Local woman brings word from Afghanistan

FERRISBURGH — When people asked about her health last week, Ferrisburgh resident Mary Kerr told them she had “Kabul cough.”
The condition, she explained, results from a mixture of air pollution from cars and truck exhaust and dust kicked up in the dry areas in the Afghan capital. Kerr just returned from seven weeks teaching at a special boarding school for girls there.
Kerr will present a slideshow and give a talk on her experience in Afghanistan this Wednesday, June 25, at the Ilsley Public Library’s Community Room from 5-6:30 p.m.
Kerr taught at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan — known as SOLA — from April to June. SOLA was founded in 2008 by Ted Achilles, an American, and Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a native of Kabul who attended Middlebury College, as a safe place to teach Afghan girls. When SOLA was founded in 2008, there were four students. The school has since grown to include 32 students.
Girls age 12 to 19, nominated for their exceptional academic ability, board at SOLA. In some ways it is a traditional school with science and other classes, but the environment at SOLA stresses leadership and empowerment, and emphasizes speaking, reading and writing English.
The goal at SOLA is to place students in international high schools and colleges, so they can return to Afghanistan and take positions of leadership in their native country.
Kerr, 81, went to Afghanistan to volunteer as an English teacher at SOLA and to found the SOLA Sun, an English-language student newspaper that is probably the first of its kind in the country.
Kerr arrived in Kabul on the heels of a contested national election. As a result, she reports, there was a sense of tension in the city.
Kerr remembers Afghanistan from Addison Independent on Vimeo.
One day Kerr went to meet Nancy Hatch Dupree, the “grandmother of Afghanistan” who, along with her husband, renowned archaeologist Louis Dupree, traveled the country in a Land Rover compiling guidebooks and discovering evidence of prehistoric settlements.
“Nancy said there’s only one place to go for lunch in Kabul — Chicken Street!”
Chicken Street is a market district in the foreign sector of the city. Kerr’s photographs of the place show vibrant storefronts with oriental rugs and exotic foods. However, because the area is highly public, Kerr’s guards at SOLA warned her that it could be dangerous for an American.
“I was told not to go,” Kerr recounted. “They said, if anything happens to you, you’re on your own. And I was fine.”
The apparent intersection of beauty and danger in Kabul reflects a centuries-old Western attitude about “The East,” Kerr said. It’s an attitude she hopes to dispel.
Kerr’s interest in Afghanistan dates back to an undergraduate journalism thesis she wrote at Northwestern University in the 1950s. She previously traveled to Afghanistan in 2006, and to Syria in 2010.
“Afghanistan gets a bad rap in the Western media,” Kerr says. She mentions the slew of recent shootings in the United States to make a comparison to Afghanistan.
“We’re calling Afghanistan a violent country. At least with the Taliban, you know where it’s coming from,” she said.
For Kerr, the situation in Afghanistan looks hopeful. She said 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population is 25 years old or younger. Primary school enrollment is up from only 800,000 in 2002, mainly boys, to 8 million today, more than a third girls, she says.
SOLA has placed students at top-tier colleges in the United States including Tufts, Middlebury, Yale and Columbia Law School. Kerr said the parents of those girls are supportive. One mother told her daughter, “You’re going to be able to do what I couldn’t,” according to Kerr.
Despite the positive changes Kerr has noticed, the Taliban is a very real danger, even in Kabul. The exact location of SOLA is undisclosed, and Kerr is unable to give away photos of the students.
“Some of the girls are under death threats,” Kerr says.
Kerr herself wore a tunic, a scarf and, often, dark glasses any time she was in public. The newspaper she helped start, the SOLA Sun, is restricted to circulation within the school because it contains photographs and names of students.
“People don’t even know where SOLA is,” Kerr explains, “because SOLA represents everything the Taliban is against.” But, she continues, the threat of the Taliban should not unduly influence our perception of what she sees as a fundamentally stable society.
“My friends at humanitarian organizations in Kabul really don’t think the Taliban threat is as bad as everyone thinks.”
She smiles, pointing to a picture of the garden in SOLA’s courtyard. Behind the flowers rises a 12-foot concrete wall.
“In my writing as a journalist, I’ve always looked for warts … but when it comes to Afghanistan, I came away with roses.”
Mary Kerr will give a slideshow and a talk on her experience in Kabul this Wednesday, at the Ilsley Public Library from 5-6:30 p.m. She will also teach a series of classes on humanitarian organizations and adventure travel for Elderly Services Inc. in November.

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