by Jacqui Jill Rito
Pax Christi Long Island

Ed. Note: Ms. Rito helped facilitate conversations between her students and young Afghans several years ago.

As dedicated teachers know, learning is lifelong and not particular to students seated in a classroom. Strategies like Project-Based Learning, Service-Learning, and Experiential Education bring realities to students that influence more than statistical reception of knowledge. Relating on a human level across cultures, languages, and distances make the foreign, less so, as relationship replaces reticence.

Images over the years and now coming from Afghanistan, of youth, children, women, families distraught and frightened feel particularly difficult for those of us who have embraced experience over about a decade, listening and learning with others who once were strangers almost seven thousand miles away.

To best describe this process, we can look to those who have participated and gained an almost unexpected perspective in arriving at their chosen paths of moral and service-oriented leadership. A student who has traveled across the U.S. as well as Brazil, Colombia, and Nova Scotia in recent years said,

“I do remember the call we did with Afghans. I remember the meeting of peers there, talking with them about day-to-day life and talking about it afterwards with my family. I know my dad was impacted and still brings it up on occasion. I remember leaving the call and feeling like youth from both countries seemed to be under the impression at first that we would be very different and have few shared experiences, but we felt kind of the same in the end with many similar experiences…kids who want to have fun and have dreams for the future.”

Another student, an artist, advocate for women’s rights, who’s also involved in environmental issues campaigns said,

“I was talking with my friends about the U.S. withdrawal and I was taken aback for a moment, remembering how long ago it was that we were doing this work with you in high school. At the time, I didn’t’ fully understand the geopolitical situation, but I remember how powerful it was to get on calls with folks in Afghanistan to listen to their perspective on the damaging impact the U.S. was having on their homes and families. The fact that they would go through the hassle of connecting with us at odd hours of the day, risking, to update us on the latest news, drone strikes, and their realities, truly opened my eyes to how violent occupation is…and was. While there is a lot of conversation about concern for the status of women and children post-U.S. withdrawal, I think much of this narrative is being used to seem as though a mistake is being made. Based on my relatively small understanding of the U.S. military-industrial complex, conversations we had with Afghan residents, and U.S. history, U.S. intervention was clearly never the answer.”

Finally, another student with a Biochemistry degree, enrolled in Pre-Med studies answered,

“As a young adult, you’ve taught me good principles through my involvement, and to this day, I live by them. As an American with cultural roots abroad, I feel the pain of the Afghan people as their country has been destabilized over the decades. As extremists take power over the people and chaos has ensued, I pray for the people to find the courage to take their country back, however that appears unlikely. For the time being, I believe the best we can do is remain informed, while donating to proper channels to help aid those attempting to flee or those who are refugees within their own land after losing their homes. I also believe airlines that are making efforts to help aid in the mass exodus of the population should be endorsed and supported whenever possible. These are just my thoughts…”

From youth without pre-conceived ideas but with open minds and hearts, the simple acts of listening and learning slow the spin of media bent on profit margins, ratings and bring humanity to a relational level. Within these experiences, understanding, finding truth, and empathy evolve. As we open our minds and hearts, something magical occurs without warning. To paraphrase Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

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