::Clay Aiken Returns From Afghanistan

From The United Nations News Service
And Raleigh Chronicle Staff Reports
Saturday, April 14, 2007

RALEIGH - United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador and singer Clay Aiken just returned to his hometown of Raleigh from his first visit to Afghanistan, where he aimed to raise awareness about the hope and promise he has seen in the young people of the war-torn country.

"The people here are very strong and they are very proud of their country," Mr. Aiken told reporters in Kabul on Wednesday, praising the "strength and conviction of the Afghan people and their ability to make sure that this country returns to its glory after such a long darkness."

The singer, who gained a name on the televised talent competition 'American Idol,' has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2004.  Aiken was in Afghanistan for the past week to see first-hand the grassroots health and education projects being delivered by UNICEF.

"We welcome him to Afghanistan, since he arrived in Afghanistan I know Clay has had a chance to see for himself some of the grass roots health and education projects that UNICEF is delivering in Afghanistan in order to raise awareness and vital funds for UNICEF's ongoing work," said Aleem Siddique of UNICEF's  UNAMA program.
"It has been a long winter for Afghanistan and it is Spring time finally," he said, adding that he is "thrilled" to be associated with UNICEF's support for the country's rebuilding efforts.

Traveling with UNICEF country representative for Afghanistan Catherine Mbengue and his high school teacher Mary Props, Mr. Aiken has visited schools in Kabul and in Bamiyan.

In Kabul, he met young women at Macfee High School who "have an amazing positive outlook on their future now," he said.

Mr. Aiken called Bamiyan one of the most beautiful places he has ever seen, and mentioned one school he visited there in particular where boys and girls were being educated together. He also visited clinics where he had the opportunity to administer polio vaccine to a newborn baby.

"I have never in my life seen such a thirst and an excitement for learning," he said, joking that his former teacher, Ms. Props, was very jealous of how eager students in Afghanistan are to attend school.

Calling the people of Afghanistan the country's "greatest natural resource," Mr. Aiken said that he also hopes to inform people in the United States, who he said too often associate Afghanistan with conflicts, troops and military activities, of the genuine desire on the part of children to learn.

"If we did see more about the kids [in the media], we will see more positive support and help," noted Mr. Aiken. ::

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::Clay Aiken Returns From Afghanistan
 
In war torn Afghanistan, a woman waits with her child for the bus.  Singer and UNICEF ambassador Clay Aiken just returned from Afghanistan, where he's been for the past week to see the grassroots health and education projects being delivered by UNICEF.

Photo From The United Nations
::Clay Aiken Returns From Afghanistan

From The United Nations News Service
And Raleigh Chronicle Staff Reports
Saturday, April 14, 2007

RALEIGH - United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador and singer Clay Aiken just returned to his hometown of Raleigh from his first visit to Afghanistan, where he aimed to raise awareness about the hope and promise he has seen in the young people of the war-torn country.

"The people here are very strong and they are very proud of their country," Mr. Aiken told reporters in Kabul on Wednesday, praising the "strength and conviction of the Afghan people and their ability to make sure that this country returns to its glory after such a long darkness."

The singer, who gained a name on the televised talent competition 'American Idol,' has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2004.  Aiken was in Afghanistan for the past week to see first-hand the grassroots health and education projects being delivered by UNICEF.

"We welcome him to Afghanistan, since he arrived in Afghanistan I know Clay has had a chance to see for himself some of the grass roots health and education projects that UNICEF is delivering in Afghanistan in order to raise awareness and vital funds for UNICEF's ongoing work," said Aleem Siddique of UNICEF's  UNAMA program.
"It has been a long winter for Afghanistan and it is Spring time finally," he said, adding that he is "thrilled" to be associated with UNICEF's support for the country's rebuilding efforts.

Traveling with UNICEF country representative for Afghanistan Catherine Mbengue and his high school teacher Mary Props, Mr. Aiken has visited schools in Kabul and in Bamiyan.

In Kabul, he met young women at Macfee High School who "have an amazing positive outlook on their future now," he said.

Mr. Aiken called Bamiyan one of the most beautiful places he has ever seen, and mentioned one school he visited there in particular where boys and girls were being educated together. He also visited clinics where he had the opportunity to administer polio vaccine to a newborn baby.

"I have never in my life seen such a thirst and an excitement for learning," he said, joking that his former teacher, Ms. Props, was very jealous of how eager students in Afghanistan are to attend school.

