The cyber “friends” new Afghans find in rural France

Written by Rupert Goodwins, CNN

Zebedee is a small town in Western France. A deserted, dusty town, no more than a scattering of old wooden houses and smaller family establishments. A remote outpost, a “sherpas’ spot.”

The Nijmegen School of Rural Development (NDSRD) has spent most of the last 16 years here, with thousands of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers coming and going, their young children running free and unsupervised.

The program’s mission is to provide employment and vocational training in self-sufficiency, but much more is at stake. During a visit by France 24, a 13-year-old from Afghanistan told me how much has changed for him in the 14 years since he fled the war in his country.

“I’ve made friends here in France. It’s different from Afghanistan. I can join school. I get to see friends I had never had before. I can go to the movies and play with my friends. I get to go to dances and enjoy myself. … In Afghanistan, it’s not a good thing for us to have friends. We don’t have any friends at all. It’s dangerous. So this is better.

“Since I came here to France, I’ve finished school. I like school here. I got to be friends with other people and they can help me. I can learn English and French, do my school work. I have to learn French and English. I like to do this,” he added.

The men he worked with before look at him with wonder. For two years, they took turns with their sons each afternoon to sit and work on a different part of his school work, thanks to a crucial piece of technology: a tablet computer.

This is possible thanks to Adaptive Initiative , a non-profit organization that provides computers to remote communities in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. They are especially, well, adapted.

“We designed a device for asylum seekers to use so that they can access the Internet in different languages. Each country has its own language with different characteristics and character that is not easily reflected in regular Internet sites,” explains Inez Mulder, a project manager with Adaptive Initiative.

In the Nijmegen NDSRD, these refugees speak French, Dari, Kuchi, Amharic, Pashto, Persian, Tatar, Pashto, Uzbek, Russian, and Arabic. Whether it’s a translation or a total reconstruction of websites, the tailor from Afghanistan does it all, the best he can in a country without much infrastructure, and with an language that’s in many cases completely foreign to him.

“His life is really difficult. He has no friends. He doesn’t know how to read in his own language. So we design Internet pages in his own language. He has the means to select the Web pages he likes to use. So he just generates a URL, and it can be translated into Arabic and Arabic not only translates to his own language but the other languages as well.

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