The sixth-graders in Missy Klapperich's social studies classroom sat in a circle on Friday, trying to get their heads around poverty in Afghanistan.
The circle had 30 chairs, and each student was given a number. "Numbers 1 through 5, please stand up," Klapperich said. Out of 30 infants in that war-torn country, "You represent the number of Afghan babies who will die."
Several students gasped. The grim statistics went on. As their numbers were called, the kids stood up to represent the vast numbers of Afghans who lack clean water, adequate food and schooling.
"I didn't realize it was that bad," student Carlton Lindow said afterward.
That's exactly the kind of reaction Klapperich is hoping for. Her students live in Cannon Falls, a small town 40 miles from Minneapolis and half a world from the turmoil in Afghanistan. But they're close enough to care, and to help.
Last year, her students traded letters with Afghan students. They watched news reports made for them by a 14-year-old girl in Kabul. They raised enough money to send 18 Afghan teens to vocational training.
The project is a partnership between Klapperich and Children's Culture Connection, a Northfield-area nonprofit organization that creates lessons on world culture for American students. Its other two goals: Building connections between kids here and needy children abroad, and helping the Americans make a difference in the lives of those children.
"We think that kids can be part of the solution," said Dina Fesler, the organization's executive director.
It's an effort to foster peace, but it's not political, Fesler and Klapperich said. When it comes to U.S. military involvement, "We don't say whether we should be in [Afghanistan]," Fesler said.
Students in Cannon Falls learn the basics of conflict in Afghanistan, going back to the Soviet invasion in 1979. But mostly they focus on its culture, economy and people.
They have also found ways to help Afghan youth.
Last year, Klapperich's sixth graders held a fair where they sold things as varied as manicures and birdhouses. They raised about $1,800.
The money went to a metro-area nonprofit called Partnership for the Education of Children in Afghanistan, which used it to train Afghan teens in tailoring or computer repair, Fesler said. The hope is that learning a trade will help the teens get by and give them an alternative to joining insurgent groups, she said.
This spring, many of the Cannon Falls students also raised money to buy school supplies for Afghan students. They babysat, washed cars, ran bingo games. One boy collected donations in exchange for shaving his head.
Other countries, too
Fesler, a former fashion designer, started Children's Culture Connection after adopting a daughter from China. "I didn't want her to be labeled as just the Chinese kid in her class," she said. The best way to avoid that, Fesler figured, was to teach other students about China's rich culture.
Today, the organization has ties with children's charities in a dozen countries.
The nonprofit has helped teach Northfield students about Iraq and Minneapolis youth about Nigeria, among an assortment of camps and programs, Fesler said. The organization plans to develop lessons on world cultures that teachers nationwide can buy at low cost, she said.
Cannon Falls is the pilot site for lessons on Afghanistan.
For Klapperich's students, a teenager named Karima has become an important guide. In reports filed online, Karima has taken her audience to a ruined palace. She has interviewed bakers. She has talked to players on a girls' basketball team.
Fesler met Karima in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, during a trip she took last fall to gather video footage and material for the lessons. (Fesler doesn't give out the girl's last name for fear of endangering her.)
Despite her family's poverty, Karima exuded confidence, Fesler recalled. "This girl comes out of her hovel, and she gives me this firm handshake and says, 'Welcome to my house!'"
Karima couldn't go to school, but she told Fesler that she wanted to be a TV news reporter. "If ever a kid should be on camera," Fesler thought, "it's this kid."
Fesler hired Karima to produce a series of short videos on Afghan life with the help of a freelance videographer.
For the Cannon Falls students, Karima is evidence that they and Afghan kids actually have a lot in common.
"Even though they don't have everything we do, she still acts happy and shares stuff," Carlton Lindow said. "She's kind of funny, too."
Seeing Karima helps students break down stereotypes, Klapperich said. "If you say you hate all Afghans, well, that means you hate Karima, too."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016