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Communiqué Archive

Welcome to CAI’s blog archive. This lists past news items and stories about what has happened with the organization both stateside and overseas! Please send any comments or questions to


December 23, 2013 – Getting it just right

Vocational Centers

One of the best ways to support women in rural and remote communities is to give them the tools to earn their own money.

“There’s a proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’” said Central Asia Institute Co-founder Greg Mortenson. “The same thinking inspires CAI’s women’s vocational and literacy centers.”

CAI has more than 40 such centers, including 22 in the Gilgit-Hunza region of northern Pakistan, all aimed at women’s economic empowerment.

The centers are as different as the women themselves. Some focus on delicate embroidery for hats, pillows, and decorative items. Others make woolen thread and weave rugs. A few have started shredding old clothing into cotton stuffing and making bed mats. And many of them have evolved into tailoring shops, where members cut and stitch everything from school uniforms to men’s suits.

Yet all the women have one thing in common – a desire to sell their products and make money to help support their families. And as the centers have evolved over time, the committees that run them have increasingly asked for help marketing what they make.

Vocational Centers

To get some fresh ideas, Dilshad Begum, women’s empowerment director for CAI-Gilgit, organized displays of products at four handicrafts expos in and around Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, earlier this month. “I went to learn,” she said. “I wanted to see and experience the market situation, to advertise, see the demand value of the products made by CAI vocational centers, and see if we can find markets for the products.”

Ultimately, the goal is to continue to “empower and employ the well-trained women from the far-flung areas,” she said. But the work is evolutionary. “Each step takes time.”

CAI-G first worked with communities to build the centers. Next came skills training in embroidery, sewing and tailoring, weaving, and knitting. Then, as the women begin to generate cash for their goods, CAI-Gilgit helps them set up money-management systems and sort out the myriad issues that typically arise as the centers grow.

Time has shown that helping the centers requires a combination of social work and business management skills, along with hefty doses of patience.

Vocational Centers

Once the centers are established, the women increasingly find that they can produce much more than they can sell locally. A few centers have the connections necessary deliver items to market in Gilgit or Sost. And some of the centers have pooled their goods and opened roadside shops. But most of these areas are well off the beaten path and resources are scarce.

So Dilshad packed up a wide selection of handicrafts from the centers and, along with three trainers and two assistants, traveled to the capital to see and compare other products, observe trends, and assess the competition.


The Pakistan Mountain Festival at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad was a four-day event timed to coincide with International Mountain Day on Dec. 11. The goal of the festival was to give organizations working in Pakistan’s mountains a forum to showcase their work.

“Our products were highly welcomed by the students and teachers at the university,” Dilshad said. The event was short “but quite productive. It helped the team to interact with youth, and get feedback about the products and what changes they would want in future products.”


The two-day “Creative Hand Christmas Gala” was held at the Islamabad Serena Hotel.

Vocational Centers

“Quite a number of guests visited [the booth] and we received appreciation from local and foreign tourists,” Dilshad said. “This event was a great success and helped our team to read the demand of the high-class society in the market.”

Fozia Naseer, CAI’s program manager in Azad Kashmir, also attended the Serena event along with Naseem Irshad, the teacher at the women’s vocational center in Bedhi village.

“The important thing for me was for our teacher to go there and see the things they make in the northern areas and get some ideas,” Naseer said. “I have always noticed that people, especially foreigners, like the smaller things. They want to buy something so they have a taste of the local culture, like a souvenir, but it should be small. Naseem was thinking she could sell some things, but a lot of them were too big, like the bed sets and sweaters, and you can’t always sell the big things.”

Naseem, however, was thrilled to see the possibilities.

“It was my first time to Islamabad after 16 years and I am really thankful to Central Asia Institute and to Fozia for the opportunity to see this,” she said. “It was a great experience. I wasn’t able to sell many things, people wanted different colors or patterns. But I learned a lot.”

Vocational Centers


In Taxila–an ancient city about 20 miles northwest of Islamabad – the local Multi-Purpose Housing Society organized a three-day “family gala” that included a craft fair, Dilshad said.

“It was specifically targeted to mid-class society,” she said. “Although the days there were hectic, it helped the team to learn a lot about different markets and variety of products and their demands.”


CAI-G also set up a booth at the Lok Virsa, the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage in the Islamabad’s Shakarparian Hills, during its early December Mountain Festival.

The one-day exhibition attracted people from different regions of Pakistan who “gave positive feedback about the CAI’s initiative to support women from the far-most regions of Pakistan in marketing and advertising their products,” Dilshad said.

“The team met many interested customers and provided them with samples of their products and they are expected to return with a larger demand,” she said.

The team’s efforts yielded a lot of information, which Dilshad will share with all the CAI-Gilgit centers in the months to come.

“It was tiring but it was a big success,” she said. “We learned a lot.”

Dilshad had help from CAI-Gilgit Office Manager Sayeed Akbar, Logistics Coordinator Munnir Uddin, and three trainers from the region: Jahan Bibi (Ghich), Afsana Bibi (Singal), and Sher Nigar (Hasis). Nasreen Gul, a CAI scholarship student studying nursing in Rawalpindi, also helped.

QUOTE: Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. – Helen Keller

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications Director. Photos by Dilshad Begum and Fozia Naseer 2013.


December 19, 2013 – The 2014 Journey of Hope Calendars


The 2014 limited-edition Journey of Hope calendars are going fast!

If you want one – or more – act now to ensure you get a copy of this beautiful limited-edition collection of photographs from CAI projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

Each calendar is $10 and all proceeds go to CAI’s work to promote education, especially for girls, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

To order online, click HERE. Or call 406.585.7841; email, or send a note to: Central Asia Institute | P.O. Box 7209 | Bozeman, MT 59771, USA.

Thank you. Shukria. Tashakur.

– CAI staff

Sneak peek at what’s inside:

2014 Calendar

2014 Calendar

2014 Calendar


December 11, 2013 – CAI delivers another Journey of Hope

‘You can’t eat hope,’ the woman said.
‘You can’t eat it, but it sustains you,’ the colonel replied.
– Gabriel Garcia Márquez

WAKHAN CORRIDOR, Afghanistan – Central Asia Institute often talks about the “remote” places where we work.

We work in rural areas. We work in the mountains. We travel vertigo-inducing roads along mountain ridges and cliffs, through glacial streams, and over loose talus slopes to reach villages well off the beaten place, places where there is no electricity, cellphone service, potable water, paying jobs, or even a cash economy.


But I’ve learned that remoteness is a hard thing to convey to people who have never seen CAI’s work on the ground. As CAI’s communications director and the author of the annual Journey of Hope publication, I am constantly reaching for anecdotes to explain the isolation of these regions, and why working there is so rewarding.

For example, last year as I interviewed students in a ninth-grade class in De Ghulaman High School, I heard what sounded like a train (impossible, since the nearest rails are hundreds of miles distant) coming toward the school. Seconds later, a herd of yaks stampeded down the mountain, just outside the classroom windows – huge, burly animals, thundering toward the river. Their hoof beats shook the ground and drowned out voices in the classroom.

The students didn’t bat an eye. But I did. I glanced at photographer Erik Petersen and raised my eyebrows in response to the dream-like sight. It reminded me of something I read in Afghan Scene magazine. “The contrasts are sometimes what makes this place so hard to shake from the brain. There is surrealism to everyday life.”

As the herd thinned, a boy in threadbare clothes and plastic shoes ran behind it, herding strays.

That boy should be in school, I thought as the 15 students told me their dreams: four of them want to be teachers, two want to be engineers (including a girl), and eight want to be doctors. One girl had already resigned herself to the marriage her parents had arranged.

Just down the road, the ninth-grade students in Sheshp High School told me two of their female classmates had recently dropped out “because of marriage.”

“Girls usually marry at 14 to 16 years old,” Headmaster Bismullah said. “But their families [still] want them to learn how to live a better life, to have clean home and trade with animals and be better person.”

So the girls stayed in school as long as their parents allowed.

The remaining students, however, have high hopes amid almost impossible odds. Almost all of their parents are uneducated, with the exception of one boy’s father who studied to class three. “All are farmers, growing peas, wheat, and barley,” said Dehqan, 15.

The students’ awareness of their options is limited by their isolation. Not one of them has ever ridden in a car. Even though the traders who ply their wares up and down the only road through the Wakhan bring mobile phones to sell, there is no cellphone service to connect the village with the outside world. None of these kids have ever seen a television. “Once upon a time a man had a television and everyone wanted to see it, but it didn’t work,” Dehqan said.

The children’s off-school hours are filled with work. They rise with the sun to look after the sheep, milk the cows, and bring the water from the spring. After school they collect firewood and pound animal dung into patties for heating and cooking fuel, wash the dishes, and tend to the younger children.

But they have dreams. One girl, Moina, said she wants to go to high school and then to university. “I want to study because I want to be a doctor. There are no doctors here.”

De Ghulaman High School, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan. Photo: Erik Petersen 2013

“These children are the future,” says CAI Co-Founder Greg Mortenson. “But their lives are hard.”

Across the Panj (Oxus) River, in Tajikistan’s rural and mountainous Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, it’s common to see children on the roadside selling fresh and dried fruit, recycled plastic jars filled with honey, or bags of nuts to supplement their families’ meager incomes. They try to flag down drivers or run alongside slow-moving vehicles.

In urban areas, young children fare no better. They work for “small money” in shops, as mechanics, or even factories – anything to help keep the family alive. They join their mothers begging at busy intersections or on the muddy side streets. They dig through trash piles in search of food, or anything they can burn as fuel.

Children’s poverty haunts everyone. But the good news is that there is a growing acknowledgement that education is the path out of poverty.

“Education is a matter of life and death for us,” Mohammad Hanifa, a 15-year-old in class nine at Sun Valley High School in Khanday, Pakistan, said in a speech at an all-school assembly in June. “We all know the importance of education. Without education any nation cannot progress. The world is progressing rapidly [and] without requisite advance in education not only shall we be left behind others, but we may be wiped out altogether. Our Holy Prophet also said that ‘seeking knowledge is the duty of every Muslim man and woman.’ The importance of education is equal for men and women both. We [are] especially thankful to [Central Asia Institute] who provide us with the opportunity to get the quality education.”

He then asked CAI to please help his school construct a science laboratory for the upper-class students. “Our future is in danger,” he said.

Mohammad was not exaggerating. And his ominous plea applies across the regions where CAI works.

“Until the last decade, many people in Afghanistan lived in such isolation that they were largely untouched by the modern world,” according to the 2010 Afghanistan Education Sector Analysis by London-based Adam Smith International. “Reliance on subsistence farming as the primary means of livelihood for over 90 percent of the country further entrenched the insularity of much of the population. Except for a very few urban areas, many communities had little contact with trading or commercial centers. Accordingly, in many parts of the country, neither men nor women had access to formal educational opportunities.”

Girls, especially, suffer. In many areas where CAI works, female literacy rates are still in the single digits. In conservative areas, girls who pursue education still face threats from extremists, family opposition to girls’ education, and being forced into marriage. Others have no options: In Urozogan province, for example, there is no high school for girls.

Khanday/Sun Valley Middle School, Baltistan, Pakistan. Photo: Erik Petersen 2013

“Afghans, as is true in many low-income countries, typically invest less in the education of their daughters than in that of their sons,” according to the Smith analysis. “It is understood that boys will grow up and continue to support their parents. Daughters, on the other hands, are often seen as having a low investment potential, since they will join their husband’s family as soon as they are married.”

But there is hope. Our annual Journey of Hope publication – which will be mailed in coming days – documents CAI’s centers of hope, which now include nearly 300 schools, 42 women’s literacy and vocational centers, 10 scholarship programs, and 31 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects.

This is the seventh edition of Journey of Hope, which is, for me, seven labors of love. Since my first trip to visit CAI projects in 2007, I have returned 18 times and visited hundreds of projects. In many of these areas, the poverty is profound. Malnutrition, opium addiction, and disease are often too prevalent for my Western, solution-minded disposition. The rising sectarian violence and the war with extremists, both of which have crept into once-peaceful remote areas where CAI has projects, take a toll on everyone.

But the kind of work that CAI does in the world takes time. Mortenson often says it takes generations. And it is happening, as the late CAI proponent Sarfraz Khan used to say, “Slowly, slowly.”

Questions about the future abound – not the least of which is what will happen when international security forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014. In Pakistan, the “permanent state of enmity with India,” combined with a desire to influence what happens in Afghanistan, and deploy “Islamic extremists or non-state actors as a tool of foreign policy in the region,” continues to drain the national budget, author Ahmad Rashid wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2011. “Democracy, liberalism, tolerance, and women’s rights … are all pronounced Western or American concepts and dismissed.”

“Pakistanis desperately need a new narrative,” he wrote. “But where is the leadership to tell this story? … Nobody is offering an alternative.”

Can hope survive and prevail against such a backdrop? Of course it can and it will. We have to dream. And we have to encourage the children to dream.

“There are 600 million adolescent girls in the world today, imagine if they were educated to the point where they were economically viable, where we can make sure they can exercise their rights, where we can make sure they will not be abused,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin said in May 2013. “We would have a peaceful world because women are peacemakers, because women build nations.”

At CAI, it is our job to help as many of those girls – and boys — as we possibly can get a quality education and fulfill their dreams for a better future.

As the author Barbara Kingsolver wrote: “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.”

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director.


December 5, 2013 – Ode to Joy

At this time of year, when days are short and the dark nights seem so long, it is important to remember the light in our lives. Remember the joy.

In the words of Frederich Buechner: “Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes.”

Joy is a mystery. And it is a gift.









– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director. Photos by Erik Petersen


December 3, 2013 – Be a part of Giving Tuesday. It will make a difference.

Giving Tuesday

As Central Asia Institute’s database manager, I am the lucky person who sees the generosity and thoughtfulness of our supporters every day. I hear and read CAI supporters’ stories about why they are passionate about girls’ education and peace in the communities where we work. I receive the handcrafted cards from Florence in Washington each month. I read letters from motivated teenagers like Amy in Massachusetts, who grew up volunteering for her father’s non-profit. I am humbled to hear from young students who donate their birthday money to support Pennies for Peace.

It is inspiring that so many people take the time out of their busy lives to give. Give their time, compassion, and money to support CAI’s mission in Central Asia. We at CAI are thankful for our supporters – thank you for giving, and helping create a better world for so many.

Photo: Erik Petersen 2013.

Thanksgiving is a time to give, be thankful, and spend time with family and friends. But it has also turned into a time of consumption and materialism. Black Friday now starts on Thanksgiving Day, and for some, the whole holiday is centered on shopping.

Last year, Giving Tuesday was started to create a day of giving that follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The idea is to inspire people to give to their cause of choice. Today is Giving Tuesday and we want you to be a part of it.

Donations to CAI go toward supporting community-based projects in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. If you did shop on Black Friday, the money you saved could send a girl to university, or provide clean drinking water for an entire community. Giving just a little this Giving Tuesday could be the first step toward educating a girl, and empowering a community.

If you can’t donate today, you can still give – volunteer, start a Pennies for Peace drive, or post an #UNselfie to promote Giving Tuesday. Give back to the world around you in some way today. It will make a difference.

To donate to CAI, click here.

For more information on Giving Tuesday, visit

QUOTE: We only have what we give. – Isabel Allende

– Laura Brin, CAI’s database manager


November 27, 2013 – Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States that dates back to colonial times, a time to count our blessings and express our thanks.

It was the first U.S. president, George Washington, who proclaimed in 1789 that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”

Photo: Greg Mortenson 2013

Nearly 70 years later, as the American Civil War raged on, then-President Abraham Lincoln set aside the final Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day. In a 1863 proclamation, Lincoln urged Americans to give thanks for their numerous blessings, remember the “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged,” and pray to God “to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it [to] … peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

In recent years, the holiday has evolved into a more secular celebration for many Americans, complete with football games, parade, and lavish family dinners. Yet it remains centered around gratitude.

With all that in mind, we at Central Asia Institute have been reflecting on what we’re grateful for. Throughout November we have posted those reflections on our Facebook page (click to see those posts, along with photos and supporters’ comments and contributions to the conversation). But here are the highlights:

• We’re grateful for the determined children learning to read and write in CAI-supported schools.
• We’re grateful for small donkeys, those beasts of burden that help carry the load for children and adults throughout the mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan, & Tajikistan.
• CAI is grateful for friends, those people who stick with us through thick & thin, make us laugh, hold our hands, and know our hearts.
• We are especially grateful for teachers, those patient and persistent people who educate, encourage, and inspire us. They teach us to think. And they light up the world.
• We are grateful for music, the language that goes beyond words, that touches us in ways nothing else can. Music inspires, comforts, calms, enthralls, and connects us. And it makes us want to dance.
• And we are thankful for mountains. As Jill Wheeler said, “Mountains have a way of humbling us, if we accept the opportunity. Mountains have a way of connecting us to ourselves, nature and to others, by simply being out there. Mountains have a way of challenging us so we learn we can handle more, achieve more and feel stronger.”

We are also grateful for our supporters, people who believe every child should learn to read and write, and who believe in the power of education to change the world.

Thank you, tashakur, shukria.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

QUOTE: In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director

Photo: Greg Mortenson 2013


November 15, 2013 – Difficult and dangerous: Education in Afghanistan

EDITOR’S NOTE: David Starnes recently returned from his first visit to Afghanistan as Central Asia Institute’s executive director, a position he has held since March 2013. Here he shares some of his thoughts, impressions, and reflections.

A lasting impression from my recent visit to Afghanistan was inspiration: from those who built these schools and the students who continue to endure great hardship to attend the schools and receive an education.

One striking example of this came during my visit to a CAI-supported school south of Kabul (the exact location cannot be disclosed due to safety and security reasons). The school had been badly damaged by a truck bomb that exploded nearby. The explosion left behind shattered windows and damaged doorways, a reminder of the extent to which violence is still prevalent in the areas where we work.




The school was closed until the repairs could be made; however, since all schools in Afghanistan become the property of the Afghan government, it is still unknown how long it will be until the students return.

While we toured the school, gunfire erupted near us. We were standing in the front entrance area when the bang of rifles and staccato of automatic weapons echoed around the area — most likely a gun battle between police and militants.

“Click Photo to View Video”

We left the village and drove to another CAI school atop a hill, overlooking the community we had just left. This time, students were present and talked to us about their school. We asked them about the fighting in the area, and they freely shared that fighting occurred almost daily and that it was common for stray bullets to strike the school. When asked if that scared them, they shrugged and said it is the way things are. It is simply part of the risk that they take to come to their school.

Many of us take our education in the United States for granted, but in Afghanistan, many students have to fight for the right to a basic education. Some students are forced to earn their way to be allowed to attend school. Others have to overcome violence and neglect. Still others are forced to adopt basic survival skills in the war zones that they call home. But they do all of those things because they value literacy and knowledge. They are willing to put their lives on the line to receive their education.

– David Starnes, CAI’s executive director


November 13, 2013 – “Sir Sarfraz”

A year ago today we lost our dear friend and colleague Sarfraz Khan. There are no words to express how much we miss him, his sense of humor, his energy, and his tireless determination to help CAI make the world a better place. We think about him every single day.


On this day, we’d like to honor his memory by sharing a poem written by several CAI-supported scholarship students in northern Pakistan. These young women read the poem aloud during a ceremony in Gilgit, Pakistan, in May.

Sir Sarfraz


The moment when the lamp extinguished
The earth wept. The skies cried.
The earth has since been weeping.
The sky has since been crying.
If we were asked to make a wish,
The wish would be to have you back.

Our eyes full of fear, our hearts thumping fast
We have left our worries in the past
And there’s nothing to fear
But why we are so scared?

Life shattered in front of us
Dreams scattered on the floor
All the hopes and dreams we had with you
Have no meaning any more
We have lost ourselves, deep taken in, by all the sorry
In the unfathomable oceans of woes


We walked towards the beacon
But it dimmed and going to be our
It again shone
We wanted to get caught
But it was gone.

We are the glamour of today
Our life complete cessation
But your glimmering guidance endless
And your shining star ceaseless
Akin sweet temptation
Indeed your guidance endless

Moments that we spend together
Your love was so warm, like a father
But never forget you, ever and ever
So hard to find, a devotee as you


Little drops of water, rolling down our face
Full of deep emotions, extreme pain their base
We try our best not to cry
But they fertile the soul, that is so dry.
Our silence inside us engulfs us like a bug
Our injured esteem, hurts with people’s tug.

He is popular
He is a flower of heaven
He is lighting our lives
Such a great person
God has gifted you a wisdom
We love you.

The way of education you have shown.
You have shown us right path.
You are a loyal
You are the crown of our heads.
You have given a good chance to get the education.”

Composed by: Shabana Jabeen, Ghazala Naz, Naila Jabeen, Naseem Bari & Rahima Naz

– Compiled by Karin Ronnow / Photos by Ellen Jaskol


November 8, 2013 – CAI Releases Annual Report (September 30, 2012)

Central Asia Institute (CAI) has released the Annual Report for the fiscal years ended September 30, 2012 and 2011. The report summarizes CAI’s financial statements and programs, and illustrates how your support continues to further our mission.


As I noted in my annual report message, I am just settling back into my office in Bozeman, Montana, after a four-week tour of Afghanistan, where I made extensive visits to schools, women’s centers, and community-based projects. This trip came on the heels of my June trip with Greg Mortenson to Central Asia Institute (CAI)-supported schools and projects in Pakistan.

The scope and scale of CAI’s work in some of the most remote and dangerous areas of the world is inspiring. Schools that were originally started years ago with 20 or 30 students now have hundreds of students. Young girls, who 10 years ago were prevented from attending schools, now make up the majority of students in many schools. We are honored and proud that, with your support, CAI delivers hope to children, women, and their families in underserved areas of Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

The past two years have been a time of controversy, change, and transition for CAI. While continuing to support hundreds of schools and projects overseas, CAI staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to improve CAI’s operations and procedures to ensure that the wishes, intents, and trust of our donors and the best interests of our beneficiaries are our highest priority. Just a few highlights include:

Longtime CAI team member Apo Abdul Razaa, center, declares CAI “Number One” during a visit to Marzigon Primary School in Pakistan in June. He is joined by CAI Cofounder Greg Mortenson, left, CAI Executive Director David Starnes (with rose chain around his neck), third from right, and numerous CAI friends in Baltistan. Photo: Erik Petersen 2013

1. CAI has completed all actions required under the Agreement of Voluntary Compliance—a document signed by CAI and the Montana Attorney General’s Office in 2012 that outlined corrective measures and monitoring procedures.

2. Expansion of our Overseas Grantee Monitoring program, with independent accountants now reviewing CAI-funded projects and grantees’ activities in all three countries.

3. Completion of the independent financial audit for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2012.

4. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss with prejudice a lawsuit claiming damages against CAI and Greg Mortenson over Three Cups of Tea.

Looking ahead, CAI will continue to focus on sustainability and improving the quality of CAI-supported schools and projects through teacher trainings, scholarships, curriculum enhancement, provision of school supplies, and expanded training for community health workers. While that means fewer new schools in the near future, it reflects a commitment to an improved educational experience for all students. Like you, we want to insure that the young girls and boys we serve will live out their dream of getting an education—and that they can go on to become the next generation of locally educated doctors, teachers, nurses, accountants, agriculturalists, engineers, lawyers, pilots, policewomen, professors, and more.

On behalf of CAI’s Board of Directors, staff, and the communities we serve, thank you for your continued dedication to the mission of peace through education.

– David Starnes, CAI’s Executive Director

CAI’s Annual Report and the full audited financial statements are also provided on our Financials Page.


November 6, 2013 – 2014 Journey of Hope calendars available for pre-orders


The 2014 limited-edition Journey of Hope calendar has gone to press and Central Asia Institute is now taking preorders.

This year, photographer Erik Petersen and CAI Communications Director Karin Ronnow documented CAI projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. The calendar includes stunning photography of CAI projects, plus explanations of CAI’s programs and a map of the areas we serve.

The stories will be published in the upcoming “Journey of Hope,” which is scheduled for an early December distribution.

Each calendar is $10, with delivery available by early December.

Proceeds from all calendar sales help CAI carry out its mission to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

Order yours now. CAI calendars make great gifts, and help us spread the message of peace through education.

To order online, click HERE. Or call 406.585.7841; email, or send a note to: Central Asia Institute | P.O. Box 7209 | Bozeman, MT 59771, USA.

As always, thanks for your support.

– CAI staff

Sneak peek at what’s inside:

2014 Calendar

2014 Calendar

2014 Calendar


November 5, 2013: Happy Islamic New Year!

Central Asia Institute wishes everyone a blessed Al Hijra (Islamic New Year)!

Ancient astronomers and navigators used astrolabes, such as the one pictured here, to locate the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and determine local time. In the Islamic world, it was also used to calculate prayer times. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the History of Science.

Al Hijra is the first day of the Islamic New Year. It marks the day when Mohammad began his migration from Mecca to Medina to establish the first Islamic state in Islamic Year 1 (AD 622).

For Muslims, the New Year is not a holiday with a lot of traditions or rituals, although some individuals make resolutions and use it as a time of self-reflection.

“We seek forgiveness on shortcomings of the past,” Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the city’s largest mosque, told “And we are being thankful for the good we already achieved or obtained in the past. At the same time, we are putting our new visions and renewed commitment to do better in our coming days.”

Not everyone agrees on the precise date for Al Hijra, as the Islamic lunar calendar typically has several variations by region.

Like the Gregorian calendar, the Islamic calendar consists of 12 months, according to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. However, each month starts with the sighting of the crescent moon and is 29.5 days long. The Islamic calendar year, then, is 354 days long, 11.25 fewer days than a Gregorian calendar year.

This year’s holiday marks the start of the year 1435.

Many Islamic countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, use the Islamic calendar alongside the Gregorian calendar. Muslims everywhere use it to determine the proper days on which to observe the annual fast of Ramadan, attend Hajj and celebrate other Islamic holidays.

QUOTE: We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day. – Edith Lovejoy Pierce

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


October 15, 2013: CAI humanitarian support safely delivered to Eskitol village in Afghanistan


After waiting weeks for the fighting to abate, a Central Asia Institute team has safely delivered a truckload of humanitarian aid to a small mountain village in northeast Afghanistan that was buried by a landslide in September.

Five people were killed when heavy rains triggered the massive slide, sending boulders, rocks, dirt, and mud down the mountainside onto Eskitol village in Badakhshan province, said Janagha Jaheed, one of CAI’s Afghan community program managers. The landslide also destroyed homes, fields, bridges, and roads.

“The people, especially the women, were very much happy about receiving the support and said CAI is the first organization that could reach them and get into this remote area,” Jaheed said. “They particularly mentioned that the food package and tents and blankets they received are very helpful because they have lost their houses and all tools. Also the weather here is getting cold and the women and children were getting sick and suffering due to being out in the open space and having no good food.”


CAI learned of the disaster from Jaheed, who e-mailed the Bozeman office. “A mountain slide started over Eskitol village at 9 o’clock at night and continued until 9 o’clock the next morning,” he wrote. “As result of this phenomenon, five people were found dead, but 15 more are still not found.

“Forty houses are totally eliminated,” Jaheed wrote. “More than 300 goats, sheep and cows of the local people have been killed, 900 bags of cement from the National Solidarity Program are also lost and almost 100 acres of land … is changed to flood field and has become useless. The power station of the village is also eliminated; three bridges are totally destroyed; and the road to Eskitol remote village is cut. Those who are alive have been carried to an open and wide dessert.”

CAI does not have a school in Eskitol, although village leaders have requested one. Those same leaders helped us in 2010, when CAI built a school in nearby Sangliche, “one of the most remote and isolated villages of Zebak district, just about 20 kilometers to Pakistan border,” Jaheed said. Nimatullah, an Eskitol elder, helped with preparations and logistics for the CAI team’s journey, collecting 12 donkeys to carry people, building and school supplies, “a real journey of hope,” he said.


Now Nimatullah and his extended family are homeless, Jaheed said. So much “has gone under the flood and is lost,” he said. “They are in a very bad condition.”

Zebak District Education Director Abdul Majeed Khan was the first government official to cross the river and visit the disaster area. He told Jaheed about the situation with the local school: “They had a small area with three tents set up as a primary school, but the flood and landslide, unfortunately, have completely removed the field and tents. As the phenomena started at night and students were not at school, no student has been killed there. But right now not only students, but all children need urgent help and aid like food and clothes.”


Delivering aid was to the beleaguered villagers was complicated by fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Warduj district, adjacent to Zebak.

But the CAI team made it to Eskitol with a truckload of tents, blankets, and food on Oct. 2. Jumah Gul, CAI field manager in Zebak, and Mahbobullah, administrative/finance officer in Baharak, led the disaster relief delivery effort.

“It took place in the time when Taliban were all around the mountains of Eskitol village and there was much security risks in the area while our team was getting in there, according to Zebak district Gov. Mir Ahmad Shah Zigham,” Jaheed said. “But they did not stop. They got there and did their noble job.”

Each family received a tent, blanket, and a package of food that included flour, rice, oil, tea, and sugar.

QUOTE: What is the use of living, if it not be to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? – Winston Churchill

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


October 11, 2013: International Day of the Girl Child

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Resolution in 2011 setting aside October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. The intent is to call attention to girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.

Today, during this second annual celebration, the focus is on “Innovating for Girls’ Education”.

As the UN noted, girls’ education “is the one consistent positive determinant of practically every desired development outcome.” Yet, as the UN also noted, “many girls, particularly the most marginalized, continue to be deprived of this basic right.”

Central Asia Institute joins people around the world in honoring girls as we continue to work for the right of every child to get an education and pursue her dreams.

Help us spread the word by sharing our post on Facebook or Twitter.

International Day of the Girl 2013

– Central Asia Institute


October 9, 2013: Federal appeals court affirms dismissal of case against CAI and Mortenson

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Central Asia Institute was pleased to learn Wednesday that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has dismissed the purported class-action lawsuit against it and CAI Cofounder Greg Mortenson.

The federal appeals court ruling upholds U.S. District Court Judge Sam E. Haddon’s dismissal of the case with prejudice in Great Falls, Mont., in May 2012.

A three-judge appeals panel ruled that the plaintiffs’ “conclusory statements and minimal factual allegations” on the allegations of fraud, deceit, racketeering, or breach of contract were vague and insufficient, according to court documents.

Also, “the [lower] court acted within its discretion in dismissing the complaint and denying leave to amend. Plaintiffs have already had multiple opportunities to amend, even after the defects in the pleadings were identified in extensive briefing[s].”

U.S. Appeals Court Judges Barry G. Silverman, William A. Fletcher, and Consuelo Maria Callahan unanimously agreed the case was “suitable for decision without oral argument” and concluded: “The district court properly dismissed the complaint.”

“Clearly I’m pleased with the court’s decision,” said CAI Board Chairman Steve Barrett. “I’m also happy to report that we have satisfactorily completed all specific actions outlined in the Assurance of Voluntary Compliance that CAI signed with the Montana Attorney General’s office in 2012.”

The AVC was part of a 2012 settlement agreement following the AG’s inquiry into allegations that CAI had, over a period of years, failed to maintain adequate financial controls, governance, and stewardship processes. CAI has since made numerous internal changes. The AG’s office has indicated it is satisfied and did not propose any action beyond those enumerated in the AVC.

“The conclusion of both of these weighty matters – the appeal and the AVC requirements – allows CAI to rededicate its energy and resources to the important work of promoting education, especially for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. As we’ve said before, no other NGO does what we do in these locales with such a small team of dedicated individuals.”

CAI has worked with communities in these mountainous regions for 17 years to build and/or support nearly 300 schools, 42 women’s literacy and vocational centers, 10 scholarship programs, 31 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects, and more than a dozen community programs.

Click here to see the ruling on the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

CAI staff is available to answer any questions or concerns. Please contact us at

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


October 7, 2013: Students express hope & gratitude during “Dr. Greg’s” visit to Baltistan

Korphe School, Baltistan, still strong after 17 years. Photo Mohammad Nazir, 2013.

Central Asia Institute Cofounder Greg Mortenson just wrapped up his second visit to Baltistan, in Northern Pakistan, this year to visit schools, students, teachers, and old friends.

Accompanied by Mohammad Nazir, our community project manager in Baltistan, and a small crew of CAI supporters and volunteers, he spent three weeks traveling the back roads of Baltistan. He visited some of CAI’s oldest projects in the Shigar, Braldu, and Hushe valleys, and met with leaders in communities seeking CAI’s help with education for the first time.

Asked about his impressions, he offered this quote from Edward Kennedy: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dreams shall never die.”

Here are some photos from Greg’s September education expedition. We hope you find them as inspiring as we do.

“More powerful than politicians, bombs, drones, armies or terrorists: first-grade schoolgirls,” Greg Mortenson says of these students at Jafarabad Girls’ School. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
Greg Mortenson and Taha Ali, village chief in Korphe, visit with schoolgirls in Shigar Valley, Baltistan. These are the first girls in their village to ever attend school. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
“Girls’ education is the most powerful force of change in the world,” says CAI cofounder Greg Mortenson. Photo: Greg Mortenson, 2013.
Hyderabad Middle School students and teachers gather for the inauguration of the recently expanded school. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
This fifth-grade girl (wearing a black cape) wants to be the first policewoman in the Shigar Valley, Baltistan, Pakistan. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
Greg Mortenson reviews a biology lesson on blood flow through the human heart with a seventh-grader. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
Students at Nar School in Baltistan, Pakistan, gather outside their classrooms for a group photo. Photo: Greg Mortenson, 2013.
Hushe students crowd into school veranda while storm passes. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
Sakina back in Korphe village after heart surgery in Italy. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
Greg Mortenson with Jafarabad Girls’ School students. “Brave girls full of hope,” he said. Photo: Mohammad Nazir, 2013.
Thugmo village schoolgirls enjoy a “drama” (play) at their school in September. Thugmo is in the Shigar River valley north of Skardu. Photo: Greg Mortenson, 2013.
Students at Nar School in Baltistan, Pakistan, gather outside their classrooms for a group photo. Photo: Greg Mortenson, 2013.

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


September 16, 2013: Australian quilter captures hope through education

Photos speak to people in unanticipated ways. Because they have the power to reach beyond words to tell a story, photographs can provoke emotion and create connections. And they can inspire.

Ellen Jaskol’s photos in Central Asia Institute’s (CAI) 2012 “Journey of Hope” calendar so inspired artist Gillian Shearer of Australia that she replicated one in an art quilt.

Gillian Shearer’s art quilt replicates Ellen Jaskol’s photo of two Afghan schoolgirls.

“I enjoy creating art quilts of people, especially children,” Gillian wrote to Ellen in an email, asking permission to use a particular photo. “I love all of the images you took from your time there and it was hard to pick just one.”

The one she chose was the calendar cover photo of two schoolgirls, an image Ellen captured in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor in September 2011.

“I am so touched that Gillian chose to do a quilt from this photo of the two schoolgirls,” Ellen said. “Of all the thousands of photos I’ve made of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think she picked my absolute favorite image.”

After getting Ellen’s permission, Gillian stitched the 125-by-83-centimeter quilt entitled “If You Educate a Girl You Educate a Village,” with the intent of entering it in an Australian quilting contest this fall.

Gillian’s use of vibrant colors juxtaposed with shadows, the lifelike hair, fingers and toes, and the determination depicted in the young girl’s eyes convey the power of education to inspire hope.

“I lost count of how many hours it took in the end, and how many tiny pieces of fabric it took to make the girls!” she wrote. “It’s been one of the most tedious quilts I’ve made but certainly one I’ve had the most joy in creating.

“I’ve had lots of nice comments and really enjoy explaining the story behind it,” she added. “I hope I did it justice.”

We think she did a terrific job. Or, as Ellen said, “Wow!”

Good luck in the Queensland Quilters competition, Gillian.

QUOTE: If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint. – Edward Hopper

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


September 3, 2013: Pashtun women’s poems reveal centuries of irrepressible creativity


Afghans hold poetry in high regard. But if you want a glimpse into the private lives of mostly illiterate Pashtun women, get your hands on a copy of Poetry Magazine’s June issue. It is dedicated to landays, the two-line, 22-syllable Pashto poems of life and death, love and war, laughter and loss.

“This is rural folk poetry,” Eliza Griswold, a journalist and poet who worked with photographer Seamus Murphy to collect the landays and share them with an international audience, said in an interview on PBS’ News Hour.

Many landays reflect painful realities of Pashtun women’s lives:

“When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

“You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.”

Others have a modern twist, Griswold noted. “Women have recited these poems for centuries,” she told PBS. “So they have gone from talking about the riverbank, which is the place you gather water – and, of course, the place men go to spy on the women they have crushes on – to Facebook, to the Internet. And so they really reflect the currents that women in Afghanistan are encountering today.”

Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.

“How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged now. Text me.”

The couplets are passed along orally, often to music, and in some cases for generations. “This is poetry that’s meant to be oral. It’s passed mouth to mouth, ear to ear,” Griswold said.

The result is that landays “belong to no one and everyone,” Murphy wrote in an essay on the project.

But they are also anonymous, to protect the female poets, who risk their lives to write, sing, and share the poems. Griswold actually got the idea for this project after she wrote a magazine article about a young woman who’d been beaten for writing poems and later killed herself.

Murphy recalled: “A group of women from Helmand discussing landays in a refugee camp insisted on burying Eliza’s mobile phone in a sea of cushions to ensure no recording could be made of their voices. They didn’t want recognition. They said they could be murdered if their husbands knew what they were discussing with outsiders. The significance of this separates our worlds.”

Yet the two were determined to collect and translate the poems before international forces leave the country in 2014. With the help of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, they made several trips to Afghanistan and women and girls singing the landays in their homes, at weddings, in refugee camps.

Photo: Ellen Jaskol, 2011.

“Pull that burka back, and [a Pashtun woman] will talk to you about the size of her husband’s manhood,” Griswold told PBS. “She will go right for it: sex, raunch, kissing, rage. She will talk about the rage of what it is to be cast in this role of subservient, in a way that’s really startling.”

“Your eyes aren’t eyes, they’re bees
I find no cure for their sting.”

“I could have tasted death for a taste of your tongue,
watching you eat ice cream when we were young.”

Murphy wrote that the poems helped him to understand the strength of Afghan women: “I discovered landay poetry through the book, “Songs of Love and War,” a collection sourced and edited by the eminent Afghan poet and philosopher Sayd Bahodine Majrouh. Landays were couplets that had the ache and anger of simple truth. They barely or rarely mentioned God and left me feeling I was being profoundly changed. That they reportedly came from mostly illiterate Pashtun women leading oppressive lives in rural areas made them even more remarkable. A hidden world opened up; it was like rediscovering Afghanistan.”

The structure of the poems is always, in Pashto, two lines and 22 syllables: nine syllables in the first line and 13 in the second, Griswold wrote in the introduction to the collection.

“Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. In Pashto, they lilt from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief or love.”

Photo: Ellen Jaskol, 2011.

“I call, you’re a stone.
One day you’ll look and I’ll be gone.”

