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Published: 4/23/2000

Afghan students find friends in Northville

NORTHVILLE, Mich. - Today, with the Cold War history and no shooting war on the horizon, Americans - including highly educated adults - are, as noted before, all too often scandalously ignorant about even the most important foreign issues.

Not to mention Afghanistan, a backwards, impoverished Asian country which has never seemed very important to the United States, except for a few years when superpower tensions flared during the Soviet invasion two decades ago.

Yet something fairly amazing is happening at Meads Mill Middle School in Northville, a well-to-do western Detroit suburb 50 miles north of Toledo. Afghanistan is extremely relevant there - and Meads Mill may be even more relevant to Afghanistan.

The 700 students at Meads Mill have raised - through cookie sales and can drives and the usual methods - $10,000 to build an elementary school in an impoverished rural district 100 miles west of Kabul, the Texas-sized nation's capital.

Last week, beaming with pride, a shy collection of 13 and 14-year-olds made (with a little help from their teacher) a Power Point presentation showing Afghan laborers, some using primitive tools, carrying mortar and bricks and putting up walls. Meads Mill students are hopeful the first Afghan students will begin attending classes later this year.

"This is really exciting," said the student leader of the project, 14-year-old Carlin Peterson. When asked why she cared so much about building a school in Afghanistan, she and her friend Emily Harpe conferred. "We sometimes become so wrapped up in our own busy lives, trying to keep up with the times and technology, that we don't realize others are far less fortunate than we," the girls said.

All this can be traced, in fact, to a really special teacher, Khris Nedam, who knew when she was in middle school 20 years ago "that I wanted to go someplace where they really needed teachers."

That someplace turned out to be Afghanistan, where she lived until the early 1990s, when, with the militantly fundamentalist Taliban on the rise, life was no longer safe for Americans. She left, but not alone; she married Rajab Nedam, an Afghan physician.

Ironically, the Nedams escaped the Afghan tragedy only to face their own personal horror in the United States, where they both expected life to be much easier. Just days before he planned to take his medical boards, Dr. Nedam was hit by a truck.

Today, after a long period in a coma, he is living in a group home, with little prospect of ever becoming fully functional again. Khris was left to teach and raise their two daughters. Three years ago Serajudine Wardak, a diplomat at the Afghan embassy, came to town, and Mrs. Nedam asked him to speak at the school.

He talked about how hard the lives of most Afghan children were, "and we wanted to do something," Carlin said. They decided the most fitting way would be to build a school, and to do it in Mr. Wardak's home town.

Meads Mill was hoping the school would be in business by now - but the project was hit by another typical Afghan setback: earthquake. An earthquake early last year destroyed the walls that had been constructed, and also drastically increased the price of materials. Now, the new fund-raising goal is $18,000.

Mr. Wardak, the 41-year-old Afghani diplomat, has gotten so involved in the project that he took a leave from his job at the embassy to go supervise construction of the school.

Meads Mill students agreed the school, or madresa, should be named after his father, Jamaludine Wardak, who was killed in the Russian bombing early in the war.

Whether any of the Michigan students will ever visit their school is unclear.

But it is clear that none of them will ever forget that there is a wider world out there. "In today's fast-paced economic world, more and more people are beginning to feel (more) at home with business than their fellow human beings," the girls told a rapt school board last week. "It is easy to lose track of what matters most."

There may be, on this Easter Sunday, hope yet.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.



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