Calling the people of Afghanistan the country's "greatest natural resource," Mr. Aiken said that he also hopes to inform people in the United States, who he said too often associate Afghanistan with conflicts, troops and military activities, of the genuine desire on the part of children to learn.

"If we did see more about the kids [in the media], we will see more positive support and help," noted Mr. Aiken. ::

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           Question And Answer Session With Clay Aiken
From Kabul, Afhanistan, April 11, 2007

QUESTION: You have spoken about visiting Bamiyan and a high school in Kabul where there is peace. Have you visited or have any information from southern provinces where the people live in fear and horror?

CLAY: Unfortunately I didn't have an opportunity during this trip to visit south. We visited the areas which are a little bit secure and where we can visit children. I will let Catherine speak about the south because she has been to Kandahar. Before she starts I would imagine just by seeing the amount of enthusiasm from kids here in this area that there is still that thirst [for education]. Because I think just in general children in this country have been oppressed for so long that they may have not had access to education, access to such an opportunity so I can imagine that there in the south where children continue to live in the darkness they still must have the thirst for education.

QUESTION: I would like to know your personal commitment to children of Afghanistan. What would you do to change the situation of children here in Afghanistan when you return the US? In the meantime I would like to know Mary's opinion about the education system in Afghanistan?

MARY PROPS (Clay's Former Teacher): First I am glad to be an invited guest as part of the UNICEF delegation. I was excited and interested to learn about Afghanistan's schools and have chance to talk with teachers and students. I think my first impression was on commonalities that educators across our two countries face and particularly despite some of the challenges that the teachers and students face with resources, facilities, meeting the needs of all students, the learning styles the list could go on. We do in fact have a lot to share. I would like to echo the fact that Catherine and Clay have already made is that the most impressive thing that I saw was the desire. While there are steep roads ahead there is a desire for these students. I saw them learning Dari, English, math and in the high school in Kabul they were studying other subjects particularly in social sciences which interested me, and economics and geography. So overall I have a positive impression of the educational system.

CLAY: It is our goal in UNICEF to raise awareness and money. I think probably the most important thing I will be able to do is to talk about some of the positive things I have seen. Because very few people in the US have the opportunity to learn about the positive things that are taking place in Afghanistan. And that is the kind of thing that encourages people to get out of their seats. I think the most positive and exciting thing about this trip for me is that I have been with UNICEF to Indonesia and Uganda and what is the different about this country and what helps us in some ways is that Afghanistan is in the forefront of Americans minds right now unlike Indonesia or Uganda unfortunately. People in America do care about what is going on here in Afghanistan. They want to learn more about Afghanistan and know what exactly is happening here. And there is a distinct desire and drive amongst the American people to do what they can to help out here. So I am looking forward to be able to go back there and say not only do we need your help but here is why because here are the great things that are happening here and these are the positive outcomes of your support.

QUESTION: You said that media reports very grim picture about Afghanistan. How do you find Afghanistan?

CLAY: I would like to restate my earlier comment. We do see a lot of negative in the US. Most of it is associated with conflicts, troops, military activities in Afghanistan and unfortunately we see reports of insurgent attacks or suicide bombings and there is not much stories at all about children in Afghanistan. And the reason there is so much negative is because there has not been much about children. There is a lot positive things going on with children and if we did see more about the kids we will see more positive support and help. Obviously there are needs as Catherine said there are needs for every conflict situation, there are needs for kids to have access to safety, to be safe in their schools and have access to clean water. There are the needs that would be there even if there was not a conflict in Afghanistan at all. My major impression was a population of kids who really want to learn and a group of communities and a group of international aid workers and NGOs who are working together as much as they can to make sure that this is possible. 

QUESTION: My question is for Ms. Mary Props, the teacher. What will you specifically do for children in Afghanistan after you return to the US?

MARY PROPS: In the US I think we have a strong curriculum in all subjects.  In history we tend to concentrate on history a lot and not on current world issues. My message in going back is that we need to do more in our curriculum to make sure that our students not only understand the past but they can also relate it to today and what today's problems, issues and concerns are.

QUESTION: There are reports that the Italian Emergency Hospital is going to leave Afghanistan. Do you have information on this? If they do leave what will be the impacts on Afghanistan?

