Afghan schools to get tools

Donations: A fifth-grader's idea of sending pencils, paper and other items to needy students has become a reality.

May 01, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Being turned away by UNICEF and the Embassy of Afghanistan wasn't enough to stop a determined group of fifth-graders at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City. They were on a mission, and their goal - getting school supplies to needy Afghan students - led them right to the top: the family of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim prime minister.

It all started after Ginette Serrero showed her daughter, Sarah Hayashi, a Jan. 30 Sun article about kids in Afghanistan not having, in many cases, pencils or paper to take with them to the schools, which had finally reopened to female students after the Taliban's collapse.

"Here are these kids who wanted to learn and they have no way of doing it," Serrero said. "In America, as in most countries, it's a given. No one would think that you could not have access to learning just because you don't have access to a pencil and paper."

They decided to take action. Sarah, 10, went to her principal, Robert Bruce, to ask if she could put together a supply-raising drive. But he said to wait until they had a way to send the goods.

"I've had experiences where the things have just sat there in my office," Bruce said. "It's one of the most frustrating aspects of these sorts of efforts."

Sarah was undeterred. Her mom started with a letter-writing campaign. She contacted the Afghanistan Embassy, but it said it couldn't help. She got in touch with UNICEF, which has its own supply-providing project, but it wanted money, not supplies.

"I can understand their point of view, it's easier for them," says Serrero, "but money doesn't have the same meaning for the kids. Giving supplies is much more tangible for the children."

Besides, Sarah said, as elementary school pupils, they didn't really have a way to get money.

A month of ideas went by, and then Serrero found an answer to the dilemma. She talked with the Sun reporter who'd written the Jan. 30 article and discovered that Pat and Qayum Karzai, Hamid Karzai's sister-in-law and brother, live in Glenwood in western Howard County.

Serrero and Sarah sent Pat Karzai a note.

"I got an e-mail from Sarah on a Thursday," Karzai said, "and the very next Sunday I got a call from my husband [who is in Afghanistan helping his brother] saying a provincial governor was pleading for school supplies."

This was right up Pat Karzai's alley. She and her husband had established a nonprofit group in 1998 called Afghans for Civil Society (www.afghansforcivil society.org), and one of their main purposes was to set up a city-to-city relationship between Baltimore and an Afghan city.

Tarin Kot, located in the governor's province in south-central Afghanistan, would do just fine, and Sarah's plan was a great way to get going.

Pat Karzai signed on and started looking for ways to move the school supplies from Howard County to Tarin Kot.

After the United Nations said it couldn't help, she got a Pentagon official to commit space on a military plane leaving Andrews Air Force Base and heading to Kabul.

"That's it! We've got it!" Serrero said and called Bruce.

By now, Sarah had called on friends to help her with the drive. After a few defections, arguments and some bitter feelings about having to miss recess to do the project, a group of nine emerged as the crew that would see it to the end.

They put together a schoolwide poster campaign, with slogans emphasizing how lucky they were compared to Afghan students, and asked their parents and the community for donations. The first donation was a half-used crayon from a well-meaning kindergartner.

"The first week was very slow; I was counting things one by one" said Serrero, who stored the supplies in her garage. "But by the second week, supplies were coming in big, huge waves."

But it was late March and they didn't quite come fast enough. School started in Afghanistan on March 23, and the plane was taking off. Time was running out.

Serrero hit up her co-workers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (she's a scientist and professor there, as is her husband, Jun Hayashi) for financial help, and Pat Karzai went to an office supply store. She spent about $800 there, fleshing out the supplies the kids had already gathered. The store agreed to give her a 20 percent discount.

Eight boxes of supplies went out in that first shipment. They were flown from Andrews Air Force Base to Germany, and then on to Kabul. From there, Qayum Karzai enlisted the help of a U.S. ambassador, who got the goods on a military plane bound for Kandahar. Then, British forces ferried the goods to Tarin Kot via helicopter.

The second shipment, which the Central Maryland Red Cross has agreed to transport with its Afghanistan school supply shipment, will be delivered in the next few weeks. Pat Karzai is meeting with the Red Cross tomorrow to discuss it. So far there are five more boxes of goods: pencils, crayons, paper, pens, markers, pencil sharpeners and the like - things that every school should have.

"This shows them that people care," Sarah said, "and not just people in their own country, but people from other countries, too. We're just kids helping other kids."

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