Greg Mortenson controversy: Girls in Pakistani schools speak for themselves

What really matters

Like millions, I’ve been mesmerized by humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s story of compassion, commitment and courage. Like so many, I am heartbroken by everything that I am reading about the current controversy. The accusations against Greg are serious and the allegations of his community-based education organisation Central Asia Institute’s (CAI) financial mismanagement are troubling. Managing people’s donations, from pennies to millions, is a responsibility that should never be taken lightly. These and other concerns must be investigated and addressed appropriately. We need to hear from Greg, and he needs to be given a fair opportunity to address the allegations.

Two years ago I visited three CAI schools in Pakistan, full of young girls excited at the chance of becoming doctors, lawyers and teachers because of the education they are receiving. I met members of CAI’s local team there, proud of the work they are doing and of their friendship with Greg.

As the details of this story continue to evolve, and as the facts become clearer, I hope we don’t lose sight of the larger vision and objectives that Greg’s initiatives have inspired: that building schools and educating girls is much more effective to long-term peace and development than drone strikes; that understanding different cultures requires patience and the ability to listen; and that each one of us can do something – perhaps a little more than we’re currently doing – to make the world a better place.

For me, Three Cups of Tea – Greg’s account of his transition from mountain climber to humanitarian – was not just an inspiring book, but a much-needed bridge to understanding a part of the world through our shared humanity rather than just geopolitical exigency. Greg’s stories put a human face to an important region. They revealed aspects of my culture that I treasure – respect for elders, insatiable hospitality, generosity towards strangers, desire for learning – that are rarely seen in the monochromatic way in which the area is so often covered by media. I sincerely hope the warm feelings engendered by this book will not be undermined by the current controversy.

Greg’s journey – whether it began in Korphe or Khane, or Timbuktu for that matter – started because of compassion, which led him to build that first school, and fueled him during years of tireless, dangerous work, before there were best-selling books or speaking fees or Nobel Prize nominations.

There are now thousands of girls who are benefiting from Greg and CAI’s commitment to educating girls, some of whom I met in Pakistan. Sadia never thought she’d return to school after the devastating 2005 earthquake killed 100 of her classmates. Now she’s deciding whether to become a doctor or a teacher. Safeena, Iqra, and Fatima – young women on CAI scholarships – shared their excitement at pursuing higher education degrees, emboldened by their mothers who never had such an opportunity. Nasreen, forced to drop out of school at a young age when her mother died, is completing her medical assistant degree so she can teach other women in villages more remote than her own.

And then there’s Fozia, who I got to know this past month in Washington, DC. Fozia met Greg in her Kashmiri village in 2006, and invited him for a cup of tea in the tent where her family was living after the earthquake. At the time, she was completing her law degree and teaching. Impressed by her tenacity, Greg offered her a scholarship to study in the United States. It took two years to convince her family, but when she did, she seized every opportunity she could – learning how to ski, bike, ride horses, learn tae kwon do, speak English. She is now the first female CAI staff member in Pakistan, and an international advocate for the importance of educating girls.

These are real stories of real women with real lives and real hopes. Whatever the outcome of the current controversy, it is their dreams and that of thousands of others like them that must continue to be nurtured. If it isn’t, that will be the real heartbreak.

Salma Hasan Ali is Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly. Her personal essay, “Pakistan on the Potomac”, appeared in The Washingtonian. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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