By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

RADNOR – After 30 years of war and repressive rule of the Taliban, today only 28 percent of the people in Afghanistan can read and write, 18 percent of whom are women and girls, according to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Representatives from CRS in Afghanistan recently visited the Philadelphia Archdiocese to meet with donors and promote education and other components of its strategic plan for Afghanistan, where today more than 6.5 million children have enrolled in school since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. About one-third of those students are girls.

Afghan citizens thirst for education and are willing to work hard to secure it, said Michaela Egger, education program coordinator for CRS Afghanistan.

Egger, 31, is from Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Park Ridge, N.J., Archdiocese of Newark.

Accompanying Egger to the United States through mid-May are two Afghan CRS colleagues. More than 96 percent of the 400 CRS Afghanistan staff members are natives of Afghanistan.

During their visit to the United States, the CRS Afghanistan representatives also hope to change negative stereotypes Americans have of Afghanistan.

In an April 16 visit to Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station, Montgomery County, the CRS Afghanistan representatives asked students at the private Catholic all-girls high school what words came to mind when they heard “Afghanistan.”

Responses included “terrorism,” “turmoil” and “war.”

In reality, “there’s a thirst for peace, for education, for learning and for that awareness to be shared with others,” Egger said. “Afghans would also like others outside Afghanistan to perceive them as peaceful, as wanting education, as supporting their children.”

In sharing the struggles of generations of Afghan women who were deprived of a formal education, the CRS Afghanistan representatives challenged the Merion Mercy students never to take their education for granted. They also encouraged the students to share what they have learned about Afghanistan with others.

That same day, CRS Afghanistan also met with administrators and other representatives of Cabrini College in Radnor, Delaware County, one of its college partners.

The audience included a number of faculty members who are preparing for a trip to Swaziland, South Africa, to work with orphans who have experienced interruptions in their education. Although the trip is not affiliated with CRS, the meeting provided both groups an opportunity to share teaching strategies.

The representatives also met with officials at the CRS Northeast Regional Mid-Atlantic office in Radnor.

CRS began supporting development efforts in Afghanistan in 1998 and in early 2002 began direct operations there.

Since 2003, CRS Afghanistan has worked to expand quality-learning opportunities for marginalized communities and their children. Current projects build on the successes of CRS Afghanistan’s ongoing education program in both community-based and special education.

For rural education, CRS maintains a long-term strategy based on the community education model and supports efforts initiated by many rural communities throughout Afghanistan to provide basic education to children who cannot access formal, government-supported schools.

The community-based education model utilizes the national educational curriculum and is designed to eventually integrate community schools into the national curriculum.

CRS Afghanistan continues to build on its community-based education strategy, which promotes grassroots advocacy and support for education through parent teacher organizations; early childhood development for disadvantaged pre-primary students; a primary school system; accelerated learning for teenagers and young women who were denied access to education under the Taliban regime; and community libraries that provide learning materials in rural areas.

In some such communities, “now that there is a literate generation of children, it’s possible for children to take books home and read them to their parents or to the wider family,” Egger said. “In some communities, informal women’s study groups have formed.”

Roughly 12,400 students – 60 percent girls – are participating in CRS efforts in 340 rural communities in 14 districts across four provinces: Kapisa, Panjshir, Herat and Ghor.

In all her work, Egger is mindful of a sentiment expressed to her by an Afghan teacher. “He said, ‘A lot of organizations have come to our village over the past few years and a lot of them have given us different materials. But after a while, those materials and organizations go away. But when somebody gives us knowledge, that’s the most useful thing that we can receive because that’s something that can never be taken away from us.'”

For more information, visit the web site of Catholic Relief Services at

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or