UNICEF: I am only aware of this from media reports, about the Emergency Hospital that may or may not be leaving Afghanistan. Whenever an organization comes to Afghanistan to help the people of Afghanistan we have always welcomed and encouraged this. If we hear of an organization leaving Afghanistan not only does this sadden us all here in the United Nations but it is also a loss for the Afghan people. We want organisations that come to help to stay here and work hard on behalf of the Afghan people because as you all know there is much for all of us to be doing to deliver the progress that people want to see and so richly deserve. 

QUESTION: My first question is for the UNICEF representative. Is there any change in the 26% children who are earning bread for their families? And my second question is for Clay. You have seen some other post-conflict countries. How do you compare the condition of Afghan children with that of those countries?

UNICEF: A very good question. Today in the afternoon we are going to visit an organization called Ashiana which is doing a very good job in Afghanistan particularly in Kabul. We are going there to learn from them. We have concerns about street children in Kabul and we really want to make sure that we benefit from all organisations who have experience in dealing with these vital issues. In other countries we have good lessons learnt and we want to share them with organizations here in Afghanistan so that we can pull our resources together to make a better impact for these children. So this afternoon we have an education trip to Ashiana and there are some other organizations that are doing a lot for street children and we are looking forward to work more closely with them.

CLAY: With regard to the question about my other travels and comparison, I have been to Indonesia in Banda Aceh right after the tsunami in 2004 and I was in northern Uganda in 2005 to visit the children in the northern part of the country who have been victims of  a 20 year long conflict. Probably the biggest or the most striking contrast, I guess in the US we call it hardiness, the hardiness of the Afghan people, it has been a long dark three decades here in Afghanistan and it has been extremely trying unlike other situations like Indonesia it was a natural disaster. The people here are very strong and they are very proud of their country, their homeland and themselves and it seems to be for that reason or because of those things they seem to be poised in a wonderful position to really pick the country up and move it forward in the way it needs to be moved forward. It is not that I have not seen this elsewhere but I believe that I have seen it more here in Afghanistan, just the strength and conviction of the Afghan people and their ability to make sure that this country returns to its glory after such a long darkness.

UNICEF: If I could just pick up on the question that was addressed to Catherine earlier about street children, I know that the World Food Programme runs an extensive school feeding programme. One of the main issues that we are faced with here is why are children not able to go to schools? And why are they on the streets? One of the key factors is poverty. So if we can encourage school children to go to school and at the same time provide food for their families and themselves then this can be a real motivating tool to encourage parents to send their children to school and keep them off the streets. Great efforts have been made on this vital area of work by the WFP and UNICEF and these efforts are continuing.

QUESTION: You said the UN Secretary General has issued a statement condemning violence. I just wanted to know whether he means by violence the beheading of Ajmal Naqshbandi or some other violence since there is a lot of violence in the country.

UNICEF: The Secretary General's concern is the safety of everybody living and working in Afghanistan. Over the last few weeks we have seen not only innocent civilians being targeted we have seen journalists being targeted and we have seen international and Afghan forces targeted. This is of course a mater of great concern for the Secretary General and that is why we saw the statement from the Secretary General. It is indication of the closeness with which the Secretary General is following events here and the commitment that the Secretary General and the United Nations has here in Afghanistan. If you pick up a copy of his statement from the side table you will see that it makes a specific reference to Ajmal Naqshbani's case, Canadian soldiers that perished in Helmand over the weekend and also the horrific attack we saw in Laghman province on April 1 in which nine civilians were killed including five children. Like all of us, the Secretary General wants to see peace and stability in Afghanistan and that is what we remain focused on achieving.

CLAY: I just want to go back to your question about comparisons of the countries I have visited. Afghanistan's terrain is very tough and is also full of so much promise. It has been such a key part of travel, dating centuries back. It is such a valuable country in so many ways. As you fly in or as we flew into Bamiyan and when we were flying to Kabul it is dark, rough and dusty. And as we were approaching Bamiyan on the plane I was told of the promise of the grass and the promise of green. When the summer comes there would be grass over the hills and that it is so beautiful and lush in the summer yet I didn't see that and some were skeptical that any grass grew in Bamiyan. When we flew out today and I looked out of the window and I saw a little grass peeking through. And I think that has been a kind of capstone experience for me here in Afghanistan that there is so much promise and it has been a long winter for Afghanistan and it is spring time finally. I think that is what UNICEF is excited about doing and being a part of the rebirth and re-growth and part of the spring time here in the country and I am thrilled to be associated with them for that reason.

UNICEF: I would like to thank our UNICEF delegation and particularly Clay Aiken for joining us here today and sharing their experiences with us.

Thank you.