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News | Dec. 13, 2011

Afghan, American students build relationships via video teleconference

By Cpl. Reece Lodder , Regimental Combat Team 5

HAZAR JOFT, Helmand province, Afghanistan (Decmber 10, 2011) — For the second time in Garmsir district this year, Afghan and American high-school students interacted over a video teleconference here, Dec. 8.

The VTC, held at the Garmsir Agricultural High School, was hosted by the non-profit organization Spirit of America in coordination with Marines from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, currently serving in the Garmsir. 

In April, the Los Angeles-based organization partnered with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment to host a VTC for Afghan and American students at the Kadalo Drab School further south in Koshtay.

“The VTCs are an extension of our mission — connecting the American people to the coalition mission on the ground in Afghanistan,” said Matt Valkovic, the manager of Spirit of America’s commander support program. “They provide students on opposite sides of the world an unfiltered cultural exchange.”

The organization responds to needs identified by deployed service members, and has helped provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq, Volkovic said.

Since arriving in Helmand province in 2010, Spirit of America has helped supply blankets and winter coats for local children, and shovels and boots for farmers. It has also supported a school refurbishment in the neighboring Marjah district.

“The youth are the future of Afghanistan,” Volkovic said. “Giving them a small window into the outside world shows them American kids are similar to them, despite some cultural differences. The common factor is that the kids on both sides are at school to better their lives and improve their future.”

Seated in front of a laptop, the Afghan students spoke with counterparts from Lejeune High School on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. Through a translator, they gave the American students a glimpse into their school lives, families, hobbies and culture. As the translator described the American students’ response, the group of approximately 40 Afghan students smiled and talked amongst themselves.

“There are a lot of differences between our classes and schools, but I appreciate being able to learn new things from the American students,” said 16-year-old student Mohammad Zakaria.

Zakaria proudly read the Afghan national anthem to familiarize the American students with Afghan culture, while another classmate shared an important part of his life by reciting verses from the Qu’ran.

The Afghan students shared excitement for their studies with their far-away counterparts, crediting the students’ military parents for helping the Afghan government bring educational opportunities to Garmsir.

“Since the Marines have helped us build a school, we’re able to learn about agriculture and progress in our studies,” said 16-year-old student Mohammad Fared. “We want to become educated so we can help build our country. Today, everything is done with knowledge. There will be no fighting in the future if we are educated.”

Though insurgent activity is now infrequent in Garmsir, the local government is working with coalition forces to repair years of damage to district schools and infrastructure. The improvement in educational opportunities will strengthen their country’s future, said Mohammad Nasir, the district education director.

“For many years, Afghanistan has been at war,” Nasir said. “Everything we used to have was demolished, including our schools. Without them, many people remained uneducated for a long time. But we are fortunate the international community has come to help us. Today, we have schools, students and the opportunity to talk to you because of your help and support.”

Major Gen. John Toolan, Jr., the commanding general of Regional Command (Southwest) and II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), thanked the Camp Lejeune High School students for helping further the Afghan-American relationship.

In his closing remarks, the district education director heartily echoed Toolan’s thanks.

“I’m very happy about this opportunity for our students to talk together,” Nasir said. “We have an environment to engage with one another today because of the Marines. Now, we’re building a great relationship between Afghan and American students.”

“In Afghanistan, we are a very hospitable people,” he continued. “When we create relationships with other people, we keep these relationships forever.”

Editor’s note: Third Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.