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School's in Session at the Castle

Cpl. Jennifer Calaway, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade

A village elder ensures discipline in the pronunciation of the Pashtu alphabet at the Khan Neshin School in the Rig District, Nov. 2, 2009. The school currently facilitates 120 students grades one through three. Cpl. Jennifer Calaway

RIG DISTRICT, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan 11.19.2009

First grade student Yaar Gul bats a fly from his eye lash with one hand as the other follows along in his school book. He repeats after his instructor again and again, "Nomads live under the tent. Nomads have a tent. Nomads sleep in the tent."

Though Yaar may be too young to realize it now, he's on his way to becoming the first in a long line of farmers to receive any formal education.

The school began accepting students like Yaar at its location near the Khan Neshin castle in Rig District when Marines from 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan secured the area upon their arrival in July.

"Some of these kids travel for up to three kilometers to come to class here," said Jason Ariz, a cultural advisor and interpreter working with Marines and soldiers protecting the village. "Going to school hasn't been an option around here for at least five years."

Though concerns about the Taliban still linger and there are rumors they have threatened the lives of those who cooperate with the Americans, parents greatly value the opportunity for education and willingly send their children on the trek through the fields to the schoolhouse.

"This is as old fashioned an area as Afghanistan gets," said Army Staff Sgt. Richard A. Bettis, a psychological operations team chief helping to secure the region. "It's impressive that they're this open to cooperating with Americans."

With 120 students strong and two local instructors, the school's future looks bright.

"You should see the students when the teacher comes in. They're incredibly disciplined," said Ariz. The school is only able to facilitate grades one through three, however, because that's where the teachers' formal education stops.

"We need better salaries so more people will come to teach here," said Salam Abdullah, the primary instructor, who has to scurry from class to class to keep up with the overflow of students. "It is good because the students are coming back every day because they know the Americans keep the area safe for them."

If the Taliban is a threat, young Yaar doesn't seem to notice. He and his fellow classmates kick rocks back and forth with Marines and soldiers on their way to school, practicing English words and teasing the Americans on their poor attempts at Pashtu phrases.

"It's really rewarding to be a part of this and see these kids wanting to go to school," said Ariz. "When I talk to them now, they have all sorts of goals and things they want to do with their life."

Yaar pondered a long time on the question of his favorite subject in school and finally decided it was a tie between his Koran studies and mathematics.

"He says he wants to be a doctor," Ariz translates as Yaar smiles and nods enthusiastically. "So he can help people grow big and strong like the Americans."

The district governor of Rig is trying taking strides to provide education for more children in the region. Temporary schools are slated for nearby Qual-E-Now and Divyalok, but finding funding is difficult.

The best guess around here is it's been 10 plus years since any type of government has been established here," said CWO2 Christopher Wright, civil affairs officer for Company D, 2nd LAR. "It's just good to see these kids with books in their hands, because if the Taliban had their way, it would probably be homemade bombs."

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