Three Cups of Tea’s Greg Mortenson: An Unlikely Hero, A Builder of Schools

24 04 2009
Greg Mortenson didn’t set out to be a hero, but life pushed him into it. His sister Christa, a lifelong epileptic, died and he decided to honor her memory in 1993 by climbing Pakistan’s K2, the second highest mountain in the world and possibly the most difficult to climb. After 78 days, he did not reach the summit and stumbled into the village of Korphe…ill, worn out, exhausted.

The people there nursed him back to health. He visited the local school and saw 84 children writing their lessons in the dirt. They so desired an education, but poverty prevented them from having what they needed to learn. He promised the people he would come back and build them a school.

Greg Mortenson with Pakistani Schoolchildren - Image courtesy Central Asia Institute

Greg Mortenson with Pakistani Schoolchildren - Image courtesy Central Asia Institute

That promise led Greg to build 78 schools…and counting… in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 28,000 students so far have gotten an education because of Greg’s promise and passion.

The thing that is remarkable about Greg is that he had no money when he returned to the U.S. He lived in his car for a while. But he was determined to keep that promise. He wrote letters to 580 prominent people. He said he could build a school for $12,000 and finally Jean Hoerni, founder of Fairchild Semiconductor, sent him a check.

Greg had no experience fundraising or building schools, but he had a strong will to help the children get an education and he continually found the way to make it happen. On Hoerni’s death, he endowed the Central Asia Institute with $1 million and named Greg the director. It gave Greg the funds to build more schools and eventually more people were brought on board to help in the efforts, both in the U.S. and in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg has given tirelessly of himself in the last 16 years and has had tremendous support from his wife and two children. He spends part of each year in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region and the other part in the U.S. giving fund-raising speeches. He is a current nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and has won numerous awards.

This post just cannot do justice to the miracles that Greg Mortenson has brought into reality through his tenacity and passion. He has withstood personal danger, financial hardship, long separations from his family, and much more to make an education a reality for children…especially girls…who would otherwise have no future.

Greg has found that educating a girl does three important things:

  1. Significantly decreases the population explosion over a generation or two
  2. Reduces infant mortality dramatically in a decade or two
  3. Significantly improves the basic quality of health and life itself

Greg’s efforts have also helped build bridges, pipes to provide clean water, women’s centers, and other structures necessary to make it possible for children to attend school.

three-cups-of-tea-book-coverGreg is a testament to what one person can do…an unlikely hero, but a hero still. Read the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by Greg and David Oliver Relin about Greg’s journey. It is captivating. You can read more about Greg on the www.threecupsoftea.com website.

You can also learn more about the Central Asia Institute and make a donation to help build more schools. Pennies for Peace is a program of the Central Asia Institute that educates children about the world outside their experience and encourages them to make an impact globally by contributing pennies.

It only costs $1 a month to educate a child and $1 a day to pay a teacher’s salary. Consider giving. Your money will go a long way to making a huge difference in a child’s life.

Bravo, Greg Mortenson! You are my hero!

UPDATE 11/28/09: In a 11/25 letter from the Central Asia Institute, they say that they established 21 new schools in 2009 in Afghanistan. They also “started two dozen more women’s literacy centers, scholarship programs for hundreds of eager students and a new maternal health-training program in northern Pakistan.” Their Pennies for Peace program grew from 250 to over 4,600 schools in 2009. The program brought in the equivalent of 160 million pennies to help students all over the world. Greg’ new book Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan is being released 12/1.

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Courage in Afghanistan

15 04 2009

Today the women in Kabul, Afghanistan demonstrated against the recent Taliban-like law that dictates that Shiite women must give their husbands sex when he demands it and ask their husband for permission to leave the house, go to the doctor, get an education, etc. I wrote about this in detail in my post Honey, I Have a Headache – Not in Afghanistan You Don’t.

Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images for The New York Times

Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images for The New York Times

It takes tremendous courage for these 300 women to protest and demand that the new law be repealed. An angry crowd of close to 1000 mostly men poured into the streets near them and some shouted “Get out of here, you whores!” And worse, “Death to the enemies of Islam! We want Islamic law!” They threw stones at the women.

I remember when a group of Saudi women in 1990 drove cars in protest of their country’s law that women can’t drive. NPR.com reports that:

The women paid heavily for their actions — all the drivers, and their husbands, were barred from foreign travel for a year. Those women who had government jobs were fired. And from hundreds of mosque pulpits, they were denounced by name as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society.

And today, women still cannot drive in Saudi Arabia.

President Karzai signed the Afghan law. He is under intense international pressure to change the law, which has not yet gone into effect, and he is considering making some changes. A leading cleric Ayatollah Mohseni said: “If a woman says no [to sex] the man has the right not to feed her.” Stunning.

For more on this, read this New York Times article, which appears in the 4/16 print edition of the Times.





