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Sunday, July 8, 2012
Fukushima, Afghan high school students swap stories online
High school students from Japan and Afghanistan might not be expected to have much in common, but Peter Crowley, UNICEF's representative in Afghanistan, learned otherwise during his first trip to Fukushima Prefecture.
After visiting the prefecture Thursday to attend a Web conference between Yumoto High School in Iwaki and Tajwar Saltana Girls High School in Kabul, Crowley told The Japan Times that the students showed solidarity in their determination to make a better future for themselves.
"I think they have been able to share solidarity" through the online class and the "tegami" (letter) exchange program started by the United Nations Children's Fund after the quake and tsunami struck on March 11 last year, triggering the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
"They can do so by their sheer determination to get through the problems they're currently facing," he said at UNICEF's Tokyo office. "We sometimes tend to underestimate children's determination and capacity to withstand some of the awful things they've been through."
Over a year has passed since the natural disasters, but the Yumoto High students are still studying at a temporary facility because their school was damaged.
Last year, the girls began exchanging letters with Afghan students through the UNICEF project, which is aimed at getting those in Tohoku's disaster zones to interact with people overseas.
Crowley, who will be in Japan until Monday to attend the international aid conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo, said he found the Fukushima students "lively, full of energy, and positive" despite the nuclear crisis, although one said in a prepared speech that she is constantly worried about radiation exposure because it's in the news every day.
"Children and young people are always resilient anywhere," he said.
The online class was scheduled for 30 minutes but went on for more than an hour with simultaneous interpretation in Dari, English and Japanese. The students discussed their goals and the messages they wanted to convey to adults, but they got most excited talking about their daily lives, such as the foods they like and what they do on weekends.
The teachers said that giving students a chance to interact with other people from different cultural backgrounds was a good way to open their eyes to the outside world, Crowley said.
"So I think it was very important. I'm sure it's an experience that the girls would not forget," he said. "Hopefully, it'll change the world view of many of them."
Crowley said he was impressed by a speech given by one of the Afghan girls.
"She said we have to be brave and there's no point allowing things to wear us down. She also referred to the importance of solidarity among the young as a way to deal with their sorrows," he said.
According to UNICEF's report on education in 2011, cultural norms in Afghanistan are still working against women's education, with early marriage named as one of them.
Crowley said security is still a major problem, and that there also is a shortage of female teachers in the country. Children have to study at temporary facilities in many parts because the government hasn't been able to keep up with demand for schools.
Despite the circumstances, he said many of Afghanistan's young are determined to attend school.
"Children there are fully aware of all the danger and uncertainties they face in their daily life or in the country, but they look beyond all that and they have a tremendous sense of optimism and determination," he said.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, children's education, especially for girls, has largely improved, he said.
"One of the things that frustrates us is that all the news that has ever been published on Afghanistan is bad news, and nobody tells us good news. In spite of everything, we've seen a huge improvement in education."
According to UNICEF's 2011 statistics, 2.4 million of Afghanistan's 7.3 million primary and secondary school students are female. Prior to the Taliban's 2001 ouster, there were none.
In 2009, the Japanese government offered about ¥2.2 billion to the Project for Construction of Educational Facilities in Kabul, which aims to build 1,000 classrooms in the capital in cooperation with UNICEF. Japan also announced in January that ¥1.9 billion will be provided to build schools in rural areas of Afghanistan.
"It's important to give the international community trust in the fact that investing in the development of Afghanistan is worthwhile and does bring results," he said. "And giving education to young women has an impact on all areas of life."