“Be black with gunpowder or blood red,
but don’t come home whole and disgrace my bed.”

The poems also offer a unique insight into how the women view the war.

“There’s a lot of anger at the Taliban, a lot of rage at the hypocrisy of the Taliban, and an equal amount, if not more, rage at the hypocrisy of the Americans and what their influence has left behind,” Griswold told PBS.

“May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women widows and whores.”

“My Nabi was shot down by a drone.
May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.”

Ultimately, the landays demonstrate the irrepressibility of the human spirit.

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


August 19, 2013: A message from CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson on World Humanitarian Day

Central Asia Institute today joins the global community in celebrating World Humanitarian Day.

Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.

We especially remember and give thanks for the humanitarians and aid workers, who have given their lives in the service of our fellow human beings.

The idea to have a World Humanitarian Day, and the month-long observation that follows, began after the tragic Aug. 19, 2003, murders of 22 aid workers at the United Nations office in Baghdad, Iraq. The goal is to increase awareness of the dedicated people, organizations, and communities that help people in distress due to disaster, exploitation, and neglect.

In 2008, there were more than 210,000 humanitarians working around the world, according to the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance. However, in my opinion, there are actually millions of men and women who are dedicated to the service of others and hope to make the world a better place, including teachers, healthcare workers, human-rights activists, social workers, environmental activists, mediators, and volunteers.

Most humanitarians are passionate about their work, and feel it is a labor of love, or a calling, rather than a mere job. And in some parts of the world, dedicated humanitarians put their lives on the line in their service of others.

Although the news media often covers the murders of professional aid and development workers, many more humanitarians die in relative obscurity. Their poignant stories – especially those of the women in Afghanistan and Pakistan –resonate in my heart today, and I want to share a few with you.

In 2007, Zakia Zaki, the founder of “Radio Solha” or “Radio Peace” in Afghanistan’s Parwan province was killed in her bed at night, along with her 2-year-old daughter. Zakia, who was also a primary school principal, used the radio, which is often the only form of media in rural areas, to highlight violence and oppression against women, which put her on top of the Taliban’s hit list.

A year later, Belqis Mazlomyar, a female activist who helped empower Afghan refugee women through literacy, micro-credit and other programs, was killed by her stepbrother. Belqis was working in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistan border, and had continued her work despite death threats from men and religious leaders who were opposed to her assistance for widows and single mothers. Although her five children were devastated when Belqis was killed, her youngest daughter has resolved to follow her mother’s path and also be a humanitarian worker.

Photo: Teru Kuwayama, 2009.

Hanifa Safi, a 51-year old human rights activist, was killed in Afghanistan’s Laghman province in July 2012, when the Taliban exploded an improvised bomb under the hood of her car. Her crime, according to the Taliban, was that she did not stay home and be a good wife, and instead became a public official, providing legal advocacy for female victims of domestic violence and abuse.

Sima Akakhel, a young girls’ school principal at Ahmad Shah Durrani Girls’ High School in Afghanistan’s Balkh province, was brutally murdered in her home on Aug. 10, 2012 during the fasting month of Ramadan, while her husband and father were praying at a local mosque. She was a fierce advocate of girls’ education in rural areas who, despite constant threats and harassment, never stopped trying to get every girl possible into school.

In March this year, a girls’ schoolteacher, Shahnaz Nazli, 41, was shot dead in Shahkas, near the town of Jamrud in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal district, between the northwestern city of Peshawar and the Afghan border. Despite having a low salary, and despite repeated family requests for her to stop teaching, Shahnaz had a strong conviction that her life’s calling was to teach. She paid with her life.

Photo: Fozia Naseer, 2013.

In May 2013, women’s activist and politician Zahra Hussain, 67,was shot in the face and killed by drive-by assailants as she left her home in Karachi, Pakistan. Zahra encouraged women to assert their legal rights and be more politically active and she was also outspoken about election rigging, which was most likely why she was murdered.

In June 2013, five women administering polio vaccines were gunned down in Karachi and Peshawar, Pakistan. Over the past decade, there has been a huge global push to eliminate polio, which has been a top priority of the Rotary Club. However, the Taliban attacks on polio workers, which began in 2012 and are part of their campaign to stop polio vaccines for good, have now exposed about 400,000 children in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan to polio.

Shamim Akhter, 50, a social worker from Hyderabad, Pakistan, who worked for the NGO Tando Jam, was also brutally murdered in June. Local police have refused to investigate and have threatened to kill her sister, Tasleem, if the family does not retract the investigation request.

These women represent just a fraction of the hundreds, if not thousands, of women who have been murdered around the world for simply trying to teach girls, alleviate suffering, empower the oppressed, and make the world a better place.

May we not forget their stories, yet remember that all of them would not want us to mourn or pause too long in memory, as there is still much work to do.

QUOTE: Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live. – Robert Kennedy

– Greg Mortenson


August 16, 2013: YMCA campers get glimpse of life in remote villages where CAI works

BOZEMAN, Mont. — Start with breakfast. That’s what I did this week to help explain some of the similarities and differences between growing up here and growing up in the remote mountain villages where Central Asia Institute (CAI) works.

So what do campers at the YMCA Summer Adventure Camp eat for breakfast? Lots of cold cereal, they told me. One of them, however, prefers “chocolate toast” (toasted bread with Nutella spread). Another likes pizza.

But in Chapursan Valley, in the mountains of northern Pakistan where CAI has about two-dozen projects, a typical breakfast is bread and milk tea, I told them. And often, it’s the same for lunch and dinner.

CAI Communications Director Karin Ronnow speaks to children at the Gallatin Valley YMCA Summer Adventure Camp Tuesday in Bozeman, Mont., about life in the villages halfway around the globe where CAI works to promote education. Photo: Laura Brin, 2013.

“What if you don’t like bread and milk tea?” one camper asked, her eyebrows furrowed with concern.

“You eat it anyway because that’s all there is,” I said.

The YMCA camp emphasizes “fun and educational learning” for kindergarteners to sixth-graders. Each week counselors and campers focus on a theme and CAI was asked to participate in this week’s “Globetrotters” program.

The 45 students tried on hats from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. A couple of them walked slowly across the SOB Barn loft’s dusty wooden floor wearing a burka. And they asked dozens of questions about what daily life for the children we work with half a world away.

I told them about the class of high-school students I met this summer in Afghanistan who had never, ever ridden in a car or seen a computer; about the students in CAI-supported schools who wind up teaching their parents how to read; and about the comparatively small mud-brick houses, heated with smoky wood or dung fires, where extended families live and eat and sleep together.

“But kids are kids,” I said. “You and the children in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan are actually more alike than you are different. You all have families who love you and want the best for you and your future. And all around the world, a brighter future begins with education.”

A large part of CAI’s mission is to promote peace through education — in the communities where we work overseas, and just down the street.

QUOTE: Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. – Aristotle

– Karin Ronnow with photos by CAI Database Manager, Laura Brin






August 8, 2013: Eid Mubarak!

Central Asia Institute’s Board of Directors and staff wish all our Muslim friends blessings of peace on Eid al-Fitr, at the conclusion of Ramadan.

Around the world, the rising of the crescent moon at the end of the month of Ramadan marks Eid al-Fitr, a joyous holiday for an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims. Here a crescent moon rises over the mountains in Alaska. Photo: Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic Image Collection

Eid al-Fitr, which means “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” is one of the most joyous days in the Islamic calendar, marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. It is in some ways similar in spirit to Christmas, Hannukah, Dewali, Kwanza and other faiths’ joyous occasions.

Throughout the month preceding Eid, the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world focus on fasting (no food or water) during daylight hours, prayer, and charity. These are all demonstrations of self-sacrifice and devotion to Allah, or God.

“Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad and is a time of increased spiritual reflection and devotion,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Ramadan holds special significance for Muslims, said Farid Senzai, a CAI board member.

“Its many benefits include that it allows Muslims to obey one of the major pillars of Islam and commandments from God,” Senzai said. “It also includes personal and spiritual purification as well as controlling one’s desires. It encourages empathy toward the poor and needy who do not have enough to eat or drink. And it creates a social dimension that brings Muslims from all walks of life together.”

Ramadan takes place during the ninth month on the Muslim lunar calendar, so Eid al-Fitr marks the start of the 10th month, Shawwal. As with Ramadan’s starting date, the ending date varies around the world depending on the sighting of the new, or crescent, moon.

“Some celebrate in conjunction with the local moon sighting,” CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson explained. “Others rely on the moon sighting in Saudi Arabia.”

Moon sightings are serious business when it comes to Ramadan. In Saudi Arabia, the Supreme Court collects evidence of crescent moon sightings, which this year were reported on Wednesday, Aug. 7, so Eid al-Fitr will be observed today, Aug. 8, in the kingdom.

In Pakistan, the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, an elite body charged with moon sighting, is expected to sight the crescent moon tonight, with Eid celebrations on Friday.

At the end of a month of reflection and self-sacrifice, Eid is a time of thanksgiving. In the words of some CAI overseas managers who sent their best wishes by phone and e-mail today:


From the Hindu Kush Mountains in the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan: Wakhan manager, CAI community manager Pariwash (Pari) Gouhari: “Eid Mubarak to all our CAI supporters from all over the world who given us the best Idi [gifts given during Eid-al-Fitr] of all: schools and girls’ education through all the Wakhan.”

From the plains of Punjab Province in Pakistan, Suleman Minhas, CAI Punjab program manager: “Eid Mubarak to all people, and we pray for peace for all the world. We especially thank Dr. Greg and CAI team for 20 years of service to remote villagers, and the donors who give us the gift of education. Ramadan is a time we especially remember and pray for the poor people, widows, and orphans, and we open our hearts and make alms [charity] for the ones who suffer.”

From the Karakoram Mountains in Baltistan, northern Pakistan, CAI program manager Mohammad Nazir: “On this celebration of Eid, I send greetings from the CAI Baltistan team, and we give thanks to Allah for giving us life, health, family, and education. It is a happy time to celebrate and share gifts, but most of all we are grateful for education for the children, which gives us hope and peace for the future.”

From Kabul, the Afghan capital in the Hindu Kush Mountains, CAI-Afghanistan Program Manager Wakil Karimi: “On behalf of all CAI students and teachers here, my family and entire CAI Afghanistan team send greetings and best wishes to all of you who support CAI and education. The gift of education to the poor is the most precious and holy gift anyone can give and it gives us a future of hope and peace. Peace is very important to everybody, but especially to parents in Afghanistan who everyday worry about whether their children will return home from school or be injured or killed in suicide bomb, roadside bomb, shooting or poisoning. Thank you, Tashakur, for your belief in a better future for Afghanistan.”

And last but not least, from the Rocky Mountains of the United States, Greg Mortenson: “Eid Mubarak to all our Muslim friends, brothers and sisters, and thanks to the dear children, parents, teachers, and elders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan for your patience, and teaching me about life’s greatest lessons. My life’s greatest honor is to serve you, support girls’ education, and be welcomed into your families with eternal hospitality and kindness.”

– Karin Ronnow, CAI communications director


August 7, 2013: CAI helps young Afghan women jump hurdles to higher education

NOTE: The young women’s names have been changed for their protection.

Every time I visit the Central Asia Institute-supported scholarship students attending university in Kabul, I am impressed by their determination, courage and persistence. They face a combination of obstacles most Westerners can barely fathom: life in a war-torn country, illiterate parents, an oppressive culture, entrenched poverty, and few female role models.

They are pioneers in their families and their communities. Yet they are modest about their accomplishments. They put their lives on the line every time they agree to share their stories. And their goals almost always revolve around making Afghanistan a better country.

Photo: Erik Petersen, 2012.

“My decision for my future is to be a good teacher, serve my country, and [convey] those things that I learned to others,” 21-year-old Fahima, a CAI-supported student who attends a teacher’s college in Kapisa Province, said recently. “My parents are not educated people. And they are very interested that I study more and more to become a very famous person and do service to my country.”

The country needs educated young adults. Nearly 75 percent of the Afghan population is illiterate; 88 percent of women are unable to read and write, according to a UN Report.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan is extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid,” according to Index Mundi. “Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. …. Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world.”

CAI believes education is fundamental to a better future for Afghanistan – and Afghans agree. “Demand among Afghans for better schooling … is at its highest point in decades,” New York Times reported July 20.

Enormous barriers still exist. An estimated 4.2 million children, mostly girls, still don’t attend school. Of those girls who do enroll, many drop out before reaching high school due to forced marriage, a shortage of female teachers, conservative beliefs that girls should not study or work outside the home, or security concerns amid Taliban threats. If they do manage to finish high school, girls who want to attend university still must take and pass the university entrance exam, the kankor, get permission from their parents to attend university, and find a way to finance it.

It’s easy to see why only one-fourth of the students in Afghanistan’s universities are female.

On the other hand, the good news is women make up 25 percent of university students, and that their numbers have been growing steadily since the Taliban government was ousted in 2001, according to the UN report on Afghanistan’s compliance with the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

In any given academic year, CAI supports 18 to 20 young Afghan women pursuing college and university degrees. Those girls know they are among the lucky ones. Education has changed them – for the better.

“My childhood has been different because of my education,” said Aliah, 20, also a student at the Kapisa college. “I enjoy every second of my life. I guess that I am a complete person.”


* * * *

Here are some thoughts from these and other CAI scholars’ about the importance of education and their dreams for the future:

Why is education important?

Hila, 20, Kabul Medical University: “Education is important because it is the light in our lives that helps us find our way to a good life, security, and a good economic situation for our families.”

Karimah, 24, Kapisa: “With knowledge we can know the difference between good and bad, do our duties, and arrange our lives in successful ways”

Latifa, 19, Kapisa: “Education is important because it makes us better citizens and we can be better people.”

Aliah: “Learning makes our future bright. Also, by knowledge we can know ourselves and our God. Knowledge is like a big ocean. And today the cause of the world is the promotion of education.”

Fahima: “Education is important because it is the message of Islamic religion and the basis of civil society.”

Laila, 26, Kabul: “It is important because it is our duty to learn knowledge, serve our country and the children and eliminate the ignorance from our country.”

Niazmina, 22, Kapisa: “Knowledge is the bridge between the lightness and the darkness in our lives.”

Photo: Ellen Jaskol, 2011.

Dreams for future

Karimah: “I want to be a good teacher to serve my country and have knowledgeable people to bring peace in our nice country.”

Hila: “I hope to be a wonderful doctor for my people.”

Latifa: “My decision for my future life is to be a good teacher and serve the kind children of my country.”

Sherina, 21: “The most important thing is to provide access to education so that [Afghans] can learn something and do it in our practical life. Then, lots of changes will come, we can build our society and improve our own lives.

Niazmina: “I want to be able to make money so that I can help myself, my parents and family and my country.”

How is your life different because you have an education?

Sherina: “When I learn knowledge, at first I know myself, and then I know my God. I also know about my responsibility to respect my nice parents. And from the time that I started education my life became a bonanza. I become successful in all that I do. I am thankful to my kind Allah that give me the chance to study and become a literate person. … By learning knowledge we can build our society.”

Fahima: “Knowledge brings the positive points in my life and I am happy that I have education.”

Latifa: “Lots of changes have happened in my life because of education. It means we can know about events that happened [history] and what is going on now in the world. And education teaches us to respect our parents and elders.”

Niazmina: “A lot changed when knowledge came into my life. They were positive changes. I better understand my relations with my family and other people. And I learned that, without knowledge, life is like a dark ocean and we can’t find or get to our target. With education we have a secure society, money and peace – [all of which help us] get to our target.”

Hila: “My education makes me a more successful person.”

Laila: “When a person gets education the positive changes come into their lives. From the time that I started learning, lots of changes came into my life. I can make decisions with my whole family. Also, with learning comes opportunities to make money and without money we can’t do anything.”

QUOTE: A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special. – Nelson Mandela

– Karin Ronnow, with help from Wakil Karimi in Kabul


July 23, 2013: Silver Jubilee party marks 20 years working in Baltistan

When Greg and CAI Executive Director David Starnes arrived in Skardu in mid-June this year, CAI’s local program director, Mohammad Nazir, had a surprise waiting: The traditional welcoming tea had ballooned into a party with more than a dozen old friends.

“Today is the 20th anniversary of ‘Dr. Greg’s’ mission” to promote education in the mountain villages of Pakistan, Nazir said. “He came in 1993 to climb K2. So this is the Silver Jubilee.”

“Twenty years of service,” he added, then waved his arm to indicate the cake and a table laden with sweets and fresh fruit, tea and cold drinks. “Congratulations, sir!”

Greg, who is still fondly referred to as “Dr. Greg” in this region, introduced David to the people who had gathered to welcome them and then took a few moments to greet his friends individually.

Greg Mortenson, Taha Ali, and Apo Razak cut the almond cake prepared for Greg’s “Silver Jubilee” celebration. The party, organized by CAI’s Baltistan manager Mohammad Nazir, was held in June at the Indus Motel in Skardu, Baltistan, Pakistan. Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.

Before cutting the cake, he asked Apo Abdul Razak, his long-time friend and colleague, to say a dua (prayer).

As everyone sat down, Greg and his friends recalled when he came to Baltistan in 1993 to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. Over the next few years, he returned several times as he worked to fulfill his dream to build a school. By 1996, he and the villagers of Korphe, with financial help from the American Himalayan Foundation, had finished the first school ever built in that community. That year he also formed the nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI) with help from CAI cofounder Jean Hoerni.

When asked what has changed in the intervening years, Nazir said, “Every year is an adventure, with new things. These days much has changed with the people understanding the importance of education, especially for their sisters and daughters. Now they understand everything, and Baltistan is stronger because of CAI and Greg’s work.”

Greg, who grew up on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, where his late father helped establish Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, has always said that real change takes one or two generations, and referred to an old Swahili proverb: “The gestation of an elephant takes longer than that of a goat,” which means good things take a while to manifest.

“It is rewarding and inspiring to see that some of the first girls to go in our schools are now mothers, college graduates, and, even more, that they are making a profound change in the community,” Greg said.

At one point during the afternoon party, Nazir took a moment to acknowledge the past.

“The only thing missing is our old friends and teachers, but they are with us in spirit,” he said, referring to former colleagues who have died, including Haji Ali, the former village leader in Korphe, and Sarfraz Khan, CAI’s most-remote-areas project manager, who died of cancer last November.

“For us, Greg is still the same,” Nazir said, smiling. “We feel like we did in the beginning – we have hope and we are very thankful he came to Baltistan.”

QUOTE: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

– Karin Ronnow, CAI communications director


June 4, 2013: CAI team visits Broghil region of extreme northern Pakistan

GILGIT, Pakistan – Central Asia Institute’s Gilgit-based team, photographer Erik Petersen, and I have just returned from an amazing journey to visit some of CAI’s projects in the Broghil region of extreme northern Pakistan, adjacent to the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. These projects are some of CAI’s most remote undertakings in Pakistan, difficult to access, and beyond range of roads, phones, or electricity.

The Broghil region is one of the most underserved areas in Pakistan, with few schools or educational opportunities. The people eke out a living in a barren environment at high altitude (often over 10,000 ft), and are blocked off from civilization for about 7-8 months annually due to harsh winters. In addition to their livestock of sheep, goats, and yaks, they are agro-pasturalists, who live on marginal subsistence crops of potatoes, buckwheat, and barley.

Originally, people migrated here to escape wars, natural disasters, slavery, high taxation, and persecution. To escape the long winters, and due to lack of health care, opium addiction has been historically rampant here, although recent health care initiatives have had an impact.

We traveled by jeep, foot, and horseback through the Hindu Kush Mountains to Broghil, where CAI has two schools and supports a third. Our ultimate destination was Chilmarabad High School, about 3 miles from the Afghanistan border. Along the way, we received remarkable hospitality, even though the villagers had little to spare, and they were grateful that an NGO has taken an interest in their plight and future.

Erik and I were the first foreigners in five years to travel the route, an ancient trade route that was closed by the Pakistan government, but reopened this spring at CAI’s request with the help of Pakistan’s intelligence services, military, and former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti.

Besides the sheer spectacle of traveling on horseback under blue skies into such a pristine area, amidst the chatter of marmots, the highlight of the trip was to meet the eager students and dedicated teachers, who see education as their greatest hope and tool to improve their lives for the future.

Here are some of Erik’s photos from our journey:

Fazil Baig, left, CAI’s Ghizer-area program manager, CAI Communications Director Karin Ronnow, and Iqbal Karim, CAI-Gilgit accountant, ride along an old trade route en route to Chilmarabad School, high in the Hindu Kush, an eight-hour round-trip hike or horseback ride from the end of the road. Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.
Chilmarabad students and staff pose for a photo outside the school, which was completed in 2012. Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.
A goat herder moves her flock past laborers, at bottom, as they break ground on the new Gharan School in northern Pakistan. Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.
On the trip back to Gilgit, the CAI team came around a corner on the infrequently traveled road to find a crowd of residents of Khand Khun, who had arranged an elaborate tea in hopes of getting CAI’s help with a school and basic health care services. The high-mountain village is cut off during the long winter months by deep snow and has distressingly high maternal, infant, and child mortality rates. Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.
A group of students sit on the floor of a cramped classroom in the mud-and-stone community school in Gharan. CAI is helping to build a new primary school for the village. Photo: Erik Petersen, 2013.

– Karin Ronnow, CAI communications director


May 23, 2013: CAI scholarships help make girls’ dreams come true in northern Pakistan

ISHKOMAN VALLEY, Ghizer District, Northern Pakistan — When Ayla Bibi was 16 years old, her widowed mother decided it was time for her youngest daughter to quit school and get married.

Child marriage (before age 18) is still common in the remote mountain villages west of Gilgit. In Pakistan as a whole, 31 percent of girls wind up as child brides, one of the highest percentages in the world, according to UNICEF. Poverty, tradition, and desperation all play into parents’ decisions. Yet research indicates that for each year a girl remains in school beyond fifth grade, her marriage age is delayed by a year.

Fozia Naseer, left, translates as Shakeela describes her work as a maternal health worker in Baltistan. Both young women pursued higher education with the help of CAI scholarships. Photo: Carmine Leighton, 2010.

In Alya Bibi’s case, her uneducated mother felt she had no other choice. The girl’s father had died when she was 5 years old. The family is impoverished and landless, having sold everything they owned over the years “to make money for food,” she said.

“My mother struggled to look after us without any help from our relatives or the government,” Alya Bibi said. “My (older) sister was married and my brother had no job and no education. My mother sent me to school in a nearby village, but it was hard for her to bear our expenses.”

Then in 2009, Central Asia Institute (CAI) began work on a primary school in her village. Although Alya Bibi would be too old to attend by the time the school was built, “We were all very happy that now we would have a school in our village and could study nearby our home.”

But Alya Bibi’s happiness didn’t last long. “Because they could not bear the expenses of my schooling, [that year] my brother and mom decided my engagement to a man from a nearby village. I was shocked because I could not understand what is marriage. My friends started teasing me. I started crying. But my mom and brother pushed me to be ready and said I would have to marry anyway.

“I just cried and prayed to God to save my life,” she said.

Then one day, the CAI project manager working in her village came to Alya Bibi’s house for tea. He asked about her education.

“My mom told him, ‘She is in class six and we are going to marry her this year.’ She told him her story … how my father died without treatment,” Alya Bibi recalled. “He asked my mom and brother, ‘If I give her scholarship, can the family wait until she can complete her grade 10? She is very young to marry.’

“My mom and brother were puzzled because they had decided to marry me. And it was impossible for them to stop that [deal] with that family and wait for three years. They told him, ‘That means we cancel this marriage and for that we may be fined by the village elders, for which we are not ready because we have no money to pay.’”

The manager urged them to try anyway. Negotiations ensued between Alya Bibi and her fiancé’s family, money was exchanged, and the arranged marriage was cancelled.

“My prayers were accepted by the Almighty Allah and next time when the CAI manager come to our village … he asked me, ‘Are you ready to go to Gilgit and continue your education there and work hard?’ I was happy and said, ‘Yes. I am ready.’

Alya Bibi, 20, is now a student in class 10, thanks to a CAI-supported scholarship. She dreams of becoming a teacher.

“I am happy and feel lucky that I met this manager, otherwise instead of getting my education I would have two or three babies and no life manners. I thank CAI for helping me and saving my life when my family could not help. I am just praying for Central Asia Institute. They help thousands of girls like me and save their lives.”

Alya Bibi is one of more than 100 girls in rural Pakistan determined to continue their education and aided by CAI scholarships. These courageous girls are often the first females in their families to get an education.

Here are excerpts from recent interviews with a few of them, during which they discussed why education is important to them and their dreams for the future.

CAI scholarship students in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Photo: Carmine Leighton, 2010.

Alya Bibi: “Education [has] changed my life and my mind. It will help me to improve my coming family’s way of life and protect the lives of women in my area. … I want to become a teacher and work in the CAI school in my village. I want to save other girls in my village whose parents want to marry them at age of 16 without giving them education.

“The most important thing to learn is to help poor people support their children’s educations, then they can help decide good things for future generations.”

Shabnam (19, first-year college student, Gupis Valley, Ghizer): “I am a medical student so I want to be a doctor in future. Education is very important for me to make my future bright. … My parents are uneducated and they believe we can survive without education. But I think that without education we are nothing and just blank. My life will be different from them because my thinking level is higher than theirs.

“After becoming a doctor, I want to help the people of my area. I will feel proud that I also can support my family like other male members of my family and make my performance in the society.”

Rabia (20, third-year college student, Ishkoman Valley, Ghizer): “ I faced lots of problems in my previous life due to lack of education and poverty of my parents. My parents are uneducated and my father is jobless. He is not feeling well; his health is suffering for last six years. Because of education, my life will be completely different from theirs.

“Education is important to develop my skills. I want to change my life, the environment of my home, and my village. When I complete my education I will try to get a job to support my family. … The subject I have chosen is sociology, so I want to be a social worker to give services to my villagers. I am getting scholarship from CAI since last three years so I want to give services to this institute after completing my education.

Naseem Perveen (21, third-year student, Gojal, Hunza): “After disaster of Attobad Lake [which flooded villages in 2010], my parents and I were too worried about our land because the only source of income was the land and it was completely destroyed. My parents are uneducated and they are both deaf and dumb. I am the eldest child of my parents and it was my responsibility to give moral support to my parents. One of my relatives told me about this scholarship and I contacted CAI with the help of that relative.

“Education is important for me to change my life, to change my personality, to change my thinking pattern, and to support my family. Obviously my life will be different from my parents because I got a good environment for studying and learning.

“My dream for the future is to get good education. Afterwards I want to do something extraordinary to give education to remote areas where there are people facing problems because of lack of education.”

Students pursuing higher education in Gilgit with the help of CAI-supported scholarships take a break from doing homework. Photo: Ellen Jaskol, 2010.

Shamsi (17, second-year college student, Ishkoman Valley, Ghizer): “Education is important for me because I want to be a doctor and help the people of my area. Also, in every society, those people who have good education and knowledge get respect.

“Many people think that education is not so important. [But] I think that without education we can get nothing in this world. Money, respect and values are all just because of education. The Holy Koran says, ‘Are they equal who know and who don’t know?

“My father is educated; he was a teacher and he is retired now. My mother is uneducated. My life will be different than my parents’ because I got better environment and education than them. My thinking level is higher than theirs and my point of view about every aspect of life, including education, is different.”

Mehak (17, first-year college student, Chapursan Valley, Hunza): “We need good education to be a good citizen, differentiate right from wrong and contribute to society. Because of education, I think I have good manners and my way of talking, meeting others and thinking is better than [that of] uneducated people. And I have the confidence to face the challenges of life.

“Indeed my life will be different than my parents’. They are uneducated. But my dream for the future is to be a doctor. After completing my education I want to improve the environment of my home and village and serve my family, community and the society. I want to be a role model for the people of my village.”

Shimshad (18, third-year commerce & economics college student, Yasin Valley, Ghizer): “My father is uneducated and he is blind, and my mother died when I was 3 years old. My life will be completely different from theirs because of education. Already education has changed my behavior, my thoughts, my way of making decisions, and my way of taking action.

“When I complete my education, I want to do something for my family to support them. I want to become a banker or work with accounts and give social services to the people of my area.”

QUOTE: The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled. – Plutarch

– Karin Ronnow, CAI communications director, with help from Dilshad Begum and Saidullah Baig in Gilgit, Pakistan


May 10, 2013: CAI supports Afghan teachers in training


KAPISA Province, Afghanistan — Farida was 36 years old when she decided to return to school to earn a teaching degree. She was relieved to learn that tuition at the Teacher Training College in Kapisa Province, where she lives, is free.

But she quickly figured out that she was still going to need some financial help.

“Without assistance, I don’t have money to get [transport] to the school, to pay taxi or for bus, to buy books and supplies,” Farida told me in February.

Hers is a common refrain in conversations about girls pursuing higher education in this impoverished, war-torn country: “All girls in Afghanistan they have talent, but they don’t have the opportunity to tap that,” she said.

That’s where Central Asia Institute’s (CAI) new scholarship program comes in. With the help of the Teacher Training College (TTC) administrators, Wakil Karimi, CAI’s central Afghanistan program manager, selected 30 of the teaching college’s best students and offered them a scholarship in the form of a monthly stipend.


“If we do this, we can help girls and women to help the society,” Wakil said. “We want to assist these students in their education so they can know their rights and their roles and then they can help other people, especially girls.”

Kapisa province, sometimes called the “Gateway to Kabul,” is northeast of the capital city. Most of its estimated 400,000 residents – Tajiks, Pashtuns, Pashai, with some Hazara and Nuristanis — live in rural areas and make their living via agriculture. The terrain ranges from flat to mountainous. Kapisa is the smallest province in the country, but is densely populated. Only 6 percent of households have access to electricity.

But as bucolic as that may sound, Kapisa is considered “a transient area for insurgents, transport of weapons and criminal activity,” according to a story posted on the US Central Command website in 2012. Last year, NATO international forces transferred security of area to Afghan authorities. But things have not gone particularly well.


“Right now two districts in Kapisa are under control of the Taliban; there are no female students or teachers there,” said TTC Deputy Principal Abdul Maurif.

In Kapisa as a whole, only about 24 percent of the 85,000 primary and secondary school students are girls, and only about 11 percent of the 2,300 teachers are women, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education.

The young women in CAI’s scholarship program hope to play a role in correcting that imbalance.

Marasa, 19, said she would like to teach high school history and geography.

“I want to be a teacher because it is a good job, and because girls need female teachers,” especially those from families that do not allow their daughters to show their faces to anyone “other than close relatives” after reaching puberty, she said. “I also want to be a teacher because that way I can help the next generation to develop better. Educated people have more respect for others.”

Each scholarship student receives 3000 afghanis (about $60) per month, Wakil said.


“It is not a lot of money, but if you manage it well, it is enough,” he told the students in February.

“Use the money in the proper way so it can give you benefit. Also, our help is not for a short period. We will help you graduate. But you must study hard because if your marks fall, if you lose position, we will stop the scholarship.”

For many students, including Marasa, the cost of getting to and from school has been a big obstacle to their pursuit of higher education.

“I have to come here by car, half an hour each way, and that costs 1,000 afghanis each month,” Marasa said.

Anita, 21, takes a bus from her village near the Salang Pass to the school – a 60 to 90-minute trip one way. And she does that six days a week. “It costs 2,000 afghanis per month on transportation,” so the scholarship makes all the difference, she said. “I will use the other 1,000 afghanis for stationary, books, [and] pens.”

These young women represent a big step in Afghanistan’s efforts to recruit, train, and employ more female teachers. Those efforts include reviving teacher-training colleges like the one in Kapisa.

“The conflict in Afghanistan has not only destroyed the physical infrastructure of the education system, but also the human resources that are so critical to establishing a quality education system,” according to Afghan Ministry of Education (MoE) materials.

Marouf, TTC’s deputy principal, concurred. “Unfortunately because of the situation in Afghanistan, we have a shortage of teachers. This is a result of the fighting.


“But education is the backbone of a country. If a person has education and knowledge, first he knows himself, then he knows society, then he has respect and plays a positive role and the country becomes stronger.”

The teacher-training certification takes two years and is roughly the equivalent of class 13-14. The Kapisa TTC has 2,165 male and 620 female students, according to spokesman Farid Abdul Saboor.

At the February meeting, Wakil gave a short speech explaining CAI — “in America children collect the pennies for you” – and wrapped it up with a pep talk.

“You can use your education to help other girls to study and stand beside the boys of Afghanistan.”

Farida took it to heart.

“We can use this degree to encourage and help other people in their school and education,” Farida said. “First we change the family, then the village, then the country, then the world.”

QUOTE: Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. – Socrates

Karin Ronnow, CAI communications director


April 26, 2013: If you build it, they will come: CAI’s women’s centers thriving in northern Pakistan

GICH, Pakistan – On a snowy morning in January, a fire was roaring in the woodstove in the women’s center workshop. About 30 women sat in groups around the room, stitching, sewing, cutting, knitting – all the while passing the time with conversation.

Women's Centers

In one corner, women pinned pieces of a simple paper pattern onto a swath of material, with plans to cut out pieces for children’s school uniforms and then sew them together on hand-powered sewing machines.

In another corner, the focus was on intricate embroidery for pillowcases, table linens, and decorative wall hangings.

Elsewhere, women worked on pieces of the blankets they quilt together and then stuff with wool from the local sheep.

“For the quilts and mats, we have five women working per group and it takes a group one day to make one quilt,” said Bibi Jahan, secretary of the Gich Women’s Vocational Center.

A single-size quilt sells for about 1,500 rupees; a double goes for about 2,000 rupees (about $20), she said. Subtract the cost of materials and each person gets about 200 rupees. It’s not much, but it is something. And it adds up.

Women's Centers

“People here are poor and if they make some money then they can help give education to their children,” Bibi Jahan said. “Most families are farming – fruit, wheat, corn, walnuts.

“Men usually spend money on house expenses and help pay for kids. But there is not enough. When the women can also help support their families, they combination lifts everyone up together,” she said, raising her hands, palm-side up, in front of her. “Men see this and so support women doing this work also.”

Such community empowerment is at the heart of Central Asia Institute’s work, said Saidullah Baig, CAI’s community program manager in this region of northern Pakistan. CAI supports more than 20 women’s vocational centers in this region. This particular one was built in 2011.

“They’ve had good system here from the beginning,” Saidullah said. “They were using a rented house. When they (were) pushed out, they stopped working for a year and asked CAI for help. The women bought the land [with money they’d earned and set aside] and CAI helped with the building. Then, when this building was ready, they reorganized.”

In 2011, the women’s center had about 71 members, Bibi Jahan said. “Now about 150 women use the center, operating in shifts, some in morning time, others in afternoon time.

“Mostly we sell to local people,” she said. “They are demanding these things. And we are selling in the markets, too. CAI gave us training and materials and 10 sewing machines, then handed it over to us to run.”

Women's Centers


The Gich project was one of two women’s centers Saidullah wanted me to see that day. I’d visited both sites two years earlier, when the buildings were under construction. This time he wanted to me to see how popular – and productive – they had become.

CAI has helped to empower women with vocational centers for approximately 15 years, and the centers continue to grow in popularity. In recent years, CAI has developed a more multifaceted approach, and in some areas our centers also include instruction in literacy, hygiene, sanitation, cell-phone use, and how to count and track money. The ultimate goal is to give rural women the tools to strengthen their families and their communities.

So early on a cold, rainy morning, Saidullah, Dilshad Begum, Saidullah’s wife and coworker, Fozia Naseer, CAI’s Azad Kashmir project manager, and I piled into Saidullah’s old Land Cruiser and headed west. We drove into the Ghizer district, an area near the junction of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains, famous for fruit orchards and trout fishing in the crystal-clear rivers. (The district’s name is a variation of the Khowar-language word “Gherz,” which means “refugees,” and refers to people who fled abusive rulers in Chitral more than a century ago.)

Women's Centers

The Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan abuts Afghanistan to the north and the Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province to the south and west. According to, it is a multi-ethnic region, where people speak four major languages — Shina, Khowar, Burushaski, and Wakhi – in addition to Urdu and English. Most people survive as subsistence farmers, and it’s not uncommon to see men plowing the soil behind a team of oxen, or women weeding the fields and vegetable gardens. Most families also have a few goats, yaks or cows, and the milk is used to make yogurt and butter.

That morning we saw many small groups of men waiting on the side of the road for a car or bus to take them to the city for work or business.

“This area is like Hunza,” Saidullah said. “Women do work in the field and house and men do laboring or service jobs.”

We saw children playing cricket or working outside in the sleety rain (schools in these mountain regions typically take an extended winter, rather than a summer, break). I saw a lot of new construction, which Saidullah said were new houses being built for people moving north from the nearby Kohistan region.

“Kohistan people, who are Sunni, are moving here,” he said, adding that the region has long been populated by people of Shia faith. Sunni families who already live in the area “give some of their land to Kohistan families for free to increase the Sunni population. They are building new villages.”

Women's Centers

And the changing demographics have caused some problems, Saidullah said.

“In a Shia area, someone killed a Sunni policeman and the seven other police were Shia and they didn’t arrest the killer. This caused more fighting.”

That morning we also saw a group of about 10 Sunni missionaries walking along the road.

“They are the Wahhabi missionaries, the preachers,” Saidullah said. “They travel all the time, carrying food and clothes on their backs.”

At a roadside stand we bought a few pears and applies and several kilos of kilowh, a local delicacy made by boiling grape juice, adding walnuts and then, once the mixture thickens, attaching it to a string to dry.

“Our kids love this,” Saidullah said. “It is a special treat.”


By the time we got to the first women’s center in Gich, which is at a higher elevation than Gilgit, it was snowing.

Women's Centers

After a tour of the center and a cup of tea, the women wanted to show me the large cotton shredder in a room off the back of the building. The mats the women make are stuffed with cotton from old clothes, which are run through the shredder. The day we were there, the shredder was not working.

“We need a new one,” the center’s president, Parita Dawous, told me. “The motor is working, but the blades are ruined. We bought this one second hand. It would cost us 60,000 rupees to get a new one without a new motor.”

About 20 minutes away, at the CAI-supported women’s center in Singul, the shredder is working and a group of about six older women are busy stitching colorful mats together. The mats are popular, they said, since everybody uses them for sitting on the floor.

This center has about 180 members; about 60 are active participants, said Bibi Maraj, a retired teacher and the group’s chairwoman.

Women's Centers

Two young women from the Hunza region, hired by CAI to train the women, are moving around the room, teaching and coaching as the women sewed, stitched, and embroidered.

“Some of the embroidery patterns are copied from Hunza, others are designed by the women themselves,” Bibi Maraj said.

She then took me into the small shop at the front of the building to show off the variety of items the women make: knitted sweaters and vests, children’s clothing, small velveteen pouches for women and embroidered wallets for men, school uniforms, and embroidered wall hangings.

Each item has a blue-and-white CAI logo tag attached.

“The women want people to know that we are making these things and that we are proud to be part of Central Asia Institute,” Bibi Maraj said.

