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Difference Maker

Dina Fesler opens a unique school in Afghanistan

Dina Fesler went to Afghanistan to learn how to teach U.S. students about the country. Now she's opened a school there.

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"I didn't think they'd last a day," says Fesler. She worried that the school's structured day might be too much for older teens with no foundation in classroom learning or support from their families. But, she says, "I decided I'd feel worse if I didn't at least give them a chance to try it."

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In fact, the boys adjusted to the rigors of school, made friends among the Hazara, and took their first steps along the path to literacy. But due to the contentious ethnic and religious situation in Afghanistan, having Pashtun boys traveling to the Hazara district was a grave security risk to all the students at the school, and the boys were asked to leave at the end of the semester.

After trying unsuccessfully to find a new school, Fesler enlisted the help of Abuzar Royesh, a young Afghan who had spent 11 months in Minnesota while in high school. Together they rented an empty room in the same Dashti Barchi district, hired a teacher, and Bridges Academy was born.

"In the beginning, I thought that Dina would be just like all the other foreigners who come to Afghanistan just for a short time and then leave," says Mr. Royesh in an interview via Skype from his home in Kabul. "Once I got to know her, I saw that she really wants to help the children of Afghanistan. And she wants to show the children of the United States, through the curriculum she's developing, that there is much more to Afghanistan than war."

Royesh now serves as director of Bridges Academy. Fesler keeps in close touch with him from her base in Minnesota and travels to Kabul twice a year. While in Kabul, she arranges an exchange of video recordings made by the Afghan students and teenagers in the US.

From its modest beginnings, Bridges Academy has tripled in size, and today nine students – six Pashtuns from the refugee camp and three Hazaras from the neighborhood – are learning diction, math, Persian, and reading in a one-room school. Fesler hopes to grow the school to 20 students by the end of 2012 and, in time, to enroll children from other ethnic groups.

"The way that Pashtuns and Hazaras are learning together, side by side, is unprece­dented," Fesler says. "Bridges Academy is not just a place to teach these boys to read and write, but to help them start to see and understand the larger world, to get them to think in new ways and to question what they had previously been taught...."

The early results in Afghanistan have impressed Fesler's colleagues and collaborators: "She's such a dynamo!" says Maren Swanson, a lawyer in Northfield who has worked with Fesler for several years and now serves as the president of the executive board of Children's Culture Connection. "She's so creative and so articulate. She really believes in fostering global connectedness to benefit children around the world. She inspires me."

"She's a fast-paced, energetic individual who cares greatly for people in need," adds Jerry Johnson, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., and sells medical devices. He met Fesler in 2008 when both were working separately with a children's organization in Vietnam and has followed her activities in Afghanistan closely. "She has a God-given calling to work with people in need, specifically children in need."

Fesler hopes that the cross-cultural connections she and Bridges Academy are fostering will increase understanding and tolerance and, ultimately, result in peace.

"I want these kids to have the ability to lead their own lives, make their own decisions, and think for themselves," Fesler says. "Peace is what you get from people who are transformed and empowered."

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