Now Wali looks forward to school. Studying and learning are his favorite parts. He calls it school, all the kids do, but a more accurate description would be class. It’s only 90 minutes long, three days a week, but the children call it school because the volunteer-led program at Forward Operating Base Geronimo is the closest most of them have ever come to a formal education.
Some days as many as a dozen or more children join Wali on the walk to school. Other days as few as three walk with him. Wali almost never misses.
School doesn’t start until 10:30 in the morning, but the kids always show up early. They find shade where they can and wait for the teachers to arrive.
Excitement begins to creep up on Cpl. Mary Warren the nights before school. The 22-year-old water support technician with Combat Logistics Battalion 5 is stationed at Geronimo as support. She’s responsible for the base’s water and says the job is important, but not difficult. She spends most of her free time volunteering at the school. When she’s not teaching, she’s preparing lesson plans or organizing the many donations the school has received since her sergeant major and chaplain have begun helping support her efforts.
When Warren wakes up on school days her excitement has only grown from the night before. She does what she can to make time pass as quickly as possible until she can begin the walk toward the schoolhouse, which is no more than a few hundred yards outside of the base’s front gate.
As Warren makes her way down the dirt road tiny heads begin poking out of the shade and the kids run to meet her and the other teachers at the school’s entrance. It’s not clear who’s more excited.
“Seeing them makes my week,” said Warren, from Chicago Heights, Ill.
The children line up and welcome the teachers and the security detail, Marines from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, with handshakes and ask at least twice, “How are you?” The greeting is more a proud display of English skills than an inquiry.
After the security detail sweeps the schoolhouse the students and teachers file in. Two classes take place in the school, one for adults and one for children. There is a local national day laborer program at the base and as part of the program the men must attend school.
Chief Petty Officer Tyrek Alanos teaches the adult class. When he first started teaching in the last week of May, the children and adults were taught together. Splitting the students up made more sense. The children learn the basics — ABCs and 123s. Alanos teaches the adults more practical English, things they can use in conversation with coalition forces. Many of the adults say they enjoy the class and learning is helping them, but nobody is there who isn’t required to be.
With the exception of one or two kids whose parents make them go, the children are at school because they want to be.
When Warren teaches, she speaks about half English and half Pashtu. When she first started teaching she didn’t know any Pashtu. Now she feels comfortable enough to lead the class without an interpreter if need be, thanks to Waheed Mohammed.
Waheed, like Warren and Alanos, is a volunteer at the schoolhouse. He works with Information Operations on base as a radio DJ. The 28-year-old claims Philadelphia as his hometown, but he was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
When Waheed was four his family sent him to America because he said, “there was war all over.” His mother wanted him to get an education in America. Waheed lived with his uncles and went on to become a citizen and start a family.
When Waheed first heard about the schoolhouse he knew he wanted to be involved. Education played a huge role in changing his life and he thinks it’s important to his home country.
“Afghanistan will only change with education, not with a weapon,” Waheed said. “If it was going to change with a weapon, 30 years would have changed it.”
Every night Waheed teaches Pashtu to Warren and Alanos. They’re all volunteers. None of them need to teach at the school, yet they all feel compelled to. Since they’ve started teaching together they worked to make school happen three days a week as opposed to two. The kids began to retain the information easier after that. They hope to make school five days a week and maybe get actual teachers, but for now they’re doing as much as they can.
Alanos wants his students to be able to speak with and understand the Marines they work with. Waheed and Warren want the kids to realize the power of knowledge.
“I just want them to understand the importance of school, of education period,” Warren said. “I want them to be able to read and count so they don’t get cheated in life.”
Waheed has already seen a shift by some parents.
“They’re realizing there’s supposed to be school in a kid’s life,” Waheed said.
And the children’s attitudes have changed as well. Many would show up at first for the free stuff — pens, notebooks, snacks … But now students like Wali proudly rattle off half the alphabet and count to 13 with vigor before skipping ahead to 19.
Waheed is realistic with his goals. He said he sees a lot of potential in the kids and they’re quickly memorizing the alphabet, but they still don’t know what the letters are used for. He will be happy if the children remember that they enjoyed school and learning, and when they have children of their own they put an emphasis on education.
“It can change, but not overnight,” he said.
He’s having an impact already. When Waheed asks Wali what he wants to be when he grows up the young boy looks at him with wide eyes and without hesitation answers him.
“I want to be a teacher like you.”