QUOTE: I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over themselves. – Author Mary Wollstonecraft

Story & photos by Karin Ronnow, CAI communications director


April 15, 2013: Students ‘round the world much more alike than they are different

Note from CAI: As we prepared to post this blog item today, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line, killing at least two people. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were injured in this senseless act of violence, and the families and friends of those who died.

TOWNSEND, Mont. – When I asked who in Virginia Poole’s sixth-grade class wanted to try on the head-to-toe blue burqa I’d brought from Afghanistan, a few students hesitantly raised their hands.

Townsend, MT

The first volunteer looked skeptical, unsure about what to expect as I slipped the burqa over her head.

“Whoa,” she said, adjusting the tiny thread-mesh screen in front of her eyes. She slowly turned her head to look at her classmates. “I can’t see very well,” she said. “And it’s hot.”

By the time I helped her take off the burqa, nearly all the students – including the boys – wanted to try it on.

Most people in the United States have never actually seen, let alone worn, a real burqa. But the preteen girls in Poole’s class are at the age when, if they lived in certain areas of or belonged to a conservative family in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’d be required to wear a burqa in public, Central Asia Institute (CAI) co-founder Greg Mortenson told the 48 sixth-graders.

The burqa – which a CAI program manager gave me in 2009 before our first trip to Afghanistan’s Urozgan Province, the home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar – was part our presentation on CAI and the remote mountain communities half a world away where CAI promotes education, especially for girls.

In the United States, sixth grade is when students learn about how culture, governance, geography, invention, trade, revolution, and religion braid together to influence history, from ancient civilizations to our modern-day world. They learn about different literary genres. And they begin to understand concepts like human rights and violent oppression.

Townsend, MT

The Townsend sixth-graders had read Greg’s book, “Three Cups of Tea,” and were enthusiastically curious about him, the schools, and the daily lives of their peers overseas.

“We study world history in social studies and the students are just getting to that place where they understand the world outside themselves,” Poole said after our Friday, April 12 presentation. “Having read the book – and we were pretty engaged in the book – the students were surprised and very impressed to have Greg come to talk with them.”

She chose “Three Cups of Tea” as the nonfiction title of the year in part because the author is from Bozeman. “I thought it would help the students relate to the story,” she said.

The differences between these rural American schoolchildren and their peers in Pakistan and Afghanistan are easy to tally. Just for starters, American students attend schools with central heating, electricity, running water, computers, and well-educated teachers – things that are considered luxuries in most remote villages of Central Asia. Then there are the more dramatic differences, such as students at CAI schools walking one to three hours to get to school every morning, or girls getting married at age 12, or children being denied an education, forced to work, or sold into slavery. And don’t forget the blue burqas.

Townsend, MT

But there are lots of similarities, too, and the students found they could relate to the story on many levels. As I told the kids, “We’re really all much more alike than we are different.”

Townsend is a small town of nearly 2,000 people on the Missouri River, 35 miles north of the river’s headwaters in south-central Montana. Lewis and Clark passed through Townsend in 1805, but homesteaders didn’t arrive until the late 1860s. More than 150 years later, Townsend is still the only incorporated town in Broadwater County, a largely rural area of wide valleys surrounded by the Big Belt and Elkhorn mountains. Ranching and tourism – driven by the town’s proximity to Canyon Ferry Lake – drive the local economy.

“Rural Montana and its mountain and prairie communities are similar to the regions and villages we serve,” Greg told the students. “And despite what we read in the media about crime, terrorism and violence, most people in America, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are kind, hard-working people who want peace.”

In describing their typical days, some of the Townsend students who live on farms and ranches described a daily routine not unlike those of kids in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan: get up early, do chores (milk goats, feed the livestock, collect the eggs) and eat breakfast before school; followed by more chores and homework until bedtime.

Townsend, MT

The Townsend students’ dreams for the future also resemble those of their peers overseas – but with a few notable exceptions. I told the kids that students I’ve interviewed in CAI schools typically want to be teachers, doctors or nurses, or join the military – ambitions often limited by their lack of exposure to options.

Those ambitions were echoed by some of the Townsend kids, but they also mentioned dreams of becoming pilots, veterinarians, lawyers, and even a tattoo artist, video game tester and a gun collector.

Greg asked the students how many of them had ever volunteered, contributed to charity, or been involved in community service. All the students raised their hands, and one by one told him about volunteering at the food bank; helping younger kids, the handicapped, and the elderly with reading and tasks; mediation and anti-bullying awareness; environmental issues; and much more.

“When I was in college three decades ago, we spent one day a year picking up beer cans and litter and we thought we were saving the planet,” Greg told the students. “But look at all you are doing today. You are my heroes for making a difference, and helping make your community, our country and the world a better place.”

What was supposed to be a one-hour visit turned into more than three hours of nonstop discussion and shared of ideas and dreams – the equivalent of our first cup of tea.

“This has been great, really great,” Poole said as we packed up to leave. “You can come back anytime.”

QUOTE: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. – Anne Frank

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


April 8, 2013: Top 10 reasons to support girls’ education

Madonna announced last week she plans to sell a 1921 cubist painting, “Three Women,” by Fernand Léger to help raise money for girls’ education projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The singer said she wanted to “trade something valuable for something invaluable.”

Also last week, Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actor/director and UN goodwill ambassador, opened a girls’ primary school in Afghanistan, funded with sales from her jewelry line, which she created with “the goal of providing for children in need.”

Girls' Education

It’s easy to be skeptical or even cynical about entertainers getting involved in causes. But their contributions matter. They help raise awareness of and money for girls’ education – both of which are needed.

They can also be seen as part of a growing “popular movement” to challenge the prejudices that keep girls out of school, a trend noted by UN Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown.

Central Asia Institute (CAI) has focused on educating girls in remote regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan for 17 years.

Why focus on girls’ education? CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson sums it up this way: “Once you educate the boys, they often leave the villages and search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass their knowledge onto their own children. If you really want to empower societies, reduce poverty, improve basic hygiene and health care, reduce the population explosion, and fight high rates of infant and maternal mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”

More than half of the 100 million children around the world not in school are girls, according to UNICEF. In recent years, the number of girls attending primary schools around the world has grown, but the disparity between the number of girls and boys in secondary school remains high – especially in the world’s poorest countries.

To reiterate and underscore why girls’ education is important, CAI has compiled a list of the Top 10 reasons why girls’ education makes a difference:

Girls' Education


1. REDUCE INFANT MORTALITY: Children of educated women are less likely to die before their first birthday. “Primary education alone helps reduce infant mortality significantly, and secondary education helps even more,” according to “What Works In Girls’ Education.”

Infant mortality rate:
= Afghanistan: 121 deaths per 1,000 live births (highest in world)
= Pakistan: 61 per 1,000
= Tajikistan: 37 per 1,000
= USA: 6 per 1,000.
Source: Global Health Facts 2012

2. REDUCE MATERNAL MORTALITY: Educated women (with greater knowledge of health care and fewer pregnancies) are less likely to die during pregnancy, childbirth, or during the postpartum period. Increased education of girls also leads to more female health care providers to assist with prenatal medical care, labor and delivery, delivery complications and emergencies, and follow-up care.

Maternal mortality rates:
= Afghanistan: 460 per 100,000
= Pakistan: 260 per 100,000
= Tajikistan: 79 per 100,000
= USA: 21
Source: Unicef 2010

Girls' Education

3. IMPROVE SOCIOECONOMIC GROWTH: Educated women have a greater chance of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives, and raising the standard of living for their children, families, and communities.

It also benefits nations as a whole: Increasing the share of women with a secondary education by 1 percent boosts annual per capita income growth by 0.3 percent, according to the World Bank. That’s significant, since per capita income gains in developing countries seldom exceed 3 percent a year.

In subsistence farming communities, educated farmers are also more efficient and their farms more productive, which leads to increased crop yields and declines in malnutrition, according to the UN World Food Program.

Quality of life
The UN Human Poverty Index measures and ranks 186 countries using adult literacy rates, probability of living to age 40, access to clean drinking water, and number of underweight children. The lower the number, the better the quality of life.
= Afghanistan: No. 175
= Pakistan: No. 148
= Tajikistan: No. 125
= USA: No. 3
Source: UNDP

4. REDUCE CHILD MARRIAGE: Child marriage – in some cases involving girls as young as 6 or 8 – almost always results in the end of a girl’s schooling. The result is illiterate or barely literate young mothers without adequate tools to build healthy, educated families. On average, for every year a girl stays in school past fifth grade, her marriage is delayed a year.

Educated girls typically marry later, when they are better able to bear and care for their children.

As the Afghan author Khaled Hosseini said: “Marriage can wait, education cannot.”

Girls' Education

5. REDUCE POPULATION EXPLOSION: Educated women tend to have fewer (and healthier) babies. A 2000 study in Brazil found that literate women had an average of 2.5 children while illiterate women had an average of six children, according to UNESCO.

Taking that a step further, let’s say the literate woman had three children and made sure they were educated. If they in turn had 3 children each, grandma would have nine grandchildren. Carry that one more generation and she’d have 27 great-grandchildren.

Conversely, the illiterate woman would have six children, all of whom would be less likely to attend school. If they each had six children, grandma would have 36 grandchildren, and 216 grandchildren.

In developing countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, the explosion of people drawing on finite resources reduces the standard of living for everyone.

Population growth
= Pakistan: 177 million people, growing about 2 percent a year.
= Afghanistan: 35 million people, growing at nearly 3 percent.
= Tajikistan: 7 million people; growing at 1.4 percent per year.
= USA: 311 million people; growing at less than 1 percent.
SOURCE: World Bank 2011

6. DECREASE MALNUTRITION: Educated women “learn what their children need to stay healthy and how to secure necessary support for their children,” including health care, better nutrition and sanitation, according to the book, “What Works In Girls’ Education,” published by the Council on Foreign Affairs.

Educated females also channel more of their resources to the health of their children than men. Click here for more information.

Girls' Education

7. INCREASE INVOLVEMENT IN POLITICAL PROCESS: Educated women are more likely to participate in political discussions, meetings, and decision-making, which in turn promotes a more representative, effective government. As more women are educated and approach parity with men, research shows “governments and other institutions function better and with less corruption,” according to “What Works In Girls’ Education.” Women with leadership skills are also a major factor in sparking economic and social change.

8. REDUCE DOMESTIC & SEXUAL VIOLENCE: Educated girls and women are less likely to be victims of domestic and sexual violence or to tolerate it in their families. Conversely, “In poor areas where women are isolated within their communities, have little education and cannot earn much, girls are often regarded as an economic burden and women and girls sometimes suffer deliberate neglect or outright harm,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

9. INCREASE NUMBERS OF EDUCATED CHILDREN: Educated women more likely to insist on education for their own children, especially their daughters. Their children study as much as two hours more each day than children of illiterate mothers and stay in school longer.

10. REDUCE SUPPORT FOR MILITANCY: As women become more educated, they are less likely to support militancy and terrorism than similarly educated men, according to a University of Maryland School of Public Policy survey. The survey of Pakistani women also found that uneducated women are more likely to support militancy and terrorism than similarly educated men.

As noted last week on this blog, this is important for many reasons, not least of which is that young men and boys recruited by extremist groups are required to get their mothers’ blessings before joining such an organization, or going on a suicide mission, the researcher noted. So, girls who are educated – especially who complete secondary school – grow up to be mothers who are less likely to give their sons permission to pursue violent solutions.

Six out of 10 of the world’s poorest people are female, according to the UN. Giving girls and women tools to fight their way out of poverty begins with education.

CAI works with local communities to create sustainable, community-driven education, especially for girls, in isolated mountain regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. In many cases, these girls are the first in their villages to attend school and will be role models for generations to come. They need your support.

QUOTE: You can drop bombs, send in troops, build roads, put in electricity, or hand out condoms, but unless the girls are educated, a society will not change. – Greg Mortenson

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


March 29, 2013: Education builds peace and prosperity; it’s that simple

BOISE, Idaho – En route to speak to Rotarians about Central Asia Institute this week, I had a chance to catch up on some reading and came across three things that coincidentally but emphatically made the same point: Education is the key to a more peaceful world.

The fact that this point was reiterated three times by three different people made me think that perhaps – as our Western understanding of conflict, extremism and militarism has evolved – we have reached a turning point.


The three items I found were:
• A quote by Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, in Delta Airlines’ magazine (of all places): “Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.” The quote wasn’t part of a story. It was just pulled from Annan’s new book, blown up in a large font, and posted on the page with a thumbnail-size photo of Annan.
• A 2012 op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor by Matt Zeller, a former US Army trainer for Afghan security forces, in which he identified four “steps to success in Afghanistan”:
1. Reform and decentralize Afghanistan’s government.
2. Strengthen local Afghan governance.
3. Transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces ONLY when those forces are ready.
4. Improve Afghan literacy.


Zeller said, in no uncertain terms, that literacy, i.e. education, is “the key” to moving people out of poverty.

It’s hard for most Westerners to fathom, but the reality in Afghanistan is that 75 percent of people are illiterate.

Imagine what that means: People can’t read signs. They can’t count money. Police officers can’t file reports or even write a ticket. Soldiers can’t read training manuals. Mothers with sick children cannot read simple medical instructions or prescriptions. Most people can’t write their own name, or read a map, a newspaper or a ballot.

Imagine trying to rebuild a country after 35 years of war when 75 percent of the people are illiterate.

Yet here is a U.S. soldier who spent time in Afghanistan, helped train Afghan security forces and worked with Afghans, who concluded that of all the things the world could be doing to help, education is right up there with governance and security. In fact, they go hand in hand.


• A University of Maryland School of Public Policy survey about Pakistani women and support for militancy and terrorism. Here, researcher Madiha Afzal’s conclusion – one that has long been supposed, but never proven – that as women become more educated, they are less likely to support militancy and terrorism than similarly educated men. She also found that uneducated women are more likely to support militancy and terrorism than similarly uneducated men.

She said the correlation between education and support for, or rejection of, militancy and terrorism was “important and robust.”

This is important for many reasons, not least of which is that young men and boys recruited by the Taliban and other extremist groups are required to get their mothers’ blessings before joining such an organization, or going on a suicide mission, the researcher noted.

So, girls who are educated – especially who complete secondary school – grow up to be mothers who are less likely to give their sons permission to pursue violent solutions.

And that’s not to mention the myriad other reasons – proven time and time again – that education, especially for girls, makes a difference. Education matters. It changes people and their communities. I’ve seen it myself.


Back in the early 1990s, Greg Mortenson, CAI’s cofounder and a former mountain climber, saw firsthand the effects of poverty, government neglect, and geographical isolation on people living some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Many of these communities had never had never had a school; illiteracy was the norm.

CAI now has more than 200 schools – especially, but not exclusively, for girls – in some of the most remote, far-flung mountain communities of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan that you could imagine. We have also worked with communities to introduce women’s literacy and vocational programs and centers to help adult females who were unable to attend school.

And they are making a difference. Over the course of more than six years of working with CAI, I have probably seen more of those schools than any other CAI-US staff person, including Greg. And I can vouch for their efficacy.

Education works. It makes a difference. It’s that simple.

QUOTE: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. – Nelson Mandela

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


March 18, 2013: CAI’s afterschool program helps girls pursue & complete high school


KABUL, Afghanistan – Take an overcrowded school, toss in an assortment of overwhelmed and often unqualified teachers, and then set strict limits on classroom time.

What do you get? A lot of underperforming students.

Unfortunately, that is the case in too many of this capital city’s public high schools.

Add to that traditions that restrict females’ movement outside the home, the disruptive and traumatic impacts of 30-plus years of war, child marriage, and myriad other cultural and economic barriers to girls’ education and you begin to understand what Afghan girls who want to finish school are up against.

“Girls in Afghanistan are far less likely to graduate from high school and pursue higher education than boys,” said Wakil Karimi, Central Asia Institute’s (CAI) Afghan community program manager. “So CAI set up this program of free academic centers called SESP to help students get more learning.”


CAI’s innovative and popular Students Education Support Program (SESP) offers girls free afterschool lessons in core subjects. Approved by the Afghan Ministry of Education, SESP classes have been up and running for the past two years in Kabul and recently expanded into Khost Province.

SESP classes give girls extra help in math, English and Islamiat, as well as basic computer instruction and university-test preparation.

“This is not only to help us with the university exams, but for school subjects, which we need because we have many different teachers here and some are not good,” Farida, 17, an 11th-grader at a higher secondary school in Kabul, said in an interview after her algebra lesson last month. “Plus, our [family] economics are not good, so we can’t go to private centers for tutoring. But we can study here, with a female teacher and it is free to us.”


SESP classes meet six days a week, 90 minutes a day, for six months, Wakil said. The schools choose the neediest girls. CAI pays the SESP teachers’ salaries and supplies textbooks and school supplies. And the education ministry arranges for safe after-hours classroom space.

The program supports girls at a vulnerable juncture in their lives, giving them tools for increased confidence, competence, and self-sufficiency. Its lower student-teacher ratios – classes never exceed 30 students — also increase the likelihood that girls will acquire the academic skills necessary to pursue and complete postsecondary education.

Overcrowded classrooms take a toll on students, especially girls, said Farida, who wants to be a doctor “to help the women.” Her school has 8,200 students who attend school in three shifts. She said she particularly appreciates CAI’s subject “briefs,” study guides that expand on material in the textbooks.


“We don’t have enough time in school to learn all this,” she said. “We are 40 or 50 students in one class. But here [in SESP classes], we are just 23 girls in a class learning algebra. It is better.”

The number of girls in school in Afghanistan has increased dramatically since 2001, from only a few thousand to more than 2 million. But they still make up only about one-third of the children in school, according to UNICEF figures, and are more likely than boys to drop out, often as early as middle school.

As a result, the national literacy rate for adult females remains shockingly low, about 13 percent.


Yet we know that women’s education levels reliably predict a nation’s performance on most indicators for women and children – from child mortality to overall health and nutrition.

One grey February day, a group of 28 girls at another high school in Kabul was working with a teacher on Islamic studies. The classroom’s condition was depressing: leaky ceiling, cement walls and floors, inadequate daylight and no electricity. Outside the melting snow had turned the entire schoolyard into a giant mud puddle.

But the girls were there, learning. And they were exceedingly grateful for the opportunity.

“This program provides us a lot of encouragement,” said Fekaria, 13. “It helps us with our regular studies and prepares us for thinking about university exams.”

In 2011, CAI’s SESP program served 2,051 students and paid 41 teachers in 11 schools. The next year, the program grew to serve 2,906 students, 55 teachers and 14 schools. And three months into 2013, the SESP program already supports 2,665 students and 47 teachers.

These girls are the faces of Afghanistan’s future.

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


March 12: Italian climbers & CAI give little girl from Korphe new lease on life


Until last year, 6-year-old Sakina Batool had spent every day of her young life in Korphe, high in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains.

Like other kids her age in this remote village, she spent her days working on her family’s subsistence farm, tending animals, and doing household chores, waiting for the day she was old enough to start school.

But unlike the other kids, Sakina was born with a hole in her heart.

“Considering she was living at high altitude with severe hypoxia [low oxygen], it’s surprising she’s lived as long as she has,” said Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute (CAI) co-founder.

Yet happy surprises seem to follow this little girl wherever she goes. A Central Asia Institute (CAI) team’s visit to Korphe last spring led to the diagnosis of her illness. A coincidental encounter with a group of Italian mountaineers led to her lifesaving heart surgery in Italy last month. And the combined CAI-Italian project has put Sakina back on her feet.


The Italian doctor who helped make the surgery happen, Dr. Annalisa Fioretti, said Sakina isn’t the only one who benefited from this multinational project.

“It’s a great honor for me to help Sakina,” she said. “But it was also great to discover that so many people have a heart so big. All I had to do was ask and they had faith.”


Sakina, the daughter of Cho-Cho and Ibrahim, was born sometime in 2007 (most birthdates in rural Baltistan are not recorded). Ibrahim said the family knew Sakina was sick, but never had the money or other resources needed to get a clear diagnosis of the problem, or a remedy.


But he did not give up. And when he saw the CAI team in Korphe last spring, Ibrahim brought Sakina – wrapped in a rough-wool coat and wearing a red felt hat with a brightly colored tomar (woven Balti talisman that protects children) attached – for a visit.

Sakina’s frail body, shallow, panting breaths, rales (rattling noises from moist lungs), and rapidly pounding heart were telltale signs of heart trouble, Greg recalled. When he returned to Skardu, Baltistan’s capital, he brought Sakina along for medical tests.

Those tests revealed the grim news: Sakina had severe hypoxia, heart failure, pulmonary edema, and other complications. She was unlikely to live much longer.


A group of Italian climbers happened to be in Skardu at that time, en route to Gasherbrum I, the world’s 11th-highest peak.

In 1996, Italian climber Lorenzo Mazzoleni reached the K2 summit, but died during the descent. His bereaved companion, Dr. Maria Assunta Lenotti, has since worked hard to honor his memory by helping the Balti people, and CAI helped her establish a medical clinic in Askole, near Korphe.


The 2012 Italian expedition, too, took a keen interest in the local people and asked for a tour of CAI projects. Afterwards, Mohammad Nazir, CAI’s Baltistan manager, and Greg introduced the Italians – Annalisa, Louis Rousseau, Jacob Wetche and Rob Springer – to Sakina and Ibrahim. View a 2011 video interview with Annalisa.

When Annalisa heard Sakina’s prognosis, she examined the little girl herself. She said Sakina had pulmonary edema and regurgitation in her heart. “She needs heart surgery or she will die,” Annalisa said.

When Greg told her CAI wasn’t in a position to do much more than it already had, Annalisa volunteered to help.

The next step was a battery of tests to better define the problem. CAI helped Ibrahim and Sakina get to Rawalpindi, which is at a lower elevation, and see doctors at the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology. Again the diagnosis was grim: surgery would be too risky.

Annalisa, however, was undeterred. She consulted with Dr. Alessandro Frigiola, chief pediatric cardiac surgeon at Cardio Policlinico near Milan, Italy, and other specialists. They agreed surgery would be “risky and complicated,” but could increase Sakina’s chances of living to adulthood to more than 50 percent. They decided to help, and to cover all costs.

For Sakina and her family, this was nothing short of a miracle.

For the next five months, CAI supported Sakina and her dad in Rawalpindi as she built her strength for surgery. Nazir worked on passports and Italian visas for her, her dad, and himself; he would go along as translator. And the Italians started raising money to pay for flights, food, and medical expenses, eventually collecting more than $13,000, according to Annalisa.



In February, Annalisa met Nazir, Sakina, and Ibrahim, at the Milan airport.

“In the beginning Sakina was a little bit scared because of all the new people and the new environment,” Nazir said. “She could not understand Italian and not many people spoke English, which she knows a little-little. But by the third day, everyone at the hospital was like family for Sakina. Volunteers come for playing with her and reading to her. After that, she was fine.”

The surgery took place Feb. 17.

“Ibrahim was nervous on that day, but I tell him ‘No problem,’ and took him for some walking outside the hospital and to a coffee shop,” Nazir said. “Then after she came out from the surgery, he says it is OK.”

It was touch and go for a few days. Frigiola said Sakina’s operation, which involved eight cardiac and pediatric specialists, had been one of the hospital’s most complicated.

Shortly after surgery, Annalisa wrote on her blog: “I just saw Sakina … the emotion was indescribable. I did not even realize I was crying. … The weight like a backpack was too heavy. I fell from the heart, and quiet invaded me like a warm blanket. She is full of tubes, has a cerottone sternum, her hands bandaged to hold the various sensors and central venous and arterial, grimacing in pain every time she tries to cough, but she is alive and well.”

A day later, Annalisa wrote: “I need all of your thoughts, your prayers. Sakina is not good. She is still in intensive care, has a high fever, bronchial secretions and her left ventricle does not pump adequately.”

But Sakina was out of intensive care shortly thereafter. Within a week, she was walking and talking and back in the hospital playroom.

Italian media took an interest in Sakina’s story. “There were six newspapers and one television station came to the hospital,” Nazir said.


And during her recovery, Sakina was even able to help with fundraising for her surgery.

“We visited some schools and one gym club where they have 4,000 members and supported Sakina with a marathon race,” Nazir said in February. “They are all very big fans of Greg Mortenson and CAI. Everyone we meet, they are very cooperative and the doctors have done a great job.”

After 20 days in Italy, the trio returned to Pakistan.

“She is very well, eating and playing,” Nazir said this week. “She has a big scar, but the stitches are out and everything is fine.”

Sakina will remain in Rawalpindi for another week or so, then shift to Skardu for a month. By May, about a year after this saga began, Ibrahim and a healthy Sakina will make a triumphant return to Korphe.

QUOTE: Love is the best medicine, and there is more than enough to go around once you open your heart. – Julie Marie

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


March 8, 2013: Education is at the heart of women’s development

International Women's Day

KABUL, Afghanistan – Lida*, a 35-year-old mother of six, spent most of her life unable to read, write or do simple math. She couldn’t sign her own name, read a simple shop sign, or even make a shopping list.

Then a couple of years ago, Lida heard about a Central Asia Institute-supported literacy program in her neighbor’s home. She got her husband’s permission to attend, six days a week for nine months.

Using a set of literacy primers in Dari or Pashto, Lida and the other women and girls spent several hours a day sitting on the floor in a crowded room, their primers in their laps and their eyes on the teacher.

Because “the last 30 years have been fighting in Afghanistan, there is no chance” for most women and girls to get an education, said Safiya, CAI’s women’s program manager in Kabul. They were denied education because of war, extremist bans on girls’ education, societal dictates, distance from a girls’ school, lack of female teachers, and early marriage – barriers to girls’ education abound in Afghanistan.

The result is that only 13 percent of adult females in Afghanistan, according to UNICEF, are literate.

But now, these home-based literacy courses offer hundreds of women a chance. “It’s not too late for me,” women tell me over and over again.

By the time Lida and her classmates were done with the course, they had the equivalent of a third or fourth-grade education. And their futures, and those of their children, became a lot brighter.


International Women's Day

Today, on International Women’s Day (IWD), we at CAI celebrate the remarkable achievements of Lida and all the women like her fighting for a better future.

“IWD is a minor event in the United States, but in many countries – including Afghanistan and Russia – it is actually a national holiday,” said Greg Mortenson, CAI’s co-founder.

In recognition of the day, women of the Afghan Air Force were honored in a special event this week; hundreds of Afghan women and girls rallied in the streets of Kabul and other cities to demand their rights; and the country’s first-ever international women’s film festival opened Thursday in Herat.

Women also rallied in Pakistan’s rural, conservative desert town of Bahaalpur, while in Multan, a candlelight vigil was held to honor female victims of violence.

In Tajikistan, where IWD is now called International Mother’s Day, many leading women in government, law enforcement, military, education, and business gathered in Dushanbe to celebrate and push their demands for greater equality and reforms.

However, there is still a long, long way to go.

Women’s work still accounts for two-thirds of the world’s total hours spent in labor. Women produce half of the world’s food. Yet women only earn 10 percent of the world’s income (typically earning 50 percent less than men) and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.

One of the primary ways females are oppressed is education. An estimated 66 million girls around the world are not in school, according to UNESCO, for reasons ranging from culture to family economics, exploitation, early marriage and religious oppression under false pretense.

Consider this alarming statistic: In South Sudan, a country of 12 million people, only 400 girls have made it to higher secondary school and remain enrolled.

And in Yemen, although the legal marriage age for women is 18, UN data shows that 52 percent of girls are married before that age, some as young as 8 years old. Boys, on the other hand, are seldom forced into child marriages.

Few people are aware that on a global scale, 12.3 million people are bought and sold as slaves, and 60 percent of them are female. And of the 5.3 million slaves forced to work in the sex industry, 98 percent are women.

International Women's Day


Education is the key to reversing these tragic statistics.

After Lida, for example, finished her literacy course in Kabul, the world opened up for her in unexpected ways.

She decided that basic literacy was only her first step. She wanted skills, too.

Almost immediately after finishing the literacy program, she enrolled in a CAI-supported vocational program, also in a neighbor’s home. There she learned how to make clothes – from measuring and cutting to stitching and trimming.

“Now I will make clothes for my children, then for the village and slowly get money for supporting my own children’s education,” Lida said last July. “I have six children, four are in school, the other two are too young. I use the money to buy notebooks and supplies for their schooling. In Afghanistan, men don’t give (women) money. My husband has a little bit of education, but he is a farmer. If our children have education, Afghanistan will improve and develop. Security is the most important issue for us, and I know that when people have education, then security will follow.”

Lida knows through her own experience what the experts have been saying for decades – investment in girls’ education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty, for individuals, for their communities, and for the world. Academic studies consistently show that educating girls has profound impacts on any society. According to various UN agencies:
• Educating girls is the most effective way to reduce the world’s population explosion.
• The best long-term way to reduce infant and maternal mortality is girls’ education.
• On average, every year a girl stays in school beyond fifth grade delays her marriage by a year, and educated women have smaller and healthier families.
• Educated, literate women recognize the benefits of health care, can read instructions, and seek appropriate healthcare services for their families.
• Education helps women know their rights, especially regarding land ownership, and gain confidence to claim them.
• An educated mother is more likely to encourage her children’s education.
• Educated mothers in the labor force are more likely to share household resources and income with their children and communities.


Lida’s comments also point to the links between education and the fight against extremist violence.

Extremists often use religion as rationale to deny education to girls. But there is actually no major religion that prohibits education for women, including Islam. Along those lines, Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Masood Khan reminded a UN audience this past Monday of the courage of Malala Yousefi, who was attacked for her stand on girls’ education.

“Those who deny women and girls the right to education violate Islam,” and “represent forces of darkness,” he said. Click here for full article.

Greg has long advocated that the path to a more peaceful world is through “books not bombs.” He often says, “You can drop bombs or send in troops, build roads, or put in electricity or phones, but unless the girls are educated, a society will never change.”

And a recent academic study by Madiha Afazl, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, confirms the links between education and support for militancy – especially among women.

Afazi studied how Afghan and Pakistani women of varying educational backgrounds relate to terrorism and militancy. “The bottom line from the results is that as women become more educated, they show lower support for militant and terrorists groups” than men of the same educational level, according to her report. “Yet uneducated women show higher support for militancy and terrorism relative to uneducated men.”


International Women's Day

We know a lot more in 2013 about the links between education and women’s empowerment than we did more than 100 years ago when International Women’s Day was founded.

And the battle continues. In 1908, thousands of women marched in New York City, demanding better pay, better working conditions, and the right to vote, according to, a non-profit philanthropic website. Two years later, a women’s conference in Denmark announced creation of International Women’s Day.

Today IWD is an opportunity to “honor women’s advancement while diligently reminding [the world] of the continued vigilance and action required to ensure that women’s equality is gained and maintained in all aspects of life,” according to the website.

It is also a chance to remember that the work CAI and others do to promote education, especially for girls, is generational.

Kamela *, also a student in a CAI-supported Kabul literacy center, said she was delighted to have an opportunity to finally get an education. She has two older sisters, both of whom are married and uneducated. Of her four brothers, the younger two are in school.

“But my family won’t let me go to school because it is far from my house, so this is a chance for me to learn,” said Kamela, 18. “Knowledge is very important.”

She also knows her window of opportunity is limited, as she is engaged to be married. “My fiancé says once we are married, no more school.”

But for her daughters?

“I say it strongly – I will make sure my daughters go to school,” Kamela said.

*The names of these young women were changed for their protection.

AFRICAN PROVERB: If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate a community.

– Greg Mortenson and Karin Ronnow


March 7, 2013: A picture speaks a thousand words: Faces of Afghanistan

Central Asia Institute’s work is, ultimately, about people. And as I said in my Feb. 18 post on “Faces of Pakistan,” people’s faces often convey what words cannot.

With that in mind, here are more photographs, this time from Afghanistan, of people I’ve met as I document CAI’s work promoting peace through education.

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

Faces of Afghanistan

QUOTE: Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man. – Edward Steichen

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


March 1, 2013: CAI team joins mountaineering community at AAC dinner


Several Central Asia Institute (CAI) Board directors and CAI’s new Executive Director David Starnes attended the American Alpine Club (AAC) dinner and fundraiser near San Francisco, Calif., last Saturday, renewing a relationship that dates back to the early 1990s.

The sold-out event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Americans On Everest expedition, of which former CAI Board Chairman Tom Hornbein was a member. Specifically, the dinner honored four “living legends” from that expedition: Hornbein, David Dingman, Norman Dyhrenfurth, and Jim Whittaker.

CAI’s collaborative relationship with AAC began in the mid-1990s, when CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson was struggling to start his work promoting education in northern Pakistan. “The AAC leadership, members, and climbers played a significant role to help get the ball rolling,” Greg recalled this week.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Denali East Buttress climb on Alaska’s Mount McKinley. Jed Williamson, a current member of CAI’s board, was on that expedition and was among those representing CAI at AAC’s Feb. 23 events. Jed, a previous AAC board president, has also edited the AAC’s annual “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” for 38 years.

CAI Board Chairman Steve Barrett joined Jed and David Saturday afternoon at AAC’s Everest Anniversary Festival, which included documentary films, panel discussions, lectures, storytelling, and awards. The trio manned a table, provided information about CAI, and answered questions posed by festival participants.


“The American Alpine Club provided a warm welcome to Steve, Jed, and I as we answered questions, provided updates, and re-engaged with old friends of Central Asia Institute after a bit of a hiatus from the public events circuit,” David said. “A big thank you to Phil Powers, president of AAC, and other AAC board members for extending a hand of friendship and support.”

CAI board member Howard Slayen and George McCown, long-time CAI supporter and husband of CAI board member Karen McCown, joined the CAI crew for dinner, an event that drew an estimated 700 people. Many AAC members and supporters are also CAI supporters

Steve said afterwards that CAI’s participation was important and had been well received.

“A number of people stopped by, most expressing appreciation for CAI, inquiring in a positive way about where the organization was going, making a point of wishing Greg well and looking forward to seeing him active again, and just generally making very positive comments,” he said.

“Coupled with the Sonia Shah Memorial School fundraiser in Chicago, this was a very great weekend for the education of young women in Pakistan,” Steve added.

Since he started working in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan almost two decades ago, Greg has frequently helped climbers who visit the area. They have returned the favor in myriad ways.


“Numerous renowned climbers and AAC members, most of who have climbed in Pakistan, reached out to help CAI, often during difficult periods in our evolution, and spurred other climbers to help with humanitarian causes in Pakistan’s Karakoram mountain villages,” Greg said.

Greg listed some of those climbers, including: Louis Reichardt, Jack Tackle, Nick Clinch, Jim Wickwire, George Lowe, Scott Darsney, Brent Bishop, Conrad Anker, Annie Whitehouse, Dan Mazur, Charley Shimanski, Alison Osius, Tom Hornbein, Phil Powers, Gordon Wiltsie, Doug Chabot, Yvon Chouinard, and Steve Swenson. He also heralded the contributions of numerous now-deceased climbers: Tom Vaughan, Galen Rowell, Alex Lowe, Pete Schoening, Bob Bates, Charles Houston, Gil Roberts, George Bell, Seth Shaw, and Ned Gillette – and their families.

The American Alpine Club is a nonprofit organization founded in 1902 “that provides knowledge and inspiration, conservation and advocacy, and logistical support for the climbing community,” according to its website.

QUOTE: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

– Central Asia Institute


February 27, 2013: Sonia Shah dreamed of changing the world through girls’ education

Sonia Shah

Five years ago, the upper-school students at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Ill., like thousands of other students around the world, read “Three Cups of Tea,” by CAI’s Co-founder Greg Mortenson.

“It was the type of book that did not allow for an idle reading,” Aaron Regunberg, a senior that year, later wrote. “After hearing this man’s mission and accomplishments, we were each irresistibly drawn to the thought, ‘Well, we have to do something now.’”

But this particular reading assignment at this particular school has resulted in a remarkable chain of events – a story of inspiration and hard work, joy and despair, faith and love that keeps generating new chapters.

In 2008, the NSCDS students embarked on a campaign to provide a school and education for the more than 200 students attending a school with four benches, a blackboard and one teacher, in Moshi, Tanzania, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The senior class raised more than $30,000 to build the school, visited Tanzania, and got it running. Coincidentally, Moshi happened to be the village where Greg had lived for the first 15 years of his life. When he spoke to the students in Wilmette that spring, he applauded and encouraged their efforts.

But his message particularly resonated with one young girl in the audience.


Sonia Shah was a 14-year-old ninth-grader at NSCDS that spring. “She was an exceptionally bright, hardworking, and engaged student with a multicultural background,” Greg said.

Soon after Greg’s visit to her school, Sonia and her family moved to Switzerland. “From the age of 4, she had traveled with us and lived on three continents, in five countries and spoke five languages,” her mother, Iram Shah, said last week. “Every time she went to a new school, I thought she would have difficulty, but she managed to fit right in.”

With a love of history, different cultures, places and people, Sonia was compassionate yet practical, proud to be both a Pakistani Muslim and an all-American girl, “truly a global citizen,” her mother said.

She was also a girl with a dream. Inspired by Greg, Sonia dreamed of building a girls’ school in her ancestral village of Kangra, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

She graduated a year early from her Zurich high school, and took a “gap year” (summer 2011-summer 2012) to pursue that dream. Her decision to go to Kangra – an impoverished village in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a region where extremist violence and Taliban suicide bombings had become commonplace – worried her family.

“When she left, people called me and [said] either I was too brave or too stupid,” Iram recalled. “My own family has not lived in that village [for many years] and here a 17-year-old American-born girl was going to live for weeks. I didn’t stop her because I knew she had made up her mind.” She also knew that Sonia’s “innate balance, ability to see both sides of any issue” would serve her well.

In Kangra, Sonia lived among the people in their rustic homes, amid 100-degree-plus temperatures, through electricity outages, and shortages of potable water. She spent time with the school-age girls, and identified a piece of land for the school.

As part of her effort to raise money for the school, Sonia wrote a blog about her experiences: “I feel supporting education for girls in Pakistan is such an integral part of Pakistan’s movement towards stability and development, especially at a time when both seem so unlikely. With the government spending approximately 13% of its GDP on defense and only 2% on education, Pakistan’s education system is heavily reliant on private funding. The poorest Pakistani families often go to great lengths to ensure that they can afford to send their sons to school, but rarely do the same for their daughters.”


Sonia Shah

When Sonia returned to the United States, she kept her determined pace. She started a nonprofit organization, the Kulsoom Foundation, named after her maternal grandmother. She designed a website. And she knocked at the door of every NGO that might partner with her or have something to teach her, Iram said. Danial Noorani, founder and CEO of The Citizens Foundation-USA, was a particularly influential mentor and helped her devise a motto: “A girl. A dream. A Mission,”

Meanwhile, Sonia also applied to colleges. In one application, she reflected on her grandmother’s sacrifice, leaving the village to move her children to the city and better schools, and her mother’s sacrifice, leaving to travel to the US for higher education. “I have always been keenly aware that the efforts of my grandmother and mother are all that stood between me and the life of an underprivileged Pakistani village girl. It is only through the work of the women that came before me that I don’t live in ignorance and isolation, and every girl in Pakistan deserves the chance to create similar change for herself and those around her.”

