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Shakira to build school in hometown

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Barranquilla (Reuters): Thousands of poor Colombian children could soon have the chance to get a decent education in the heart of their Caribbean barrio thanks to a local girl-made-good -- Latin Grammy winner Shakira. Shakira, famous for her hip-swiveling, belly-undulating dancing, plans to open a school for nearly 2,000 pupils in her hometown of Barranquilla as part of a program to educate children displaced by Colombia's conflict. ''Education is not a luxury, it is a right everyone should have,'' Shakira told reporters yesterday before a concert that will raise funds for the Barranquilla school.

The abandoned, crumbling telecommunications outpost that will become the site of the school in La Playa barrio is the most ambitious project in her Fundacion Pies Descalzos, ''Barefoot Foundation'' in Spanish. She has opened five smaller schools in Colombia. The Colombian singer and songwriter dominated the recent Latin Grammys in New York by winning four awards and dazzling spectators with a sexy live performance. Her album ''Fijacion Oral Vol. 1'' captured album of the year and best female pop vocal album, and the single ''La Tortura'' won record of the year and song of the year at the Grammys. The album's engineers also won a Grammy.

Barranquilla, a rough-and-tumble harbor town, has been plagued by cocaine smuggling and violence from paramilitaries who until recently battled left-wing FARC guerrillas in Latin America's longest insurgency. Fighting in Colombia has decreased under President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative who has led a U S-backed drive to combat the rebels, disarm paramilitaries and tackle the drug trade. But thousands of Colombians are still displaced or killed every year. Landmines maim an average of three Colombians every day.

The United Nations refugee agency estimates that as many as three million people have been forced from their homes by Colombia's violence. Many set up home in marginal barrios in cities like Barranquilla, which local officials say has received around 60,000 displaced families in the last decade. La Playa, a clutch of low, cinder block houses near the Caribbean sea, is home to many families who fled violence. Local schools, like Colegio El Canahuate are run-down, overcrowded and lacking basic facilities. Many residents hope Shakira's new project will change that.

''This school is so small, we have to perform magic here,'' said director Aldor Carrillo, who has scores of displaced children in his school. ''The street outside is the soccer pitch, where they do sports, gym and where they hold their social events.'' The says the new school will initially house 1,800 pupils when it opens in early 2008. Standing near the school site, Samaris Betancourth, a 28-year-old mother of two, said, ''The only thing I want to leave my kids is a good education.''

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