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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Group builds schools to educate Afghan girls

Solace International, a nonprofit organization, is building schools for girls and developing small businesses for women in Afghanistan.

This is important because it is the first time females in Afghanistan have had these opportunities.

“Now there has been a lot of change, people are willing to educate their children so there won’t be as much resistance,” said Abdul Qayum-Mohmand, an adviser for the Muslim Student Association who used to live in Afghanistan.

Solace International’s Executive Director Nate York will be at the U Thursday to promote his organization in a 9:30 a.m. presentation at the Hinckley Institute of Politics in Orson Spencer Hall Room 255 and to take part in a reception and boutique sale from 1 to 5 p.m.

York began Solace in the fall of 2002 after he visited northern Afghanistan and became frustrated with the bureaucratic organizations that were dragging through the rebuilding process.

“It’s actually very easy to get things done with the necessary funds,” said Marcus Stanfill, administrative director of the project.

The fund-raising process began with donations from Alaskan businesses and television stations. In that first push, Solace International made $25,000, which is just enough to build the first school.

“They went over to Afghanistan in 2003 and finished two schools by May,” Stanfill said. “They also realized carpets and fabrics from Afghanistan were a hot item, so we started using that as a fundraising tool.”

Solace members give Afghan women balls of wool to make rugs that are then brought back and sold in boutiques across the country, like the one at the U tomorrow.

“[The women] are paid fair-market value, which elevates their position, empowers them and makes them breadwinners-all of which is unusual,” said Jerry Dixon, the Girls School Project Utah organizer and U alumnae.

That process generates a portion of the funds necessary to build the schools for Afghan girls and develop small businesses for women.

Solace International has built six $25,000 schools, each of which educates between 400 and 500 children.

Dixon compared those numbers to those of a new middle school being built in his hometown of Seward, Alaska, where he said it cost $12 million to build a school for 120 kids.

The six Afghan schools, meanwhile, are educating about 3,000 girls and the organization is in the process of building six more, Dixon said.

After the schools are built, members of Solace help hire the first teachers from the area and provide backpacks, pencils and notebooks for the students.

The schools’ curriculums are administered by Tajiks, who govern the northern Afghanistan region.

Mohmand said the project will be better received if the locals are in charge of what is taught at the schools, rather than the U.S. Government.

“The effect depends on the agenda,” he said. “If it’s purely educational, it won’t interfere with cultural and religious values, but if the purpose is to proselytize or convince the people that Western values are better, then it will be a problem. Values and religion bring conflict, so it depends on the curriculum.” Mohmand said after talking to Dixon, he found the aim of the project was humanitarian. “I told them that if there is no political agenda in the project, ‘I’ll help you.'”

The women of Afghanistan who were oppressed and denied education by the Taliban regime that was in power before the United States Military push removed them, are generally not benefiting from this program.

“It’s primarily for girls right now,” Stanfill said. “Sometimes if there’s no school at all, we’ll build one for boys and for girls, but women, that’s a touchy subject. We’re hoping things they learn from the weaving operative will lead toward literacy.”

The project is a long-term focus that has potential for expansion. “They’re not only going to keep building schools in Afghanistan,” Dixon said. “They’re also going to start building schools in Africa.” In the end, the important factor in these underdeveloped areas is the level of learning taking place.

“Education in general will change society, not necessarily this project,” Mohmand said.

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