In another essay, she wrote: “My heroes have always been brilliant, flawed people who have acted, who have changed our history and made our world. Now I want to join, instead of only watching them. I want to serve and help others. I want to leave this world knowing that I have changed it in some quantifiable, positive way, no matter how miniscule.”

One of those “brilliant, flawed people” was Greg. Several months earlier, she had written a letter to him and to CAI in the wake of media allegations.

Sonia Shah

“Following the talk and controversy that has surrounded Greg Mortenson in recent weeks, I have decided to speak out about my own beliefs,” Sonia wrote “After reading his book and hearing him speak, I was amazed by this American who had done such incredible work in my ancestral home despite the barriers or language, culture, and religion. I feel it is important for me and for others to remember this now. … Without the example of Greg Mortenson to follow, I would never have had the courage or initiative to begin such an ambitious project.”


In addition to her humanitarian goals, Sonia wanted a career in politics. And in 2012, she landed her dream job – an internship with President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

Sonia was one of the youngest interns on the Obama team. Her father, Mahmood, said she threw herself into the campaign, working dawn to dusk almost daily for months.

She also got the good news that she’d been accepted at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

But on the night before she left to begin her freshman year, tragedy struck. Sonia was killed in a car accident in Chicago.

Everyone who knew her was devastated. Obama even wrote the family a letter conveying sympathy. “My team says that although Sonia was one of the youngest interns at campaign headquarters, she was one of the most determined. There’s no doubt that her dedication will continue to inspire all those who were lucky enough to work with her,” Obama wrote.

Inspiration and determination – two words that followed Sonia everywhere she went. Her parents knew that, even in their grief.

“Every parent has a dream for their children and my dream as a mother to see Sonia grow up into a mature woman, get married and have children will never be fulfilled, but I guess her dream was more meaningful than my dream for her,” Iram said. “She had a dream of helping the poor girls of a small village in Pakistan. She wanted to make a difference and leave a legacy behind.”

Iram and Mahmood are pursuing that legacy on her behalf.

In yet another coincidence, Iram had joined CAI’s board of directors in July 2012. Her background in marketing strategy and business development, her work for multinational corporations, and her roots in Pakistan made Iram a good fit with CAI.

Her determination to fulfill her daughter’s dream, however, has also created a unique opportunity for Iram’s dream of getting numerous nonprofits to work together on this project.

The first step was a gala event, Rahmania for Sonia, last Friday night.


Sonia Shah

Iram and a vast team of Sonia’s friends and peers worked tirelessly to pull off the Feb. 23 event in suburban Chicago. More than 400 people celebrated Sonia’s life and achievements, donated to the Kulsoom Foundation, and enjoyed dinner and live entertainment by the highly acclaimed singer-songwriter A.R. Rahman.

“Iram’s vision was to make this a celebration of the potential of youth to change the world, as well as a celebration of song and music, dance, poetry and art – all of which Sonia loved so much,” Greg said. “She also wanted to bring together diverse people and organizations, as Sonia had often done, around this common cause.”

The event opened with Iram’s impassioned speech about Sonia. Then Danial Noorani from TCF took the stage and remembered a girl who had blazed a trail, negotiated complex deals, built relationships, and set up a nonprofit organization – enormous accomplishments for such a young woman. Dr. Asif Anwar read a poem he had written in Sonia’s memory, and Sonia’s uncle, Dr. Mian Arshad Jan, told stories about his beloved niece.

Iram then invited Greg to the stage with this introduction: “I have never seen anyone so dedicated and passionate about girls’ education as Greg is, and I have never seen any American as dedicated and passionate about Pakistan’s remote areas as Greg. We are all inspired by him and it was this inspiration that inspired Sonia.”

Sonia Shah

Greg gave a 10-minute speech in which he emphasized the role of youth in general, and Sonia in particular, in changing the world today.

As everyone grapples with the incredible loss of Sonia, he reminded the crowd that, “Girls’ education is the most powerful weapon against poverty and Sonia got that.”

He added, “the future is in God’s hands, but the future of Sonia’s Kangra School is in our hands.”

This was the first time in 22 months Greg had spoken at a public event. When asked later in the evening why he had opted to participate in person, he said he had been motivated by love, plain and simple.

“The Kangra School project is planned to be a collaborative project, between CAI, HDF, TCF, and Kulsoom Foundation, and fulfills the legacy of Sonia to rally people and organizations together for a common good,” Greg said. “The loss of a young woman like Sonia – a dreamer, visionary and a do-er, like CAI’s Sarfraz Khan, leaves us at a loss for words that such tragic things can happen. But both their spirits are very much alive today and that gives us the motivation to go forward with hope and courage.”

The evening concluded with a colorful blend of Hindustani, rap and Chicago hipster music, full of energy, dancing and time for visiting, with much of the crowd remaining until well after midnight.

“We are here to carry on [Sonia’s] legacy,” Iram said that night. “We lost a precious life, but her death will not be in vain. Her dream has become our mission. And you have a big role to play in this mission. Those girls in the village are waiting for us.”

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director



The 2013 limited-edition Journey of Hope calendar is still available for $10!.

In 2012, photographer Erik Petersen and CAI Communication Director Karin Ronnow documented CAI projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. The calendar includes stunning photography of CAI projects, plus explanations of CAI’s programs and a map of the areas we serve.

Proceeds from all calendar sales help CAI carry out its mission to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

To order online, click HERE. Or call 406.585.7841; email, or send a note to: Central Asia Institute | P.O. Box 7209 | Bozeman, MT 59771, USA.


February 22, 2013: Students use technology to forge global friendship

BOZEMAN, Mont. – The dozen Afghan students had spent two days preparing for the moment last Friday at 7:50 p.m., when they huddled around Central Asia Institute-provided computer equipment in a basement in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The purpose of the huddle was educational, but it wasn’t a test or a computer class. The Afghan students – boys and girls from seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade – were there to meet their middle-school peers in America via Skype, the live computer video program.


In Bozeman, meanwhile, about 220 seventh-graders at Sacajawea Middle School were crowded in a hallway, waiting for the clock to hit 8:20 a.m. – the time when they would be linked via the Internet with their counterparts halfway around the world.

The Afghan and American students had been learning about each other’s countries – one of the poorest and one of the richest on the planet – and writing “pen-pal” letters as part of a CAI-supported exchange.

But when a Sacajawea student* suggested, “If there is Internet in Afghanistan, why can’t we just Skype instead of waiting weeks for our letters to get back to each other?” – an idea was born.

The irony in the execution, however, was that although the electricity (provided by a generator), technology, and live feed were ready in Kabul, the call was delayed briefly in Bozeman due to a last-minute technological glitch. A Sacajawea student was surprised and said, “Wow, that’s amazing that everything works so well in Afghanistan.”

Once the link was established, the students’ faces lit up with smiles as they applauded the connection.

Khyber Mortenson, the son of CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson, had travelled to Pakistan and spoken to his classmates about life and education in the region. Wearing a shalwar kameez (traditional clothing), he served as Skype host. He gave the thumbs-up sign, and said, “Let’s get started.”

The Sacajawea students had learned how to greet their counterparts, and began with the salutation, “Asalaam-Alaikum” (peace be with you).


The Afghan students enthusiastically responded, “Waalaikum Salaam” (and may peace be with you).

Gordon Grissom, Sacajawea principal, wearing a tan Afghan pakhol (felt hat), then introduced himself and his students to Wakil Karimi, who coordinates CAI projects in Afghanistan, and the Afghan students. Gordon welcomed everyone and stressed the importance of building bridges of understanding and peace with events like this.

In turn, Wakil introduced himself, congratulated all the students and said, “This is an important day that Afghan and American students can join in friendship, and we are very happy.”

Kenny Bies, a Sacajawea guidance counselor who also coordinates students’ volunteerism and community and global activism, also welcomed the Afghan students and said he was proud of everyone who had been involved in helping the students connect.

The students then had a chance to ask questions of each other.

The Sacajawea students learned that most of the Afghan students are poor, speak several languages (including Pastho, Dari, Arabic, English and some local dialects), and have access to a dozen different subjects in their schools.

One American girl asked the Afghan students about daily life in Afghanistan. One of the Afghan girls replied, in English, that her main concern was safety. “When we leave our house, we are afraid we might get beaten by the Taliban and they also might attack the school. So we have to be brave and strong and not afraid.”


One of the boys at Sacajawea asked about sports and was thrilled to hear that his new Afghan friends shared his love of soccer, in addition to their passion for cricket, volleyball and badminton.

When an Afghan girl asked the Americans if they like school, the reply was a resounding, “Yes!”

The students could have talked all day (and night, in Afghanistan) about their shared values and differences, and the time passed quickly. As the Skype session came to a close, the Afghan students passionately sang the Afghan national school song, “Maurif-Tarana,” which brought a round of applause from the American students.

Then it was time to say good-bye and the students on both sides of the planet stood up and waved to each other.

After the computers were turned off, one Sacajawea student commented that she thought the Afghan girls were so brave, and that they were her new heroes.

“We were so impressed with the courage of the Afghan children and teachers,” said Bies, the school counselor. “It is impressive to hear their strong voices, and see the passion and joy in each of the children’s eyes.”

The principal concurred. “What an exciting opportunity for our seventh-grade students to be able to Skype with the students in Afghanistan today,” Grissom said. “Building connections with kids like themselves on the other side of the globe opens up the world of our students, and creates the foundation for greater awareness and understanding of others. It was a joy to participate in this event.”

Both the Afghan and American students said they hoped for more Skype sessions as they patiently wait for snail mail to deliver their letters to each other.

*With one exception, students’ names have been omitted from the story to protect their privacy.

QUOTE: Men build too many walls and not enough bridges. – Isaac Newton

– Greg Mortenson, CAI co-founder


February 18, 2013 – Faces of Pakistan

Human faces, everyday faces, captivate the imagination.

In my work with Central Asia Institute, I meet girls and boys, men and women, students and teachers, mullahs and midwives, farmers and herders, warlords and elders, drivers and bricklayers, siblings and grandparents.

I collect their words and stories to share with CAI’s supporters. I listen to their hopes and dreams for themselves, their families, their villages, and their countries.

Yet I have found that their faces often convey what words cannot.

So here, then, are some of those faces, captured in photos shot in January in Pakistan’s Northern Areas and around the capital city, Islamabad.

Faces of Pakistan

Faces of Pakistan

Faces of Pakistan

Faces of Pakistan

Faces of Pakistan

Faces of Pakistan

Faces of Pakistan

QUOTE: Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it? – Pablo Picasso

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


February 13, 2013 – CAI’s work in earthquake-devastated Kashmir evolves post disaster

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Seven years after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake devastated Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Central Asia Institute remains committed to helping ensure girls’ access to education in the region’s remote mountain communities.

The nature of CAI’s work in the region, however, has evolved.


“CAI built temporary, prefabricated buildings after the earthquake,” said Fozia Naseer, who now leads our efforts in the disputed region of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK). “We also have a teacher-support program in Kashmir, with 35 teachers, and a scholarship program. Last year, CAI added one permanent building for Muzaffarabad Girls’ Elementary College, a teacher-training college.

“Central Asia Institute is working to sustain all the projects in Kashmir; we try to keep it simple and important for the communities. We are repairing schools one by one and providing basic support for all CAI schools in Kashmir,” she said.

AJK is a difficult place to work, especially for a woman. The region is conservative. It is rugged country, with villages built up the sides of mountains that often rock with seismic activity. And it is a heavily militarized “disputed territory” that Pakistan and India have fought over for more than 60 years. As a result, AJK is closed to most foreign NGOs, tourists and journalists unless they have special permission.

Most of the international aid groups that came to help after the 2005 quake left a long time ago. But CAI has worked hard to continue its support of education, especially for girls, in the region. And now with Fozia – a Kashmir native, the region’s first locally educated female lawyer, and a former teacher – on board, CAI is well situated for what comes next.

“Fozia is a perfect example of the ‘next-step’ local manager CAI needs going forward – to monitor schools, demonstrate accountability, work with teachers, involve community, build the capacity of a team,” CAI Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer said after she met with Fozia here earlier this month.

Students and teachers were in their classrooms when the earthquake hit at 8:50 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2005. Many school buildings collapsed, trapping thousands and killing an estimated 18,000 students and more than 900 teachers, according to UNESCO statistics.

The quake triggered landslides that blocked roads and knocked out bridges, cutting off rescuers’ access to millions of victims in the remote villages. The heaviest damage was in the mountainous Muzaffarabad area of AJK, about 90 miles northeast of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Big aftershocks continued for weeks.

The numbers were staggering: more than 80,000 people killed; another 3 million left homeless; and more than 7,000 schools and colleges – 96 percent – fully or partially destroyed, according to UNESCO.

CAI had, by that time, worked in Pakistan for almost a decade and our supporters, staff, and board immediately began to consider what CAI could do to help. International aid groups were providing humanitarian aid – food, blankets, tents and emergency medical care. But it became increasingly clear that the government was in no position to begin rebuilding schools anytime soon, especially in the remote villages of the Neelum Valley.

So Greg Mortenson, CAI co-founder, dispatched CAI’s “most-remote-areas” project manager Sarfraz Khan (who died in 2012) to Kashmir to see what CAI could do to help. On a tour of the affected region, Sarfraz saw an immediate need for temporary schools.

After establishing relationships in several communities in the Neelum Valley, Sarfraz initially provided tents and furniture, primarily for girls’ schools, and later erected more than a dozen earthquake-proof, prefabricated schools, ensuring that hundreds of children were able to continue their education while the region recovered.

Greg, who visited AJK with Sarfraz after the earthquake, described the scene as chaotic and complex.

“What was disparaging about the Azad earthquake in 2005 is that although hundreds of NGOs scrambled to help, the region was paralyzed without shelter, electricity, water, roads, cell phones, and infrastructure, and little aid reached the villages,” he said.

One difficulty in working in AJK is the climate. The mountainous region receives copious amounts of rain, causing frequent landslides, which block roads, damage fields and destroy buildings.

Last fall, for example, heavy rain caused a landslide just behind the CAI-supported Mingraan School, causing a couple of classroom walls to cave in. No one was hurt, but the cleanup and repairs were substantial.



“We are trying to fix the wall before winter rain” starts, Fozia said at the time.

But when Fozia and the repair crew went to see the damage, they discovered that the community had cut the word “Girls’” out of the school sign. When Fozia asked one of the teachers, Samiullah, why, he told her that the government had finally come along and built a girls’ school in the village. But the community needed classrooms, so they opted to expand the CAI-supported school to include boys.

Mingran is not the only school in this position, a situation that CAI celebrates as evidence that the government has begun to focus on school reconstruction.

“Four of the CAI schools have been replaced by the government with permanent structures,” Fozia said. “This is good as long as girls continue to get education.”

In some cases the CAI-supported building was removed. In other cases, such as Mingran, the community needs the extra classrooms and continues to use the prefabricated structure.

Either way, “we keep track of the schools for as long as they are on the ground and provide school and community support,” she said.

In addition to the school buildings, CAI in AJK has increasingly focused on scholarships for higher education and teacher support.

“People understand the need for these programs and we have so many requests for the future to move ahead with these great programs,” Fozia said.

The scholarship program currently supports 18 girls in their quest for higher education in Muzaffarabad, AJK’s capital city.


“I see a great future for those girls,” Fozia said. “They can get benefit from CAI and opportunity for their lives.

“I know life is not smooth for females here, but we can try our best and take steps towards hope, education, and our goals of peace through education. We are slow, but inshallah steady, and this work is important for the long run.”

Also important for the long run is support of female teachers and female teachers-in-training. Reconstruction of the teacher-training college in Muzaffarabad – CAI supported construction of a two-story, permanent building — was a big step toward getting students out of the weather and into a structure with all the amenities needed to train the next generation of teachers.

Teacher pay also helps ensure that students in CAI-supported schools are getting quality education. Too often, government schools are overcrowded and understaffed. By helping with salaries, the school can employ more teachers. CAI currently supports 35 teachers.

“We have teachers in Neelum Valley, Muzaffarabad, and in the remote area at the end of Poonch district,” Fozia said.

The Poonch teachers are the latest addition.

“All are government schools, but one has all students in one damaged classroom,” Fozia said. “In another place the students sit outside. Another is so far that you have to walk to it, you can’t drive, so teachers [who aren’t from that village] don’t want to go there.

“We got requests from the community saying they wanted to send their children to school, but they need more teachers. Also the Education Department asked us for some help. We started to pay teachers there in August. Schools are closed there in winter because of mountains, but they will be back at school in March.”

Fozia is also considering how best to arrange a CAI-supported teacher-training program this year. In January, Fozia joined her CAI colleagues Saidullah Baig and Dilshad Begum in Gilgit to observe a two-week training program there.

“Saidullah and Dilshad did a great job putting all the resources together,” Fozia said. “They started a great opportunity for the remote-area teachers, gave knowledge to them and exposed them to new teaching skills and teaching methods. It is just a beginning for those teachers, who can take it all back with them to their schools and to their communities.

“It was also a great experience for me. It is great to have this experience to see how CAI works in different communities and gather ideas, which we can use in our communities, too,” she said.

“CAI is making a successful investment in community-based education and I hope that it would continue for long term,” she said.

– Karin Ronnow, CAI’s communications director


February 11, 2013 – Young Iowan gets it

Cindy Harris from Bettendorf, Iowa recently contacted Central Asia Institute and told us that her eleven year-old daughter, Genny “wrote a poem as part of a project she did on Afghanistan. We are not of Afghan descent. We are simply proud of our daughter who has learned tolerance, compassion and most of all – empathy for others.” Cindy and Genny were kind enough to share her poem with us:

Genny Harris

My Home, Afghanistan
By: Genny Harris

Run. To the village where children play.
Race. Past the fields where poppies sway.
Fly. Like the kites that dance in the sky.
Sprint. As you sweat from the heat of July.

Dash. Away from the danger that surrounds.
Dart. Back home where you might be safe and sound.
Jog. Past the mountains that loom very tall.
Walk. To the cliff where you might take a fall.

Our culture is rich, our culture is true, but our way of life is prejudiced too. We live among terrorists, in our hearts they strike fear, but without understanding, many will continue to jeer.

With our neighboring countries we may not agree, but hatred and greed are our real enemies.

We have nothing, a fool might say, but if we have nothing, how can our hope light the way?
We will always have hope, this much is true, even when all seems lost, and the sky never blue.

When war rages on, and the future seems dim, some might lose hope, their faces quite grim. I do not live in Syria, Iraq, nor Iran, I live in my home, my home Afghanistan. Only when our world is rid of hatred and greed, can the most beautiful thing in the world: peace, be achieved.

Genny Harris

The level of understanding that Genny has as a sixth grader about a culture across the world is inspiring. The poem and the message that it conveys is consistent with CAI’s service learning program, Pennies for Peace. Some of the first CAI supporters were children who collected pennies to help other children halfway around the world.

Genny attends school at Bettendorf Middle School and enjoys writing, reading, drawing, painting, and soccer. She explained that in her class assignment she was able to choose a culture that is different from hers and to write about it. This was part of an extended learning program. Other classmates chose topics such as India, Judaism, and slavery. Genny chose Afghanistan. She read the book titled “Extra Credit” by Andrew Clements, a story about a pen-pal exchange between a sixth-grader in Illinois and a boy in Afghanistan. Genny stated that, “When I first chose the book, I wasn’t thinking about what it was about until I realized that this isn’t anything like you hear. We have a lot of prejudice about the way they [Afghans] live and the kind of people they are.” Genny was inspired by the works of the poet, Emily Dickinson, and decided to complete her assignment in the form of a poem.

When I asked Genny if there is anything else she’d like me to know, she said “I really enjoyed writing this and learning about the culture. Some parts of it are really sad, like the way women are treated over there, and I really like the Pennies for Peace program because when I read about it, it was a really good message and it was children helping people.”

Children just like Genny all around the world have collectively raised over $6.9 million, often in pennies or small change, to promote peace through education through CAI’s Pennies for Peace program. It is designed to help students broaden their cultural horizons, learn about their capacities as philanthropists, educates them about the world beyond their experience, and shows them that even they can make a positive impact on a global scale. Genny has certainly learned the rewards of different cultures working together to bring hope and opportunity for peace.

– Jennifer Sipes, CAI’s operations director


February 6, 2013 – David Starnes joins CAI team as new executive director

Central Asia Institute has hired a new executive director, David Starnes.

David, a 57-year-old father of three, will join us in late February after winding down his work with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives-Pakistan. He brings to the job more than 30 years experience as a professional and organizational development consultant, working with nonprofit, for-profit and government organizations, including 19 years as executive director of the Baltimore-Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound Center.


David joins us just as we are gearing up for the 2013 building and maintenance season. In the past year, bolstered by our supporters’ continued confidence, we sustained our commitment to more than 300 existing projects, and initiated 60 new projects: 20 in Pakistan, 36 in Afghanistan, and four in Tajikistan. As most of our projects are in the remote Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Pamir mountains, springtime is the busiest season.

“I am looking forward to working with CAI’s team both in the United States and in the communities it serves,” David said. “CAI has made a profound impact on people’s awareness of the need for education and community health initiatives in the remote and rural villages of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. I’m excited to be on board.”

Greg Mortenson, CAI’s co-founder, served as executive director from CAI’s founding in 1996 until December 2011. He remains on staff, playing a supportive role, primarily with overseas programs and relationships. He will also continue to help with fundraising.

“With a new, capable board of directors and the experienced leadership of David Starnes, CAI is ready to move strongly into the future,” Greg said.

David currently serves as the deputy country representative for USAID–Office of Transition Initiatives in Pakistan. He has been in Pakistan since January 2010 working with the Pakistan government in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province to provide basic support and stabilization services for communities in the critically important border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Prior to taking the USAID post, David spent a month as a volunteer in Jordan, teaching English at a Palestinian refugee camp. From 2008 to 2009, David worked as a senior program analyst with Stanley, Baker, Hill LLC in support of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)–Office of Safety and Health in Iraq.

Stateside, David worked with Outward Bound USA for more than 20 years in a variety of senior executive roles, including his years at the Baltimore center, Outward Bound’s first urban center. He worked with local government officials to initiate the Philadelphia center, and played a key leadership role in shaping Outward Bound USA’s long-term strategy on urban centers.

David earned both his bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation administration and master’s in public administration at Western Illinois University. He has three adult children, Justin, 28, Rachael, 26, and Sarah, 24.


CAI launched a nationwide search to fill the executive director’s position and received dozens of qualified applicants, said Steve Barrett, chairman of the CAI board of directors.

“CAI is excited to have someone of David’s background and experience join us in our mission to promote literacy and education, especially for girls,” said Steve, a Bozeman attorney and former member of the Montana University System’s Board of Regents. “David’s extensive experience in community development and his past three years in Pakistan uniquely qualify him to help CAI continue to fulfill its mission of the last 17 years. Our board is thrilled and we look forward to David joining our team.”

Last August, Greg noted HERE: “Being executive director of Central Asia Institute is a unique task with incredible rewards. More than a job, it is a calling. … We look forward to the added vitality that this person will bring to the CAI team – especially during these particularly challenging times in the communities CAI serves in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.”

CAI’s mission remains critical to the future of the countries where we work. The ravages of war, extremism, and drug trafficking, combined with the inability of governments to provide adequate educational opportunities are of great concern. We believe education, especially for girls, is the key to a more peaceful future.

QUOTE: True leadership lies in guiding others to success. In ensuring that everyone is performing at their best, doing the work they are pledged to do and doing it well. – Bill Owens

– Central Asia Institute


February 1, 2013 – Punjab village gets its first girls’ high school

KHURD, Pakistan – People filled every available chair and patch of ground in the schoolyard on opening day of the Central Asia Institute-supported Khurd Government Girls’ High School.

Khurd Government Girls’ High School

They sat two to a chair, plunked down on the ground, leaned against walls. Women rocked babies. Young men sat at the feet of the turbaned old men. Everyone cheered and applauded, and celebrated the inauguration of the first girls’ high school in the area.

“The people of this area have been backward with respect to education due to lack of facilities, especially for girls’ education,” said English teacher Arshad Mehmood, who emceed the school inauguration on Jan. 29, 2013. “There was no girls’ high school nearby. Most of the students had to give up because of lack of access. Now CAI has gifted this building to the people of the area. At last, people get solution to their problem.

“The Koran says, ‘A gift of God will make its way to stone walls.’ And this is indeed a beautiful building – by all measures,” Mehmood said.

Khurd Girls’ High School is CAI’s eighth project in northern Punjab Province. Until this week, the village girls’ school was housed in a ramshackle three-room building. Primary classes met inside; the older girls had to study outside, on the ground, “open to the sky,” as Principal Sidra Jabeen said. Many girls dropped out before completing high school, unable to tolerate classes held in the tropical sun and monsoon rains.

“Summer is a very severe season here,” said Isma, who is in class 10 and wants to become an engineer. “When it is so hot, we are just [studying] for a couple of hours and then go to home. In case of rain, go to home. I want to study more and more, but it [has been] very difficult to stay in school.”

The new 11-room building gives the 410 girls in classes six to 10 shelter from the weather, plus a library with computers and a science laboratory. The Jhelum district education officer, who visited the Khurd Girls’ High School the day before the inauguration, declared it the “model school in the district,” said Suleman Minhas, CAI program manager.

Khurd Government Girls’ High School

The inauguration kicked off at 11 a.m. about a block away from the school. While the girls and women waited inside the school, a pipe and drum corps led a parade of visitors, community elders, men and boys to the ribbon draped across the school’s entrance.

CAI-US Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer cut the ribbon as the female students inside clapped and sang.

“It is an extraordinary honor to share the gift of education and the gift of Khurd School comes from CAI’s supporters around the globe,” Beyersdorfer said. “The enthusiasm of the students, teachers, and entire community makes me think of Greg and the ripple effect of one individual’s efforts to help others. This school will have a positive impact for generations to come.”

The ceremony included student recitations from the Koran, songs, and speeches. Members of the local education committee, which worked with CAI to establish the school, repeatedly said the school was a “big gift for backward area.”

Khurd’s residents understand the value of education, but most families could not afford to send girls to higher classes in “cityside.” The few lucky girls who could travel, found the “cityside” schools in terrible condition, Principal Jabeen said.

Khurd Government Girls’ High School

“This is a time of change,” in Pakistan and the world, she said. “We have to make our future. CAI infused our future with hope.”

Until CAI joined hands with the community, a girls’ high school was impossible, said Noor Ul Ain, a committee member. “Without CAI, we would never have this facility, teachers, building – nothing. This was our dream.”

The villagers worked together to donate the land, demonstrating a spirit of cooperation and determination that will yield results for generations, said Shazia Yasmin, the school’s science and Islamiat teacher.

“We live in a time of rapid change, change that is not always predictable or positive,” she said. “There is no better way to prepare for change than education. There is no better investment that parents, teachers, communities, and the nation can make than education.”

Minhas, who called himself a “servant of your children,” urged parents to be involved in their daughters’ education. “Visit to school four to five times a year and ask the teachers, ask the principal, ‘How is my child in school?’”

Khurd Government Girls’ High School

The CAI-supported schools that Minhas manages are all in impoverished rural villages west of Jhelum, places where clean drinking water, electricity, and health care are scarce or nonexistent. The roads are crumbling and badly rutted, cell-phone service is a relatively new phenomenon, and computers are rare. Girls’ education, in particular, has historically been neglected.

“I am very thankful on behalf of my area for CAI, who is helping to the remote areas” like Khurd, Mehmood said. “With education there will be positive change in people’s attitudes. We turn over a new leaf while eliminating illiteracy. We are grateful to CAI for a wonderful job.”

The ceremony ended with lunch for all in attendance. Then the adults left the building, and classes started for the girls.

“I want education, it is very important to me,” said Saba, a ninth-grade student who wants to become a teacher. “If I get education, I can teach to all children. I am very happy today.”

QUOTE: Education is improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it. – Marian Wright Edelman

– Karin Ronnow


January 19, 2013 – CAI teacher training provides creative learning tools

GILGIT, Pakistan – The 74 teachers attending Central Asia Institute-Gilgit’s teacher-training program were practically giddy with excitement on the final day of the course.

Teacher Training

Two weeks earlier, when the course began, they had been divided into groups by geographical region and given a big assignment – craft a handmade “book” about your region, including details about the history, population, traditions, culture, and language. They were instructed to use reliable sources, and illustrate their books with drawings, photos, maps, or other graphics.

The results were, in many cases, the first draft of history ever written by local people.

“There were so many events that happened in the past and nobody was writing it, even really good teachers and professors who didn’t think to do that,” said Shahina, a teacher from Gojal Valley, whose five-member group titled its 41-page handmade book, “The Land of Marco Polo Sheep.” “Now we were given the idea to put it together and, really, it was exciting to do this.”

The CAI training program, held Jan. 1-16 during the winter school break in the northern areas, was organized by Saidullah Baig and Dilshad Begum, both of CAI-Gilgit, in conjunction with the Gilgit-based Human Enterprise and Development Institute (HEDI).

The teachers came from remote mountain villages across the region where CAI has established schools or works with existing schools. In many of these isolated communities, there is no electricity (or it is only available for a few hours in the evening), mobile phone service, or Internet. Computers are scarce. Teacher training is a rarity.
So the teachers were thrilled to train with “modern technology,” and work with their peers to develop new skills to take back to their schools.

“Often in this area, trainers go to just one valley or work with people from just one area, but we have a very diverse group, people of many different cultural backgrounds, teachers from primary, middle and secondary levels, and from the most remote valleys,” said Sultan Ahmed, HEDI chairman. “And it’s working because this way the teachers learn not only from the trainers, but also from each other.”

Teacher Training

The master trainers, graduates of the Aga Khan University’s Institute of Educational Development, designed workshops on topics ranging from lesson planning to child development and psychology, subject-specific teaching tools, basic computer skills, testing and assessment, among other things.

The results exceeded everyone’s expectations.

“It was a large group, with participants from different backgrounds and different education (levels),” said trainer Doulat Begum. “I was wondering how I was going to teach them. But it was marvelous. Most of the teachers, they didn’t know about assessment or lesson planning. But I involved all of them, getting them to express themselves, speaking, drawing, writing. They have many creative ideas.

“And I will always remember that the questions raised in classes, I was not expecting that much, because they are not trained. But they have the capacity and they raised the questions. Sometimes we underestimate people, but we should not. They have the talents, but they have not had the platform to share it or express themselves,” she said.

The hard work teachers put into the local handbooks evidenced that creativity. Information about these areas is scarce, the teachers found, with few specifics available on the Internet or in books. So the teachers looked elsewhere, calling community elders for interviews, for example.

They all said their books were works in progress, and will be valuable teaching tools.

Teacher Training

“If the kids would start writing at the beginning of school, by the time they finish their metric [high school], they would have a whole book,” Shahina, the teacher from Gojal, said. “When you give a task to the students, if they are interested, they will learn better. Now we can go back with this information, and if we can convince the teachers and students to work together, we can write this book of Gojal.”

Trainer Nazir Bulbul, who is also a renowned Wakhi poet, said he hoped that the training also inspired teachers on a deeper level. He repeatedly urged the teachers to find ways to spark a love of learning in their students and create lifelong learners.

Teacher Training

“We human beings are only in this world for some time and we have been given some gifts, one of which is our intellect, and we have to nourish that here,” he said. “The other is the soul. And the soul means we have an inner world, and for that inner world we should do what sustains us.”

Education, along with faith, provides that sustenance, he said.

Over the course of the two-week training, word got around, prompting school administrators, teachers, other NGOs, and even government officials to request that CAI repeat the training for other teachers.

Sher Nawaz Khan and two other teachers made the arduous journey from their remote village of Broghil, high in the Hindu Kush Mountains on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to attend the training. He eloquently summed up the program’s success during the closing ceremony on Wednesday.

“As we were traveling all the way from Broghil, when we crossed the heavy snow, I was wondering if this would bear fruit,” he said. “But I got much more than I expected. I was fortunate to be a part of this wonderful program. I give my heartfelt thanks to CAI.

“Also, because many teachers could not join due to bad weather and road blockage, we hope and pray that your contributions here will continue,” he said.

QUOTE: When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy. – Rumi, 13th century Persian poet

– Karin Ronnow


January 9, 2013 – School supplies for Kuchi students

Following the wonderful feedback on “CAI tent school serves Afghanistan’s Kuchi nomads” last week, we are posting more photographs of that community.

Wakil Karimi, the Central Asia Institute project manager responsible for the Kuchi tent school, took these photos during a June visit to distribute notebooks, pencils and other school supplies.

These photos were taken at the Kuchi summer camp near Kabul. The semi-nomadic tribe has since moved about 100 miles east to its winter grounds near Jalalabad, Afghanistan. CAI provides a tent school for the Kuchi children in both locations.

CAI-supported Kuchi students

« Boy receives supplies: A Kuchi boy receives a new pencil, eraser, sharpener, and a CAI notebook. Other students wait in the tent behind him to receive their new school supplies.

CAI-supported Kuchi students

« Kids gather: Grateful students at the CAI-supported Kuchi tent school gather for a group photo after receiving their new school supplies in June.

CAI-supported Kuchi students

« Tea in tent: CAI project manager Wakil Karimi, center, and Kuchi teachers and elders gather to talk over tea with bread and yogurt after school lets out for the day.

CAI-supported Kuchi students

« Little girl: A young Kuchi girl, in her brightly colored and heavily embroidered homemade dress and scarf, with her new CAI notebook. The words “Seek the Light” are printed in English and Pashto on the cover of each notebook.

All photos: Central Asia Institute, 2012.


January 3, 2013 – CAI tent school serves Afghanistan’s Kuchi nomads


KABUL, Afghanistan – The 110 children studying at the Central Asia Institute-supported Kuchi tent school are fast becoming the first literate generation of their semi-nomadic community.

A few Kuchi adults in the tribe found ways to attend school when they were young. But for the most part this often-overlooked minority population – Kuchi means “nomad” in Dari or Persian – has survived for centuries without being able to read and write.

“There are many differences now that we have the school,” said tribal elder Malik Hashan Khan. In addition to reading and writing, “Now that the children study, they can help us [adults] with things” such as using mobile phones and interacting with the government.

The tent school, which shifts with the 120-family tribe between Kabul and winter pastures near Jalalabad, was the brainchild of CAI project manager Wakil Karimi. After a few Kuchi elders approached him for help educating their children, Karimi worked with the community to design a primary school.


CAI provides the tents and the whiteboards, delivers textbooks and notebooks, pencils and erasers, and pays the teachers. Plus, CAI has given the teachers a motorcycle so they can travel with the Kuchis.

Convincing parents to send their children to school was the next hurdle. Only about 10 percent of the tribe’s children are currently enrolled, Karimi said.

“We know we need more children in school,” said Mullah Malavi Jandad, who is also a teacher. “Many people want to continue the old culture and just send children with the animals (for herding). When I preach on Fridays I always say education is important for all children. I insist and encourage parents to send their children to school and students to work hard.”

The community’s aversion to education is not mean-spirited, said teacher Qari Hamidullah.

“Parents don’t have education so they don’t know value of education,” he said. “This is my job and I will work harder to convince the families to send their children to school.”

For centuries, Kuchis – who are Pashtun and form tribes along patrilineal lines – migrated throughout the region in search of pastures and mild weather for their sheep and camel herds. They used to wander as far east as the Indus River Valley, but that essentially ended when the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was closed in the 1960s.

Other factors, too, have contributed to the demise of the traditional Kuchi camel caravan, according to a Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) 2008 report, “World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People.” Decades of fighting and the increasing dominance of regional warlords blocked migratory routes. Land mines and severe droughts killed large numbers of Kuchi animals. And private landowners started charging tolls for Kuchi animals crossing their properties.


Ultimately, “the chronic state of instability in Afghanistan has left [the Kuchis] among the poorest groups in the country,” MRGI reported.

In recent years, the Kuchis – there are an estimated 2.4 million in Afghanistan, according to a World Food Program survey – have begun to settle, often at the encouragement of the Afghan government, further reducing the number of Kuchis “who still follow their traditional livelihood of nomadic herding,” MRGI reported.

The tribe CAI works with is semi-nomadic. Families work together to raise mostly sheep and goats, with some milk cows and camels. Animal products (meat, dairy products, wool) are then bartered or sold to buy food and other items.

“Life for Kuchis is difficult, especially for Kuchi women,” MRGI reported. “Male and female roles, as in other segments of traditional Afghan society, are rigidly adhered to, with the men tending to livestock while the women hold the major responsibility for child-rearing, are completely responsible for food and water preparation, and for sewing and weaving of clothes and tents.”


Children help with all those chores, too. As a result, they start school early every morning – sometimes as early as 6 a.m., but usually around 7 a.m. – in order to get their classroom work done and return home to help.

Although some of their parents may be slow to see the benefits of education, the kids are enthusiastic.

“Learning is very good, it makes our lives better,” said Hejrat, a 14-year-old boy in third grade.

Many of the students are older than usual since there was no school before CAI started working here. By the same token, one of the teachers is much younger than usual.

Abdul Wali Intizar is 15 years old and was lucky enough to be allowed to remain in Jalalabad until he finished eighth grade. Once he returned to the community, he was asked to teach “due to lack of teachers and educated people,” he said.

“Most nomad people don’t have education, but other people do, so we need to get education,” Abdul said. “I know the problems I found before I went to school. Before I just took care of the animals. I didn’t know which is good or bad way, how to work with people or have a good life. Now I know these things and that opportunities exist for me. I want to encourage the students and teach them the importance of getting an education.”


Having Abdul as a teacher is not the perfect situation, Karimi said. Teachers should be educated to at least 12th grade, which in Afghanistan is high school plus two years of college. But problems getting highly qualified teachers to commute to the nomads’ rural settlement, the early morning hours, and the seasonal work means getting and keeping teachers here is difficult.

As the MRGI report noted, there’s little outside interest in helping the Kuchis.

“Very little of the foreign assistance extended to Afghanistan by the international community has arrived to aid the Kuchis. Few assistance agencies work in the insecure areas in which they are located, and most donors emphasize short-term economic and humanitarian aid rather than the longer-term assistance the Kuchis need. As a result, most of the Kuchi today remain jobless and illiterate,” the report found.

Education is the only way the Kuchis can adapt to the changing world around them, said one elder, who noted he has as many sheep as he has children, 10 of each.

“Big changes come in nomad people’s lives,” he said reflectively, as he watched the children in their brightly colored clothes stream out of the tents, headed home to their daily chores.

– Karin Ronnow


December 21, 2012 – Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays



December 17, 2012 – Awal Baba School provides hope for girls in Maidan Shahr

Awal Baba

Awal Baba

Afghanistan’s Minister of Education Farooq Wardak helped Central Asia Institute and residents of Maidan Shahr, in Wardak Province, celebrate the opening of the new Awal Baba Girls’ Higher Secondary School.

Cold temperatures and overcast skies did not diminish the community’s excitement at the completion of the two-story, 24-room school. The 972 students in grades one to 12 who attend Awal Baba School, formerly known as Famila Girls’ High School, had been spread out in classrooms throughout the neighborhood during construction.