Mommy Died in the War

9 04 2009

Since 9/11, over 8,000 U.S. children have lost a parent in the military, according to the Department of Defense. These are the young casualties of war that we don’t talk about or even think about very often. Today I watched a 2007 movie “Grace is Gone” on HBO and I thought about it and cried…a lot.

grace-is-gone-movieIn the movie, John Cusack plays the stoic and sad father of 8- and 12-year-old girls whose mother Grace is a sargent in Iraq. He is notified that Grace died in combat and is at a loss for how to tell his daughters. He impetuously decides to take them on a bonding adventure, a testament to the love and sacrifice of parents that we try to ease the pain of our children in any way we can.

The movie was scored with beautiful music by Clint Eastwood, who was nominated for two Golden Globes for the score and one song. I could really feel the emotions of the father as he agonized over the loss of his wife and his daughters’ loss of their mother.

Over 8000 children have felt that loss due to our being in Iraq and Afghanistan. They already were made to sacrifice while the parent was away from home, but with a sudden death, they aren’t even given the opportunity to say goodbye to their parent. That parent will never come to their future soccer games and ballet recitals and graduations and weddings and baby christenings. That parent will never again hug them or tuck them in at night or comfort them when they’re scared or tell them they’re proud of how well they’re doing in school. All that is gone.

The child(ren) and the remaining parent are left to carry on…to grieve, to find some new normal in life, to wonder why this happened to them, and to ache for the loss of someone who can never be replaced.

It is important to remember that sacrifice comes even from small children in these wars we are fighting. And children suffer not only here in the U.S., but also in Iraq, where it is estimated that more than five million children (at the end of 2007; source: Iraq’s anti-corruption board) are orphans, mostly due to the war.

Take the time to watch Grace is Gone on HBO or rent the DVD. It is moving. It will touch you. If you want to help out families who have lost a loved one in the war, consider donating to one of these organizations.

  • Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund – provides unrestricted grants to families of fallen troops
  • Fallen Patriot Fund – provides financial grants to the families of those killed or seriously injured in Iraq
  • Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) – provides services to all who have lost a loved one while serving in the U.S. armed forces
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society – provides financial assistance and emergency grants to families and survivors.




  • Honey, I Have a Headache – Not in Afghanistan You Don’t

    4 04 2009

    You can’t say no if your husband wants sex and you’re a Shiite Muslim woman in Afghanistan. You are required by a new law to have sex with him whenever he asks unless you are ill. Convenient for the men…and critics are outraged at the worsening of women’s human rights in Afghanistan. Estimates put the number of Shiite (or Shi’a) Muslims there who are affected by the new law at 10 – 25% of the population.

    The new law signed by Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai restricts a Shiite woman’s rights even further:

    • She cannot leave the house without her husband’s permission and it can be only for a “legitimate purpose.”
    • She cannot seek work or hold a job without her husband’s permission.
    • She cannot get an education without her husband’s permission.
    • She cannot make a doctor’s appointment without her husband’s permission.
    • She cannot be granted child custody in the case of divorce; custody goes only to fathers and grandfathers .
    • She cannot inherit houses or land from her husband, but he can inherit them from her.

    An United Nations press release was issued about this on 4/2/09 and begins by stating this:

    The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday urged the Afghan Government to rescind a new law, reportedly signed by President Karzai earlier this month, saying it would seriously undermine women’s rights in Afghanistan and contravene the Afghanistan constitution as well as universal human rights standards.

    The press release quotes Ms. Pillay as saying that:

    This is another clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse not better. Respect for women’s rights – and human rights in general – is of paramount importance to Afghanistan’s future security and development. This law is a huge step in the wrong direction.

    I got a small taste of these lack of freedoms for women when I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1979 and 1980. I could not drive a car. A man had to accompany me anywhere I went. I had to have my arms and legs covered when I went to the main souq (marketplace) downtown (with a man, of course). I wasn’t allowed to work except to teach in the American school. I could not even go to Jeddah to join my husband until he had established himself as a legitimate person working in that country. I was left behind in the U.S. pregnant for several months and had the baby without him by my side as a result.

    But my restricted freedoms were nothing like what the Afghan Shi’a women are now being faced with. The new law legalizes a husband raping his wife. He has total control over what she does and when. If you are a woman, ask yourself how you would like to have no choice on whether you have sex or not with your husband. How would you like to be told that you cannot get an education or a job or leave the house or even go to the doctor without your husband’s approval?

    The freedoms we enjoy in the United States as women are immense compared to those that are slipping away from or nonexistent to women in other parts of the world. We don’t have pay parity with men. We don’t have many women in executive positions. We have never had a woman president. But we can choose to say no to our husbands when we don’t feel like having sex.

    Let us remember our sisters all over the world and join Commissioner Pillay and President Obama in denouncing this new Afghan law that makes a woman less than a person.





    What Price for the Sale of a Child?

    4 01 2009

    Nek Mohammed recently sold his  8-year-old son Qassem in Afghanistan for $1500. He said “I sold a piece of my heart to stop my four other children dying of hunger. I don’t have an elder son. I’m also sick.” The story was told on the RAWA News website, where news about the hardships of life in Afghanistan are reported.

    afghan-child-saying-goodbye-to-father-before-being-sold2

    A cameraman working for a news channel there captured this heartbreaking goodbye upon the sale of the boy to a wealthy woman. The woman says she bought the boy to help the family out and to give the boy a chance for a good future and education. Selling children is becoming routine in Afghanistan due to the desperation of the people there.

