The girls live in remote central Afghanistan, a region of deep, narrow valleys and jagged mountains, where most families raise chickens and students walk long distances to school. They write to their Blair pen pals regularly, sharing everything from the mundane moments of their daily lives to the dreams they hold for themselves. A recent letter from an Afghan girl to Blair’s Mia Leddy ’23, written in neatly curving script, starts, “Hello, dear friend! I have a sheep. My favorite subjects are English, math and chemistry.”
In her fourth year participating in the program, Mia has been corresponding with six Afghan girls between the ages of 15 to 20 for several years, and she says that once a relationship is established, letters can get very personal. “After a few letters, they start talking more about their personal lives. They go into the difficulties they face. Sometimes they write that their dad is forcing them to marry someone at 18. Sometimes they are happy about it, sharing the happy news that they are getting married.” In each situation, Mia says, “I just try to be a sounding board, to be a place where my writing partner can express her feelings.”
Started several years ago by student Emily Lunger ’17, Blair’s letter exchange is part of the Afghan School Project. Created in 2003 through St. Luke’s Church in Hope, New Jersey, the initiative started with the goal of raising money to build a school in Afghanistan. The organization has since helped to construct the Yakawlang Central Girls High School in Bamiyan Province, which enrolls about 1,000 girls in 7th through 12th grades. The Afghan School Project continues to support the school today through fundraising for needed equipment as well as through the letter exchange.
“The Afghan schoolgirls have dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers, but in order to go to university and have professional careers, they need to know English,” Emily said when she first became involved. “In our letters, we encourage them to follow their dreams and practice English skills, which they do when they write back. It’s partly an academic exercise, but it involves a great deal of friendship and love, too.”
Until recently, between 30 and 50 Blair students participated in the letter-writing program each year, but, given recent global developments, the future of the program is uncertain. Communication with the Yakawlang Central Girls High School has broken down, and it is unknown whether Blair’s Afghan pen pals will be permitted to continue corresponding or receive a secondary education.
Faculty advisor to the program, Director of Communications Andee Ryerson, is heartbroken about recent developments. “It is painful to realize that the Afghan School Project may have come to an end and that the futures of our pen pals are so uncertain,” she says. While she and the students had hoped there might be a final exchange of letters, it simply isn’t possible now.
Blair Students Rise to the Occasion
For her part, when Mia Leddy learned of recent developments in Afghanistan, her thoughts immediately turned to the pen pals she has known for years. “When I found out about what was happening in Afghanistan, it hit really close to home,” she says. “We’ve been writing letters to these girls for years. We will likely lose contact. It was so disheartening to know our friends are struggling and there’s not much we can do about it.”
Determined to help, Mia rounded up classmates involved with the Afghan School Project and, after discussing recent developments, the group decided to hold a fundraiser. Using student and faculty volunteers, the group sold a wide assortment of baked goods to the many visitors on campus at Community Weekend in September. “To our delight, we raised just over $600,” she says, beaming. Since the group cannot guarantee that funds raised for the Yakawlang School will safely reach their destination, they decided to put the proceeds toward ventures, such as SavetheChildren.org, that are helping support Afghan families and children recently arrived at temporary shelters in the United States.
“I’m really proud that after cultivating these relationships with their Afghan pen pals so carefully, Blair students are turning their desire to help others into action,” says Mrs. Ryerson.
As for Mia, she is busy studying in a cozy chair in Blair’s warm library, pausing at times to think about her pen pals in the Afghan highlands and what they might be doing. She has one more letter that she knows she can’t send now, but she hopes it will make it to Afghanistan someday soon. Until then, she knows that her friends on the other side of the world will resolutely face an uncertain future.