The new school provides the highest level of education available for girls in Wardak Province, a volatile area just southwest of Kabul, Wardak said at the 12 Dec., 2012, ceremony.

The education minister congratulated the community and thanked CAI for its decade-long commitment to providing education in the more difficult, dangerous, and remote parts of Afghanistan. He said he was pleased to have placed the school’s cornerstone when the project commenced and to be asked to cut the ribbon on opening day.

“Education is not only important, but is an obligation and responsibility for us to provide to our children and I strongly request you resist the militants who oppose education, as education is a fundamental part of our Islamic teachings,” he told the several hundred people who gathered for the official inauguration.

In addition to the education minister, provincial Gov. Abdul Majeed Khogianiwal, provincial and district education directors, local ulema (religious leaders), students and parents attended the ceremony.

“We are thirsty, thirsty, thirsty for knowledge, and if we want to eliminate terrorism from the world, we need schools for both boys and girls,” Wardak Provincial Education Director Fazil ul Rahman told the crowd of several hundred people who gathered for the official inauguration.

Awal Baba

After a ceremony last year to lay the cornerstone for the Awal Baba school, Taliban militants opposed to girls’ education placed an improvised explosive device, or IED, near the road leading from the school site, said CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson, who attended that ceremony. Garbage had been piled in the road in an attempt to steer vehicles carrying dignitaries back to Kabul over to the side of the road where the IED had been planted.

Fortunately, drivers anticipated the trap, swerved to the opposite side of the road and everyone escaped unharmed.

Wardak Gov. Khogianiwal said during the inauguration ceremony that part of the reason Afghanistan is in turmoil is because leaders had not made education a top priority in the past.

“It is our own fault that we remain a backward country, instead of being one of the most progressive places in the world,” he told the audience. “But we should not give up now that we are on the right track.”

In the past decade, the total number of children in school in Afghanistan has increased from 1 million to 8 million, including more than 2 million girls, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education. However, UNICEF estimates 5 million Afghan children between the ages of 5 and 16 are still not in school, so “there is a long way to go,” Mortenson said.

Education is a fundamental building block of any strong society, Wakil Karimi, CAI’s program director for the region, told the crowd. Books and pencils are much more important than bullets or guns when it comes to building security and peace.

“The only way to protect ourselves and our country from conflict and poverty is education, and we must all dedicate our lives to ensure that all our children can go to school,” Karimi said.

Awal Baba

Despite Wardak Province’s lack of resources – including electricity and communication – it has historically provided many of the country’s leaders, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, military commanders, and businessmen, Karimi noted. In the next decade this will continue, except that many of the next generation of leaders will be female, he predicted.

Karimi also read a message from Mortenson, which had been translated into Pashto. Mortenson praised the community for its commitment to education, even in times of adversity and war, and quoted a Pashto proverb that translates: “Learning makes a good man better and an ill man worse.”

Awal Baba’s headmaster, Mr. Noorullah, told the guests that the new school was a symbol of pride and hope for all the community.

In addition to Awal Baba, another CAI-supported school in Wardak Province opened this week, but the inauguration ceremony was held quietly due to militants’ presence in the region.

The presence of these girls’ schools in the area has almost doubled the female school enrollment in Maidan Shahr and has inspired community leaders from surrounding villages and towns to ask CAI and the government for help building more new girls schools as soon as possible, Karimi said.

QUOTE: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

– Greg Mortenson and Karin Ronnow


December 11, 2012 – Hope unites us; CAI releases 2012 Journey of Hope

Afghan women

BAHARAK, Afghanistan – A young woman in her 20s, newly married and pregnant with her first child, asked me which I liked better – Kabul or her remote mountain village.

Without hesitating, I said, “The village.” And I meant it. I love the mountains and the wide-open spaces that surround so many of the places where Central Asia Institute (CAI) works. For me, the village is a respite, a retreat to a simpler life. There’s time to think, clean air to breathe, and easy access to the natural world. And I am much happier away from the furious pursuit, sometimes futile, of something better in the city, where millions of others are striving and competing amid the dirt and noise.

But I only know village life as a visitor, and only during the temperate seasons, I conceded. Winter in these places, with little respite from the numbing cold, heavy snow, and freezing winds must be brutal. The dearth of things to read, no electricity, and months of isolation without news of the outside world would quickly wear me down.

All of that combined with the grinding poverty, conservative attitudes toward women, food shortages, dirty water, lack of health care – well, maybe I spoke too quickly, I said.

I asked her which she preferred. Smiling and without hesitation, she said, “Kabul. The village is isolated and backwards and everyone knows your business. In Kabul, I am free.”

But in the remote villages of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan where CAI works, few people have the luxury of choice. Each year as I work to document CAI’s efforts to promote peace through education, especially for girls, for the annual Journey of Hope publication, I witness the start juxtapositions between rural and urban, illiterate and educated, young and old, war and peace.

Journey of Hope

From the beginning, CAI has focused on villages in the world’s Last Best Places, as CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson calls them. These are often stunningly beautiful places, with snowcapped mountains and rushing rivers. But they are also impoverished and ignored by much of the outside world.

The universality of hope – hope that things can change for the better, that choices will emerge, that the fighting will end, and that peace is possible – unites these people and places. Pashtuns call it “umayd.” In Urdu and Persian, the word is “umeed” or “omid.” But no matter how you say it, hope is the wish or desire for something better.

And education delivers hope.

Countless studies have proven that education, especially for girls, is the single most important investment any country can make. Education boosts personal income and economic growth, reduces child and maternal mortality, helps fight government corruption, and safeguards human rights.

CAI has spent nearly two decades “building relationships, people to people, country to country, with people coming together around education,” said Sarfraz Khan, a CAI program director who died in November. “The younger people, if they have education and good health, they know that fighting is no good. All the world needs peace. You should be able to visit any country safely. But now in Pakistan and Afghanistan, this is impossible. So CAI and Greg focused on these countries. And now people in the mountainside are living in villages, healthier and happier because of education.”

Promoting peace through education, however, requires enormous patience. Afghans say: “Drop by drop, a river is formed.”

Project by project, CAI makes a difference. This is true for students like Zeenat, a CAI-supported scholarship student in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan.

“I come from a small village and have completed one year at the university,” she said. Her widowed mother “is a housewife and she is not educated. In my mother’s time there were no schools, and her mother died, and in those days female education was not supported. But the thinking of our generation is to be educated-minded in every frame of lifve. It is very important for the people of my area, especially the females, to get education.”

CAI’s work makes a difference for parents.


“We are happy because our girls are in school,” said Nasreen Akhtar, whose daughter attends CAI-supported Dhok Bidder School in Pakistan. “I didn’t have a chance to get education, but I want my children and grandchildren to get education. This is going to help them, and it is going to help our country.”

And it makes a difference for society.

“Afghanistan has a very old culture,” said one woman who requested anonymity. “Most people think girls don’t need education, or knowledge, or to go to university. Women only need to work in home, take care of the children, and cook the food. We must change these old ideas. Afghan women don’t know their rights. We need a lot of time to get rights for all Afghan women. But we must try. And it must start with education.”

The past year has brought changes within CAI, too. Greg is healthier than he has been in years, and time spent overseas has proved invigorating and restorative for him, the organization, and the communities. When Greg’s around, people are inspired to see beyond the difficulties of daily life to a better future. He inspires hope.

“Everybody knows that last spring CAI was attacked and faced a difficult time, but Allah helped us because CAI is good and does good work,” said Punjab program director Suleman Minhas. “I am grateful to Allah we are together here with our boss and grateful that Allah blessed our boss with new life.”

To frame the organization’s future work, CAI held its first-ever meeting with all its community program directors in January 2012.

“I am grateful to God for giving me a new life and for blessing our CAI family,” Greg told the group. “But I am most thankful for all the many years of service you have given CAI. All of you, when we had no money or connections, when we were dealing with corruption and difficulties, everybody was ready 24 hours a day and gave their lives for education. That is the real story of CAI – everybody here. I pray for you everyday.”

“We are here because of you,” said Fazil Baig, CAI’s program director in the Ghizer region of NW Pakistan.

The meeting was a chance to take stock of what CAI has done and set the stage for future efforts, said Anne Byersdorfer, executive director.


“This was the first time all the CAI family from both countries were together,” Anne said. “For the past four or five years, everyone has been busier than ever building and pursuing the mission. It was rapid growth for all involved. So this was an important time to connect and share ideas and stories and to look ahead.”

There is no shortage of work to do.

As the stories in this year’s JOH show, access to education in Pakistan and Afghanistan is slowly improving, but progress is still hampered by a shortage of qualified teachers, poor facilities and threats posed by insurgents.

Extremism continues to spread in the regions where CAI works. An elder from Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan told me he worries about what will happen when international troops leave in 2014.

“I think we will see a repeat of the fighting after Russia left” in 1989, he said. “Actually, I think it will be worse than that time. Now there are so many groups, not just the mujahedin. Now two people work together and it is a group.”

No one knows what the future holds. But CAI’s focus on sustaining existing projects, investing in teacher training, and supporting higher education in the form of scholarships continue to inspire hope.

“Until CAI started working in Badakhshan [Province in northeastern Afghanistan], students studied on the ground in the sun, snow, rain,” said Janagha Jaheed, who directs projects in that region. “Now we have new schools, furniture and boundary walls. And people, they are hopeful. And it can bring a change – especially to the north of Afghanistan, which is one of the hardest places. Never ever in our history will our people forget this help from CAI.”

I feel privileged to have the chance to see CAI’s work in action, to meet the gracious, hardworking people who make it possible, and to drink endless cups of tea in some of the last best places on earth. I hope the stories do justice to the work and inspire hope for all of you.

As Gilgit-area director Saidullah Baig said: “Every time I put a stone there for the children I give thanks – to Central Asia Institute, to Greg, and to the donors. Our spirit, the work we do, is always about the thousands of children who never even dared to dream about getting an education before CAI.”

– Karin Ronnow

CAI’s Journey of Hope calendar for 2013 makes a great end-of-year gift for teachers, coworkers, friends and family. Copies are $10 each, and proceeds go to support CAI programs overseas. To order online, click HERE. Or call 406.585.7841; email, or send a note to: Central Asia Institute | P.O. Box 7209 | Bozeman, MT 59771, USA.

girls in class


December 7, 2012 – Trust Women reinvigorates CAI’s work for rights of women and girls

Trust Women

LONDON, England – Women’s empowerment starts with girls’ education. It’s that simple, or, in many parts of the world, that complicated.

Either way, it must be done, said participants at Trust Women, a two-day women’s rights conference held in a city that has become the world’s melting pot.

“This work is not easy, but it’s not impossible,” noted Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Samar was one of the hundreds of women leaders and change-makers from all over the world who gathered here to underscore the importance of supporting women and girls in the universal battle for equal rights.

“So often if there is a problem, girls and women, they don’t speak about it,” said Fozia Naseer, CAI’s program director in Azad-Kashmir, Pakistan. “But here are all these women who decided to say something and do something, women who worked really hard to change their own lives from what they were before – they were slaves, or prostitutes, or uneducated, or abused.”

“Changing takes lots of courage. And we can learn a lot from them about ways to change the lives of women and girls in our own communities, especially as we fight for girls’ rights to stay in school,” she said.

Trust Women

Ignorance is not bliss. Lack of education contributes to poverty and fuels corruption, human trafficking, and even modern-day slavery, the speakers said. And it contributes mightily to the continued use of “culture” and “tradition” to defend cruelties ranging from child marriage to female genital mutilation, acid attacks, and honor killings – despite laws forbidding these practices.

“Culture trumps law every single day,” in much of the developing world, said Alison Smale, executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, which sponsored the conference with Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But cultures can be changed; harmful traditions can be challenged. And Fozia said the ideas discussed had important implications for her own work.

“We know there would be danger, and lots of boundaries to break, but we have to do this work because it is the right thing,” she said. “That is how you get your rights. Nobody is going to serve it to you on a plate. You have to trust in yourself. You can do it if you try. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to take awhile, but change will come.”

Change is, indeed, slow, said Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born author and former member of the Dutch Parliament.

The centuries-old practice of male guardianship of women in Muslim countries, for example, may have been a good idea 1400 years ago, when women needed protection, she said. But in modern life, it has become a “source of crude power, abuse, and abandonment,” enforced by law in some countries and by “culture” in others.

Trust Women

Today, however, women have a “unique opportunity” to stop these practices, she said. “More and more people, including women, in the Muslim world are standing up for their rights. The future is not bleak, but we must take this opportunity.”

Queen Noor, founder of the King Hussein Foundation, stressed to conference participants that, “Islam is not the source of misogyny in the region.” Rather, it is holdovers from ancient cultures and tribal rules, the lack of human development, including education, and persistent economic and security issues that create an “ideology of fear and power.”

Much of the conference focused on how to seize the unique opportunity Ali referenced, fight the ideology Noor defined, and create tangible change.

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen noted before moderating a panel discussion on the Arab Spring: “People now believe they can change the world.”

And education is a fundamental tool in that transformation. When women are educated, know and can defend their rights, they stand up to cruel abuses of power.

“Education is key … to living with dignity and respecting others’ rights,” said Samar, who earned her medical degree from Kabul University. Even in places where laws exist to protect women and girls, “the rule of law is weaker where people aren’t educated.”

Education is consistently “the catalyst for enlightenment,” said Ann Cotton, founder of Camfed International, which promotes girls’ education in Africa.

Trust Women

Consider a grandmother in a small African village whose child has died and now has “all her children’s children to bring up,” she said. The “brutality of poverty” limits her options. She will block out all knowledge of the potential horrors of forced marriage or other forms of enslavement if she sees that as a way to help keep those children fed, clothed, and sheltered. (Similar scenarios play out all over the world – including the areas where CAI works, Fozia noted.)

Cotton said educating traditional village leaders – usually men – about the detriments of such practices gives them the tools to, for example, insist girls stay in school.

Once those tools are employed, “change can actually happen in one generation,” said Mabel van Oranje, a senior advisor to The Elders, global leaders working together for peace and human rights.

“If you keep one girl in school to age 18,” then she will insist her own daughters finish school and be prepared to protect them from such abuses, van Oranje said.

Throughout the conference, participants were charged with channeling ideas into “action items.” Conference organizers said a final list of proposed actions would be finalized and released in coming days.

But the conference also served to revitalize and reinvigorate many people who do the work on the ground, providing ideas, tools, new relationships, and a surge of energy to do the hard work that needs to be done.

“So many issues make it hard for girls and women in our communities, and so many of them are hidden,” Fozia said. “So it’s important to be reminded that women are facing these problems all over the world. It is really important for CAI to be here at the conference, see the work other people are doing, tell them what CAI is doing, and to feel connected to them and learn from them.”

“Now I will tell the girls I work with, ‘It was hard for me, and it’s going to be hard for you, but we are going to make a difference. How do I know this? Because I have seen it.’”

QUOTE: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi

– Karin Ronnow


November 30, 2012 – Upper Hunza prepares for ‘hardest year’ since massive landslide

Hunza Lake

The lake created by a massive landslide on the Hunza River in 2010 is slowly receding, but the outlook for the thousands of people north of the lake who were isolated by the impoundment remains bleak.

In the Chapursan Valley, a remote area in northernmost Pakistan where Central Asia Institute has worked for more than a decade, “the situation is becoming worse,” said Saidullah Baig, CAI’s community program manager for the Gilgit-Hunza region.

“This year is very hard for Chapursan people,” Saidullah said. “There is much unemployment, no food and much hunger, no source of fuels, and now the cold has started. Already it was snowing there in late October and it was cold, minus 20 or 25 degrees Celsius (-4 to -13 Fahrenheit). This is very early for such cold.

“The Chinese gave food relief in 2010 and 2011 and this year people are waiting for China to again provide food, but I think it is impossible, especially now that winter has started. China cannot continue this. And our government is not helping. I think we can say 2013 will be the hardest year,” he said.”

The Hunza River Valley in the Karakoram Mountains is an area prone to earthquakes, flash floods, and landslides. The January 2010 landslide created a 13-mile-long lake on the river, from Attabad village north to Hussaini, in an area known as Gojal. The midwinter disaster killed at least 19 people and displaced thousands of others whose land and villages were submerged.

Attabad Lake also submerged about 12 miles of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the main north-south route between China and central Pakistan, which drastically reduced food and fuel transports to the isolated villages north of the lake.

The Pakistan government has largely ignored the social and economic repercussions of the disaster, leaving the impoverished people – mostly subsistence farmers – to fend for themselves.

Hunza Lake

CAI helped with immediate relief after the landslide, donating tent schools for affected villages to ensure children’s education was uninterrupted. Dozens of girls from the region have also been helped by CAI scholarships for higher education in Gilgit and Rawalpindi.

This month, the regional Gilgit-Baltistan government reportedly asked the Pakistan government for permission to request more help from China, according to a Nov. 20 Pamir Times report. But the answer was no. “They have, instead, instructed the GB government to arrange food and fuel for the disaster-affected people,” the news website reported.

Perhaps anticipating the unlikelihood of such arrangements, Gojal residents have asked the GB government to survey the 30,000 residents and, if it is unable to help everyone, at least “identify highly vulnerable families and households who can be severely affected due to food shortage, and devise strategies to help them directly,” the Pamir Times reported.

The lake, more than 300 feet deep in places, put Lower Shishkat village completely underwater, and partially submerged the valley headquarters in Gulmit and large sections of Hussain and Ghulkin villages.

For nearly three years, people in those villages – plus everyone on the north side of the lake – has had to cross the deep, cold water in open dories brought up from the southern Pakistan port city of Karachi.

“Businessmen who want to get the goods from China into Pakistan got the boats,” Saidullah said. “They use this same transportation for the people. The boats are not from the government or any other side. Local people say sometimes you can pay 100 or 200 rupees ($1-$2) to go along. If you have to rent the whole boat, it is 5,000 to 7,000 rupees ($50-$75). When people have no work, even 100 rupees is a lot of money.”

The crippling economic and logistical implications of the lake have also been exacerbated by the absence of jobs in the once vibrant tourism industry.

For many years, Hunza was a popular destination for mountain climbers, trekkers and travelers, who came for the 6,000-meter-plus peaks and stunning natural beauty. But “security issues” and the war in Afghanistan have prompted the Pakistan government to restrict foreigners’ access to certain regions north of the lake, including Chapursan Valley.

Saidullah spent some time this fall trying to convince the government to reopen Chapursan to foreigners. He is optimistic that increased access for tourists could make a difference.

“We try to convince them that if some people will visit the area, that is one source of income for the local people,” he said.

Chinese-funded improvements on the KKH near Sost – a dry port and trading hub about 40 miles north of the lake – provided work for a few years, which helped some local families, he said. But that’s about to end.

“The people just down from Sost had a chance for laboring with the Chinese on the KKH, but the Chinese have nearly finished that construction work, so from next year those jobs will be finished from Upper Hunza,” Saidullah said.

There are hopes that a planned $282 million KKH realignment project around the lake, announced by the Pakistan government in conjunction with China this fall, will create new jobs, but that’s at least six or seven months away. “The Chinese company planning the workaround near the lake has not started work yet. Maybe they start work in May,” Saidullah said.

Hunza Lake

In addition to disrupting travel, trade and food deliveries, Attabad Lake has decreased access to adequate emergency medical care, Saidullah said. There’s a 10-bed hospital in Gulmit, north of the lake, but no government doctor. Anyone north of the lake needing doctor’s care has to travel by boat to Gilgit.

A fatal van accident on the road near Hussaini on Aug. 22, the worst road disaster of Gojal Valley’s history, highlighted the shortcomings. According to news reports, some of the injured were brought to the Gulmit hospital, where despite the efforts of a private doctor in the region, the lack of trauma medicine and equipment contributed to the deaths of several accident victims.

“The other injured were shifted to a private hospital in Aliabad Tehsil by boat, but there was no fuel for the government hospital ambulance to take immediate steps in response,” Tariq Rahim Baig wrote in a letter to the editor of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

Eventually locals pitched in for fuel, but four people died in Aliabad. In all, the wreck claimed 10 lives, including both the father and an uncle of a CAI worker.

“People who are sick, or in an accident, or women with difficult pregnancies are in a very bad position,” Saidullah said. “It is very hard to travel because there is no good transportation. People who can’t get to the hospital quickly end up dying.

“Hunza has many difficulties, but it is even worse for the people now” than it was before the landslide,” he said.

– Karin Ronnow


November 27, 2012 – CAI celebrates Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday

Central Asia Institute joins the philanthropic community today in what’s being called a “national celebration of our great tradition of generosity.”

Giving Tuesday is intended to mark the opening day of the giving season. It is also in marked juxtaposition to the national pre-holiday shopping craze memorialized every year on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

We hope you will include CAI in your giving plans this holiday season.

“Education is one of the few things that a person can never be stripped of, even if they lose everything else,” said Greg Mortenson, CAI Co-founder. “It is an investment in all our futures.”

Click HERE to make a donation to CAI.

For more information, visit

Giving Tuesday

I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver. – Maya Angelou

Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go. – Mother Teresa

No one has ever become poor by giving. – Anne Frank

– Central Asia Institute


November 21, 2012 – Gratitude, growth, and grace


Grateful greetings from all of us in Bozeman. The “Attitude of Gratitude” post that Karin Ronnow wrote last year at Thanksgiving time still rings true today and we wanted to share it, and the sentiments, again. We hope you enjoy this re-post (with a few minor edits). We have so much to be thankful for, and we have so much more to do. Happy Thanksgiving.
– Anne Beyersdorfer

Asalaam Aleikum (Peace be with you).
And to all our stateside readers and supporters, Happy Thanksgiving.

As we count our blessings here at Central Asia Institute, it has been noted that some of them have arrived in strange packages this year. But blessings are sometimes like that. It’s what happens next that matters.

And at CAI, we opted to turn challenges into opportunities to learn and grow. After all, CAI is all about education and adaptation, about listening and growing, and, when necessary, changing. Every new project, new relationship, and new geographic region teaches us valuable lessons. We learn something new every day. We never stop learning.

So we are grateful for our teachers, who come in all shapes and sizes.
We are grateful for our supporters, who continue to believe that it is possible to make a difference in the world, one child at a time.

And we are grateful for the ties that bind us all together in our mission.
Our annual Journey of Hope publication is CAI’s attempt to document that mission with words and photos. And assembling this year’s edition has truly been a journey of hope. The process, the people, and the places – they all combine to leave me with an unshakeable attitude of gratitude, just in time for Thanksgiving.


I’m grateful for our hardworking, multitalented project managers who guided me and photographer Erik Petersen down so many roads less traveled this year. They introduce us to amazing people who entrust us with their stories and treat us like family, people whose open hearts, hospitality, and honesty leave me humbled and inspired.

I’m grateful, too, for the teachers and students. They are the heart and soul of everything CAI does. Their creativity, passion, and determination to make a better future keep me focused on what’s important.

I am also grateful for the hardworking, multitalented individuals at CAI’s headquarters in Bozeman. What a team. Layout, photo selection, proofreading, fact checking – the Journey of Hope is an enormous project and it takes all hands on deck to get it done. Shukria. Tashakur. Manana. Thank you!

And of course I am grateful to CAI’s cofounder Greg Mortenson, for his capacity to articulate the principles that continue to guide CAI into the future – take time to drink three cups of tea, listen to people, empower those you are trying to help, respect the elders, don’t rush, don’t be afraid to fail, and believe that education is the key to a peaceful world.

It takes a village, as the saying goes, and on this Thanksgiving we are filled with an attitude of gratitude for all who are part of CAI’s mission.

Thank you for your continued support.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

– Karin Ronnow


November 19, 2012 – Sarfraz’ final journey home

All dear friends and well wishers,

Sarfraz Khan

Thank you for your heartfelt sorrow messages for our dearest Sarfraz’s sudden death [of cancer]. It was a big shock for the family, friends, students, and for all the valley people from all over Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

I am sorry for late reply because on 13 November, we lost our brother Sarfraz at 5.30 p.m. After the first formality, we left Islamabad for Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) at 10 p.m. with all his family and kids. We arrived 14 November, 5 p.m. in Gilgit, where friends, relatives and family members were waiting to receive Sarfraz Khan. After one hour rest and tea we continued our journey to Hunza. Our group arrived at Aliabad Hunza at 8 p.m. There all local community received us with great sorrow.

Sarfraz Khan

Because of the lake and boat transport closed at night, we rested for five hours and started our journey again at 2 a.m., on 15 November. We loaded our vehicles and Sarfraz coffin on boats, and by 6 a.m. crossed the lake safely.

Then we continued by road to Charpusan Valley. In some places there was snow and slippery, but the Frontier Works Organization had cleared the way for us. There many thousands of people were awaiting our arrival, and even more thousands were still arriving to join Sarfraz and his family for the final journey home. It was beyond belief to see so many people. We finally arrived at 11 a.m. in Zuudkhan, Sarfraz Khan home and the last village of Charpusan Valley. At Zuudkhan, veterans in their old uniforms were ready to perform honor guard for Sarfraz.

Sarfraz Khan

It was not easy for everyone to believe that Sarfraz was really dead, and especially since his father died only a month earlier. There was three days of mourning, memorial services, discussions all attended by a riderless horse, Kazil, who is Sarfraz Khan’s white horse that carried him many times over the mountains to do projects. Kazil had his saddle on, ready to take Sarfraz to his next life in heaven.

Death is reality of our life, and as a Muslim we all know that every life comes to an end one day. Sarfraz has left us, but in our hearts and those of the tens of thousands of children he has given education and hope to, he is with us forever.

Thanks for all of you again.

Inalilah he wa Inailiahr Rajiun. Amin.

Saidullah Baig
CAI Hunza Director

Please visit our memorial page for Sarfraz. You can send messages to


November 13, 2012 – “Sarfraz has gone home on his white horse”

In memory of Sarfraz Khan 1957-2012
CAI “Most remote area” project director

Sarfraz Khan


With heavy heart, I regret to inform you that our beloved brother, mentor and dear friend, Sarfraz Khan, passed away peacefully in Islamabad at about 5:30PM Pakistan time on Monday evening. When I left him about 48 hours ago, he was relaxed, peaceful, coherent, and said he was waiting for his ‘white horse to pick him up and take him home.’

His departure leaves a deep void in CAI and our hearts, but we should celebrate that Sarfraz was a man ahead of his time, and long ago was making plans that the schools he established were sustainable and enduring, and in his wake he given us a vision to follow, has left two qualified female directors, who are the first women ever to do work like that in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), Tajikistan and Wakhan-Pamir, Afghanistan.

We weep, but the Pamir, Hindu Kush mountains, stand tall and prouder than ever, to know that in their foothills, tens of thousands of eager children have the light and hope of education to pave a brave new future because of Sarfraz’s courage and vision.

Please remember Sarfraz’s wife Bibi Nouma, and his eight children in your prayers and thoughts.

Inalilah he wa Inailiahr Rajiun. Amin. ‘Surely we belong to God and to Him shall we return.’

Allah Hafiz.
Greg Mortenson

Please visit our memorial page for Sarfraz. You can send messages to


November 9, 2012 – UN urges Pakistan to commit to girls’ education on eve of Malala Day

UN Malala

United Nations envoy Gordon Brown Friday called on the Pakistani government to make a stronger commitment to education for all its citizen, but especially girls.

UN Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown made his comments in Islamabad in conjunction with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s announcement of an initiative to enroll 3 million children in school in the next four years. The program has been dubbed “Waseela-e-Taleem,” which means “right to education.”

Brown also used the occasion to present Zardari a petition with more than a million signatures in support of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot by the Taliban for her support of girls’ education.

The UN has declared Saturday, Nov. 10, Malala Day, a global day of action to honor Malala and support girls’ education. An estimated 32 million girls around the world are denied education, including 3 million in Pakistan alone. Malala became a symbol of their struggles after her brutal attack one month ago in northwestern Swat Valley. She is recovering at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England.

In a meeting with Zardari, Brown said, “Malala and her family believe that there are many, many more courageous and brave girls and families in your country who want to stand up for the right of every child, in particular girls, to have the education that they deserve,” according to news reports.

Extremist militants’ opposition to secular education, especially for girls, is just part of the reason more than 3 million Pakistani girls are not in school, Dawn (Pakistan) newspaper reported. Education also suffers from “chronic underfunding,” with less than 2.5 percent of Pakistan’s GNP allocated to schools. A recent UNESCO report found that Pakistan had the second worst global rate of children out of school.

Waseela-e-Taleem is a four-year program that will give free education to children of poor families, according to the Express Tribune. It is part of the Benazir Income Support Program, which said in a statement Friday that the pilot phase has been launched in Skardu and two other areas.

“I support [Pakistan] in every effort you are making because there is no more precious asset, no greater investment, nothing that signifies better your faith in the future [than] the help and support you give every child in your country,” Brown told Pakistan’s government.

UN Malala

Brown also said the UN will work with the World Bank and Pakistan’s government “to ensure the international community is able to do everything it can do to help [Pakistan] as you employ teachers, build schools, provide learning materials and end discrimination that should not exist against girls who go to school.”

In announcing Malala Day on its website, the UN special envoy’s office said it was intended to recognize “that discrimination takes many forms, some of which are akin to exploitation,” including child marriage, sex trafficking, slavery and exploitative labor – all of which keep girls out of school and keep them from realizing their full potential.

Central Asia Institute and its supporters have worked to promote education, especially for girls, in Pakistan for more than 16 years. We are grateful to hear the Pakistani government’s reiteration of its commitment to providing education for all its children. And we send our prayers and heartfelt get-well wishes to Malala and her family.

QUOTE: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” -Thomas Jefferson

– Karin Ronnow


November 2, 2012 – Spread the love: 2013 Journey of Hope calendars available for pre-orders


The 2013 limited-edition Journey of Hope calendar has gone to press and Central Asia Institute is now taking preorders.

This year, photographer Erik Petersen and CAI Communication Director Karin Ronnow documented CAI projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. The calendar includes stunning photography of CAI projects, plus explanations of CAI’s programs and a map of the areas we serve.

The stories will be published in the upcoming “Journey of Hope,” which is scheduled for an early December distribution.

Each calendar is $10, with delivery by early December.

Proceeds from all calendar sales help CAI carry out its mission to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

Order yours now. CAI calendars make great gifts, and help us spread the message of peace through education.

To order online, click HERE. Or call 406.585.7841; email, or send a note to: Central Asia Institute | P.O. Box 7209 | Bozeman, MT 59771, USA.

As always, thanks for your support.

– CAI staff

Sneak peek at what’s inside:

2013 Calendar

2013 Calendar

2013 Calendar

2013 Calendar


October 23, 2012 – Snapshots – CAI-supported girl students

Central Asia Institute has received many inquiries and messages of support since the Taliban’s attack on Malala. Malala is now a worldwide symbol – bringing awareness of the everyday challenges and danger that face many girls who seek education in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the communities we serve there are thousands upon thousands of girls, parents, and educators who want more educational opportunity for themselves and for their countries. Below are a just a few snapshots of CAI-supported girls from my recent visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Each girl is an inspiration, a symbol of hope, and the potential for a more peaceful future.

We hold them in our hearts everyday.

CAI supported girl students

CAI supported middle school students. Dhok Luna, Pakistan.

CAI supported girl students

CAI supported primary school student. Parwan, Afghanistan.

CAI supported girl students

CAI supported University scholarship students. Bannu, Pakistan.

CAI supported girl students

CAI supported high school students. Kabul, Afghanistan.

CAI supported girl students

CAI supported high school student. Kabul, Afghanistan.

CAI supported girl students

CAI supported primary school students. Dhok Bidder, Pakistan.

All photos: Central Asia Institute, 2012.

QUOTE: “The only thing better than education is more education.” 
— Agnes E. Benedict

– Anne Beyersdorfer

NOTE: Our upcoming Journey of Hope will again detail CAI’s efforts providing education and community health opportunities, especially for girls, in remote communities of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Please sign-up here to receive a copy.


October 16, 2012 – CAI releases Annual Report (September 30, 2011)

2011 Annual Report

Central Asia Institute (CAI) is pleased to announce that it has completed its independent financial audit for the fiscal years ended September 30, 2011 and 2010. Eide Bailly, certified public accountants and business advisors, issued the audited financial statements.

CAI’s Annual Report and the full audited financial statements are provided here and on our Financials Page. The report summarizes CAI’s financial statements and programs, and illustrates how your support continues to further our mission.

CAI is now preparing for its FYE 2012 audit, a review of the past 12 months of activity, both stateside and overseas. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the significant accomplishments of this past year, all in pursuit of our mission to promote peace through education, especially for girls, in some of the most remote areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Those accomplishments include:

CAI US Operations
1. CAI, Greg Mortenson, and the Montana Attorney General’s Office (OAG) signed an agreement resolving the OAG’s inquiries.
2. U.S. District Court Judge Sam E. Haddon dismissed the lawsuit against CAI, Greg Mortenson, writer David Oliver Relin, and Penguin Group publishing. In dismissing the suit, Judge Sam E. Haddon concluded: “The case has been pending for almost a year. The Complaint before the Court is the fifth pleading filed. Plaintiffs have been accorded every opportunity to adequately plead a case, if one exists. Moreover, the imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment would be futile. This case will be dismissed with prejudice.”
3. CAI expanded its Board of Directors to 10 members, adding seven individuals with many years of leadership experience, financial and legal expertise, and knowledge of and appreciation for the people we serve.
4. CAI launched a search for a new Executive Director to provide the leadership and strategic vision to continue CAI’s mission of enhancing human resources through education and training, especially for girls.
5. CAI joined the Combined Federal Campaign’s list of eligible charities.
6. CAI expanded its social media outlets to include Facebook and Twitter.
7. CAI’s Pennies for Peace program continued to inspire people around the globe, with 7,305 campaigns initiated since its inception, 185 currently active, and 153 initiated in 2012 to date.

Girls' education

Overseas Operations
CAI made an extended effort to focus much of its time on the heart of the mission in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. With three trips made by Co-founder Greg Mortenson, two by Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer, and five by Communications Director Karin Ronnow, we accomplished a lot.

CAI has funded the initiation of more than 300 school and community programs. Specifically in 2012, communities initiated 60 new projects: 20 in Pakistan, 36 in Afghanistan, and four in Tajikistan, while also providing ongoing support to existing projects in the remote areas we serve. All of these projects are listed on our Master Project List, which is frequently updated.

1. CAI initiated an “Overseas Grantee Monitoring” program. Independent accountans reviewed the activities and structure of CAI operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, documenting generally accepted business methods and accounting for transactions. These included an understanding of: payment flows, formal contracts with those involved in program activities, and invoice documentation for program-related activities (school buildings, water projects, healthcare, scholarships, teacher support, women’s vocational centers, literacy centers, and community support).
2. CAI provided funding to increase teachers’ salaries based on level of education and years of service in CAI-supported schools.
3. CAI provided funding for a winter disaster relief program for the people of Badakhshan, Afghanistan.
4. CAI provided funding for laptops for scholarship students in Gilgit, Hunza, Chapurson, Azad Kashmir, and Ghizer, Pakistan.
5. CAI’s Baltistan Library Project provided funding for expansion of library resources throughout Baltistan, Pakistan. CAI delivered hundreds of books to communities, including the Skardu Municipal Library and the Women’s Degree College-Skardu.
6. CAI provided funding for a teacher training and evaluation program for 22 teachers from CAI-supported schools in the Ishkoman, Ghizer, and Gupis areas of northwest Pakistan.
7. CAI provided funding for the second healthcare-worker training in northern Pakistan.
8. CAI helped to reorganize and expand oversight resources for its scholarship programs in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir.

All of these accomplishments could not have happened without the thousands of CAI supporters across the world. We are truly grateful. Every penny makes a difference. Every kind word spread about our mission increases awareness of the importance of education worldwide. And all your support gives hope to thousands of children who yearn to build a more peaceful world.

On behalf of CAI’s Board of Directors, staff, and the communities we serve, thank you for your continued dedication to the mission of peace through education.

– Jennifer Sipes, CAI’s Operations Director


October 15, 2012 – Support for Malala

The Pakistani Taliban’s deplorable attempt to kill 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, an advocate for girls’ education, has become the modern-day shot heard ‘round the world.

By seeking to silence this brave ninth-grader in Pakistan’s volatile Swat Valley, the Taliban gunmen inadvertently managed to do just the opposite: They turned up the volume on calls to educate the girls of the world.

Girls outside

The world now knows that Malala was critically wounded when Taliban fighters boarded a school van. The gunmen asked which of the girls was Malala, and then opened fire. Another girl and a teacher were injured, too.

“Our prayers are with Malala and her family,” Central Asia Institute co-founder Greg Mortenson said Sunday in a phone interview from Tajikistan. “Her story is heartbreaking. But it’s important to remember that Malala is just one of many. Scores of students and teachers risk their lives every day in support of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

“The lengths to which extremists will go to prevent girls from attending school – and to perpetuate ignorance and instability – are demonstrated repeatedly in the places where CAI works,” Mortenson said.

“There are so many stories,” Mortenson said. “Girls attending classes are gassed and poisoned. Girls are attacked on their way to and from school. In Pakistan, militants destroyed 440 schools, including 130 all-girls’ schools, last year. In Afghanistan, several dozen teachers have been murdered for teaching at girls’ schools, including a teacher at the CAI school in Saw, in Kunar Province (Afghanistan), this past summer.”

Malala’s story has resonated with people and CAI supporters’ outpouring of concern was immediate.

“I am worried about the shooting of the 14-year-old,” Dan wrote in an email to CAI. “I will keep the young female student in my prayers.”

“Can you get word to the family of Malala Yousafzai that many people here in the USA are praying for her recovery and sending their support and deep appreciation to her family?” Nancy wrote.

Others asked whether Malala or her school is affiliated with CAI in any way. “Was just wondering if [Malala’s] school was aided by CAI,” Cynthia asked.

Girls outside

Malala’s school in Mingora, Pakistan, is not a CAI project, although CAI works in other remote areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

More than anything, people expressed outrage.

“I am shocked and horrified at the Taliban shooting of the wee 14-year-old in Pakistan,” Bette, a CAI supporter, wrote in an email this weekend. “The world needs to wake up.”

Bette added: “What can I do to help the 14-year-old lass who is fighting for her life?”

As per Bette’s request, here are some ways to help Malala and others like her:
Post a comment on CAI’s Facebook page expressing support for girls’ education.
Sign the United Nation’s Special Envoy for Global Education’s petition, which states: “We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child. We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.”
Sign the petition to express your “grave concern regarding the ongoing and shocking destruction of schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Adinistered Tribal Areas in northern Pakistan and the danger that women and children face.”
Support CAI with a donation.

CAI’s mission is built on the fact that education is the best and most lasting antidote to poverty, inequality, and ignorance – and that girls have an equal right to participate in that solution.

“Malala is the tragic public face of the thousands of girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan who overcome incredible challenges to secure an education,” CAI Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer said Sunday. “These young women are their nations’ and the world’s daughters. Forging ahead with them, arm in arm, we are working towards a better future.”

