Palo Alto High School, California
Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute, works to build schools and vocational centers to educate citizens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting terrorism and al Qaeda in Central Asia, 45-year-old American Greg Mortenson is fighting it from the ground up — with books.
Afghanistan caught the world’s attention in the 1980s when the Soviet Union invaded the country; American aid increased, to little surprise, significantly. However, after the Soviets left, and American aid plummeted, Afghans were left with a devastated infrastructure and little government.
This environment of sheer poverty and feeling of abandonment by the West bred the fighters that now make up much of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and the former Taliban regime.
But during the Taliban’s rise to power, another story was beginning to unfold. In 1993, Montana resident and former US Army medic Greg Mortenson decided to climb K2 — the world’s second-tallest mountain, located in northern Pakistan — in memory of his younger sister, Christa, who died the previous year of epilepsy. However, after 78 days of climbing the mountain, Mortenson became so weak that he was forced to abandon his quest. On the way down, two porters befriended Mortenson and took him to their village, Korphe, to nurse him back to health.
During his recovery, Mortenson observed the village’s 84 children lacking even the most basic education; the kids scratched their lessons in the dirt with sticks. Korphe could not afford the 1 dollar-per-day salary to hire a teacher. In Korphe, the literacy rate was less than three percent, and less than one-tenth of one percent for women.
“Those kids were so determined,” Mortenson said.
“The fierceness of their desire to learn reminded me of Christa. And since I couldn’t help her anymore, I decided to help them.”
Once he returned to his native town of Bozeman, Montana, Mortenson promised to build the residents of Korphe a school and provide a teacher’s endowment. He wrote letters to 580 politicians, businessmen and other prominent Americans, asking for assistance. His only reply: a $100 check from newscaster Tom Brokaw. All his grant proposals were denied. Even after pawning his car and mountaineering possessions, he had raised a meager $2000.
But slowly things started to change. A group of elementary students in River Falls, Wisconsin, raised $623, entirely with pennies, which helped convince adults to take Mortenson seriously.
“The kids reached out first,” Mortenson told Parade, “and they did it with the smallest thing — a penny. It’s basically worthless in our society. But overseas, pennies can move mountains.”With the momentum from the children’s donation, Mortenson was able to collect $12,000 and start the Central Asia Institute’s first project: a school for Korphe. After the completion of the first school, the CAI began to build more schools, originally in the Braldu Valley, then in other parts of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today, the CAI has built 28 primary schools, two school libraries, four women’s vocational centers, 15 potable water projects and planted 20,000 trees.
The CAI is able to complete so many projects so quickly and cheaply due to its policy that if villages donate land, labor and some materials, the institute will finance the construction. This allows, for example, schools to be built for under the price of $15,000, a quarter of the price charged by the World Bank and half of what it costs the government of Pakistan.
Despite this amazing feat, the real promise of the CAI’s mission is the opportunity it presents for girls. For each school Mortenson builds, the village must increase girls’ enrollment by 10 percent per year. Mortenson believes, as do many experts, that educating girls directly lowers the infant mortality rate and the birth rate — which in turn decreases the ignorance and poverty that fuels religious extremism. Of the 8200 children currently enrolled in Mortenson’s schools, now 3400 are girls.
“You can hand out condoms, build roads, put in electricity,” Mortenson said in a Parade interview, “but nothing will change until the girls are educated. They are the ones who stay at home. Girls’ education is probably the single most long-term tool against terrorism, poverty and inequity.”
Now the United States has brought this war not only to Afghanistan, but also to Iraq. But Mortenson believes it will take more than bombs to stop terrorism.
Organizations such as al Qaeda and the Taliban often recruit directly from Madrassas — institutions funded primarily with money from Saudi Arabia — which teaches strict, fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law.
To stop Islamic fundamentalism, Mortenson concentrates on a single, simple tenet: build secular schools and help to promote education — particularly for girls — in the world’s volatile war zone, and support for the extremist sects will dry up.
“Hundreds of schools funded by international aid agencies have been closed down in the tribal belts [in western] Pakistan in the last decade due to sanctions, lack of funds and lack of interest. When these schools close down, tens of thousands of young men and boys have nowhere to go. They often join Madrassas or Islamic religious schools, which are the only way to climb out of bitter poverty. The Madrassas are fertile recruiting grounds for terrorist organizations,” Mortenson said on his Web site, www.ikat.org.
Despite recent American action in the region, all schools built by Mortenson are continuing.
“War does not halt the work of the CAI,” Mortenson said. “We’ve survived many political events including a military coup in October 1999, the American bombing of Afghanistan in 1998 and Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998.”
Mortenson himself also survived an armed, eight-day kidnapping by tribesmen in 1996. He is respected and revered by Pakistani Army commanders, Islamic clerics, authorities and tribal chiefs for his jihad — which, contrary to common knowledge, can also mean “personal struggle” — to improve the lives of thousands of villagers.
Mortenson’s work has earned him some fans in congress and around the country.
Rep. Mary Bono (R) of California calls herself a “cheerleader” for Mortenson’s helping methods.
She added that the Central Asia Institute shows how fresh alternatives to US foreign aid can reach the ground faster and achieve results at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
However, not all people were happy with Mortenson’s methods. He received several angry, threatening letters after 9/11. “You will pay dearly for being a traitor,” wrote one woman in a letter postmarked in Minneapolis.
Stated another letter from Denver: “I wish some of our bombs had hit you, because you’re counter productive to [America's] military efforts in Afghanistan,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. Mortenson was also baffled by the media’s portrayal of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
“I was surprised at the media’s extensive coverage of the extreme Islamic group’s riots, demonstrations. The protests did not in any way reflect the great majority of good, hard- working people of this region. It was an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of the majority sentiment of the good people here,” says Mortenson.
“Ignorance breeds hatred,” he told the Monitor. “We can spend billions [of dollars] amassing a wall around America, but unless we invest even a small fraction of that amount building bridges of peace and understanding, all our efforts will be in vain.”
If you would like to learn more about community-based programs of Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, visit website: www.ikat.org or contact: Central Asia Institute, P.O. Box 7209, Bozeman, MT 59771, or e-mail email@example.com or call 406-585-7841.
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