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From Kabul to Cumberland: Students connect with soldier in Afghanistan

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From Kabul to Cumberland: Students connect with soldier in Afghanistan

CUMBERLAND — Jane Crowley’s three eighth-grade social studies classes gained a unique perspective on current events this month by talking via the Internet with a Bangor soldier stationed in Afghanistan.

Student Sarah Kurland said her Greely Middle School class had been learning about Afghanistan from student teacher Lindsey Mercier, whose father, Keith Mercier, works with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Kurland and her classmates have written articles on different issues the country faces, tackling subjects like the Taliban and the drug war, and their knowledge of the topics was enhanced by a May 3 Skype session with the international policeman.

Three classes spoke with Mercier over nearly four hours through the Internet-based audiovisual program. During part of the session, the transmission was interrupted by security monitoring.

“This is real,” Crowley said last week. “He’s sitting in Kabul, and we’re talking to him here in Cumberland. So it was very cool.”

She said Mercier trains the crisis response units, a special group of police.

“It was kind of amazing that we actually heard from somebody who has actually experienced what’s going on over there,” student Sam Parkinson said. “I can tell you first-hand about his experience that has happened over there. And it’s kind of better than any Web page that has done research because they might not have actually been over there.”

While Mercier’s job is to hunt terrorists, he came across as a pleasant and helpful person, Parkinson said. And Mercier, who’s been in Afghanistan three years, told the kids he looks forward to coming home. He also asked them how the Red Sox and Bruins were doing.

Mercier gave the students a video tour of his room and showed off his gear.

The class’ education in American history has tied in with current affairs in Afghanistan, student Sara Piwowarski said, since “right now Afghanistan is in a similar place to where America was when we first made the Constitution. There’s just a lot of chaos, and they’re just starting a new government.”

Still, Afghanistan faces challenges that didn’t hamper the U.S. in the 1780s.

“They don’t have a lot of money and actual resources,” student Alex McAdoo said.

And Kurland noted that the country is landlocked, making trade difficult. Students also pointed out that the economy is another issue, since the land’s climate limits what can be farmed. This has made poppy seeds – which can be grown for opium – a core crop.

Mercier told the students that five pounds broccoli earns $1, while five pounds of poppy earns $40,000, Crowley said. That makes the transition from poppy particularly difficult.

“He was very clear,” she explained. “For them it’s income. It’s our drug problem.”

Mercier reported that training the crisis response units is hard due to the language barrier, and many of those being trained cannot read or write. The country’s history of listening to tribal elders has made the government’s implementation of new laws tough, too.

The students have learned that education in Afghanistan has improved substantially since the Taliban was removed from power. The universities now permit women, for example.

Although the Taliban has been out of power for nearly 10 years, Kurland said, women still live in fear and wear burkas outdoors, and “a lot of girls are getting hurt when they try to go to school. Some of them are poisoned, and a couple years ago, a couple girls got acid sprayed at their faces when they were trying to walk to school.”

Crowley said articles written by the students after the Skype session will become part of the seventh-grade humanities program for its Middle East curriculum.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.