– Karin Ronnow

QUOTE: “There is an African proverb I learned as a child in Tanzania, ‘If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. But if you educate a girl, you educate a community.’” – Greg Mortenson


October 11, 2012 – Girls’ education highlighted on first-ever Day of the Girl


Girls’ education matters! Spread the word today, the first International Day of the Girl, and every day.


Here’s Nooria’s story:

Nooria, an 18-year-old student in class 10 at Mir Afghan Girls’ School in the foothills north of Kabul, is engaged to be married. But she has had to fight to stay in school.

“My father and my brothers don’t let me come to school and I missed one year,” she said, shyly pulling her pink dupatta (headscarf). “They say I have to stay at home to help, that it’s not fair for me to go to school, that people will talk because girls are not supposed to go to school when they are older. Only my one brother has helped me come here.”

– Excerpted from Journey of Hope, Vol. 5

Around the world, millions of girls are denied the right to go to school due to poverty, war, religion, and discrimination. Girls’ education is fundamental to CAI’s work helping communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan build a better future.


September 12, 2012 – Gains for girls’ education in Afghanistan remain vulnerable

Girls' education

Despite remarkable gains over the past decade, girls’ education in Afghanistan remains an uphill battle.

Shifting attitudes and increased resources for girls’ education in this impoverished and war-torn country have no doubt led to increased enrollment, although the exact number is hard to pin down, with girls making up an estimated one-third to one-half of the roughly 8 million Afghan children enrolled in school today.

Clearly a growing number of parents, teachers, government officials, and girls themselves recognize the importance of girls’ education.

“Education is very important, it is the light that allows us to see the world,” Fazeela, a sixth-grader at a Central Asia Institute community school in Logar Province, said in July.

However, gains made in the past decade remain tenuous.

The Afghan Ministry of Education “has undoubtedly made laudable progress in improving both the availability and quality of education, but with such a large influx of students over the past few years, it is struggling to keep pace with demand,” according to Oxfam International’s report, “High Stakes: Girls’ Education in Afghanistan.”

“With donors increasingly focused on stabilization and counterinsurgency rather than development, and with security deteriorating in many areas of the country, the gains made in improving girls’ education are in danger of slipping away,” the report states.

The obstacles to girls’ education in Afghanistan haven’t changed much since the fall of the Taliban. Security remains a constant concern as attacks on girls’ schools continue throughout the country. Also, girls’ schools are still too few and far between, especially in rural areas. Nearly half of the schools in Afghanistan have no building. And qualified teachers, especially female teachers, are in short supply.

Afghan Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak said in June that only 50 percent of the country’s 200,000 teachers are considered professional-level educators. He also said his ministry encourages families to send their daughters to school.

Girls' education

CAI looks forward to the day when all children have access to safe, quality education. In pursuit of that goal, we continue to work with people across northern, eastern and central Afghanistan – as well as in Pakistan and eastern Tajikistan – to promote community-based schools, literacy centers and scholarships for higher education.

And our programs already serve thousands of Afghan girls like 11-year-old Fazeela, who, according to her teacher, works hard at her studies, never misses a class and wants to be a doctor.

With an illiterate mother, Fazeela knows education will make a difference in the path she takes through life – and in the future of her country.

“It is valuable for all people, for both boys and girls, to find the light of their own lives,” she said. “And then it is our job to give education to the next generation. That is how Afghanistan will have a better future.”

QUOTE: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

– Karin Ronnow


September 10, 2012 – Marking International Literacy Day in Pakistan

International Literacy Day

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Every day is Literacy Day at Central Asia Institute.

After all, with an estimated 61 million of the world’s primary-school-age children out of school, according to UNESCO, there is no shortage of work to do – especially here in Pakistan.

Pakistan has the second-highest number of children not attending school – 5.12 million boys and girls. “Around one in four 7- to 16-year-olds had never been to school at all,” according to a UNESCO report, “and most will probably not have the chance to enter a classroom.”

Access to education falls precipitously if you are a girl, poor and living in a rural area, the report noted. In Pakistan, “among the poorest girls, as many as two in three have never been to school.”

Yet we know, as CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson has said, that literacy gives people “hope, progress, and the possibility of controlling their own destiny” – three things that are too often in glaringly short supply in this part of the world.

In recognition of the importance of education, the United Nations has been promoting International Literacy Day for decades. This year’s celebration on Saturday, Sept. 8, focused on literacy and peace. “Literacy contributes to peace as it brings people closer to attaining individual freedoms and better understanding (of) the world, as well as preventing or resolving conflict,” according to UNESCO.

The theme echoes what Mortenson has written and said since he started working in this region in 1993.

The result of Pakistan’s neglect of childhood education is an estimated 50 million illiterate adults – people unable to read, write and understand a short simple sentence about their everyday life. Sixty-five percent of those illiterate adults are women.

International Literacy Day

An estimated 75 percent of neighboring Afghanistan’s population is illiterate, too, although figures are harder to come by for that country.

Yet people want education, especially for their children. As Mortenson wrote in “Stones Into Schools,” the CAI-supported community-based schools in Afghanistan “are a testament not only to the Afghans’ hunger for literacy, but also to their willingness to pour scarce resources into this effort, even during a time of war.

“I have seen children studying in classrooms set up inside animal sheds, windowless basements, garages, and even an abandoned public toilet. We ourselves have run schools out of refugee tents, shipping containers, and the shells of bombed-out Soviet armored personnel carriers. The thirst for education over there is limitless.

“The Afghans want their children to go to school because literacy represents what neither we nor anyone else has so far managed to offer them: hope, progress, and the possibility of controlling their own destiny,” he wrote.

For more information on international literacy statistics, visit: UNESCO Institute for Statistics

QUOTE: “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.” ― Kofi Annan

– Karin Ronnow


September 5, 2012 – Torrential rains trigger deadly flashfloods and landslides in Azad Kashmir

Azad Kashmir landslide

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Heavy monsoon rains in Azad Kashmir in recent weeks have triggered landslides and flash floods, killing at least 17 people and washing away homes, crops, livestock, bridges and roads.

One of the hardest hit areas is the remote Neelum Valley, northeast of the capital city of Muzaffarabad, where Central Asia Institute has supported communities with education projects since 2005.

“It has rained heavily every day since 15 August, especially at Eid time,” said Fozia Naseer, CAI’s community women’s development and scholarship director in AJK. Muslims this year celebrated Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, on Aug. 20. “It is raining really heavily every evening because of monsoon.”

Much of the destruction has occurred close to the epicenter of the catastrophic October 2005 earthquake, which killed at least 79,000 people in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

“Some people built their houses near the rivers and streams and when the water level was high, the whole houses are just gone,” Naseer said. In other cases, homes have just collapsed from the heavy rain. “The rains are worse than any year since the earthquake.”


The main road up the Neelum Valley was blocked for four days last week.

“There were three landslides on the new road between Muzaffarabad and Patika,” she said. “One near Kahori is really bad – the road is just gone. There is a small river on the side of the mountain, like a waterfall. Maybe it was a spring that was exposed. But it created constant mud sliding down. They weren’t able to even work on the road because the mountain was moving, the whole thing. So they closed the road for four days.”

Such decisions have a ripple effect, she noted.

“Then there was a shortage of food because of that, so the shopkeepers in Patika were selling food for higher prices,” Fozia said. “Plus people couldn’t go to work or school. Lots of teachers, they live in Muzaffarabad and are teaching in the remote areas, so they drive on this road every day.

“Several schools were supposed to open on Aug. 23, but are still off. Because of the landslides, the teachers and staff can’t go there until they clear the road. They are going to try to open this week,” she said.

The government has been able to move heavy equipment into the area, “so they can clear it every time it slides” and the road was reopened Friday, Aug. 31. “But still it is dangerous,” Fozia said. The other two landslides are near Chalpani and Yadgar.


The Chinese government spent more than six years after the earthquake rebuilding and paving the Neelum Valley road.

“We had a new road, but now it is ruined,” Naseer said. “The Chinese handed it over to the government five months ago and went home. Now people are saying the Chinese are gone and the government is not going to rebuild the road, maybe for years.”

The monsoon rains have also wreaked havoc in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, two of the many regions of Pakistan still struggling to rebuild after the epic floods of 2010.

– Karin Ronnow


August 24, 2012 – Greg Mortenson on CAI’s search for a new executive director

The launch of a search for a new executive director is an exciting time for all of us at Central Asia Institute. For me, it is the fulfillment of discussions I’ve had with CAI’s board members over the past few years about turning over the position to a person with the expertise that I lacked, so that I could focus on what I do best – promote peace through education, continue to build relationships, and empower the communities and children who have captured my heart.

Greg with Students

Since I resigned as executive director in November 2011 and we turned the position over to Anne Beyersdorfer, I’ve spent four months in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There I met and drank tea with hundreds of elders, community leaders, imams (religious leaders), military commanders, and government officials. I spent time with women and mothers, who reiterated what they have told me for almost two decades: “We want peace and we want education.” And, best of all, I spent time with thousands of children whom we serve. They have not given up hope, and that is what drives us on, to make their dreams come true through compassion and humility.

The past 18 months have brought many challenges for CAI, but more importantly, they created opportunities to reinvigorate the organization’s mission, board, staff, and family. Our CAI team rose to the challenge, as I had to take time out to get a new lease on life with the diagnosis and repair of a life-threatening atrial septal defect and aneurysm.

My commitment to, and admiration and respect for our community program managers overseas is profound. All of them, and the communities we serve, are the true “heroes” in pursuing CAI’s mission. I will always remember the people who taught me the three cups of tea philosophy. Compassion, humility, education, and incentive are the key factors to making our world a better, more peaceful place.

Our staff in CAI’s Bozeman office work tirelessly to ensure our growing organization stays strong. Our board of directors was recently expanded to nine members, each of whom bring unique and valuable skills and ideas to the organization. And the foundation has now been laid for a new executive director.

Greg with Welders

Being executive director of Central Asia Institute is a unique task with incredible rewards. More than a job, it is a calling, and CAI aspires to find someone with the heart and motivation to work relentlessly for the sustainable future of the organization. The executive director must inspire others, possess cross-cultural understanding, have excellent management and communication skills, and be able to tackle adversity.

Although CAI has incredible support around the world, unfortunately there are also those who seek to destroy our work, and even more sadly, those who are vehemently opposed to the education of girls. To deny even one girl the right of education hinders the best way to bring change and create peace for a society. The new executive director will be charged with bringing awareness of the power of girls’ education, as well as an understanding of Islam, to the global community.

We look forward to the added vitality that this person will bring to the CAI team — especially during these particularly challenging times in the communities CAI serves in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

I am also excited about continuing my work to inspire children and young adults around the world to value community service and volunteerism, and to know they can make a difference in their own communities. Despite all the maladies of our planet, there is an eagerness, yearning and collective consciousness among youth to make the world a better place. They are the future.

To view the executive director job description, please Click Here

QUOTE: “Only in growth, reform, and change — paradoxically enough — is true security to be found.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

– Greg Mortenson


August 20, 2012 – CAI community teacher training and evaluation program big success

Twenty-two teachers from Central Asia Institute-supported schools in the Ishkoman, Ghizer, and Gupis areas of northwest Pakistan attended an intensive, four-day teacher training and evaluation program from July 28 to Aug. 1.

Teacher training

The program opened with discussion of teachers’ roles in society and articulation of their greater visions for the future, which they formulated into written presentations.

During those presentations, many of the teachers expressed how they had come from humble beginnings, including writing with sticks in the sand, and the many social, logistic, financial, and physical obstacles they had to overcome to ultimately become educators.

Although skills and background education help, I have long believed it is critical to build a corps of teachers from the ground up. Fifteen years ago we did not have a great pool of highly qualified teachers, so we took eighth- or tenth-graders and put them through intensive training. They have done a magnificent job and produced hundreds of high school and college graduates. More than a decade later, it is nothing short of a miracle.

Dilshad Baig, CAI’s teacher and women’s center training director, worked with a team of master trainers to facilitate this summer’s teacher training and evaluation program.

The teacher training programs are part of CAI’s renewed focus on improving the quality of education in schools. This initiative includes increased teacher salaries, additional support for teachers, upgraded schools, increased number of scholarships, and overall human-capacity building, as opposed to a focus on establishing new schools in rural or volatile regions.

The teachers were excited to attend the program, and to share their skills and experience with their colleagues, Dilshad said.

Teacher training

Days two and three were more nuts and bolts based, with lesson planning and instructions on setting up implementation and evaluation procedures. Then the teachers conducted mock classes with each other and assessed their performances in groups, with evaluations by the training staff, their teaching peers and themselves.

Some teachers, such as Afsana, from the CAI-supported middle school in Noor Abad, had never before received any formal teacher training and were elated to participate in a program in which their peers could help improve their skills.

Another stellar CAI-supported teacher, Khosh Begum, also from Noor Abad middle school, shared her preference for visual teaching tools, like flash cards, to make the education process more interesting.

The program also included sessions in which teachers actually were observed and trained in the classroom with students.

Dilshad said that, despite some teachers’ lack of previous training, all were highly motivated and inspired to become better teachers, and their enthusiasm in the classroom settings was like a burst of sunshine in on a dark, cloudy day.

The teachers’ had numerous ideas for improving their own skills and the quality of education offered, including: more outdoor activities; engage with students at eye level; make class time livelier, shorter, and organized; improve teachers’ writing on blackboard; introduce more animation and cultural context on some topics; spend more time organizing lesson plans; and get to know the students better to see if health issues, overwork, lack of sleep, or insufficient nutrition might be affecting their performances.

Dilshad is a unique, woman leader in Northern Pakistan. She is one of the first women in the region to complete a university degree, who pursued her dreams while encouraged and supported by her husband, who was then a hotel owner-operator. Dilshad previously taught in an English school for (mostly) foreigners in Gilgit, and has extensive experience in teacher training.

QUOTE: “Education is improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” – Marian Wright Edelman

– Greg Mortenson


August 17, 2012 – Sending out blessings and prayers for peace on Eid


Central Asia Institute wishes all its Muslim friends and family “Eid Mubarak” at this most holy and joyous time of year.

This weekend marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting that culminates with Eid ul-Fitr (“Eid” means celebration, “Fitr” means ending the fast).

“The Eid ul-Fitr is a very joyous day; it is a true Thanksgiving Day for the believing men and women,” Islamic scholar Imam Ali Siddiqui wrote in an oft-cited explanatory piece about Eid. “On this day Muslims show their real joy for the health, strength and the opportunities of life, which Allah has given to them to fulfill their obligation of fasting and other good deeds during the blessed month of Ramadan.”

Ramadan is always held the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which follows the lunar calendar. This year, it began Saturday, July 21. It ends about 30 days later with the rising of a new or crescent moon, expected this year on Aug. 18 or 19.

The month-long fast is intended to help Muslims experience what it is like to be hungry and thus empathize with the poor, and to put individuals’ focus on the power of the spiritual over the physical.

On each day during Ramadan, Muslims typically have a predawn meal and then fast from sunrise to sunset – no food or water. Exceptions are made for pre-pubescent children, pregnant and nursing women, people who are sick or traveling, and diabetics. After darkness falls, they break the fast with a communal meal known as iftar.

Charity is an important part of Islam, and during Ramadan Muslims pay special attention to those in need, giving gifts of time, money or food. Such actions reflect the adage that actions speak louder than words, said Saidullah Baig, CAI’s community manager in Pakistan’s Hunza region. “We learn that the thing that really makes a difference is working together with communities to make a better future, like CAI does every day. This is the spirit of humanity.”


In addition to fasting and charity, Ramadan is meant to highlight the need for patience, worship and faith in God. Many Muslims dedicate time to reading the entire Quran, beginning to end.

With the coming of the crescent moon, Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of the fast with feasts, celebrations with family and friends, and continued charity. Many girls and women also apply henna decorations, Mehndi, to their hands and feet. In some parts of the world (including Afghanistan) celebrations go on for several days.

Imam Siddiqui quotes a Hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said of Eid ul-Fitr, “For every people there is a feast and this is our feast.”

Non-Muslims are also welcome to share in the Eid festivities, celebrating commonalities and the joy that comes from working toward peace and a better future for all.

“On this holy day at the end of Ramadan, I am most grateful for CAI’s steadfast, long-term commitment to serving humanity, to helping the poor and underserved people become strong through the light of education,” said Lt. Col. (Ret.) Ilyas Mirza, CAI’s community chief operations director in Pakistan.

Eid Mubarak!

– Karin Ronnow


August 15, 2012 – You spell it T-a-l-a-y, I spell it T-h-a-l-l-y

It never fails. Every time I am checking on a Central Asia Institute-supported school, interviewing an elder or student, or visiting a village for the first time, sooner or later I have to ask, “Please, would you spell that for me?”


Whether I’m asking about the name of a person, place or thing, I usually need help translating it into English-alphabet letters.

In some circles, it has become a bit of a joke. My translators – usually CAI’s community project managers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan – give me one of those here-we-go-again smiles, take a moment to think and then give me their version of the spelling.

But that’s usually not the end of it. Oftentimes, when I ask them to repeat it, they spell it differently. Then when they write it down for me later on, it’s spelled yet another way. Can you spell f-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-o-n?

In the case of place names, one would think there’d be some kind of agreed-upon standard. But double-checking the “field” versions against those of “official” sources doesn’t always help.

First I go to the map. Except that there is no one map for any of these places; spellings vary from map to map; and some places where CAI works aren’t even on the maps.

I’ve tried the travel guidebooks, too, but I’ve found that even in those authoritative volumes, town and place names may be spelled two or three different ways in the same book – Khaphlu, Haphlu, Khapalu, for example.

And I am always hoping I’ll see a signboard suggesting how the locals might spell it. That’s easier in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, it’s hard to even find a street sign, highway number or place name anywhere. This is understandable given that 75 percent of the population is illiterate, signs cost money, and everyone who lives there knows what it is called so why bother with a sign.

But even in Pakistan, where there are signs, the signs don’t agree. On a trip to Baltistan in Northern Pakistan in May, I noticed that signboards marking NGO projects in the Thally River valley, for example, spelled just that one word at least four different ways: Talay, Thalley, Thally and Tahlay.

On the same trip, I got a letter from the president of the social welfare organization in a small Hushe Valley community that included three different spellings of his village’s name – Marzigond, Mar Zigong, and Marzi Gone. All in the same letter. And all three were different from the spelling CAI had been using.


This problem is not unique to CAI. Books about the regions where we work invariably include the qualifier: “The English spellings of place names vary.”

This is a Westerner’s conundrum; I recognize that. But it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

CAI Co-founder Greg Mortenson pointed out that words in common languages such as Arabic, or obscure languages such as Balti (ancient Tibetan language of Baltistan) or Burushaski (isolate language of Hunza, Pakistan) also have dipthongs, or phonetic sounds, that are not even possible to replicate using the 26-character English-language alphabet. The International Phonetic Alphabet, created in 1888, was one effort to adapt phonetic sounds for English-language speakers, but it is not in wide use, Greg said.

These days, even Western governments have gotten involved in trying to clarify the English-alphabet spellings of place names in Afghanistan. Until a few years ago, translations of place names “happened in a rather ad hoc way in Afghanistan,” leaving “the English-speaking armies and NGOs a little confused,” the BBC reported in 2008.

So the United States Board of Geographical Names teamed up with the British Permanent Committee on Geographical Names and began trying to standardize English-language versions of the names of every town and village in Afghanistan, according to the BBC report.

This was a big project. As the PCGN in London has noted, the almost 26 million people of Afghanistan “display an ethnic tapestry of astonishing variety,” with about 70 languages and dialects spoken. Two languages have official status, Dari (Persian) and Pashto, and both are written in Arabic script, although they have different alphabets.

“The confusion comes because Dari and Pashto are the main languages in the country and like all languages in Arabic script, vowels are left out of the written form. This explains why the boys’ name Mohammed can be spelt in several ways in the Roman alphabet … only the consonants M-h-m-d appear in the written version of Perso-Arabic scripts.”

Yet another difference is the use of “v” versus “w,” as in Parvan Province (Dari) versus Parwan Province (Pashto).


A few particulars from the US-UK Afghanistan naming project have leaked out. For example, PCGN has posted this admonition: “The spelling Konduz is obsolete and Kondoz should now be used.” And that is much more helpful than this Wikipedia note: “Kunduz will be seen spelled as Konduz, Qunduz, Qundoz, Qundoze and variations on these.”

But for the most part, the “official” place-names list seems to be available only at the official government level.

And in some ways, that’s just fine. I believe all languages are expressions of human creativity, art forms, if you will. Making the world more comfortable for us English-speaking sorts is helpful to us, but worrisome in the long run in that it threatens to undermine that beautiful “ethnic tapestry.”

As Marianne Mithun said, “The loss of languages is tragic precisely because they are not interchangeable, precisely because they represent the distillation of the thoughts and communication of people over their entire history.”

So when it comes to spelling proper nouns, perhaps those of us outside official channels are better off left to our own devices, respecting the fact that we are visitors and politely asking, “Please, would you spell that for me?”

NOTE: Since I’m on the topic of place names, let me answer a question I frequently hear: “Who/what was ‘Stan’?” (as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, etc.).

The suffix “-stan” comes from the Persian root “sta,” which means, “place where one stays,” according to several online sources. In the countries where CAI works, the suffix was either tagged onto the names of the people living in a place (Afghan, Tajik) or, in Pakistan’s case, to the acronym for Punjab, Afghanistan, and Kashmir (PAK).

– Karin Ronnow


August 7, 2012 – Promoting education in the last, best places


Any trip to visit Central Asia Institute-supported projects overseas is bound to be extraordinary.

But photographer Erik Petersen and I just returned from a four-week journey through Afghanistan and Tajikistan that turned out to be, well, extra extraordinary. And one that made me vow to my family that henceforth I will never go too far off the beaten path without a satellite phone. Because you just never know what might happen.

Erik and I landed in Kabul in late June and got right to work surveying CAI-supported projects, meeting teachers and students, drinking tea with village elders and government officials – all guided by CAI’s Afghan “family.”

Our travels took us from the capital and surrounding provinces, up to Badakhshan Province, the Wakhan Corridor and eventually Tajikistan. At times we traveled with accountants hired to monitor CAI’s overseas expenditures. We met with scholarship students, adult women learning to read and write in discreetly located literacy centers, and Kuchi nomad children practicing their math skills in a tent school on a verdant plain southeast of Kabul.

From Kabul to Kapisa, Kipkut to Khorog, we collected stories and photos that will be part of this year’s “Journey of Hope” publication and 2013 calendar. Every stop was a reminder of the constant uncertainty in the lives of the Afghans, people who so desperately want education for their children and peace for their country.


But then, just as we were getting ready to head home, CAI’s Sarfraz Khan, Erik and I got stuck in Khorog, Tajikistan, while Tajik Special Forces battled a rogue warlord and his army right there in the city.

We spent four days essentially trapped in a nondescript Soviet-style apartment. And that’s where the satellite phone comes in. Without it, we would never have been able to contact friends and family. Without it, we would have had little reliable information about the heavy gunfire, helicopter gunships and soldiers on the streets of Khorog. Without that phone, for all I know, we might still be there.

It was hardly what we expected during our visit to Tajikistan. Until that trip, all three of us regarded the Gorno-Badakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan as the most peaceful place where CAI works. Alas, that reputation no longer holds.

We had crossed the Panj River – which marks the Afghan-Tajik border — on July 17 in Ishkashim and driven north to Khorog, capital of the remote mountain region. The plan was to visit four villages where CAI is helping build schools and arrange delivery of supplies to CAI’s most-remote school in Bozoi Gumbad, Afghanistan.

Things took a turn for the worse July 21 when Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, chief of the KGB (State Committee for National Security) in the GBAO, was stopped on a remote stretch of the same Ishkashim-Khorog road, pulled from his car and stabbed to death. Government forces pointed the finger at Tolib Ayombekov, a 46-year-old border patrol officer who allegedly murdered Nazarov (his boss), for interfering with a lucrative cigarette, gemstone, weapons, alcohol and heroin smuggling operation. When Ayombekov refused to surrender, the Special Forces opened fire on Ayombekov and his followers in Khorog.

When the gunfire started at 4 a.m. on July 24, Erik, Sarfraz and I stood in the hallway of our rented apartment, a bit stunned. Then we did what most people across the city did – we reached for our mobile phones. “No network coverage,” the screens said. The Tajik government had blocked communication with the outside world – cellular and landline phone service and the Internet.

So we hunkered down in the dark – “No lights,” Sarfraz, a veteran of armed conflict, commanded – and waited, listening to the gunfire outside our window that periodically pinged off the ubiquitous satellite dishes.


As the sun came up and the fierce fighting wore on, we learned that all roads in and out of Khorog were also closed. And the airport. We were trapped. That’s when Sarfraz pulled out the satellite phone.

The whole thing was surreal. I sat on floor, my back to the window, talking on the satellite phone amid the sounds of gunfire and helicopters. But I realized I could also hear the birds chirping in the trees, children chattering in nearby apartments, and the squeak of clotheslines as women hung out wet laundry. I could smell baking bread. Life goes on.

Dozens of people were killed in the military strikes that continued over the next few days, although casualty reports varied wildly. Some people said 30 killed, others said 200. One person told us that dozens of civilians had died. One young man told Sarfraz, “Nobody died. The soldiers and militants were just shooting those big guns into the sky.”

After the first day of heavy fighting, the Special Forces backed off a bit. The gunfire was much more sporadic. Erik and I walked to the bazaar in the early morning, looking for an open shop where we could stock up on eggs, powdered milk, coffee, and gossip. Banks, offices and other businesses were closed and it seemed there were soldiers posted around every corner.

But it took days before the government finally opened the road, thanks in part to pressure from the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe eager to get tourists and aid workers like us out of harm’s way. When we got word, we found a car and driver and made a beeline for Dushanbe, a 14-hour drive. Ayombekov, meanwhile, reportedly made a beeline into Afghanistan.

We never got cell phone service or Internet in Khorog. Everyone said the government had blocked the signals, although reported at one point that the state communications service was blaming a stray bullet for severing telephone, mobile and Internet connections to the region.

And after we left, I heard the Tajik troops confiscated all satellite phones.

– Karin Ronnow


August 3, 2012 – CAI friends killed in tragic jeep accident in Braldu valley, Baltistan, NE Pakistan

On Aug. 1, at approximately 9:45 a.m. local time in the Braldu Valley of Baltistan, NE Pakistan, a jeep loaded with farmers and part-time expedition porters went off the precarious dirt road above the Braldu River in an area notorious for landslides and falling rock.

Three of the men were killed, three were seriously injured and two are still missing after falling into the rapids of the silt-laden river. Although efforts are still under way to locate the men, they are presumed to be dead.


One of the men killed was Ali from Korphe village, according to Mohammad Nazir, CAI’s Baltistan community liaison. Ali was a big supporter of the Korphe School, and worked hard to encourage children to attend school. His family has been notified and received his body for burial.

The two missing men are Hussein and Hassani, the jeep driver, both from Teste village, who worked tirelessly to help rebuild Korphe School in 2010 after severe storms and rain destroyed the school roof.

Nazir was one of the first people to reach the accident scene, which was in a remote valley where few people walk by, and jeep transits are occasional. He was making the approximately 120-kilometer, seven-hour trip from Skardu to Korphe village to deliver supplies for Korphe School and community. There is no cell phone coverage in the area, so evacuation plans to get the injured to the hospital and the deceased to their villages was complex.

“This is a big tragedy for our entire region during the holy month of Ramadan, as these were courageous men with big hearts who were leaders for our communities, and most of them were the sole providers for 10 to 20 people in their villages,” Nazir said.

Even though we are halfway around the world, this is painful for me to hear. I mourn with the communities we serve for the loss of these great men. Without their support, blood, and sweat, we could have never established schools to serve their children.

In addition to the challenges of war, extremism, and extreme poverty, life in the Karakoram Mountains is truly harsh. However, the resilience, hope, and devout faith of the Balti people offer lessons we all can learn from.

Within hours of Ali’s body arriving in Korphe village, he was buried in the simple, local graveyard, overlooking the escarpment of the roaring Braldu River, against the backdrop of the magnificent Bakhor Das peak (“Little K2″), and beside the trail winding down to Korphe School, where the children pass each day.

All of us at CAI send our prayers and condolences to the families and friends of these men.
May they and their dedication to education, their faith, and community not be forgotten.

– Greg Mortenson


July 30 2012—Safe Evacuation from Khorog, Tajikistan

All of us at CAI are relieved that Karin Ronnow, Erik Peterson, and Sarfraz Khan are safe and homeward bound. Our thoughts are with those who lost loved ones, and remain in harm’s way.

The U.S. Embassy Tajikistan, European Union representatives, and Tajik government officials successfully negotiated permission for foreign nationals to leave the turmoiled Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region on Saturday.

Safe evacuation

CAI’s indomitable trio traveled approximately twenty hours in a land-cruiser on the M 41 ‘Silk Road’ from Khorog to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. There were plans to be met by U.S. embassy personnel and U.S. Marines to escort them safely to Dushanbe, but once they were on the road they decided to “make their own way”. Local people and connections helped their journey.

Karin told Greg Mortenson via satellite phone on Friday, “The most frustrating thing was to be totally isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, and while we were in the middle of a war zone that made international news, we had practically no information about what was going on, even in the nearby streets or neighborhoods.”

Greg Mortenson remains concerned about the deteriorating situation in eastern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, “There has been a proliferation of heroin smuggling, militant insurgency, and instability the last year, and the need to support and empower communities with literacy, jobs, and infrastructure is greater than ever.”

Our local Tajik and Afghan staff still remain on the ground, and have not stopped their work to fulfill CAI’s mission, despite skirmishes, war, and natural disasters.

Profound thanks to everyone who offered prayers and support, and to the many people who helped coordinate the evacuation plan for our staff and other foreign nationals, we are extremely grateful for a successful outcome.

– Anne Beyersdorfer


July 27 2012-CAI Communications Director and Photographer Caught in Tajikistan Crossfire

Karin Ronnow, Erik Petersen, and Sarfraz Khan have been stranded in the eastern Tajikistan city of Khorog for the last week, caught in the cross-fire of an abrupt conflict.

Karin, Erik, and Sarfraz arrived in Khorog only a day before the violent conflict ensued, after completing an extended field trip to Afghanistan and Tajikistan, to visit and document school, educational, and women’s projects in the remote areas of the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains.

Karin informed us that all cell phone communications, internet, television were shut off by the Tajik government. The airport has been closed, roads out of Khorog are blocked off, all government offices and post offices closed, with only a few grocery stores and bakeries open a few hours a day until the rations run out. The nearby border with Afghanistan is also shut down.

Tajik Fighting

She’s in touch via satellite phone, and said yesterday, “Other than two massive explosions in the middle of the night, it has been mostly quiet here for about forty hours, apparently in the wake of a government declared cease-fire. However, if the four alleged murderers of Abdullo Nazarov do not get caught or turn themselves in, the government is threatening to launch more military operations in the city.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, issued a statement regarding the conflict, stating that it “is deeply concerned by the recent violence and reported loss of life in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan. We offer our sincere condolences for the loss of life and express our concern for the safety of civilians in the conduct of operations by Tajik authorities. We urge that all measures be taken to allow the safe evacuation of civilians from the combat zones, including foreigners currently trapped in the city of Khorog.”

The U.S. State Department, U.S. Embassy Tajikistan, U.S. Senator Jon Tester, Tajikistan government, and U.S. military have been coordinating efforts to evacuate them, and other stranded foreigners safely from the conflict.

CAI launched its work in eastern Tajikistan in 2010, and is presently working with communities to establish and build new schools in Mugrab and Vanj districts, in the remote Pamir mountains.

The violence in the normally peaceful region in the Pamir mountains, which is near the Afghan and Chinese borders, began last Saturday, when the regional Tajik security chief, Abdullo Nazarov, was stabbed to death near Khorog by unknown assailants.

Tajikistan’s government has blamed a border security commander, Tolib Ayombekov, who is also an alleged tobacco, drug and gemstone smuggler, with the murder of Nazarov, although Ayombekov has denied the allegations and told the state media that Nazarov was killed in a drunken brawl instead, and the Tajik government is using his death to perpetuate decade’s long feuds and ethnic cleansing.

Khorog, across the Panj river from Afghanistan, is the provincial capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), and previously the strong-hold of Islamic rebels, who fought the more secular, central government in a brutal civil war that ended in 1997, and killed over 100,000 people.

The Tajik central government responded to Nazarov’s murder with a heavy-handed response, bringing in helicopter gunships, tanks, and thousands of soldiers, to launch a massive military operation early Tuesday morning in order to attempt to bring the suspected murderers to justice.

“The isolation and situation is made worse, since it is the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and local patience is growing thin with all communication and access cut off, and supplies dwindling”, said Ronnow. “The things we still have are water, electricity, and plenty of Chinese Ramen noodles, however, all bottled water in the region is depleted, and we have to boil water due to contamination of tap and river water.”

We are incredibly grateful for the support from our State Department, U.S. Embassy Tajikistan, Senator Tester of Montana, and U.S. military, to reach out on our behalf when we need them.

Greg Mortenson, who recently returned from a two month trip to the region, says that although CAI takes significant precautions to minimize the risk of working in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, “it is inevitable that some unforeseeable events will happen, like flash-floods, avalanches, accidents, riots, and skirmishes, and I’m grateful that there are courageous people like Karin, Erik, and Sarfraz, whose enthusiasm and commitment never wanes, and armed only with pencils and not weapons, enable tens of thousands of children to get an education.”

Thanks to everyone for their concern and prayers.

– Anne Beyersdorfer


July 24, 2012: Exam time in Afghanistan

BAHARAK, Afghanistan – The ninth-grade students were spread out under the school’s old walnut tree taking an exam, enough space between them to prevent cheating, but still close enough to allow the teacher to keep an eye on everyone.

Squatting in the dust – a position most Westerners would be hard-pressed to maintain for a few minutes, but which people in these parts can do for hours – the 28 girls answered the test questions in longhand in their exam books.

Exam Time

A light breeze carried the sounds of braying donkeys and crowing roosters up the river valley and across the schoolyard near Baharak, in remote Badakhshan province. Central Asia Institute and the community finished the Chapchi Yardar Girls’ High School here in 2011 and classes filled fast, prompting two shifts at the school – younger girls in the morning, older girls in the afternoon.

“Before we had the school, the girls were mostly outside, studying in the sunshine and the rain,” said Principal Fariba Halali. “Some families would not send their daughters to school because there was no building. Others were at the boys’ school.

“Now there are 750 girls and obviously they are very happy, in many aspects. The lessons are going well and they are studying well. And if the students are calm and the place is comfortable, everyone, including the teachers, is happy,” she said.

The midsummer exam period takes place all over Afghanistan at the same time. Students take a different subject exam each school day. After they complete their test, they turn it in and go home to study for the next day’s test. Regular classes are suspended during exam time.

On the day of our visit, the test was on Islamic subjects. The day before, it was math. The day before that, Dari.

“The girls in the morning shift take exams inside the classrooms, but on warm days like this, in the afternoon the rooms get very hot and so the students ask to take exams outside,” Halali explained. “The sun is hot, but it is cooler outside, here in this shady place” under the walnut tree.

– Karin Ronnow


July 19, 2012: New Board Directors help lead Central Asia Institute’s mission forward

New Board

Central Asia Institute (CAI) welcomed seven new Board members to the charity’s Board of Directors in meetings last week in San Francisco, California. The new directors bring many years of leadership experience, expertise, and a depth of understanding of the people we serve. They come to CAI from a range of fields including education, management, finance, corporate governance, and law (brief bios below).

Dozens of highly qualified individuals had expressed interest to serve on CAI’s Board over the last year. A majority of CAI’s Board members are from, or have lived, worked, traveled, or have extensive knowledge about Afghanistan and Pakistan, the primary regions that CAI serves.

“CAI has always been a small group of devoted, mission-centric individuals doing extraordinary work,” co-founder Greg Mortenson said. “We are excited, honored, and grateful to have such a high caliber Board of Directors, who will provide the independent expertise necessary to fulfill our mission as we move forward.”

Greg Mortenson and CAI have worked with communities in the mountainous, remote, and often war-wracked areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1996 to establish over 300 educational and community support initiatives, including literacy centers, school buildings, vocational centers, scholarship programs, and public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) initiatives.

At the conclusion of the meeting, new board member Steve Barrett commented, “CAI’s future is bright. We will continue to build on the important accomplishments of CAI in promoting education, especially for girls, with the communities we serve.”

Steve Barrett is a native Montanan and worked as a lawyer in Bozeman for more than 35 years, first with Kirwan & Barrett and for the last several years of counsel with the firm of CrowleyFleck, PLLP. Steve recently concluded a seven-year term on the Board of Regents of the Montana University System where he served as Vice Chair and Chair. Steve was previously general counsel, senior vice president and CEO of Video Lottery Technologies, Inc (formerly NASDQ VLTS). He has also served on several nonprofit Boards, including Eagle Mount and Big Sky Owners Association. Steve earned his BS from Montana State University and his JD from Pepperdine University School of Law.

Talat Khan is a retired teacher and philanthropist. Talat taught Chemistry at PECHS College for Women, Karachi for 13 years before emigrating to the U.S where she obtained a teaching credential and continued teaching Chemistry in San Francisco public schools for 23 years. More recently, Talat has developed and sponsored several educational and community initiatives in Pakistan including: classroom expansions, library materials, the “One Laptop Per Child” program, scholarship, and food programs.

Farid Senzai is a Fellow and the Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also Assistant Professor of Political Science at Santa Clara University. Farid was previously a research associate at the Brookings Institution, where he studied U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, and a research analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as a consultant for Oxford Analytica and the World Bank. He is currently on the advisory board of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. His recent co-authored book is “Educating the Muslims of America” (Oxford University Press, 2009). Farid received an M.A. in international affairs from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in politics and international relations from Oxford University.

Iram Shah is a global marketing executive with 20 years of experience in marketing, general management, and business development in Fortune 20 companies and has held senior executive positions in companies such as Coca Cola, BP, Quaker Oats and Zurich Financial. She has worked and lived in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Iram received her MBA degree in finance from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and attended postgraduate programs at Harvard and Kellogg Business Schools. She has won the Asian Jewel Award for business professionals and was included in the list of ‘Power 100’ Asians in UK in 2005.

Howard Slayen has over 35 years of professional services and financial operating management experience working in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and tax advisory for private equity firms, middle market operating companies, venture-backed technology companies, and multi-national conglomerates. For 30 years, Howard was with one of the major international accounting and professional services firms holding a number of management and leadership positions at both the national and regional level. Most recently, he has served on a number of boards of directors for public, private and nonprofit organizations. Howard holds an A.B. in Economics from Claremont McKenna and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley (Boalt). He is a Certified Public Accountant (inactive) and attorney (inactive) in the State of California.

Peter Thatcher is a retired international finance and management executive. Early in his career he spent nearly two years in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. He studied Middle Eastern history during summers at Harvard University, and earned an M.A. in food research at Stanford University in 1966. His career included living in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Cairo, Egypt, Moscow, and Vladivostok, Russia. In Washington, DC, he worked for the US Agency for International Development as Senior Agribusiness Advisor for the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. In Bozeman, Peter served at both the College of Agriculture and the Engineering Research Center.

