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Pardes Yehuda: "It takes a school, not missiles"

Monday, July 14, 2008

"It takes a school, not missiles"

When I attended the presidential inauguration in 2004, I (and a number of others) managed to get into seats that had been set aside for Republican attendees (how that is American or legal, I don't know). One gentleman had on a leather jacket with duct tape writing on the back "build gardens, not bombs". A security guard told him he could leave or take off the jacket... in January in D.C. He took off the jacket, or turned it inside out, either way, he stayed. But the idea seemed offensive to people, and that is mind boggling.

I was happy to find a positive op-ed piece in the New York Times about a very special man who lives by a similar sentiment to the message on that jacket named Greg Mortenson. I had never heard of Mr. Mortenson, but I am surely inspired by the story I read. Simply put, he builds schools in Afghanistan, rather than blow them up.

Read the op-ed piece and his website for a good idea of what he does. For a concise understanding of what he has done, enjoy this quote from the op-ed piece:
"So a lone Montanan staying at the cheapest guest houses has done more to advance U.S. interests in the region than the entire military and foreign policy apparatus of the Bush administration."

Author and activist, Greg Mortenson is making real and substantial difference in a small and fractured part of the world. According to his wikipedia site, "Greg Mortenson (born 27 December 1957) is a mountain climber, former United States Army medic, and humanitarian from Bozeman, Montana." Mr. Mortenson also has a blog which seems to not have been updated recently but is a wealth of great and inspiring information.

Here is a transcripted segment of a recent CNN International report, from March '08, on Greg Mortenson and his work:

Greg Mortenson brushed his tears away. His body sagged when he saw it happen. The prize he had sought for 78 agonizing days was slipping from his view. from the top, blocking his path to the summit.

Now more than his vow was at risk. His life was in danger, too. His climbing party had started out with 12 men. Five would die. He was lost and alone at 25,000 feet with an empty water bottle and one protein bar.

"I felt as if there was an angel holding my hand, trying to take me to the top," he said. "When I lost that hand, I decided I better go down. "

What Mortenson found on his descent would test his will as much as K2. He would stagger into a remote Pakistani village, have his heart "torn out" by an unexpected encounter, and meet a girl who altered his life with one question: "Can you help me build a school?"

He didn't know it at the time, but he was about to take another dangerous journey.

Mortenson shared the details of that journey in "Three Cups of Tea," a best-selling book he wrote with journalist David Oliver Relin.

Since 1996, Mortenson has helped build 63 schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan through the nonprofit group, the Central Asia Institute. The group's premise: books, not bombs, are the best weapons against extremist groups like the Taliban.

"The real enemy is ignorance and ignorance breeds hatred," he said.

The schools encourage girls to enroll. The ultimate goal: produce educated girls who, when they become mothers, will teach tolerance to their sons.

"You can drop bombs, you can build roads, but if you don't educate girls, the society is not going to change."

That message has made Mortenson popular man. He lives in Montana with his wife, Tara, and their two children, Amira and Khyber. But he's constantly on the road, giving speeches and traveling to Asia.

That message has also made him a marked man. Mullahs have issued death threats against him. In the book, he described being kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban. He's also received hate mail from Americans who don't think he should educate Muslim children.

Yet he shrugs off any notion of being a hero.

"I see girls walking three hours to school," he said. "I see girls who are being threatened at home by the Taliban still trying to go to school."

This man is one of many people who came out of the military who clearly recognize that violence provides no paths to freedom. Since his vision and those whom Mr. Mortenson has inspired and touched make the world a safer place, I feel strongly that we all should together be saying-Thank you, Mr. Mortenson, for making real difference in the lives of people in a scarred nation.

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