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American promotes global peace by building schools

Nov. 19, 2010

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Image courtesy of Central Asia Institute
Best-selling author Greg Mortenson, who recently spoke in Dallas, has built more than 70 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

By Samreen Hooda
Reporter

He is well known for his best-selling novel "Three Cups of Tea" and as the American who builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet his story began with an accident that changed his life.

Greg Mortenson first went to Pakistan on an attempt to climb the mountain K2. After getting lost twice, cold, sick and hurt, Mortenson stumbled upon the small village of Korphe where the locals nursed him back to health. It was here, Mortenson said during his recent visit to Dallas, that he first encountered what would become his new life.

"I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt doing their school lessons," Mortenson said. "Most of them were writing with sticks in the sand. When I saw those 84 children sitting in the dirt and they asked for help to build a school, I made a promise that day that I would help them."

Mortenson didn't realize then that the climb ahead was still steep. He came back to the states and wrote letters to 580 celebrities asking them to donate to the cause. He got one response: a check for $100. But he did not give up, speaking at schools and appealing to people's desire that all children have a right to an education. Mortenson eventually got the funds he needed to begin the school he had promised.

"I built that school and then 78 more and I'm still doing it today," Mortenson said.

This is his life's purpose and he constantly strives to fulfill it, said Sadia Ashraf, outreach coordinator for the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit Mortenson started to promote education in remote regions of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is his passion for the cause that has made him so remarkable at what he does, she added.

It is this ability to mix passion with a unique perspective that many say makes him a revolutionary.

"I think philosophically speaking he's looking at an issue that's been there for many years, looking at it through completely fresh eyes and also looking at it through the perspective of an American, which is a little bit unique," said Amir Omar, city councilman for Richardson. "And his ability to come back to the States and explain those needs in terms that other Americans would understand, I think that has a really compelling message to it. It not only impacts children in Pakistan but also it impacts the perceptions of Americans."

Yet Mortenson's vision is not just designed to change perspectives, but to alter future generations by educating today's youth, especially women.

"When a girl learns how to read and write, one of the first things she does is teach her own mother," Mortenson said. "The girls will bring home meat and veggies, wrapped in newspapers, and the mother will ask the girl to read the newspaper to her and the mothers will learn about politics and about women who are exploited."

Teaching women, Mortenson says, is the way to changing the world.

"When someone goes on jihad, they first should get permission and blessings from their mother," he said. "And if they don't, it's very shameful or disgraceful. And I saw that happen after 9/11. They were primarily targeting illiterate, impoverished society because many educated women were refusing to allow their sons to join the Taliban."

But education of this sort can only take place when you don't walk in as strangers to try and change the world, but first become family, Mortenson said.

That happens with three cups of tea.

"The first cup you're a stranger, second cup a friend and the third cup you become family. That doesn't mean you just go around drinking tea, having peace in the world," he said. "But what it means is that first we have to build relationships and get to know each other."

That's how Mortenson believes in promoting peace: one school at a time.