John E. “Jed” Williamson is the Past President of Sterling College in Vermont and of the American Alpine Club. He was on the faculty of the U. of New Hampshire from 1973 to 1982. In retirement, he serves as a consultant in education and outdoor pursuits and specializes in quality, risk management, and accreditation reviews. He has been the editor of “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” since 1974 and is the co-author of the Association for Experiential Education’s Accreditation Standards for Adventure Programs. He has been a director, program director, and instructor for U.S. Outward Bound, Executive Director of the United States Biathlon Association, and has served on several nonprofit Boards. Jed received his B.A. in English Lit. and his M. Ed from the University of New Hampshire.

CAI Board Chairman Dr. Abdul Jabbar, professor of literature from City College San Francisco, and CAI Board member Karen McCown, who started two schools in the San Francisco Bay area, and is also the founder of Six Seconds, an emotional intelligence training organization, will remain on the CAI Board until spring 2013.

– Central Asia Institute


July 18, 2012: ‘They are the lucky ones’

Lucky ones

KABUL, Afghanistan – The 11-year-old girl who lies to her parents about where she is going for two hours every afternoon. The 50-year-old war widow who says it is never too late to learn to read and write. And the 20-year-old teacher determined to share her education with the women in her neighborhood.

These are three of the 45 women who fill the temporary classroom set up in the teacher’s east Kabul home. Their goal is to learn to read and write – attaining the equivalent of a third-grade education – over the span of the nine-month Central Asia Institute literacy class.

“These girls and women, they are the lucky ones,” the teacher says. “They have a chance for education and they are most interested. But we must encourage them because it is hard work.”

It is but one of the dozens of projects photographer Erik Petersen and I have visited since arriving in Afghanistan last month. Accompanied by CAI program directors, we have fought the insane Kabuli traffic, driven endless hours through breathtaking mountains, and traipsed along narrow footpaths to visit CAI projects in Kabul, Logar, Parwan, Kapisa, Wardak, and Badakhshan provinces.

Over endless cups of tea, boiled mutton, salt tea with curdled goat’s milk, and heaping plates of Kabuli pilau, we have talked to community leaders, teachers and students about the role of education in Afghanistan’s future and what CAI can do to help. We have seen CAI community schools under construction and those that date back to CAI’s early days in Afghanistan established after 9/11. And we have visited women’s literacy and vocational centers, all full to bursting with girls and women eager to garner the skills – reading, writing, sewing, math – to improve their lives.

In a country where at least 70 percent of the population is illiterate and the average person earns only a little more than $500 a year, according to the World Bank, there is no shortage of need here.

Lucky ones

Security concerns, meanwhile, are a constant, as pervasive of the question of where to charge our electronic gizmos – phones, camera batteries, computers – that keep us in touch. CAI folks often say, “It’s complicated.” And given the power struggles being waged in anticipation of the withdrawal of US/NATO troops in 2014, it seems things in Afghanistan are more complicated than ever.

Yet even with deteriorating security, the consistent refrain is that education is the only path to a better future for this war-weary country. Elders, teachers, students, parents – they all know the power of education. As CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson says, “War destroys people’s families, homes, livelihoods. But no one can take away a person’s education – it remains theirs forever.”
And the Afghan people seem to know that intuitively – including the courageous and happy 11-year-old girl at CAI’s sponsored literacy center who every day risks her parents’ wrath in order to learn to read and write.

As always, the people of this country inspire me beyond words.

QUOTE: Today a reader, tomorrow a leader. – Margaret Fuller

— Karin Ronnow


June 28, 2012: Preserving Balti history and culture

SKARDU, Baltistan, Pakistan – Verdant vines nearly covered the entry to the unassuming building set in a garden bursting with late-spring blooms.

Muhammad Yousuf Hussainabadi ducked beneath the vines, pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the porch. He pulled out a set of keys, opened two heavy padlocks and swung open another door.


He flipped the light switch and sighed. “No electricity,” he said.

But the midday light from the window was enough to reveal his treasure: a storage room crammed full of Balti artifacts.

Dozens of antique apricot-oil-burning lamps hung from the ceiling. Massive clay and metal urns and were piled on the floor. In between were shelves filled with soldier kits, brass bowls, ancient clay joints and pipes, a piece of the last king of Baltistan’s fountain and four different kinds of wooden rat traps.

“This is a Buddha that is 2000 years old,” he said, turning over the statue. “The writing on the back shows it is from the fifth and sixth centuries. A friend in Khapalu found it.

“And this is a bow made of horn,” he said, reaching for an item against a wall in the shadows. “Horn has much flexibility.”

The 64-year-old Balti historian and retired educator is proud of his collection.

“I have spent five years collecting artifacts in villages, shops, from individuals – all means were used by me,” he said. “Even this morning I have gotten one artifact.”

His determined efforts to find items that tell the stories of his homeland have yielded 1,606 artifacts – ancient pottery, metalwork, jewelry, carvings, clothing, architectural remnants, agricultural tools and implements of stone, clay, leather, horn, and wood – plus 36 handwritten books and 24 historical papers.

Now he wants to share it with others. He hopes to build an education and cultural center here in the village that is also his namesake, Hussainabad, east of Skardu.

“This will be the most comprehensive collection in Gilgit-Baltistan,” said Hussainabadi, a published author and founder of the Jinnah School, a prestigious private school in Skardu. “It will be a complete museum, a very good research center.

“I am an educator and this is part of my struggle for education and preservation of culture,” he said.

History and education
Former Central Asia Institute Board Chairwoman Julia Bergman is one of Hussainabadi’s biggest fans. (Central Asia Institute is not providing funds for the center, but recognizes the value of his efforts and the role such a center could play in the education of children and adults.) She met him on a trip to Baltistan in 1999 to help set up a CAI-funded library in his Jinnah School.

During that trip, Bergman also learned from CAI teachers “that they had nothing in their curriculum related to Balti history and culture,” she recalled. “Most of them had never read about or visited important historical sites, such as the Mantal Buddha or Karpucho Fort.”

When she told Hussainabadi about this, he arranged several tours of historical sights and antique shops around Skardu to familiarize Bergman with the region’s rich history and the fate of many of its artifacts.


“I was distressed to see so many beautiful Balti artifacts for sale,” she said. “In one shop I heard voices in a back room, behind a curtain. They were speaking in German, which I also speak. They were talking about pieces of carved wood, removed from the window and door of an old Balti house. They were excited about the carvings and said, ‘We can sell these in Düsseldorf for a fortune!’

“I was shocked. Hussainabadi then (told) me that Pathan traders from the Peshawar area traveled all the way up to Baltistan with shiny new aluminum water kettles, went into the villages and traded the kettles for old Balti artifacts, and then sold the artifacts in the Skardu bazaar. Who were their customers? Members of high-altitude climbing expeditions from all over the world.”

Mountaineers and trekkers are significant contributors to Baltistan’s economy. The region contains the loftiest peaks of the Karakoram Mountains, including the world’s second-highest mountain, K2 (28,251 feet), Gasherbrum I (26,470 feet), and Broad Peak (26,401 feet). It is also home to three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the Polar Regions – Biafo, Baltoro, and Batur. Local men work as high-altitude porters, jeep drivers, cooks, and guides.

But the idea that these and other visitors were scooping up the historical artifacts of the region was more than a little disconcerting to Bergman, whose involvement with the project today exists independent of CAI.

Shop owners and collectors “have swept away all precious and valuable objects paying very cheap prices,” Hussainabadi later wrote to Bergman in an e-mail. “Neither our government nor any NGO has so far practically done anything to establish a museum and save the remnants of Balti history and culture.”

So he decided to do it himself.

Buddhism to bling
Hussainabadi’s collection covers many, many years of Baltistan’s rich but largely peaceful history.

Modern-day Baltistan, like the rest of Pakistan, is populated by Muslims, but Baltis are of Tibetan origin, and for centuries practiced Buddhism. Tibet invaded Baltistan in the sixth century and later conquered Brushal (modern Gilgit), annexing these to the Tibetan empire, according to


“Tibetan influence can be seen in (Baltistan’s) architecture, where houses with flat roof(s), painted white and sloping inwards are built,” according to Wikipedia.

Carved Buddhist symbols – yung drung (a swastika-like symbol) and lotus flowers – can still be found on wooden planks and beams in mosques, houses, and public buildings. The indigenous culture includes some Buddhist rituals, the local language is called Balti Tibetan and the region is commonly referred to as “Little Tibet.”

In fact, Hussainabadi’s scholarly endeavors include adding four new letters to the Tibetan script to create Yige, a complete alphabet for the Balti language. And his collection includes many artifacts from that time in Balti history. The oldest items in his collection were found during the excavation of a Buddhist monastery in Shigar Valley.

However, “little remains of the pre-Islamic Buddhist culture of Baltistan, largely destroyed and supplaced (sic) by the dominant Punjabi and Persian culture which arrived with Islam,” Wikipedia noted.

But Hussainabadi is determined that his Baltistan Education and Cultural Center will show visitors the arc of history, from the demise of Tibetan power in the 11th century, when Baltistan came under the control of the rajas (ruling landlords) from leading families in the independent valley states, to the 15th century, when Iranian scholars brought Islam to the region and Baltis converted en mass to the Nurbakhshi order of Islamic Sufism.

In the 19th century, Baltistan was overtaken by the “despotic” Kashmiri Dogra rulers and annexed to Kashmir. That lasted until 1947, when the British divided India and created Pakistan.

Through it all, the isolation of the Karakoram Mountains ensured that Baltistan “developed and preserved its unique history, cultural values and traditional political identity,” according to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in the Netherlands.

And Hussainabadi’s collection tells those stories. Old snowshoes hang on the wall near his assortment of local guns – rifles and pistols mostly made of wood. A large set of brass and wooden spoons evoke images of everyday meals, while the jewelry and decorative items are reminders of the ubiquitous human desire for ornamentation.

The smell of mothballs filled the porch as Hussainabadi untied and then unrolled a scarf containing silver necklaces and bracelets dotted with gemstones. Raw silver was likely brought from elsewhere, but the gemstones are local.

“But these were for the rich people,” he said. “For the poor people, the common people, such items were made of brass.”

An old doorway leaning against the wall tells another story.

“Researchers can use doorways to show many things – the art of carving, carpenter skills, the height of people, the culture of those days,” he said. “I have tried to show a complete picture of everything, material-wise, design-wise, and size-wise.”

The building
The jewelry, along with the ancient coins and keys, are among the smallest items he has acquired. The largest item is a storage vessel, a huge urn, which he keeps at his home in Skardu.

“That will have to be installed before the building is complete,” as it is too large to fit through a doorway, he said.
He then unrolled the architect’s “map,” or blueprints, for the Baltistan Education and Cultural Center, which will be built here in his elaborate garden overlooking the Indus River.


The existing building will be torn down and replaced with a 2,115-square-foot building with a 60×24 hall and an “office cum library,” he said. Cinderblocks, made in Skardu town and brought to the property for curing, are already stacked between flowering bushes at the edge of the property.

The center will be privately owned, registered with the government and managed by a board of directors, Hussainabadi said. It will be open to “all the students and public of Baltistan and all the tourists of the world, including the domestic Pakistani tourists, visiting Skardu.”

Bergman said she intends to contribute the Balti artifacts she collected during her travels. And Susan Roth, illustrator of “Listen to the Wind,” will donate much of her original artwork to the museum.

That all these items will finally have a proper home is exciting, Bergman said.

“Over many trips to Baltistan for teacher training and ongoing library projects” Bergman worked with two associates and the CAI teachers to create a “Balti Workbook.” “I have always felt that the workbook should be combined with field trips to historic sites, and to a cultural center or museum so the students could also see the things and places related to the fascinating story of their extraordinary homeland.

“I have thought about this very important project for 13 years and will do everything I can to be there for the dedication.”

Most of the items have already been catalogued, Hussainabadi said, pulling from his briefcase a 16-page single-spaced list of artifacts. His next big chore will be writing the descriptions, a chore he expects will take about a year. He hopes to do that while the building is being constructed.

— Karin Ronnow


June 24, 2012 – CAI teacher, village mullah killed for supporting girls’ education

With heavy hearts and immeasurable sadness we deliver news that militants have killed a CAI teacher and a high-ranking local mullah, who was also part of provincial leadership.

These two men risked and gave their lives to promote literacy and girls’ education in their Afghan village. Our prayers, condolences and support go to the widows, families and communities of these brave men. The Arabic words that Muslims use upon hearing of anyone’s death are, “Inna Lillahe wa inna eleihe rajioon.” In English, the words mean, “We are from Allah, and to Allah return.”

Afghan authorities are still investigating the murders, but witnesses have told CAI that non-local militants deliberately targeted the two men for death. The militants lured the men outside the village, conducted a short illegal tribunal, charged them both with spying for the Afghan government, and then brutally and summarily executed them. The men left behind two widows and 14 children.

Wakil Karimi, our Afghanistan program manager, and CAI were notified almost immediately after the tragedy. However, we wanted to ensure the men’s families were safe and supported before sharing this story. Afghan authorities have asked that the men’s names not be released until their investigation is complete.


CAI has had a long relationship with both men. We shared their joy in the early days, as they encouraged families to send their daughters to school in the mullah’s house, and then to a tent school. We shared their duas (prayer blessings) and excitement during groundbreaking for the new school and when the new school building opened for classes.

The school faced threats over the years, but the village shura (elders) and the mullah negotiated with the local militants not to harm the students or the school. Only recently, with the influx of non-local militants who have disrupted civil society in the area, did this tragedy unfold.

There are no words to adequately express the grief that CAI’s family in the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan feels over the loss of these men. Even though our overseas staff come from different countries, various Islamic sects, and multiple tribal and ethnic affiliations, we have all taken time to offer prayers and pledged to help the families in the future, including scholarships for the men’s children.

It would have been understandable if the community had opted to close the school or sever their ties with CAI to avoid further reprisals. But villagers have instead insisted that girls’ education will continue and that the men will not have died in vain. They have asked for a new teacher and CAI’s continued support. We will do everything in our power to honor that request.

If and when the time is right, and with permission from the families, CAI will release the names of the murdered teacher and mullah. In the meantime, please take a moment of silence to remember our friends, and, if you are inclined, please remember their families in your prayers.

Blessings of peace.

QUOTE: “When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him lies on the paths of men.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

— Greg Mortenson


June 20, 2012 – Summertime is CAI’s busy season

Summer Solstice

Today marks the official start of summer in the northern hemisphere. For us here at Central Asia Institute, the summer solstice (a word derived from the Latin word for sun, “sol,” and to stand still, “sistere,”) is also a reminder that time is flying by and the too-short Central Asia travel and building season is well under way.

The to-do list both stateside and overseas is especially long this year. Here in Montana, we’re working with seven new members of our Board of Directors; providing details for the independent financial audit; exhibiting at the National Education Association Expo in Washington, D.C.; and managing the constant flow of questions, requests, and reporting from overseas.

In the midst of all this, CAI’s Co-founder Greg Mortenson took time to write a letter to CAI supporters from Skardu a few weeks ago and the response has been terrific – thank you, shukria, tashakur.

I spent a month traveling with Greg in Pakistan, a journey that included his return to the mountain communities in Baltistan where he started his work all those years ago. It was a memorable trip in so many ways and one that will be well documented in the 2012 Journey of Hope. Yet it was just one of five overseas trips I will make this year. Being a go-between – or a “bridge,” as Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer calls me – between our two worlds is a challenging yet invigorating responsibility. I wear many hats in this capacity, but my favorite role is that of reporter, collecting stories, asking questions, and learning something new every day.

Summer Solstice

Yet there is no denying that the state of affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan grows more complicated by the day. The 2014 deadline for the drawdown of NATO troops in Afghanistan has already triggered increased militant activity – ranging from intimidation to outright murder – in some of the areas where CAI works and the resultant anxiety in many of these areas is palpable.

I read constantly to keep up with developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. The news stories keep me current. The books round it all out. Anne suggested I come up with a summertime reading list for anyone interested in expanding their familiarity with and education about the region where CAI works.

We regularly post news links to the left of this communique, but here are links to a few stories published in recent days that merit a read:
Taliban blocks vaccinations in Pakistan | NY Times
Pakistan power-cut riots spread | Guardian
Political instability rises as Pakistani court ousts prime minister | NY Times
Four Pakistani journalists murdered in a month | Guardian blog
Afghanistan is leading source of refugees | Reuters AlertNet
Afghanistan needs $7 billion in aid after Western pullout | Reuters News Service
In Afghanistan, a mother bravely campaigns for president | CNN

As for books, well, it’s hard to pick just a few. With public interest in the region at what seems like an all-time high, the list of published titles just keeps growing. Here are the titles and synopses, cribbed from, of a few of the books that I particularly liked:

Summer Solstice

“Where the Indus is Young: Walking to Baltistan,” by Dervla Murphy. Nonfiction (1978). The Irish adventure-travel writer and her 6-year-old daughter, accompanied by a pony, walk into the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan one winter, a journey that takes them into “the frozen heart of the Western Himalayas and along the perilous Indus Gorge,” says. The mother-daughter travelers “encountered conditions that tested the limits of their ingenuity, endurance, and courage” in this story described as “hair-raising, gloriously subjective, and with the quirky vitality of fiction.”

“The Wandering Falcon,” by Jamil Ahmad. Fiction (2011). “The rich dramatic tones of a master storyteller” reveal from the inside the “stunning, honor-bound culture” of Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, an “unimaginably remote region, a geopolitical hotbed of conspiracies, drone attacks and conflict,” according to “Ahmad has written an unforgettable portrait of a world of customs and compassion, of love and cruelty, of hardship and survival, a place fragile, unknown and unforgiving.”

“Pakistani Bride,” by Bapsi Sidhwa. Fiction (2008). Sidhwa’s novel of women, tribal and contemporary politics tells the story of Zaitoon, a woman reared in Lahore, Paksitan, and promised in marriage to a man of her adopted father’s isolated tribe. “Giving up the civilized city life … to become the bride of this hard, inscrutable husband proves traumatic to the point where she decides to run away, though she knows that by the tribal code the punishment for such an act is death,” says.


“The Sewing Circles of Herat,” by Christina Lamb. Nonfiction (2004). Back in the 1980s, news reporter Lamb left her suburban England home to spend two years “tracking the final stages of the mujahideen victory over the Soviets” in Afghanistan, according to Captivated by the country, she returned after 9/11 and “discovered the people no one else had written about: the abandoned victims of almost a quarter century of war. Among them, the brave women writers of Herat who risked their lives to carry on a literary tradition under the guise of sewing circles; the princess whose palace was surrounded by tanks on the eve of her wedding; the artist who painted out all the people in his works to prevent them from being destroyed by the Taliban; and … a former Taliban torturer who admitted to breaking the spines of men and then making them stand on their heads.”

Summer Solstice

“Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep,” by Siba Shakib. Nonfiction (2001). The Russians leveled her village in 1979, the men in the family joined the resistance, and Shirin-Gol fled with the women and children to Kabul and a Pakistani refugee camp. Her story – “told truthfully and with unflinching detail” – includes “being forced into a marriage to pay off her brother’s gambling debts, selling her body and begging for the money to feed her growing family, [and] an attempted suicide,” and parallels the fate of many Afghan women, especially during the Taliban years, says. “The moving story of a proud woman, a woman who did not want to be banished to a life behind the walls of her house or told how to dress, who wanted an education for her children so that they could have a chance at a future without fear and poverty.”

We at CAI do believe that the future of the people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan is intertwined with our own. We are all more alike than we are different.

SWEDISH PROVERB: “A life without love is like a year without summer.”

— Karin Ronnow


June 11, 2012 – Fire destroys school in far northeast Afghanistan


A nighttime gasoline-fueled fire destroyed a boys’ and girls’ school in remote Badakhshan Province Wednesday, according to Janagha Jaheed, Central Asia Institute’s field director for northeast Afghanistan.

No one was injured in the blaze at the Malangab School, which CAI had been planning to expand this year. The government school is in the central Baharak district of the mountainous province.

The fire was started “by unknown people,” Mahbobullah, assistant principal of the school, told Janagha, adding that he and some other community leaders believe the Taliban was responsible, “but the Taliban did not accept or reject it.”

“The fire started at 9:40 p.m.,” Mahbobullah said. “The building was showered by petrol from the wooden roof and inside some classes and then” set ablaze.

“When the villagers became aware of this burning at around 10:30, they came to (extinguish) the fire altogether,” the assistant principal continued. “But it was very difficult to stop the fire because it was nighttime and there were no facilities like water pump or firefighters. So the people collected some tools and carried water to stop the fire. Unfortunately, they could not succeed.”

The cause of the fire is being investigated by authorities from national security agencies and the education department, Janagha said.

The nine-classroom school in Baharak district has 643 girls and 682 boys who were studying in two shifts, Mahbobullah said. The school serves children from nine surrounding villages.


“Already there was shortage of classrooms and we needed another new school building beside this one,” Mahbobullah said. “But right now, as unfortunately this building is totally damaged due to this fire, all our students face much more problems.”

The next morning, the district governor gathered representatives of all NGOs based in Baharak in his office, Janagha said.

“Then he took them to the school, which was still burning. He and many of the villagers and community leaders requested from all the NGOs, especially CAI, to help and support this school as soon as possible,” he said.

“They said they hope Marco Polo [a local nonprofit created by CAI] and CAI will help their innocent children at this moment. If these students are not helped urgently, they will be dismissed and as a result they will fail the midterm exams, which are near. If that happens it will be a big hurdle for the education of these students,” Janagha said.

Badakhshan, one of the most difficult areas of Afghanistan to access, was long considered one of the safest parts of the war-torn country. In recent years, however, militants have established a foothold in the province, leading to increasingly frequent battles with the Afghan National Army, provincial border police and security forces.

“The security situation in Badakhshan – especially in Warduj area, where we have schools – is getting worse day by day,” Janagha said in May. “Taliban have been killed and injured in the fighting, but also border police. Some Taliban have been arrested. But fortunately all our schools are safe and active.”

QUOTE: “Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.” – Colman McCarthy

— Karin Ronnow


June 8, 2012 – Shakeela – Empowered through education

KHAPALU, Pakistan – Shakeela grew up in Hushe village in Baltistan, an impoverished village at about 10,000 feet altitude in northern Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains. Hushe, the last village at the northern end of Hushe Valley, which is situated south of Masherbrum peak (25,659 ft), and the south entrance to the Gondogoro Pass (18,634 feet), which leads to Concordia and K2 (28,253 feet).

Masherbrum peak is a stunning massif. It dominates the Hushe Valley, and was first climbed in 1960 by the late Willi Unsoeld, and two CAI supporters, expedition leader Nick Clinch and the late George Bell.

Shakeela is one of three daughters of Aslam, who is the first educated person in Hushe Valley.


When Aslam was growing up, there was no school in Hushe, so his father walked him two days to the riverbank near Khapalu village (also spelled Haphlu, Khaphlu, and other spellings), put him on an inverted goat skin float, handed him a sack of coins, said a prayer, and told Aslam he was on his own. When Aslam arrived in Khapalu with sheep skin boots and hide jacket, other kids taunted him. But he was determined to obey his father and get an education.

Now, Aslam is a respected Hushe elder and chief forest and conservation officer in the region, facilitating the government and many NGO efforts to establish the Karakoram National Park.

When I first met Shakeela in 1997, she was the oldest female in a dilapidated, crumbling government school in Hushe. CAI established a school in Hushe in 1998, and since then has worked in collaboration with the government to run the school.

Although the school has faced challenges, contrary to media allegations, the school has been running for 14 years, and has produced dozens of high school graduates and a handful of college and master’s degree graduates. Today, there are 153 students attending Hushe Community School.

Shakeela was the top student in her class and, following in her father’s footsteps, went to Khapalu to complete her high school degree, becoming the first female from Hushe to finish high school.

CAI supported Shakeela to attend two more years of school in Khapalu, and extensive maternal health training in Lahore. She then returned to her native Baltistan to start practicing. She took a brief time off to have her first child, and then hired on with the government, which was eager to hire a highly qualified and trained maternal health-care worker to work in rural Baltistan.


She has worked for the past year as a maternal health-care provider in the northern part of Thallay Valley, a remote valley between Skardu and Khapalu. According to her records, in the past eight months, Shakeela has delivered 51 babies, without a single mother or child dying. This is significant in a region where the maternal mortality rate (deaths per live births) is exceptionally high.

Of the 51 babies, Shakeela says about 10 deliveries were complicated by extensive bleeding, retained placenta, and prolonged labor. Often, Shakeela had to improvise or walk to remote houses when the woman could not make it by foot to her clinic. Shakeela works alone to deliver the babies in a one-room clinic that has occasional electricity, but no phone, and few outside resources.

For this coming winter, Shakeela has asked CAI to facilitate her attending a three- to four-month intensive ultrasound training session, and a one-month medical computer-training course in Islamabad. She says the ultrasound will be especially helpful to detect CPD (cephalo-pelvic disproportion), and get the pregnant women in this situation to a hospital before entering labor to facilitate the delivery.

Shakeela also asked for CAI’s help finding someone to donate a good ultrasound machine to her clinic, as the government may not provide her with one due to lack of funding.

There are significant health care problems and diseases in Baltistan, she said. In the Thalle area those include: pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, heartburn, urinary tract infections, anemia, malnutrition, rickets (lack of vitamin D), intestinal worms, hepatitis, eye and ear infections, cataracts, and skin diseases like scabies and shingles. Some diseases common one or two decades ago, like polio and vitamin A blindness have been significantly reduced due to effective immunization programs by the Pakistan government, WHO, UNICEF and Red Crescent Society (Islamic equivalent of Red Cross).

Aslam, Shakeela and I met for tea on June 4, which because of a religious holiday, gave Shakeela a rare day off from work.

Aslam said, “I wanted Shakeela to be a teacher instead of health care worker, so she would not have to work so hard, and get messy with deliveries and dealing with sick people. However, she was very stubborn and made sure her lifelong ambition to work in health care was realized.

“I also thought Shakeela might want to stay in the city and have an easy job and make a lot of money. But as soon as she graduated, she returned home to Baltistan, to work and serve our people,” he continued.

“When I realized that my daughter was intelligent and brighter than her brothers in school, our family put all our resources into helping her, and I could not be prouder of all she has achieved,” her father said.

Aslam also added, “We are thankful for CAI’s patience and support for such a long time. Fourteen years ago CAI planted the seed and helped Hushe with a school. Now the tree has grown, and there is fruit on the tree since Shakeela has completed her training.”

I had not seen Shakeela in several years, and she said she prayed a lot when she heard of my major heart problems last year, “I’m so happy to see that your heart has been fixed, and that Allah has made you healthy, strong and happy so you can continue your important work here.”

Shakeela said she believes the best way to improve health care in the region is to help build the government’s resources, with improving clean drinking water, hygiene, and public-health initiatives and awareness.

“Wealthy people can afford private doctors and clinics, but most people here in Baltistan are very poor and have little access to health care,” she said. “There are several NGOs working in the area, and some clever local people try to make money off the NGOs, but do not really serve the poor people.

“It will take a long time, but if NGOs can work with the government, the results will be more sustainable and successful,” she said.

— Greg Mortenson


June 4, 2012 – Field Report from Karin Ronnow (2-June-2012)

Salaam from Skardu. All’s well on this end.


I have just returned from Hushe-side with Taha (Korphe chief), Baqir, and our driver, Daoud. We had a cold, rainy drive that concluded with the most intense wind-sand storm I’ve ever seen. It was like a blizzard, but with sand rather than snow. And sand hurts. This was east of Skardu, in the “desert.” Daoud had to stop the jeep three or four times because he couldn’t see the road in front of us. Wild.

We visited Daughoni and Daltri schools in the Thallay Valley Thursday. Both schools are doing quite well, with bright kids, hard-working education committees and dedicated teachers. Also, more classrooms are under construction at Daughoni now that a community member has agreed to donate a piece of land adjacent to the original school. The communities each prepared huge receptions for Dr. Greg. Daughoni is the home of Ghulam, the “triple-load porter” who is a good friend of Greg’s, so it was yet another reunion. Many, many cups of tea.


We overnighted in Khapalu, where three Hushe elders joined us. On Friday morning, we piled into two jeeps and headed up the Hushe Valley. We went through Talis (where the floods devastated the entire village in 2010 and 2011; massive reconstruction work under way there) to Marzigon. There we inaugurated the school that I saw under construction in 2009. It, too, is doing really well. The community has even recruited a female teacher from Skardu, Shahida, who has a bachelor’s in English. The inauguration ceremony went on for a couple of hours, complete with a loudspeaker system, a brief rain shower, lots of singing and cheering and speeches.

After an amazing lunch, we parted ways. I came back to Skardu. Greg and the rest of the crew piled into the other jeep and headed on to Kanday and then Hushe. Their plan is for a big celebration/reunion in Hushe this weekend. My plan, inshallah, is to fly to Islamabad, homeward bound.

Now that I am leaving (or at least am scheduled to leave), there’s a steady stream of requests for help with sick family members, arthritic elders, scholarships, housing, food … the need is endless.

But I’ve learned so much traveling with Greg, watching him interact with old friends, make new acquaintances, greet the students and teachers and elders – and much of it in the Balti language. He’s in his element here and I feel privileged to be along to help tell the story.

— Karin Ronnow


May 29, 2012 – Work begins on Broghil School in Hindu Kush Mountains


GILGIT-BALTISTAN, Pakistan – When the long winter finally began to loosen its grip in the Hindu Kush Mountains at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in May, work began on the second phase of Central Asia Institute’s Broghil School project.

“We rented yaks, donkeys, and horses to take building materials from the end of the road 20 kilometers north to the village,” Fazil Baig, Ghizar & Gupis District Manager, said of the remote area near the Broghil Pass. “It took one week to move all materials.”

The project got its start when village leader Mastal Muhammad Aziz met CAI’s Pakistan field manager Sarfraz Khan and requested help building a community school. Sarfraz passed along the request to Fazil, who worked out a plan to build an eight-room high school to replace a crumbling two-room community school.

“Broghil has many, many problems,” Fazil said. “Nothing is there. It is wild place. They cannot even imagine education and health care. This is the last village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and it is very much ignored, more ignored than even Chapursan,” Fazil’s home region east of Broghil.

“We say we have nothing in Chapursan. But when we go Broghil we realize we are in better position than they are. The area is closed four to six months due to snowfall. The altitude is near to 14,000 feet. Nothing grows there, only a kind of oats that grow 6 to 10 inches tall only. It is very hard to go there easily. If you try to go to Broghil, you think you are going wrong. After Mastuj, you only hope you are going the right way,” he said.

Logistical complications also include a short building season. “Winter is very long and in winter impossible anybody can go there,” Sarfraz said.


To speed things along once the snow melted, Fazil moved the building materials to a winter storage location outside of the village last fall. That was phase one.

Then in May, phase two involved shifting the materials from the winter storage location up to the school site. The rented four-legged beasts of burden were loaded with bags of cement, wood, iron bar and metal sheet for the roof.

Meanwhile, in the village, workers had begun the prep work for phase three: excavating the school site, making the mud bricks and choosing stones for the foundation. The day after the materials were delivered, it snowed again. But for these mountain people, snow is “no problem.” They simply carried on with the work, determined to give their children a school and hope for a better future.

The school has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of boys and girls. Broghil is made up of several settlements with a total of about 250 households. “The school is in the middle of the area, in the central valley area,” Fazil said.

The people are mostly Ismaili Muslims – many of them migrated from Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and Badakhshan Province during the Taliban years of the late 1990s – with some Sunni Muslims in the valley, Sarfraz said.

“People told us that so many Broghil people are hoping and waiting for CAI’s help,” Fazil said. “Inshallah it will be completed in July. Afterwards we have to focus on this area. The need is so big it (will) never finish.”

QUOTE: “Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Work, continuous work and hard work, is the only way to accomplish results that last.” – Hamilton Holt

— Karin Ronnow




Above (from left to right): Broghil residents help load donkeys, yaks and horses with building materials. Men haul stones from the riverbed to the school site. School-age children come to watch the activity surrounding construction of their new school. Photos by Central Asia Institute.


May 24, 2012 – “Dr. Greg” back in Baltistan

SKARDU, Pakistan – “Dr. Greg” is back in Baltistan. And his “homecoming” has been a sight to behold.

With a healthy heart, Central Asia Institute’s co-founder Greg Mortenson arrived in Baltistan this past weekend. His goals include the “one-by-one” survey of CAI projects, renewing acquaintances, and meeting with government officials, ulema (religious leaders) and, most importantly, students and teachers in CAI’s schools.

“Being back in Baltistan where this all began almost 19 years ago is an incredible, invigorating, inspirational experience,” Greg said. “It is especially exciting to see old friends and supporters who have been with us for almost two decades and the students, especially girls, whom I met when they were in kindergarten and now are grown into young women.”


Just getting to Baltistan from Islamabad, or “downcountry,” sometimes seems more difficult than climbing K2, or trying to establish a school.

Anyone hoping to fly to Skardu, the Balti capital, must fly Pakistan International Airlines, which claims to operate a daily flight to this city in the Karakoram Mountains. But equipment problems and weather (flights to Skardu only land when skies are clear) mean the flights are far less frequent. And since PIA has a monopoly on airline service to Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), it’s PIA or stay on the ground.

The other option to travel by road up the Karakoram Highway (KKH) has become a dangerous proposition. This spring, sectarian violence erupted in Kohistan, a semi-tribal area where militias and bandits often have more power than government. Shiia Muslims were pulled out of vehicles and killed. In addition, landslides frequently bring traffic to a halt in both directions. And the road itself, once the pride of Pakistan and one of the world’s great engineering feats, is in shambles.

The result is that aid workers, trekkers, climbers, scientists, gemstone dealers, doctors, businessmen and many others wind up stranded in Islamabad for days on end trying to get to Skardu, including CAI staff.

But patience is its own reward. And watching Greg re-engage with the people he has known since he began his work here in 1993 has been amazing. He’s in his element.

Greg arrived in Skardu discretely, but word that he was here spread through the bazaar and streets like wildfire. Hundreds of people came on foot, bus and jeep to pay respects and see with their own eyes that it was true – he was alive, healthy and back in Baltistan.

The first few days were bittersweet. The sense of joy is mixed with sadness as Greg has learned about the deaths and serious medical problems of friends and colleagues since his last visit. Two of his oldest friends, the driver Hussein from Sondus and retired policeman Mehdi Ali from Shigar, both suffered crippling strokes.

The joy, however, is most apparent on the school visits. And with more than three-dozen schools to visit in Baltistan, Greg and the CAI team hit the ground running.


First stop was Bagardho Thang School, aka the Nick Clinch and Pete Schoening Memorial School, a co-ed middle school built a decade ago west of Skardu on the Indus River. The six-classroom school is bursting at the seams with 152 students (90 girls and 62 boys) and the dedicated staff of six teachers was delighted with Greg’s unannounced visit.

Greg did an informal survey and found that only one of the students’ mothers was educated – a fact that reinforces his belief that education will have a profound effect on this humble farming community.

“We are proud and thankful that within one generation our females are going from being illiterate to being enrolled in school, learning to read and write,” said Basira, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher, “All our students will make the shift from illiterate farmers to nurses, teachers and engineers.”

One girl said she’d like to be a pilot and another a policewoman – goals their mothers never dreamed of, Greg observed.

After the classroom visits, the usual green tea was served. The CAI team, including Greg, CAI’s Baltistan manager Mohammed Nazir, Apo Razaq, Fazil Baig and others discuss teachers’ and students’ progress and concerns. Ibrahim, a school administrator, said some of their main wishes were for computers (although there’s no electricity or Internet there), more library books, and repairs to the bathrooms.

One of CAI’s priorities in this region is to help communities with maintenance and upgrades of facilities, teacher training, and long-term sustainability.

“CAI schools need to have strong heart as well as strong walls,” Nazir said. “So we are happy this year that we can help improve our existing schools.”


On a windy Wednesday, the CAI crew traveled to Jafarabad Girls School, aka Jack Tackle School, in Shigar Valley. The school, started by old CAI friend Mehdi Ali in his home (he also donated the land) and now expanded to a freshly painted, two-story blue building, has become so popular that there is not enough room for all girls who want to attend. At the moment, 168 girls attend classes in 10 classrooms under the watchful eyes of nine dedicated teachers.

Mehdi, who built a reputuation as a tough but honest police inspector, came to meet Greg and the CAI team. The emotion showed on his face as he walked into the schoolyard, where all the students gave him a big round of applause. After greetings, songs and prayers, Greg visited with the students. He was especially keen to catch up with the upper-class students, whom he met when they were little girls and his joy in seeing them was matched in their willingness to sit and visit with him long after the school day ended.

The students and teachers alike asked for computers and an improved science laboratory.

Next on the ever-shifting itinerary is travel up Shigar and Braldu valley, where Greg’s plans include a visit to Korphe village, where he helped establish a school in 1996.

“This is a great day when Dr. Greg can see that the schools are strong and we all see that Dr. Greg is strong,” said Syed Ahmad Ali Shah, who donated land for Brig. Agha Primary/Qumrah School.

— Karin Ronnow


May 15, 2012 – Afghan Pamir Kyrgyz seek move to Kyrgyzstan


Central Asia Institute (CAI) has worked for several years with the Krygyz nomadic pastoralists who live in the remote high mountain ranges of the eastern Pamir Mountains. There are an estimated 1,500-2,000 Krygyz remaining in some of the harshest living conditions in the world, where the bitter winter completely isolates the Krygyz from the rest of the world for seven to eight months a year.

Now, news reports from Kyrgyzstan indicate that the Afghan Kyrgyz are looking to relocate to Kyrgyzstan, as reported here.

They are not the first Afghan Kyrgyz to seek a way out. In 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they placed troops right up against the Chinese and Pakistan borders adjacent to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. This completely sealed the Kyrgyz from the outside world. The Soviet troops also started hunting rare Marco Polo sheep and ibex and took yaks and sheep from the Kyrgyz. The state of Alaska offered to take in the Kyrgyz, however the offer was cancelled at the last minute.

A Kyrgyz leader, Rahman Kul, then led more than a thousand of his people over a high mountain pass to Pakistan to seek political asylum. But the Krygyz were not well received in Gilgit, Pakistan. The heat, horrific conditions in refugee camps, and locals’ fears that the Kyrgyz nomads would compete for precious grazing grounds took a toll. Many Kyrgyz died in Pakistan. The government of Turkey then offered help, and the Kyrgyz were flown to the Anatolian plains of eastern Turkey, where they have since settled.


For the Kyrgyz who remained in the Afghan Pamir, life is extremely hard. Women make up only about one-third of the population, as so many die during childbirth or from anemia, high-altitude maladies and even starvation. In the winter, there are typhoid and diptheria epidemics when the Kyrgyz are hunkered down in their yurts. According to the Krygyz, about half of the children die before age 5. There is no electricity, communications or health care.

