ALEXANDRIA, Va. – More than three million girls and boys will return to school in Afghanistan fully decked out thanks to a commitment from the United States to provide the materials for school uniforms.
President and Mrs. Bush visited a school across the Potomac River in Virginia Wednesday, to mark the return to school for Afghanistan's children, and to announce the delivery requested by Afghanistan's Minister of Women's Affairs Sima Simar.
"Every stitch contributes to the great patchwork of support and stabilization for the people of Afghanistan," first lady Laura Bush told the student body, faculty and clothing industry representatives attending an event at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.
School uniforms are such a significant part of the Afghan culture that administration officials feared many parents wouldn't send their kids to school without them.
The new school year begins March 23 because Afghans take the cold winter off and study in the more comfortable summer months. The beginning of the school year will mark the first time since the Taliban took over in 1996 that girls older than 8 will be allowed to attend school.
Some Afghan girls were educated secretly during the Taliban's reign, by women who risked their lives to teach them. Many more girls were able to resume their studies as the Taliban were forced from power, just before the school year ended in most of the country this winter. But Saturday will mark a full return to the educational system.
The United States is providing 10 million textbooks for Afghan school kids and is sending teams of education specialists to train 4,000 Afghan teachers. The money that U.S. children contributed — $4.5 million in $1 bills — will buy school supplies for tens of thousands of Afghan children.
Students at Tucker Elementary collected $2,500 for the children of Afghanistan, and are packing supplies of pencils, paper, chalk, and crayons to mark the return to school for Afghan girls, which the president has called part of the remarkable liberation of that country.
Bush told the students that the government would do everything it could to help keep them safe, but that contributions of aid could also help prevent any harm from coming their way.
One way to do so is to help in the assembly of 2,000 school chests, he said. The Red Cross has assembled 1,000 school chests, made up of basic school supplies, that will help 120,000 Afghan children, but 2,000 more are needed.
"I am asking our fellow Americans to rally for this good cause to donate and participate in the creation of 2,000 more," Bush said. "You know I am asked all the time 'what can I do to help in this war on terror?' and you can help by helping build one of these school chests."
U.S. companies are also donating material for 150,000 school uniforms, and companies including New Balance, Timberland, and L.L. Bean are providing tens of thousands of pairs of shoes.
J.R. United has donated 200 sewing machines. Liz Claiborne is donating a half million yards of fabric, basically to empower Afghan girls to go to school. The donations will also empower Afghan women, who will go back to work and earn money for sewing the uniforms.
"I often times talk about being a responsible society. In order to have a responsible society, there's such a thing as corporate responsibility, so it warmed our hearts to know that many of you in corporate America heard the call to help," Bush said.