Dec 13, 2013
Afghan Student Has Westover Classmates Skype With Kabul; Somalia Next
Farahnaz Afaq (upper right) instructs a group of Westover School students,faculty, and family members in making kites, a favorite Afghan pastime.
If anyone is looking for a different kind of evidence highlighting the need for far greater outreach, understanding, respect and tolerance among global peoples and cultures—and inspiration for how to proceed—it can be found at the all-girls Westover School in Middlebury.
The private preparatory school is in many ways a crucible of cultural interchange, as it hosts a very diverse international community of students.
Nonetheless, these students remain in the world-view learning phase. And given that Westover’s students typically go on to Dartmouth, Brown, Smith, Tufts, Columbia and other top-tier colleges and universities, it seems safe to think that their counterparts at other private schools across the nation—and certainly at public schools—embody the same status.
What sets Westover apart in this arena are recent efforts involving an extra-curricular initiative to engender a more realistic and more constructive world view via some real-time connectivity among cultures that adheres to a fundamental educational principle: show don’t tell.
As a result, in learning about their counterparts in Kabul, Afghanistan, Westover students didn’t hear a lesson, or read a contemporary account. Instead, they connected face-to-face via Skype to hash out their similarities, differences and common bonds. (Above, Farahnaz Afaq, left, with Kate Taylor.)
The educator at the heart of the initiative—she’s actually a student, Farahnaz Afaq, a Westover senior and the school’s first student from Afghanistan, who graciously interrupted her lunch last week to talk about the new outward-focused efforts.
For about 30 minutes Nov. 8, according to a Westover release, Farahnaz and Kate Taylor, Westover’s Interim Director of Global Programs, were joined by more than 15 other students and three faculty members for the Skype session with 20 students from the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Farahnaz came to Westover this fall after spending two years at a British school, and previously had been a student at SOLA, which was founded by American educator Ted Achilles as a boarding school to provide Afghan girls with greater opportunities for education, Westover says.
The Skype exchange was one of the “awesome” ideas that Taylor credits Farahnaz with having in terms of working to create activities for fellow students that are both fun and educational.
Working with Taylor, Westover says, Farahnaz has also established a new club at the school, the International Student Alliance, “as a way of supporting all of Westover’s international students and offering another venue for them to share and learn about the students’ diverse cultures, experiences, and backgrounds.”
At the school’s C.O.L.O.R.E.S. Festival, an annual fall cultural fair that features food, performances and other activities organized by Westover’s student clubs, the International Student Alliance club offered visitors to their table henna tattoos and recreated aspects of the Hindu Holi Festival of Colors, which includes participants tossing brightly colored powders into the air—and over each other.
“She’s trying for both breadth and depth, covering a number of cultures in an authentic way,” Taylor says, and those attributes will be expanded upon in January, when it’s hoped that a second Skype exchange will take place, this time with students in war-torn Somalia.
“I would really like to learn more about Somalia,” Farahnaz says over lunch, and if the dialogue between Westover and Kabul is any indication, a lot of valuable learning will take place, and a lot of misperceptions will be righted.
Farahnaz and Taylor were surprised that the Westover students had so many misperceptions about Afghanistan, a country that has been the subject of intense focus since the U.S. military action began there in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks. .
Afghans are friendly, hospitable and love having guests and sharing ideas, Farahnaz says, and the country is beautiful.
At the same time, it’s true that under the Taliban regime all the schools were destroyed, and that the students who then walked to the homes of teachers to pursue their studies did so at great peril.
“If the Taliban found them, they would have killed them all,” says Farahnaz, whose family had gone into exile during the Russian intervention in Afghanistan and returned after the U.S. forces arrived.
“It was really a shock to me to see Afghanistan in a totally different way,” through the perspective of the Westover students, Farahnaz says, underscoring the often-heard truism that American students, and residents of the U.S. in general, have little idea “how lucky they are.”
“The Westover students were asking them what they did for fun, what kind of sports they played, things like that,” the school’s release on the Skype session quotes Farahnaz as saying. “I think they found out how lucky they are. They heard stories from the Afghan students that showed that in Afghanistan they had to be more serious about life and about what they had to go through to get a better education. Westover students don’t have to think so much about security, about food, about how they are going to get the supplies they need at school. They learned that for some of the girls to get an education there it is a matter of life or death.”
Westover junior Dhalia Tejada, one of the students at the Skype session, said the exchange reminded her of how privileged girls in America are to have access to satisfactory schooling, according to the school. During the session, Dhalia said, the SOLA students encouraged their Westover counterparts “not to think of their culture as a culture of terrorism. They also wanted to tell us how beautiful Afghanistan was, and that it is not just a war zone as the media portrays it to be.”
Farahnaz may be the force behind Westover’s new outreach, but she has also experienced her own perception shifts. For example, “I didn’t know Russian people could be nice,” she says—until she personally encountered evidence of how misguided were the broad-brush portrayals in the media and commonly-held beliefs.
Westover says that in addition to the continuing Skype sessions, and possible school trips to attend culture fairs around the area, there will also be a Chapel Talk about Islam given by Farahnaz, who is entering the college application process, with Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Bates on her list.
Asked about her plans, Farahnaz says that since childhood she has planned to become a doctor—but that lately those plans have been called into question by her more global, focus-altering experiences.
Now, she says, “I would like to save a country,” which would mean returning to Afghanistan after college in a role that would allow her to effect positive and meaningful change.
Also as part of her efforts, on Nov. 9, Farahnaz shared aspects of Afghan culture with the Westover community, offering a kite-making workshop with students, faculty members, and their children, the school says. As part of the workshop, she decorated the Common Room with pillows and sheets on the floor in the Afghan style, had Afghan music, wore traditional Afghan clothing, and gave a slide show of her country. There was also authentic Afghan foods from a Hartford area restaurant and later they screened the film, "The Kite Runner", about life in Afghanistan before and during the Russian occupation on the 1980s.
The film is based on a 2003 novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, and tells the story of a boy from Kabul, Amir, whose closest friend is his father’s young servant, Hassan.
The Westover students, Farahnaz says, didn’t know about the kite-making culture in Afghanistan.
But now they do, and next they will get a closer-to-the-truth view of Somalia and, hopefully, of more and more countries and cultures around the world, and these future leaders will go forward armed not with misperceptions but with the ammunition to build a greater good by advocating for a one-world, one-seamless-quilt approach to life—thanks in large part to Farahnaz Afaq.
Westover is a selective boarding and day school with 205 students in grades 9-12 from 17 states and 20 countries. The school offers its students more than 20 Advanced Placement courses as well as signature programs in science, engineering, art history, and music. To learn more, see the Westover website.