- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

A 12-year-old Bethesda girl who read about the hardships faced by children in Afghanistan is raising money to help buy them toys and school supplies.

Lindsay Aronson says she read a book last summer about an Afghan girl forced to dress as a boy and work as the breadwinner for her family. The story, she says, inspired her "to find a way to help the children of Afghanistan."

Lindsay gave a presentation before classmates at her private junior high school after Christmas break and has since raised about $300, says her mother, Roberta Aronson. The money will buy 30 bags filled with toys and school supplies that will be delivered to poverty-stricken Afghan children in the coming months.

The D.C.-based Academy for Educational Development (AED) is assembling and delivering the bags, called BluePacks, to Afghan children as part of its larger effort to rebuild the war-torn country an effort that some say will require as much as $15 billion over the next 10 years.

AED launched its BluePack Project in March, sending 40,000 backpacks filled with basic education supplies and a few toys to Afghan children in refugee camps along the Pakistani border. The 42-year-old nonprofit organization is pushing to get BluePacks to 200,000 more Afghan children by this coming March.

"What we see today is this very destroyed country, and the children are suffering as a result of it," AED President Stephen F. Moseley says in an interview in his Northwest office. "Afghanistan is really having to rebuild everything. The BluePack Project is, in a way, an immediate, partly symbolic but tangible way to help kids engage with learning in that country."

"It's a remarkable change that has to come about. This is a little piece of it, but it's a piece," Mr. Moseley says.

The BluePack Project represents part of a larger effort by AED to help rebuild Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by armed conflict since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. After the Soviets were forced to withdraw by anti-communist Mujahideen forces in 1989, fighting continued among various factions, leading to a warlord state in which the Taliban rose to power in the early 1990s.

Afghanistan continued to decline under the Taliban until the regime was toppled after the September 11 terrorist attacks by U.S. and allied military support of the Northern Alliance. Today, with much of its population displaced, Afghanistan is plagued by "enormous poverty, a crumbling infrastructure and widespread land mines," according to the CIA's World FactBook.

"You have buildings blown to smithereens, road systems not working, water and sanitation systems collapsed," Mr. Moseley says. "This is the extreme of deprivation, back down to the most basic needs for a country's redevelopment."

AED, which operates with 1,200 employees on a $180 million budget, is active in all 50 U.S. states and 180 countries. It has run an office in Quetta, Pakistan, near the Afghan border, for 15 years. When the Northern Alliance was toppled and Afghanistan was opened to the outside, AED wanted to get to work.

"Our first thought was, 'How are we going to serve this massive number of kids in really deprived situations? What can we do that's practical, usable, helpful and fairly immediate?'" Mr. Moseley says.

"Too often these things take a long time to grow, but we thought we could do something quickly, using our Pakistan-based staff," he says.

AED came up with the BluePack Project, which is partially funded by the Bush administration's American Fund for Afghan Children but also is dependent on contributions from grass-roots fund raising. A $10 contribution purchases one BluePack, which is stocked with pencils, pencil sharpeners, erasers, rulers, writing tablets, chalk and chalkboards, as well as soap, brushes, combs, jump-ropes and balls.

A portion of each $10 contribution also will go to teacher training, which is another significant need.

Lindsay will soon make another presentation, before her synagogue in the District, Temple Micah, to ask for contributions.

"I think that's going to be a pretty big source of support," Mrs. Aronson says.

Eighth-graders at the Nativity Catholic School in Burke also recently raised about $600 for the BluePack Project.

Mr. Moseley says increasing numbers of American high school and elementary school students have become involved in raising money for the BluePack Project, and AED has designed fund-raising materials to give to students.

"We're hoping that more and more schools will organize to help their kids raise money," Mr. Moseley says.

AED is trying to raise $2 million for the 200,000 BluePacks and as of early this month still needed $1.2 million.

AED will distribute the BluePacks to children in villages and towns up to 20 miles outside of Afghanistan's major cities, with a focus on the capital, Kabul. The packs are being assembled at a warehouse in Kabul by war widows, who are being paid wages by AED, and given to Afghan children aged 5 to 9.

"The hunger for education in a country like this, where people have been prevented from education, is incredible," Mr. Moseley says. "The government in Afghanistan has made education a high priority. They need a lot of help. What's important now is to keep building on that capacity and commitment.

"We've got to make sure that the international aid is strong enough and there are enough resources to reach Afghanistan soon, rebuild those schools, pay the teachers, get the schools up and running and meet all the kids' needs," he says.

AED also is working on developing curriculum for Afghan schools, planning a new university for secondary teacher training in Afghanistan and consulting other international agencies on a variety of long-term investments to rebuild the Afghan school system.

AED can be reached at 202/884-8000, or on the Web at www.aed.org or www.bluepack.org.

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