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Fighting Terrorism With Schools

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In war-ravaged Afghanistan, the author of the best-selling book 'Three Cups of Tea' is...

Fighting Terrorism With Schools

by Greg Mortenson
published: 11/22/2009

In Gampa, Pakistan, the author (center) with (from right) daughter Amira, 12, son Khyber, 8, and refugee girls.

In 1993, after my youngest SISTER died of cerebral epilepsy, I made a pledge to travel to Pakistan and place her favorite necklace atop K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. Sadly, I broke that promise. Forced to turn back just 2000 feet shy of the summit, I compounded my failure by getting lost on a glacier. Eventually, I staggered into a tiny village called Korphe, where the impoverished residents gave me food, shelter—and a mission.


One afternoon, I watched 82 children scratch their lessons in the dirt with sticks. Among them was a girl named Chocho, who appealed to me to come back one day and build Korphe a school—one that would be open to all children, even though, in that part of the world, the privilege of learning to read and write has traditionally been reserved for boys.


Three years later, I kept my promise. The organization I founded, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), has kept right on building. Today, in the mountains of rural Pakistan—where schools are scarce and all too often supported by the same radical Islamist money and ideology that fuels al-Qaeda and the Taliban—CAI now has 91 schoolhouses. We serve 19,000 students—three-quarters of them girls.


Now we have crossed the border into ground zero of the war against terrorism. In 2004, CAI opened its first school in Afghanistan; this year, our 39th. Including tent schools in refugee camps, we already educate 39,000 Afghan children, mostly girls. Taking our mission into a war zone has proved enormously challenging and dangerous. Yet my commitment to educating girls has only grown stronger. Indeed, we hope soon to complete a 200-mile line of girls’ schools directly through the heart of Taliban country.


Young women are the developing world’s greatest agents of progress. Just one year of schooling will dramatically raise a girl’s later economic prospects, and where girls get to fifth grade, birth rates and infant mortality plunge. Teaching girls to read and write reduces the ignorance and poverty that fuel religious extremism and lays a groundwork for prosperity and peace. In military parlance, educating girls is a “force multiplier.” Thus, the flame that burns at the center of my work, the heat around which I cup my hands, are the stories of girls whose lives have been changed by education.


Because CAI has operated in Pakistan for nearly 17 years, we have seen many successes. I think often of Shakila Khan, one of the first students to graduate from our school in Hushe, in the shadow of Masherbrum, one of the highest mountains on earth. Shakila, 22, is now in her last year of medical school in Lahore. Soon, she will return home as the first locally educated woman doctor in a region of 1.2 million people.


I think also of Aziza Hussain. After graduating from a CAI school in the isolated Charpurson Valley, she went on to study midwifery. Since her 2000 return to her valley—where about 20 women a year traditionally perished in childbirth—not a single woman has died giving birth.


To succeed as nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan require the full engagement of their women. But not just their women. In every village in which CAI operates, we seek the support of local religious leaders and elders. In the tiny Pakistani village of Chunda, it took us eight years to convince the local mullah, an immensely conservative man, to permit a single girl to go to school. Today, more than 300 girls attend classes in Chunda—with the backing of the same mullah who originally barred their way.


Achievements come with a price. In Pakistan, I have had two fatwas—religious judgments—issued against me. Once, in the lawless borderland of Waziristan, I was kidnapped for eight days. Another time, one of our schools was shot up by militant gunmen. The challenges we face in Afghanistan are even greater. Afghanistan’s mountain people are, if anything, even poorer and more isolated than Pakistan’s. Three decades of continual warfare—the Soviets, the Taliban, the Americans—have reduced Afghanistan politically, socially, andinfrastructurally.


In 2000, when the Taliban were still in power, only 800,000 children in Afghanistan—a nation of nearly 33 million—attended school. Almost none were girls. Today, some 8.5 million Afghan children are in school, including nearly 2 million girls. These are amazing numbers—a testament not only to Afghans’ thirst for literacy but also to their willingness to pour scarce resources into slaking it.


Having spent nearly two decades building trust and respect in conservative Muslim communities, I am not surprised by their yearning or their resolve. What amazes me is the extent to which their desire resonates in America. I am astonished daily by the number of people who tell me that CAI’s work has inspired them. Among the many examples are two brothers from California, Garrett and Kyle Weiss, who created Fundafield, a nonprofit that builds soccer fields for children in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda. Most of the 30 members of their organization are still in middle or high school.


Equally gratifying is the response of the U.S. military. In recent years, its leaders have repeatedly turned to me for guidance in improving relationships with tribal and village leaders. I am honored that my 2006 book,

Three Cups of Tea

, is now required reading for all Special Forces soldiers deploying to Afghanistan. A lowly ex–enlisted man, I have now had the privilege of briefing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.


Why do so many Americans care so deeply about people who live in a place so far away? I can only conclude that nothing underscores our common humanity more powerfully than creating a future for children. All children. Boys and girls.


I have observed with my own eyes how America’s welfare is tied to that of our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world—and, in particular, that of our youngest sisters. Their dreams of progress rest in our hands; our desire for peace rests in theirs.


Whatever happens on the battlefield, I am confident that every school CAI builds in Afghanistan—and every young woman whom we raise up from ignorance and poverty—represents the fulfillment of a promise that a little girl has carried in her heart. In trying to see such promises kept, I suppose, I’ve never really stopped trying to honor my own youngest sister.


A few months ago, I gave a talk in Durango, Colo. A young girl raised her hand. “Will you ever go back and try to climb K2 again?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “I’ve found a better mountain.”


Greg Mortenson’s new book, “Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” will be published Dec. 1 by Viking.

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