Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.
Twenty students sat in a media room at Bethpage High School last Wednesday, with all the trappings of modern communications. That was the American end of the conversation. Across the ocean, a small group of young Afghans huddled by candlelight around a cellphone.
It wasn't easy, because of the technological imbalance, the language barrier, and the starkly different realities the two sets of young people face. At the high school, the students are part of 21st Century Scholars, a program that nudges them toward enriching extracurricular projects. Their daily reality is education and social life. In Bamiyan Province, for the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, the daily reality is war.
The long-distance discussion was part of Global Days of Listening, which allows the Afghans to reach people around the world. (You can join in. Check out future conversations at globaldaysoflistening.org.)
An Italian teacher at Bethpage High School, Jacqueline Jill-Rito, who's also an adviser to the school's Student Civic Association, set up the conversation at this end, as she'd done before at the school.
Last week, the Bethpage students asked basic questions. "If you could change one thing about where you live," Julia Musetich asked, "what would it be?" What followed was the sound of the question being translated for the Afghans, then the answer returning scratchily over the miles. The translator is a medical doctor from Singapore, Wee Teck Young, who arrived in Afghanistan a decade ago to help refugees. He's now known simply as Hakim. As he translated, the answer to Julia's question was: "Change for the people of Afghanistan now means bringing them together," reflecting that nation's tribalism and division.
Another student, Jacklyn Grigorian, asked: "I was wondering if you guys live in a war zone." The Afghans' answer, through Hakim: "If you consider Afghanistan as a zone, then the answer is yes, we are living in a war zone."
Not only are they wrapped in war, but the Afghan intelligence service is hostile to the young volunteers and Hakim, said Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who moderated the call from Chicago. Voices has sent delegations to Iraq and Afghanistan, and she has spent weeks with Hakim and the Afghans in Bamiyan Province.
"They have threatened him and the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers," Kelly said, after the conversation. "There's not a lot of tolerance in that society for people speaking up at all."
Yet Hakim persists in helping the Afghans communicate what it's like to live in a war zone -- and talk about their aspirations for a time when the killing stops. "I think he's a saint," Kelly said. "He's like a Gandhi figure."
Despite the communication problems, the conversations work. "Even if you can't always understand, it does give something of a humanized reality," Kelly said. "We don't often think about teenagers who are feeling trapped." Jill-Rito said: "Kids today, their reality is what surrounds them, and they don't have much of a vision of other places and cultures. It does broaden their horizons on a personal level."
Her own reaction to an earlier conversation was emotional. "The question came out, 'What can we do so that you Americans can stop hating us?' " Jill-Rito said. "That blew me away. That one question really hit home to me: 'How can we facilitate your liking us more?' "
A collaborator with Jill-Rito in trying to get people to join the conversations, Susan Perretti of Setauket, joined last week's call from home. And she recalled her reaction the first time, months ago. "I started to cry," she said. "I heard this young, passionate voice saying, 'Susan, do not give up. We will not give up.' I've been calling every month since."