Calling Afghanistan: L.A. Schoolkids Try to Bridge a Gulf
Teenagers spend a lot of time talking on the phone. But not too many of them get to call their peers in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. A handful of teens from Windward School, a charter school in West L.A., recently became the first to do so.
Jim Hake The linkup at Windward School
The nonprofit group Spirit of America, which works with American military service personnel to provide basic supplies to people in combat zones, patched the phone call through in the school library. It was a video conference call, so the kids could see each other. Two monitors (one in each country), some military satellites and a Skype connection were involved.
Naturally, the West L.A. kids fretted over what to discuss with the Helmand Province kids in southwestern Afghanistan, an area populated by Pashtuns under Taliban control. Their respective lifestyles are so different that there was certainly plenty to wonder about, if not ask aloud.
Sophomore Grant Klein, 16, decided he would not ask about the Afghan boys' nights out. Afghan students have no nights out: Curfew begins at nightfall. Afghan teen dating life also leaves something to be desired. "They're conservative," Klein explained. Questions about girlfriends are out of the question.
Also not up for discussion: suicide bombs, Osama bin Laden and the luxuries of West L.A. life. Think we've got classroom overcrowding? Class size in Helmand is as many kids as you can jam into a room. It's all ages, too. A 17-year-old in first grade might sit next to an 8- or 9-year-old girl who has brought in the infant sibling she's baby-sitting. When they're not in school, boys work in the fields, or in their parents' small shops doing motorcycle repair or selling dry goods. Girls -- who make up 20,000 of 120,000 total students in the province -- support the household, taking care of livestock.
"They don't domesticate animals," Major Nina D'Amato said. "So don't ask about pets."
Joining the kids in L.A. was Major General Richard Mills, who had just returned from Helmand Province, his face reddened by sun, medal bars thick as armor on his chest. "You are all combat multipliers," he told the students. "You are all game-changers. Look at the world. It seems crazy out there. It gets more complex all the time. And Afghanistan is about as complex as it gets. But the little things are the things that make the biggest difference."