    New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof is just back from a trip to Asia to investigate human trafficking and sexual slavery there. He tells the story of another child sold…this one, 13-year-old Long Pross, was kidnapped by a young woman and sold to a brothel in Cambodia. She was beaten every day and often also tortured with electrical currents  to force her to be a prostitute. She hadn’t even had a period. Her virginity was sold four times at a high price…after each time she was stitched back up and it was very painful. She was never paid for her work and was not allowed to use condoms. She hasn’t been tested for AIDS yet.

    She got pregnant twice and was made to have crude abortions.  After the second abortion, she asked for some time to recover and the female owner of the brothel got so mad, she gouged Long’s eye out and threw her out. Long is being helped now by a young woman who was helped by Somaly Mam, a victim of trafficking who started an organization to help other victims.

    long-pross-victim-of-sexual-slaveryHere’s a photo of Long Pross. The Children’s Surgical Center in Cambodia has offered to get her a glass eye, but they cannot take away the pain of what she has suffered. That will last a lifetime.

     The Somaly Mam foundation reports that some children are sold for as little as $5 and some are as young as 5 years old. Profits from sexual slavery are estimated at $7 – 12 billion per year and 2 – 4 million women and children will be sold into prostitution in the next 12 months. Pravda online reports that traffickers in Cambodia get, on average, $482 for selling the virginity of a girl.

    So just what is the value of a child? $5?   $482?   $1500?  Can you put a price on the life of any child? What about your child? What is your child worth? Can you put a dollar figure on the life of your child? Why should a child in Cambodia or Afghanistan be worth any less? Why do some people think they have the right to buy and sell children? Wasn’t slavery abolished in the U.S. in 1863? This happens in the U.S., too, and equally shameful is that in Cambodia, 9% of the customers who want to have sex with trafficked children are Westerners.

    You can read more about this at http://slavery.alltop.com,  http://humanrights.alltop.com, or the new http://humantrafficking.change.org.

    What price for the sale of a child? We all pay the price for these travesties. It deconstructs our moral fabric and it ruins the lives of millions of children who could grow up to be productive, contributing members of society. The people who commit these kidnappings and sales of children are even less human(e) than they think the children they are selling are. Each time another child is sold, it puts a chink in the world’s collective heart and soul and we all feel it.





    Giving Thanks in the Midst of Terrorism

    26 11 2008

    It’s 11 p.m. CT and terror is exploding all over the world.

    • A suicide bomb exploded at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan tonight and at least one person is dead.
    • More than 100 are dead and nearly 300 injured in Mombai terrorist attacks today.
    • 3,000 refugees in Congo have fled into Uganda in the last 24 hours joining 16,500 who fled there since August to escape rebel attacks in what Newsweek calls “the deadliest battleground in the world today.”
    • 5 million people have been killed and countless women tortured and raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996 despite 20,000 UN troops (3,000 just recently added) – its largest peacekeeping force in the world. It is what Newsweek calls “Africa’s other holocaust”, worse currently than Darfur.
    • Somali pirates are seizing ships and demanding multi-million dollar ransom booty and more than 65,000 Somali refugees have fled to Kenya due to the violence there.
    • And on and on and on.

    Add to all that a worldwide economic crisis, AIDS decimating Africa, violence against women, so many other huge issues, and our own personal challenges and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sad, frightened, and depressed.

    And yet, on this eve of Thanksgiving, let us take the time to be thankful for what we have in this moment. If you’re reading this now, then one could assume that:

    • You are safe.
    • You have a computer or access to a computer and thus have a whole world open to you.
    • You have the intelligence to be able to read, the intellect to be curious about what others have to say, and the skill to have found blogs on WordPress.
    • You have the time to read.
    • You most likely have shelter as most computers aren’t sitting outside.
    • You have the ability to be connected to others, at least through the Internet.
    • You have electricity.

    Even if you have nothing else to be grateful for, if you have those things, that’s more than a big percent of the world has. When I lived in Saudi Arabia years ago, many mornings we would wake up and have no water. It’s such a simple thing to take for granted, but it wasn’t there. Or, as a woman, I couldn’t drive myself or go anywhere without a man accompanying me. Again, we assume those privileges in the U.S.

    I have a very close family member who is going through a really rough patch right now. My heart is heavy. I pray she is being protected. And I know that women, children, and men all over the world who are living daily nightmares are all our brothers and sisters and they need our prayers for protection – and actual, physical protection.

    We are all a part of a world collective consciousness and what happens to one of us affects all of us. Neale Donald Walsch, in his new book “Happier than God,” says that:

    …the powerful energy of collective consciousness – which is perhaps the most powerful creative force of all – places in all our lives unhappy experiences and tragic outcomes…outcomes to which individuals fall prey even though they obviously do not consciously choose to.

    …The way to raise the collective consciousness of humanity is, of course, to raise the individual consciousness of human beings.

    So in the midst of all these tragedies, consider doing your part by being peace, being love, being grateful, being kind, being a light. One by one, we can begin to lift up our brothers and sisters, whereever they may be and whatever they may be suffering.