Thursday, January 22, 2009

Schools For Our Enemies (A Review of "Three Cups of Tea")

“As the U.S. confronts Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Greg Mortenson, 45, is quietly waging his own campaign against Islamic fundamentalists…Mortenson’s approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education – particularly for girls – in the world’s most volatile war zone, support for the Taliban and other extremist sects will dry up.”

(Parade Cover Story, April 6, 2003)

This quote, included in chapter 22 of Three Cups of Tea, provides a useful summary of the life and work of Greg Mortenson, upon which the book is based. In an age where suspicion and hatred continue to reign around the world, even as bombs and rockets rain down on people, we desperately need heroes like Mortenson, a one-man Peace Corps for the twenty-first century. His Central Asia Institute as of 2005 has built 53 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, each with the help of local communities and with a curriculum approved by the government.

Award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin tells the awesome story of this driven young man who has worked humanitarian wonders in a region of the world where Americans are despised for their bombing campaigns and apparent indifference to the plight of civilians. The title of the book is based on the proverb that says it takes three cups of tea over many months to cement a lasting relationship. During the first cup, you are strangers; with the second cup, you become friends; and by the third cup, you are regarded as family.

Mortenson is family to thousands of Muslims in small villages and refugee camps.

How did this young man get involved in a crusade of love and kindness? He was injured in an unsuccessful attempt to climb to the summit of K2 in 1993. While he was being nursed back to health in Korphe, a remote region of Pakistan, he was stunned to see the village children squatting outside in a makeshift school with no materials or instructor. After recovering, he promised a Balti tribesman that he would return and build a school.

Needing to raise $12,000, Mortenson worked as an ER nurse in California and with great zeal wrote letters to 580 celebrities, businessmen, and others asking for contributions. That didn't work and so the son of Lutheran missionaries sold everything he owned and lived out of his car while continuing this fund-raising effort. It was children who finally turned the tide. The kids in River Falls, Wisconsin, donated $623 in pennies to help build schools in Pakistan; this "Pennies for Peace" program continues today.

One of the most dramatic aspects of this crusade is the emphasis on schools for girls in areas where the Taliban banned education for them. Mortenson believes that literate girls become mothers who have a greater awareness of hygiene, sanitation, and community development. While men and boys often leave villages, the women stay behind and pass on what they have learned to the next generation. Mortenson’s schools reflected new opportunities and liberties for the women of Afghanistan, potentially transforming the entire population.

But the dream did not come easy. Relin reports on Mortenson's kidnapping, fatwas issued by angry mullahs, and the death threats he has received in the United States after 9/11. That he resisted, survived and prevailed is sure testimony to the power of the human spirit to overcome insurmountable obstacles to achieve a worthy goal.

People of extraordinary character have always appeared during the fiercest cycles of hatred, violence, and aggression are most fierce. Martin Luther King, Jr. called such people "creatively maladjusted," for they are unwilling to accept war and hostility as part of the status quo. They carry on the tradition of spiritual masters from all the world's religions who teach that the greatest form of heroism is to turn an enemy into a friend and, Mortenson would surely add, what better way to do so by helping one’s enemy build schools? Thus did the gentle infidel called ‘Dr Greg’ become a spiritual hero for a segment of humanity in the worst of conditions.

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