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December 16, 2009 at 9:25 AM

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Greg Mortenson's path of peace from one mountain to another

Posted by Kristi Heim

Like a rider through a treacherous mountain pass, Greg Mortenson negotiates through seemingly impossible obstacles to find safe passage for his schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, choosing hope over fear and calling his only real enemy "ignorance."

Mortenson visited Seattle Tuesday and Redmond this morning to talk about his new book, "Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan." I spoke with him by phone on Tuesday while he awaited his flight from Portland. The Pacific Northwest is his biggest support network, where his champions hail from public libraries and book clubs to military bases and places of worship. His group Pennies for Peace carries on the work at home through programs for youth, teaching them about the world and how their philanthropy can make a difference. People in the Snohomish School District held a district-wide drive and raised more than $50,000.

The mountain climber and humanitarian founded the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, which has created 131 schools with the goal of advancing girls' education in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Greg Mortenson (third from right in back) with tribal chiefs from Urozgan province in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold where his institute established the first girls high school.

In "Three Cups of Tea," he writes about building schools for girls in the rugged mountains of Pakistan, while his new book focuses on neighboring Afghanistan.

Mortenson, 51, gives the mountains of remote Afghanistan the motto of his native Montana, "The last best place." There he found "a combination of courage, tenacity, hospitality, and grace that leaves me in awe," he writes. Such places often "represent the best of who we are and the finest standard of what we are meant to become."

I asked him how he manages to maintain his safety, let alone build girls schools, in Taliban strongholds:


Author Greg Mortenson, son Khyber and daughter Amira in Gultori war refugee girls' school in Pakistan.

Establishing trust with local leaders is key, he said. "The Pashto word menawatay means the right of refuge. It means you will protect a guest with your life. Your honor in the tribal group is measured on your ability to provide hospitality for your guest. We have to take a lot of precautions, but my kids and wife do go to several places in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

(He was kidnapped and held for eight days in Pakistan in 1996.)

"Primarily we've tried very hard to work with the elders and we've put them in charge. The communities run the schools. When I am passing between two different feuding clans we'll sit there in the middle of nowhere and wait, and a military commander, a commandant, will send his emissaries. We'll have cup of tea and they will pass me off."

"It's absolutely imperative we build relationships..." As Mortenson's voice trailed off, he said he would call right back after passing through airport security in Portland. It took a lot longer than he thought. The U.S. Army veteran, whose advice has been praised by military commanders such as Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, was detained again.

"Every time I come back into the country it's really difficult," he said later. "My passport is somehow marked. They ask me where I've been. I have to go into a special room. I don't look forward to coming back here for that reason."

Why choose to work in the remote Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan?

"Our mission is to promote and set up schools, especially for girls, in areas where there is not education, generally in areas of physical isolation, religious extremism, conflict and war or natural disaster. Wakhan is the most remote. I think what really drew me there 10 years ago in 1999 a dozen Kirghiz horseman came over. They traveled six days a week, 16 hours a day on horseback. They were sent by their tribal leader to ask me to build a school in their region, the most isolated area in Afghanistan. You need to go in a jeep four days over rugged mountain and another three to four days by horseback over precipitous trails."

Why is girls' education the answer?

"Educating girls at least to a fifth grade level reduces infant mortality, and where I work about one out of three children dies before the age of 1. It reduces the population explosion. I think of all the problems in the world today -- we have global warming and wars -- I think there's just too many people on the planet. The number one way to reduce people is female literacy.

What I have seen is people coming home from the bazaar and they have vegetables or meat wrapped in newspaper. You'll see the mother very carefully unfolding a newspaper and asking her daughter to read the news to her. It's very empowering for a woman in an isolated area to read the news.

When mothers have an education they are less likely to encourage their sons to get into terrorism or violence. The Taliban's primary recruiting grounds are illiterate and impoverished societies. Most educated women refuse to allow their sons to join the Taliban."

On Afghanistan today:

"In the year 2000 there were 800,000 mostly boys in school, a Unicef figure. Today there are 8.4 million children in school including 2.5 million females. This is the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history. This is something few Americans are aware of.

Unfortunately the bad news is in the last three years in Afghanistan, the Taliban have bombed, burned or destroyed over 1,000 schools, and 850 schools in Pakistan. Ninety percent of the schools are girls schools. I think the reason they are bombing girls schools is because their greatest fear is not a bullet. It's a pen."


A school in a remote part of Afghanistan created by the Montana-based non-profit Central Asia Institute.

On what he teaches in the schools:

There are 131 schools now, plus another five dozen tent schools in refugee camps, serving 58,000 students (most of them girls): "Reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies. Elders come in twice a week and do storytelling to children...also hygiene, sanitation and nutrition. Since there's no health care, we teach teachers how to screen for vitamin deficiency, polio. We teach five languages by fifth grade, including Arabic and English, Dari in Afghanistan and Urdu in Pakistan and Pashto, and they also speak their tribal tongue. We are required by both countries to teach Islamiat studies, two to three hours a week studying the Koran and Islam. We teach kids to read and understand Arabic -- that's the difference between [our schools] and extremist madrasas. They teach how to read Arabic but not understand it. When you understand the Koran, there's nothing that says girls can't go to school. The two worst sins one can commit are killing someone and committing suicide. The real enemy anywhere is ignorance."

Does he still get threats here?

"I still get hate mail. I get threats. I've had threats all over the country. Our house was smashed by supremacists. People don't like the fact that I'm helping Muslims out. [Other] people don't like that I'm talking to the military. My wife says if people on the extreme right and extreme left don't like you, then you're doing the right thing. Americans are really great people. We're compassionate and courageous. There's too much emphasis on fighting terrorism, based on fear. If we promote peace, it's based on hope."

Did you manage to hear Mortenson's talk last night or read his books? Please share your thoughts.

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