Students in several CVA tenth and eleventh grade English classes caught a glimpse of the culture and conflict in the Middle East and the power of education thanks to two days of visits from Ilion resident Jim Kramas.
Mr. Kramas shared his life experiences and personal perspective of the region as a former 22-year member of the U.S. Army Special Operations and as a current 10-year military consultant serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CVA English teacher Ellen Burney invited Mr. Kramas to speak with the classes to add depth and context to their recent reading of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini. The book traces the struggle-filled lives of two fictional Afghan women.
Mr. Kramas’ story
As one of 10 children living on a Wisconsin farm, Mr. Kramas rejected his father’s offer to take over the farm. Instead, he joined the army where he leaped from airplanes, scuba dove and became a demolitions expert. Speaking briefly of his service, he said, “I was good at destroying things.”
That changed when he retired from the military, and he and his wife Sally returned to her hometown Ilion. He said she had patiently followed him for 25 years; it was his turn to follow her for the next 25. As a Herkimer BOCES vo-tech counselor, she insisted that he pursue his education. He ultimately earned his Masters.
Mr. Kramas now shares his belief in education.
“Get passionate about something, then become a student of your craft,” he told students.
“Do it to the best of your ability. Go after it to the best of your ability. Teachers, counselors and administrators are here to help you.”
His desire for young people to become educated is not based solely on his interest in students. He recognizes that today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders.
“You have to become educated. My time is done; I’m retired. You are the next generation of problem solvers,” he said.
Painting a picture of the Middle East
Today, Mr. Kramas uses his experience as a soldier and a student to advise military units on carrying out their mission in the Afghan culture. He invited students to ask him questions about Afghanistan and its people. His answers provided the classes with a better understanding of the people and world politics.
He said Afghanistan is vast and desolate. Prior to the American military building a major highway around the nation, there was no easy way to move people or products from region to region. The highway sparked new opportunities for farmers and businesses to transport their products into population centers.
Afghans live in cities, in rural agricultural areas or as Bedouins (nomads). Cities contain a range of very wealthy to very poor people. An average Afghan, who has a house, lives with multiple generations of family in a basic building about one-fifth the size of an average American home. Kids occupy their time on the Internet (although some of the sites are filtered by the Afghan government) and playing sports, usually soccer. Sports are male dominated with few opportunities for girls.
People are very traditional and conservative. Honor is the foundation of their lives. Western influence has expanded the importance of education and has opened higher education to girls.
Students were also keenly interested in the war and politics of the region.
He explained that ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), also known as ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant), is an ultraconservative group determined to replace any secular government with Shariah religious law. To achieve this end, they resort to open war, acts of terrorism and social pressure to force compliance with their beliefs. Their religious fervor includes killing non-Muslims. This doctrine often appeals to young men who have few opportunities, inviting them to turn their frustration toward anyone who opposes ISIS.
Mr. Kramas noted that this recruitment phenomena is not restricted to people living in the Middle East. He cited the example of the three Colorado teens arrested in Germany in late October on their way to join the ISIS movement. This, and other examples, demonstrate the level of ISIS’ sophistication, warning students, he said, “Don’t get wooed in.”