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Photo: Jessica Lustig.
Jessica Lustig, left, and Lesley Friedman Rosenthal, part-time Berkshires residents, went to Portugal to greet students, faculty and family from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Thanks in part to their efforts, the school was rescued and is resettling in Portugal, along with its founder and director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, center.

There are still small community newspapers that are doing actual reporting. Not where I live, where the the “local” paper mostly republishes content from a chain headed up by USA Today. It’s been so bad for so long, a group of community leaders is raising money for a nonprofit local newspaper such as we’ve begun to see around the country.

But I digress. Today’s Berkshire Eagle article is not a local story but I am not sure it would have happened if the reporter had not taken the time to interview local people.

Felix Carroll wrote that from a home in Otis, Massachusetts, “a daring, dangerous, complicated and ultimately successful rescue effort was coordinated beginning last August. …

“The denouement came on Dec. 13, when a community of school children from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) landed in Lisbon, Portugal — to safety, freedom and a future far afield from one that would have demanded their silence.

“Lesley Friedman Rosenthal, a part-time resident of Otis, was in Portugal to greet them. So was Jessica Lustig, a part-time resident of Great Barrington.

“ ‘It was remarkable to watch the young music students, their faculty and families come off the plane,’ said Rosenthal, president of the United States-based Friends of ANIM. ‘These 273 individuals, whose names, birth dates and national ID numbers I had helped work through so many lists for government agencies, and about whose lives and safety I had been so concerned in the past four months, suddenly appeared before us, with a look on their faces I can only describe as hopefulness.’

“Rosenthal and Lustig make up two-thirds of the board members of Friends of ANIM, the charitable group that, beginning in 2016, has supported the school, the first and only music academy in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.

“The school, which was inaugurated in 2010, had gained international fame for teaching Afghan and Western music to a co-ed student body against the backdrop of threats from the Taliban, the militant Islamist regime that had prohibited nonreligious music outright when it led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

“The third member of Friends of ANIM is the school’s founder and director, Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast, who still suffers the physical effects following a Taliban attack on his school in 2014.

“The philanthropic efforts of Friends of ANIM took a dramatic turn in August upon the withdrawal of U.S. military troops in the country and the ensuing consolidation of control by the Taliban.

“Rosenthal, who serves as chief operating officer of The Juilliard School, the performing arts conservatory in New York City, and Lustig, the founder of a New York City-based publicity, advocacy and consulting business, engaged in round-the-clock efforts to assist Dr. Sarmast in rescuing the school.

“They reached out and received the support of political leaders, military veterans, academics, and artists, including local musicians Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

‘It became clear, just in a matter of days, that the only way to salvage the school was to actually do a mass evacuation and airlift of the entire school community,’ Rosenthal said.

“In the meantime, videos began surfacing of Taliban members making a public show of destroying musical instruments. The Taliban had taken over the school campus. …

“News reports from Kabul told of how seven busloads of people associated with the school were left waiting at the airport for 17 hours, unable to board their plane amid fears of a terrorist attack. With that in mind, the evacuation efforts became less conspicuous; the efforts moved more slowly and comprised waves of smaller groups.

“In the end, the evacuation consisted of five airlift flights of 273 school members (including students, staff and immediate family) over a six-week period from Oct. 2 through late November.

“The first stop was Doha, in Qatar, whose government provided shelter and helped negotiate with the Taliban to ensure safe passage. Then, the school community flew on Dec. 13 to Portugal, where they have been offered asylum.

“ ‘Friends of ANIM is now working to reestablish the school in Portugal so that Afghan music and music education can continue for the girls and boys of the ANIM community,’ said Rosenthal.

“Rosenthal and Lustig had never imagined that their charitable efforts to support a school 7,000 miles away would ever come to this — essentially to establishing a war room in the Berkshires in the year 2021. …

“In December 2014, [a] suicide bomb attack at a student concert [in Kabul killed] an audience member and injured many others. Sarmast had to be airlifted to Australia for treatment. His hearing has been permanently damaged.

“ ‘The needs were clear,’ said Lustig. ‘He had threats to his life and threats to his school.’

“With the formation of Friends of ANIM in 2016, Sarmast and his staff and students would come to know that the world has his back.”

More at the Berkshire Eagle, here.

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