The Grade 5/6 class at Eckville Elementary had a message for Afghanistan’s students after learning of the state of education in their country – “We want to help.”
Azalea Lehndorff delivered it for them Tuesday at a ceremony to mark the grand opening of 16 classrooms at Arabkhana and Maulana Aznab Sheberghani high schools in Sheberghan, Afghanistan.
Lehndorff was invited by Eckville Elementary in February to make a presentation about the 100 Classrooms in Afghanistan project, which she launched in 2009 with the help of A Better World, the Lacombe-based international development organization.
At the end of the presentation, Lehndorff suggested that if the students wanted to send something to their counterparts in Afghanistan, she would be happy to take it to them.
In May, the Grade 5/6 class presented Lehndorff with a scrapbook bursting with letters, photographs of family and favourite sports, friendship bracelets, stickers and other knick knacks, as well as $2,000 for the project.
Lehndorff took a moment to read one of the letters at the ceremony after presenting the scrapbook to Sabiri Nargiss, a Grade 6 student at Arabkhana High School.
Nargiss was the student who placed the foundation stone at a groundbreaking ceremony for the classrooms in February.
“Me and my classmates have heard about your problems and we want to help,” said Lehndorff, reading from a letter by Karissa, a Grade 6 student who enjoys hockey, soccer and ringette.
“Things are very different between me and you. But that does not mean we can’t be alike in some ways.”
Later, Arabkhana students gathered around Lehndorff as she played for them a DVD the Grade 5/6 class had included in the scrapbook.
Lehndorff said the Afghan students’ reaction was the same as that of the students in Eckville: curiosity and connection.
“The students were crowding around and really wanted to see what I was going to show,” she said.
Songs and silver confetti welcomed Lehndorff and Eric Rajah, co-founder of A Better World, to Arabkhana High School, host of Tuesday’s ceremony.
Inside the school’s gate, more than 300 students, teachers and local dignitaries seated under a large tent gave them a standing ovation as the pair made their way to their seats – couches hauled over from the principal’s office for the occasion.
More than 3,000 students attend Arabkhana in two shifts.
Rajah said he was impressed by how the community and the students got involved in the ceremony.
Some of them even read short passages in English.
“The building, of course, was exceptional,” he said.
“This was better than what I expected.”
Lehndorff said it was emotional to see Arabkhana’s new classrooms, the first to be completed by the 100 Classrooms in Afghanistan project. The project cost $73,500.
Four classrooms are still under construction at Maulana Aznab Sheberghani High School. Rajah and Lehndorff were planning to visit those on Wednesday.
“It’s seeming like the community is rallying together for this,” said Lehndorff.
After the ceremony, Rajah and Lehndorff briefly toured some of the 12 new classrooms at Arabkhana and mingled with the students and teachers eager to practise their English.
The event concluded with a private lunch of Afghan kebabs, nan bread and rice with Sayir Fayzallah, principal of Arabkhana High School.
Fayzallah said his students and teachers suffered greatly while holding classes in makeshift tents or under the blazing sun.
He had almost given up hope of building new classrooms after several development organizations ignored his pleas for help.
The shortage of classrooms and proper furnishings had become so bad that some students had requested transfers to other schools that offered a more comfortable learning environment.
With the new classrooms now in place, Fayzallah expects Arabkhana will be the one receiving the transfer requests.
“Today is a great day for the students and teachers,” Fayzallah said.
A generator to power Arabkhana’s water pump, desks, a library and a science lab are the school’s most urgent needs now, he added.
Lehndorff told the crowd that she hoped to bring a message from Arabkhana students back home with her for Eckville Elementary.
A short time later, a Grade 10 student from Arabkhana approached Lehndorff to thank Karissa and the rest of the students at Eckville Elementary for all they had done on behalf of the students and the school.
Fayzallah also provided Lehndorff with some letters, which will be translated in English before she returns to Canada.
“I think the message was sent back,” said Lehndorff with a smile.