And they are trapped in the Pamir. The Chinese military has a shoot to kill order for any trespassers who wander over the Afghanistan-China border.

The isolation of these proud people is a big part of the reason for the estimated 80 percent illiteracy rate. CAI was asked to help the Kyrgyz by their long-time leader, Abdul Rashid Khan, who passed away in the fall of 2009 (described at the end of my book “Stones Into Schools”). His hope was that the children would have a better future with the help of education.

CAI established a school in Bozoi Gumbad in 2009, which is the only school in the entire region. Classes are conducted in the summer and fall when the roaming Kyrgyz are in the area. As there is no one there who can read and write in Dari, Arabic and Kyrgyz, CAI has to bring in teachers from far away to provide education initiatives.


Although the Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai have made several promises to help the Kyrgyz, we have not seen any evidence of government help there, except for a non-functioning old jeep that was supposed to be the health care system.

The repatriation attempt comes on the heels of one of the most severe winters in the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges in decades. The Kyrgyz were especially affected, and CAI field director Sarfraz Khan made a heroic mission across country lines to bring the starving and stranded Kyrgyz about four tons of food, supplies and blankets in March 2012. Read about CAI’s winter relief efforts here.

Although CAI is not involved in any efforts to repatriate the Kyrgyz, we stand by to assist them in any way with education and more. Despite all the difficulties they face, the Kyrgyz are proud, strong people who represent the triumph of the human spirit in their remarkable ability to survive in one of the harshest environments in the world.

— Greg Mortenson

CAI video of Krygyz encampment

An hour long documentary called, “The Prisoners Of The Himalaya” which features the Kyrgyz was released in spring 2012:


April 30, 2012 – Lawsuit Dismissed, Mission Continues

Central Asia Institute is extremely pleased with the U.S. District Court ruling Monday dismissing the lawsuit against it, cofounder Greg Mortenson, writer David Oliver Relin and Penguin Group publishing.

In dismissing the suit U.S. District Court Judge Sam E. Haddon concluded:

“The case has been pending for almost a year. The Complaint before the Court is the fifth pleading filed. Plaintiffs have been accorded every opportunity to adequately plead a case, if one exists. Moreover, the imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment would be futile. This case will be dismissed with prejudice.”

CAI is invigorated by the news. Greg is on his way overseas. Our dual mission continues unabated.
Yet, today’s good news should not take away from the tremendous amount of work still to be done. Millions of children in the world remain out of school due to war, religious extremism, discrimination, and poverty.

CAI has worked with communities in remote, mountainous, and often war-wracked regions for more than 15 years to build, supply, staff, and maintain over 180 schools and 30 vocational centers, and support an additional 56 schools, 20 literacy centers, eight scholarship programs, and 22 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects. No other NGO does what we do in these locales with such a small team of dedicated individuals.

Greg stands by the stories in his books. Please read his response to some media allegations last spring.

As always, CAI staff is available to answer any questions or concerns.

— Central Asia Institute


April 27, 2012 – Education continues despite fighting

Gov. Shah Waliyullah of northeast Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province this week honored Central Asia Institute for its educational and humanitarian work in the region.

“He handed (the certificate) to me in Faizabad and said he very much appreciated the work CAI is doing,” said Janagha Jaheed, CAI’s northeast Afghanistan field director.

The laudatory words were in Farsi (Persian). Jaheed provided this translation:

Badakhshan Certificate

“To Central Asia Institute,
Regarding the donations and implementation of the useful and valuable projects of CAI in different fields of life – especially education and social services in Badakhshan province, which surely have very good effects on the future of Badakhshan education and social development – the Badakhshan provincial government appreciates your activities and is proud to present this certificate of appreciation. And we hope more success to CAI and its hard-working staff in the future.
Best Regards
Dr. Shah Waliyullah Adeeb
Governor of Badakhshan province”

The certificate was signed and stamped, Jaheed added.

Central and western Badakhshan have been hard hit in recent months by vicious fighting initiated by the Taliban, the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan (IMU) and militants fom North Waziristan, Pakistan. Some of the fighting is related to ideology; and some of it is tied to outside “mafias” trying to gain a foothold on opium-trafficking routes to Central Asia and Europe.

Badakhshan Certificate

The Warduj and Kishim districts, where CAI has schools, have been frequent militant targets. Although no CAI schools have been harmed, no students or teachers attacked, the fighting and killing disrupts the learning process and frightens the children. The communities’ courage and determined support of education amid the fighting engenders our utmost respect and our thoughts and prayers are with them.

CAI has worked with local communities throughout the mountainous, impoverished province to build dozens of schools, women’s vocational centers and public-health projects. Badakhshan includes the Wakhan Corridor and Afghan Pamir.

In addition, CAI this year provided humanitarian support – food and blankets – to families suffering the effects of extreme winter weather.

QUOTE: “The race of mankind would perish did they cease to aid each other. We cannot exist without mutual help.” – Sir Walter Scott (1771-1855)

— Karin Ronnow


April 24, 2012 – Most of Afghanistan’s female opium addicts first use drug as medicine

Bibi Khanim first learned about opium addiction in Ishkashim, the village where she grew up in the Pamir Mountains of northeast Afghanistan.

“A religious leader brought a doctor and medicine to Ishkashim [in the 1990s] to help with opium-addicted people,” Khanim told me. “At that time I was a student and I volunteered and learned (about addiction).”


And Khanim, 32, never forgot what she learned.

More than a decade later, “12 people in Koran-wa-Monjan have stopped using opium because of Bibi Khanim,” Janagha Jaheed, CAI’s field director in northeast Afghanistan, told me recently. “She probably saved their lives.”

Khanim wears many hats. A wife and mother of four, she teaches at Central Asia Institute’s Koran-wa-Monjan school, her husband’s home village high in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Badakhshan Province. She also tutors women in basic literacy, and provides essential but simple health-care services.

“I do it to help the people. It makes me very happy,” she said. The literacy courses, especially, “bring many changes to life because without literacy, it is difficult to continue and improve your life. There are many problems it can change, but most is opium. If the women are educated, they will not get addicted.”

Afghanistan supplies more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, up from just 6 percent in 2001, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. But Afghans don’t just grow it. They use it. This war-wracked country has around 1 million heroin and opium addicts out of a population of 30 million, making it the world’s top user per capita, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Afghan women, who have little access to modern medicine or health care, represent a growing percentage of users, according to an April 1 Reuters news agency story about female addiction. The story was illustrated with a photo of a woman in Ishkashim smoking opium.

“There has been a definite increase among women drug users over the last decade,” an employee at a United Nations-funded drug rehab center in Kabul told Reuters.

Some women smoke the opium to treat a medical ailment. Others drink it in tea to ease the pain of the hard physical labor. Some use it to escape the harsh reality of extreme poverty or feelings of hopelessness. They give it to their children, even infants, to treat sickness. Entire families get addicted. The drug is cheap and readily available.

“The biggest reason for women’s addition to opium is lack of medicine and health care services in the distant and remote places like Koran-wa-Monjan,” said Mohammad Zakir, a village elder and project manager of CAI’s school. “Anytime someone gets sick, he or she cannot have access to local clinic or good health services, so they use a small piece of opium to reduce their pain for a while. And it does reduce their pain for a while. But as a result of repeatedly using opium, finally most of the women and children become addicted to it unintentionally.”


In rural areas, addiction is also often explained in the context of the region’s extremely harsh realities: Daily life is hard and redundant. Malnutrition is rampant. Winter lasts for eight months, from September through April, during which time people are essentially housebound. “There is no road, no cars, no electricity, no phones, no doctor, no medical dispensary,” Janagha said. “Many women and children die, especially during childbirth.”

One day in June 2010, I visited a smoke-filled, wood-and-mud house in Koran-wa-Monjan. Three women, three toddlers and a baby were at home; the men were working in the field and the older children were in school. Dusty rugs covered the floors; dirty bedrolls were pushed against the walls.

The women were shy of strangers, but the eldest woman, Zainalma agreed to talk. As she rocked her grandchild in a hanging crib, she said she was about 40 years old, although her rotting teeth, wrinkled face and resigned disposition made her look twice that old. “And opium,” one of the male villagers whispered to me. “She takes the opium. It makes her look old.”

She said six families lived in the two-room house – she and her husband, and the families of their four sons and one daughter. None of the adults were educated. Their daily existence was dictated by what it took to survive: wake up with the sun, pray, prepare breakfast, work outside until sun sets, pray, work at home, cook, and sleep.

The family does not have enough food, she said, and subsists largely on milk tea and bread. She also ticked off a list of physical ailments that she said bother her constantly: cough, stomachache, headache, body ache.

Such an anguished existence, even hopelessness, makes people like Zainalma even more susceptible to drug abuse and addiction.

Mulvi Abdul Wahid, chief of CAI’s Qurashi School in Darayem, said the repercussions of opium use and abuse ripple throughout society. “It has many, many bad effects for our society, especially for women and children. Sometimes it even takes children away from going to school.”


Opium is still a popular crop in Darayem, although most farmers struggle with the fact that it is “forbidden in Islam,” he said. But they have few choices, given “the bad economic situation of our people and lack of good support for the farmers.”

“No good and standard seeds are prepared for the farmers, no tractors and machinery tools are available. No one pays attention to the farmers. So the outcome of opium – compared to wheat or barley or other seeds – is better for the farmers. They are compelled to cultivate it and it ruins their lives.

“This year it is being cultivated more than last year and still it is not clear whether the government will remove (the plants) or not. Anyway, if it is removed without any kind of support to the farmers, it will be very dangerous and the people will fight for keeping their hauls.”

Toshi Boi, an elder in Sarhad village at the end of the road in the Wakhan Corridor, was himself an opium addict for several years before he and two other local men took advantage of a rehabilitation program in Pakistan.

Since getting clean, he has denounced the use of opium in his family and his village and waged a campaign to rid the entire Wakhan of opium peddlers.

He said the mujahideen pushed opium during the 1980s and 1990s. People got hooked and, as time went on, became so desperate that they resorted to selling their land, and even women and children, to support their habits.

Fighting back against the dealers is part of the solution, he said. So is helping farmers with alternative crops. In Sarhad, he got villagers to pool the money they would have spent on opium and bought a communal tractor. The vehicle allows farmers to transport other cash crops and livestock to market relatively quickly, reducing the arduous weeklong trek by foot to one or two days.

But, like Khanim, Boi said the solution ultimately lies in education.

“Education is most important now,” he said. “When you have no maktab (school), when you have no education, you are blind, you have no eyes. When you have education, you can see.”

QUOTE: “In the course of history many more people have died for their drink and their dope than have died for their religion or their country.” – Aldous Huxley

— Karin Ronnow


April 18, 2012 – Lawsuit update


Today was another big day in CAI’s evolution.

At the end of a two hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Judge Sam E. Haddon said he will review motions and oral arguments and issue a ruling “as promptly as possible”.

We continue to hope the case will be dismissed.

CAI’s priority is, as always, providing literacy and education, especially for girls. We remain committed to promoting peace through education and cross-cultural understanding. And we stand by Greg and his books.

Our mission and work continue. CAI’s shared accomplishments with communities overseas are real and tangible and give us hope for the future.

— Central Asia Institute


April 18, 2012 – Setting the record straight

As Central Asia Institute moves forward on a positive note, our supporters have alerted us to various articles, editorials, and opinion pieces in the media reflecting false information about the recent settlement agreement between CAI, co-founder Greg Mortenson and the Montana Attorney General’s Office (OAG).

The Los Angeles Times was one of the first outlets to demonstrate irresponsibility with its false headline, “Author Greg Mortenson settles lawsuit.”

The article continued with the false assertion that, “A lawsuit brought against Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson and his charity the Central Asia Institute over its administration was settled Thursday.”

The OAG never filed a lawsuit against Greg Mortenson or CAI. The agreement was the result of extensive discourse between the OAG and CAI/Greg. The Agreement entered into between the OAG and CAI specifically sets forth that all parties cooperated in its resolution; and that the resolution did not include any formal findings after a legal hearing of wrongdoing or any admission of wrong-doing – including no fraud or criminal findings. The report, and other relevant information, is posted here on the CAI website.

Other false news stories and headlines containing similarly ludicrous assertions include:
* Red Deer Advocate: “Writer’s fraud exposed.”
* Daily Beast: “Mortenson to repay charity $1 million for ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fraud.”
* Reuters: “Mortenson is no longer allowed to be a board member.”
* NPR’s “Here and Now” program: “Last week the Montana attorney general ordered Greg Mortenson off CAI’s board.”
* Al Jazeera: “Greg Mortenson pays $ 1 million after being found guilty of embezzlement.”
* Daily Telegraph: “Greg Mortenson was fired by CAI.”

These statements are simply untrue. We want our supporters and the public to know that.
CAI has taken steps to inform as many of these media outlets as possible that their statements and assertions are false. But it has proven inordinately difficult to target and respond to each misstatement, mischaracterization, and misunderstanding – especially when errors get picked up and repeated.

— Central Asia Institute


April 17, 2012 – Follow CAI on Twitter and Facebook


Central Asia Institute has launched two new online ways for supporters to stay informed about our work promoting education and literacy, especially for girls, in some of the most remote, impoverished places on the planet.

Our new Twitter account and Facebook page, both launched this month, are full of news you can use.

Help us spread the word!

Our Tweets are posted under the user name “Peacethroughed”. Here we will alert followers to pertinent news about CAI and the regions we serve, upcoming CAI events, and ways to get involved. CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson also has a Twitter site, “GregMortenson” with current news and information posts.

CAI’s Facebook Page is Central Asia Institute (Non-profit organization). Here you’ll find links to the stories about people and projects on our blog, CAI Communiqué, photo essays, video, and educational tools.

We’re excited about having new ways to communicate the crucial work we’re doing to promote education in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. We continue to update our “live” CAI master list of projects, which is a compilation of all CAI projects since the organization’s inception.

Check in often for fresh updates from overseas, photos and comments about projects from CAI’s overseas program managers, and much, much more.

All of these “social media” venues are also intended to help us stay connected with you, our supporters, so please send us your comments and suggestions.

As always, you can email us at

— Karin Ronnow


April 11, 2012 – Sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan


The city of Gilgit in northern Pakistan has been under lockdown since last week as fallout from the country’s worst sectarian violence in decades continues to ripple across the region.

An estimated 50 people have been killed and dozens injured since fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in Gilgit-Baltistan region erupted last week.

The regular Pakistan Army was brought in to replace the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) and Gilgit Scouts, and to secure the area eight days ago.

Saidullah Baig, Central Asia Institute’s Gilgit-area program manager, said in a phone interview Wednesday that there is a strict curfew in place, with shoot-to-kill orders against curfew violators.

“We are under house arrest for more than one week now,” Saidullah said. “The situation is that nobody is allowed to go out.”

CAI’s schools in the region are not threatened, he said, but added, “I have moved the scholarship girls out of the hostels. Some are home with their families, others are with relatives and some are here with my family and me. They are safe and we are all OK.”

Schools and offices are closed; power and cell-phone service, ground and air transportation have all been cut off; and there are reports of food, water, fuel and medicine shortages.

Authorities relaxed the curfew in Gilgit for a few hours Friday and Monday so people could shop for food. But when people ventured out, Dawn newspaper (Pakistan) reported, “The stock in the market was almost finished and traders fleeced the buyers.”


“The shops are empty,” Saidullah said. “In Gilgit, everything comes from downside (south), there is nothing local. So for these five hours when army OK’d the people to go outside, the people emptied the shops.

“We have 12 people in my house, some family and some students and we have maybe enough food for 15 days. But there is no news from anywhere; nobody knows what is happening, so the students are a little scared. I am telling them that there is no problem. I will make sure there is food for them and I am trying to make them busy with their studying.”

An AFP journalist reported that the Pakistan Air Force used C-130 planes Sunday to evacuate approximately 120 foreigners, including aid workers and 77 Japanese tourists from the Gilgit area.

Most observers agree that the crisis began in February, when gunmen hauled 18 Shias off a northbound bus on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in Kohistan and shot them dead, execution style. Shias are a minority in Pakistan, at about 21 percent of the 180 million population, but are a majority – 75 to 95 percent – of the Gilgit-Baltistan population.

Sectarian tension in the region escalated for weeks until it reached a flashpoint April 3 when police refused to release Attaullah Saqib, who had been arrested for his alleged involvement in the February attack. Sunni supporters of Attaullah Saqib in Gilgit responded violently, “opened fire and pelted the anti-riot police with stones,” the News International (Pakistan) reported.

That in turn caused a further “spiral of violence,” Dawn reported. “More killings, kidnappings and protests followed, paralyzing the region.”


In Chilas, about 100 kilometers south of Gilgit, another mob blocked the KKH and reportedly pulled 13 more Shias off buses and killed them. Rioting ensued there, too, with reports of dozens of additional deaths, which led to an army-imposed curfew and a ban on all traffic on the KKH.

In Skardu, angry residents protested the anti-Shia violence by burning tires and blocking roads. Officials cut off communication in Skardu for several days, but reinstated it after a massive avalanche buried a military base on the Siachen glacier and the military launched a huge rescue effort.

“Most protests in Skardu are in a peaceful manner,” said Nazir Mohammad, CAI’s Baltistan program manager. “They switched off all mobile signals and Internet, but that is back now. There is tension, but not killing like in Chilas and Gilgit.”

Saidullah said he had heard that dozens of people traveling home to the Skardu region by road were unaccounted for. “People are saying that there are still 50 people missing from Baltistan and nobody knows where they are,” he said.

Sectarian violence is not new in Gilgit-Baltistan. But the current crisis may be the worst since the late 1980s.

Some blame outside agitators. The Express Tribune (Pakistan) quoted a Parliament member this week as saying, “the incidents of violence were the result of a conspiracy being hatched by certain foreign elements who wish to make Pakistan into yet another battleground, similar to Afghanistan.” Interior Minister Rehman Malik has also asked for an opportunity to brief Parliament about “foreign elements working against the country.”


Other observers point to an “overall breakdown of law and order in Pakistan,” as a result of extreme inequities between the powerful elite and the rest of the population. In an opinion piece in the News International over the weekend, Brig. (Ret.) Farooq Hameed noted that poverty in Pakistan has increased dramatically in recent years, from 23 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2011.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan voiced alarm “the reprehensible and lengthening shadow of sectarian bloodshed in Gilgit-Baltistan” last week and said it “condemns it unequivocally.”

There are particular concerns about how the violence might affect tourism in the region. Although Pakistan has been outside the comfort zone of most leisure travelers since 9-11, the Gilgit-Baltistan region, where CAI has dozens of schools and other projects, is still popular among trekkers and mountain climbers headed to the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges. Dozens of foreign tourists trapped by the violence in Gilgit last week were airlifted from Gilgit Sunday. “But locals seem to be left to their own devices,” Dawn reported.

Along those lines, there have been some notable humanitarian gestures amid the violence.

Dawn reported “elders from Diamer (near the KKH) helped escort stranded Shia passengers to Gilgit while Sunnis in Shia-dominated areas were also given protection. This points to the fact that the locals of Gilgit-Baltistan – who in many cases of ties of blood despite their religious differences – want harmony, and that sectarian elements, mostly non-natives, are the ones poisoning the atmosphere.”

That desire for harmony was echoed by CAI’s Apo (which means “old” in Balti) Abdul Razak, an octogenarian retired mountaineering expedition cook and CAI’s first and oldest employee.


“All people same – Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Shia, Sunni, Ismaili,” he said in an interview last month. “Allah created all people to be good and serve humanity.”

Back in Gilgit, Saidullah said it is hard to know when the crisis will abate. When the curfew was lifted for a couple of hours Monday, he moved quickly to try to get some of the scholarship girls out of the city and back home with their families. Officers at the check post at the edge of the city at first refused, as the rule calls for allowing no one except government officials in or out of the city at any time.

“They stopped us for more than one hour, but I requested that, given the situation, and given that they are female, they should be with their families. Finally they let them go,” he said. “The girls had been stuck for five or six days in the hostel so they were very happy to be going to home. They were crying and laughing with relief when the guards said it was OK.

“For the rest of us, I heard that maybe this (curfew) will continue up to the end of this month. Other people say maybe one week more, or two weeks more. But they have murdered more than 50 people. If they can catch the people who have done this, then maybe they will clear all these things and relax the restrictions. Or maybe they will just extend day by day. I think we need your prayers for this.”

— Karin Ronnow

For more information:
Press TV: People of violence-hit Gilgit-Baltistan urge Pakistani govt. to restore order
Daily Times: HRCP slams violence in Gilgit-Baltistan
The Nation: Shoot-on-sight orders in Gilgit
The International News: Sectarian violence leads to frenzied agitation in Skardu


April 9, 2012 – Search for Siachen avalanche survivors continues into third day


Bad weather Monday hampered the continuing search for 135 Pakistan Army soldiers and civilians trapped by a massive avalanche that buried a military post on the Siachen glacier in the Karakoram Range near the Indian border.

“Seventy to 80 feet of snow, rocks, mud, and ice crashed down on the camp early Saturday morning,” Nazir Mohammad, Central Asia Institute’s Baltistan program manager, said in a phone interview Sunday from his home in Skardu, in northern Pakistan. “The slide was very huge – 1 kilometer wide. All people are praying for a miracle that some soldiers will be alive.”

The 124 Northern Light Infantry soldiers and 11 civilians – clerks, cooks, barbers, and tailors – were likely sleeping or at morning prayers when the avalanche broke loose at about 5:45 a.m. Saturday. They were stationed at battalion headquarters in Gayari, a valley at 16,000 feet at the entrance to the Siachen, the “highest battlefield in the world.”

A massive search-and-rescue operation is under way, using helicopters, tracking dogs, snowmobiles, and heavy snow-clearing equipment in hopes of finding some of the men alive, according to news reports. Medical teams were also sent to the area.


But an official told Dawn newspaper (Pakistan) that the effort was “a race against time amidst fading hope.”

The work is extremely slow going, given the inhospitable terrain, rapidly changing weather, and military directives to leave “no stone unturned” in the hunt for survivors.

“It is very difficult and all of Skardu is quiet while they search,” Nazir said. “Many of the soldiers are from around Gilgit-Baltistan and some may be from communities where CAI works. We all hope very much that still some buried people will be found alive.”

Nazir made many trips to Gayari during his previous job working for an army-supply business; at one point he remained at the post for about a year.

“There are cement buildings there – a kitchen, soldiers’ barracks, workshop, mess hall, heli pads and small area for the officers. There is a beautiful view of the area from there,” he said.

Small avalanches are typical in spring, as snow melts, but nothing of the magnitude of Saturday’s avalanche, he said. “I saw many times small avalanches coming when I was there. But they were normal, small slides that come down the mountain this time of year.”

India and Pakistan have fought for control of these mountains – and the surrounding Kashmir region – since the British partition of India in 1947. Pakistan set up the Gayari base as a hub, with soldiers and supplies going out from there to defend the 49-mile-long Siachen, a no man’s land of rugged peaks and deep crevasses at elevations up to 22,000 feet.


Temperatures regularly plummet to 90 degrees Fahrenheit below zero and more soldiers die from exposure – frostbite, altitude sickness, and avalanches – than combat.

Pakistan prohibits foreigners or climbers access to the Gayari sector, however CAI’s cofounder Greg Mortenson visited the post in 2002 with writer Kevin Fedarko and photographer Teru Kuwayama, Nazir said. “No other foreigners have been allowed there.”

In a 2003 story about the Siachen for Outside magazine, Fedarko said the post also includes “a 600-year-old mosque established by Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who introduced Islam to Baltistan in the 14th century. A few steps from the mosque sits an underground bunker that serves as a studio for a young man named Makhtar, who paints portraits of the shaheeds, or martyrs – soldiers who have been killed in this war and thereby gained admission to paradise. The Pakistanis believe their religious faith gives them motivation that the Indians lack.”

India and Pakistan combined “have about 150 manned outposts along the glacier, totaling an estimated 10,000 and 20,000 troops,” the Washington Post reported Saturday. Expensive to defend. “Officials estimate that the cost of maintaining the outposts is $200 million for Pakistan and $300 million for India.”

Heavy machinery was moved from Army headquarters in Rawalpindi to Skardu and Nazir said he saw the equipment being moved to the avalanche site Sunday.

“I was in Khapalu area working on a school project and I saw the machinery they have been sending – excavators, bulldozers and other big machinery they can use to move ice and rock,” Nazir said. “But they have many problems because of the glacier. They have no roads. First they have to make a way to get inside.”


Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani flew to Skardu Sunday to review rescue operations and then went on to Gayari, Nazir said. In addition, the U.S. government, India and other countries have offered assistance.

However the region is difficult to access, except by air, and acclimatization to the altitude is a factor. Five of the world’s highest peaks are in Pakistan, including K2 (28,251 feet), the world’s second-highest peak.

Heavy snow has blanketed the entire Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Pamir region this winter and experts are already warning mountain climbers and trekkers about the risk of increased avalanches this year.

For now, some locals are helping with the rescue, but most can only watch and wait for news, Nazir said.

“Many CAI school families, teachers and staff have family members in the Pakistan Army,” Nazir said. “For students who finish metric (high school), there are not so many good jobs, so many want to work for the army, or work in jobs that support the army.

“CAI is ready to help any way we can,” he said.

More than 100 Pakistani soldiers trapped in avalanche near Siachen – YouTube news clip

San Francisco Chronicle: Pakistan avalanche shines light on ‘futile’ war

Dawn: Bad weather hampers Siachen recovery

Note: Teru Kuwayama has worked on and off with CAI for over a decade. In 2002 he was the first photojournalist to visit the frontlines of both the Pakistan and India sides of the Siachen glacier war. His photos illustrated a story entitled “The Coldest War,” by writer Kevin Fedarko in Outside magazine in 2003.

His current project,, follows unfolding events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Visit for more.

— Karin Ronnow


April 5, 2012 – MT Attorney General: Central Asia Institute’s noble mission should continue

Central Asia Institute (CAI) is pleased that the Montana Attorney General’s Office (OAG), CAI, and Greg Mortenson have signed an agreement resolving the OAG’s inquiries. The Agreement is a compromise of disputed claims, and we look forward to moving ahead as an even stronger organization, focusing on CAI’s vital mission.

Greg and CAI have worked with communities in the mountainous, remote, and often war-wracked areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1996 to build, supply, staff, and maintain over 180 schools and 30 vocational centers and support an additional 56 schools, 20 literacy centers, eight scholarship programs, and 22 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects. Our Master Project List can be viewed here.

CAI Staff

“CAI has always been a small group of dynamic, mission-centric individuals doing extraordinary work,” Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer said. “We are grateful to our steadfast supporters, who provide the resources necessary to fulfill our mission, and to the communities, which typically match CAI funds with free land or subsidized or volunteer manual labor. Many CAI schools are the first or only schools in their communities.”

To ensure the long-term sustainability of that work, CAI continues to strengthen its governance, management, and accounting, including internal policy enforcement and action on any findings of our annual financial audits. It is important to note that CAI was already working on some of those changes before media allegations arose or the OAG got involved.

“Over the past 18 months, the Board has undertaken persistent, focused efforts to address the problems identified by the OAG and to implement a pattern of best practices in all of its operations,” CAI’s Board of Directors said in a prepared statement about the OAG inquiries. “In doing so, CAI has demonstrated its commitment to operating transparently and to continued operation within the strictures of Montana law. This record of improvement is incontrovertible.

“CAI believes that the steps it has initiated, as well as the additional voluntary compliance undertakings it has agreed to with the Attorney General justify confidence in the charity by public officials and the public,” according to the Board’s statement.

CAI’s future is bright. We will continue the important work of promoting education, especially for girls, for years to come, and Greg will be involved.

“News fatigue about Pakistan and Afghanistan is evident everywhere we look these days. But the children and their parents, village elders, and teachers with whom we work cannot look away; this is about their futures,” Beyersdorfer said.

“Greg and our overseas managers have dedicated their lives to helping fulfill countless dreams and aspirations and we are proud to continue our life-changing work together,” she said.

For more information related to the Montana Attorney General’s Investigations, click here.

— Karin Ronnow


April 2, 2012 – CAI added to Combined Federal Campaign’s list of eligible charities

Central Asia Institute has been added to the list of charities eligible for donations through the U.S. government’s Combined Federal Campaign.

The Combined Federal Campaign, or CFC, is the largest annual workplace charity campaign in the world, according to the campaign website, It allows federal employees – civilian, postal and military workers – to pledge support for eligible nonprofit organizations through a payroll deduction. On average, 57 percent of the federal workforce donates to the campaign.


“This is something that many of our military supporters have requested for a long time, so this is very positive news,” said CAI’s US Operations Director Jennifer Sipes.

One of those people is a U.S. Air Force captain, who wrote to CAI urging our participation in the campaign.

“I read ‘Three Cups of Tea’ several months ago and have long supported education initiatives. I believe, dollar for dollar, education solves more problems than other humanitarian efforts,” he wrote. “I have many peers within the Air Force who have read ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ have spent significant time in Afghanistan and support your efforts. I’m certain the Central Asia Institute would receive significant donations from federal employees if you register with the CFC.”

The CFC was set up by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 “to promote and support philanthropy” by “providing all federal employees the opportunity to improve the quality of life for all,” according to the website. Its 200-plus campaigns helped raise more than $280 million dollars in each of the past two years.

“The civilian workforce in my hometown of Seattle (King County) alone contributed over 3 million dollars toward charities in 2009 and I’ve been part of military installations that have contributed over $10 million each year,” wrote another supporter, a retired U.S. Navy sailor who now works for the U.S. Labor Department in western Washington. “It’s one large way that we public servants give to charity and definitely the armed forces’ favorite way to contribute.”


Like the Air Force captain, the Washington supporter said he was “turned on” to CAI after reading “Three Cups of Tea,” one of two books written by CAI cofounder Greg Mortenson.

“I have been amazed with [Mortenson’s] work and simplicity of focusing efforts in the right places for long-term benefits. Your organization is so right on the money,” he wrote. “My friends and family would like to help and contribute.”

Yet another CAI supporter in Southern California was also inspired by Mortenson’s book.

“I just got done reading ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ and went to check the Combined Federal Campaign to see if CAI was listed as a charity,” he wrote. “I did not see CAI listed. I assume CAI knows about this area of donation opportunity.”

He, too, urged CAI to look into CFC eligibility, as it would give us access to a potential donation pool of “millions of federal, postal and military employees” who “donate to charities right from their paychecks,” he said. “I am a federal employee (who) participates in the CFC each year. … In the Greater Los Angeles Area, it collected over $3 million this last campaign.”

Federal employees can, in most cases, donate online and choose which eligible organization receives that donation. Payroll deductions let workers spread contributions over an entire year. The automated system keeps overhead low, meaning more money goes to the nonprofit organizations. Federal employees can find the campaign nearest them at

QUOTE: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” – John F. Kennedy

— Karin Ronnow


March 29, 2012 – Guest blog by Zaighum Sohail Warsi

Below is a column written by Zaighum Sohail Warsi in Urdu and published in Daily Azkar (Pakistan) in February. Sohail shared his article with Greg Mortenson, Karin Ronnow, and Anne Beyersdorfer during their last visit to Pakistan. Translated by Fozia Naseer.

Greg Mortenson and great people
Some [happening] catches people’s eyes – but we can’t call it a Miracle. We can’t dispel it either by saying, “It is our destiny.”

It is hard to understand the human nature because humans usually follow the ways that fulfill their own needs, but not of others. But there are a few different people, who give us clues of how to direct our lives.


There is a common Pakistani saying that you can understand a person through his friendship, social dreams or thoughts. You understand good or bad behavior quickly. Some people worked hard to do something for others, and they did not give up. We should call these people Great People.

There is a custom, too, that people use a name to make them sound important, like Azeem [great] Kamal [miracle], Afsar [officer], Shi [royal]. etc., Some people do not even want a title, but have inherited it. However, without actions, these are just meaningless names, even for the impoverished.

Some people deserve to be treated well and other people should give them respect and stand up for them. But now days respect (Izat) you can find in the market.

Some people might be surprised that I am trying to talk seriously about hard issues, even though our tendency is to laugh or cry when life gets beyond our control. If the gas prices rise, then journalists write a column about it, but do we understand what the problems of the country are? Corruption? Greed? Infidelity amongst our politicians? If a journalist would ask a question to a politician about their work, they would talk on and on with meaningless rhetoric and say, “We care about our people, and we are for our country, just give us a chance to be together with the people”.

Everything has to be according to their thoughts. As I mentioned in the beginning, our thoughts can lead us to the way we want to go.

When somebody asks the British prime minister what his priorities are, the response is “EDUCATION, EDUCATION AND EDUCATION.” What are the differences between us [in Pakistan] and others? It’s clear.

Dreams and aspirations about personal gain are high, but education does not have any priority or strategy here.

We have forget that one USA university budget is higher than our country budget [for education]. Criticism can go on and on but we need to have a practical plan in this country. If people are asked about their rights, they fear that partition is happening again.

Our federal system is a based out of fear, and nobody can think properly. We were shocked when we heard that even in Punjab province, some leaders are prohibiting building a girl school. In some countries, people want to go to the moon, but in Pakistan, we do not even want girls to go to school. What good is that?


Welfare workers are trying to make sure that no restriction for their work but there are so many problems for them, they get tired of this.

Greg Mortenson came to Gilgit-Baltistan for climbing K2, but he found a bigger goal, when he saw the poverty and lack of education there. Instead of talking, he started building schools. So far, he has built more than 100 schools in Pakistan and tens of thousands of children, including girls, are going to these schools.

[Greg and his Central Asia Institute] provide free educational resources and because of that poor people are benefitting.

By profession, Greg is a medical person, and understands that if one part of the body is paralyzed, the whole body feels sick. When people are hearing about a doctor in this country they touch their ears: Stay away from a doctor and jail. Greg brought awareness to the people that through education there is hope.

Sometimes the people in this country get a lot of publicity for talking about their work, but we do not see any projects, or know where the money is going, or for what purpose.

But for those who do work, and don’t walk much, that is what we should call the Royal Great Miracles. Quietly serve humanity, and do great work. In the name of Islam, this is what we should all support and appreciate.

A good thing about Central Asia Institute is that it works as a team, and with communities. There is no big boss, or “Yes, Sir” and “No Sir”. Just a team of common people serving humanity, and getting things done.

Greg stepped out in education and our Pakistan government gave him its’ high civilian award called “Sitara (Star) Award”.

We are surprised that here in this country big people have big houses, who hide their wealth by putting everything under their daughter’s name. And yet they still say, “We are working for our people.”

But what about the next generation? Are we really serving them? Time is passing by. What actions have happened? What are we waiting for?

— Zaighum Sohail Warsi for the Daily Azkar, Pakistan


March 26, 2012 – Avalanche in remote Wakhan kills extended family

Wakhan avalanche

BROGHIL, Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan – An extended family that had gathered for an Islamic New Year’s celebration here last week was killed when a massive avalanche buried the family’s compound.

Twenty-one people died, Sarfraz Khan, CAI’s field director in NE Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview from the Wakhan Saturday.

Only one woman survived the slide. She was buried alive under the snow for almost two days before being rescued by nearby villagers and taken to a small medical dispensary in the Wakhan, Sarfraz said.

“Four brothers and their wives and children [had] all come together for making New Year’s celebration,” Sarfraz said. “That night, they were all in one house for dinner. But there is much snow and wind and at nighttime the avalanche came. Only one woman is alive. They got her out after more than 40 hours. Everyone else died.

Wakhan avalanche

“Today we found the final two and I helped carry them out from that area. Now all are out and all are in graves – 11 females and 10 males, all ages. Because there is much snow, it is impossible for single graves, so we put three or four to a grave,” he said.

Islamic customs call for the dead to be buried within three days.

The fatal “slide” is just the latest tragedy in what has been a dangerously harsh winter in Afghanistan, the worst in decades, according to CAI’s sources. See here, here, and here. More than 100 people were killed in previous avalanches this winter. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of sheep, goats and cattle have also died.

The New Year’s avalanche occurred Wednesday night, Sarfraz said, but because the family’s four houses were up in the mountains outside the village, no one knew what had happened for a few days.

“There was much wind and snow and nobody knew an avalanche had come and finished one family,” he said. “When they heard, the people from all the area come and try to help, but all they could do was collect the dead bodies. Except that one woman, everyone died.”

Wakhan avalanche

Sarfraz was in Ishkashim, at the western end of the Wakhan, when he heard the news. He contacted CAI’s home office in the United States, then quickly loaded one CAI truck with food and blankets and made the long drive up the Wakhan to the village.

“We had that one truck and my smaller truck and all along the way people helped us,” he said. “Ten kilometers from the village, on the other side of the river, the trucks couldn’t go, the road is impossible. So we got out and went by foot.”

Sarfraz arrived in Broghil Friday night. On Saturday morning, he returned with the villagers to the scene.

“On Friday they found 19 dead bodies in the avalanche and [Saturday] we found the last two,” he said. “At least 60 animals also died.

“People are very upset. This is the first time 21 people in one family died. The people are much poor in that area and there is much suffering,” he said.

After the bodies were buried, the villagers and Sarfraz returned to the CAI truck and carried the emergency supplies into the area on their backs.

Wakhan avalanche

“I delivered aid for 15 families – flour, rice, oil, tea and blankets. Some people from Aga Khan Foundation and the Ismaili Council president were there, but they were just looking for the people. Only Central Asia Institute delivered this kind of aid. People are much thankful that CAI comes here and listens and helps.”

The Wakhan is a narrow, isolated region of northeast Afghanistan where the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains tower over the Panj and Pamir river valleys. Read about the Wakhan in the 2011 Journey of Hope. It was a buffer zone between the British and Russian empires in the late 1800s. Its borders are now marked by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China at the far eastern end.

In addition to heavy snow and bitter-cold temperatures this winter, depleted food and fuel supplies, and a rash of pneumonia and other potentially fatal cold-weather ailments have created desperate conditions in many villages. The situation is further complicated by last year’s drought, which left winter food stocks unusually low.

And spring may not bring relief from weather-related disasters. The Wakhi people of the corridor and the Kyrgyz nomads of the Little and Big Pamirs are worried about the potential for flash floods and landslides as the snowpack begins to melt.

— Karin Ronnow

At Least 16 Killed In Afghan Avalanche

Afghan avalanche kills 16


March 19, 2012 –
CAI delivers emergency aid to hundreds of families in NE Afghanistan stranded by winter storms

“Click Photo to View Slideshow”

Central Asia Institute has delivered emergency food and blankets to hundreds of families suffering from an unexpectedly harsh, and in some cases deadly, winter in the mountains of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province.

Mullah Mohammed, a CAI worker who lives in Khandud in the Wakhan Corridor, said this winter’s storms have been the worst in two decades.

Families in the Big and Little Pamir, the Wakhan Corridor, and Baharak and Warduj districts have been cut off from the outside world by deep snow, ice, and avalanches. The severe winter also comes on the heels of an extended drought that vastly depleted families’ ability to raise enough food to store through the winter. The resulting shortages of food and heating fuel have led to deaths of the region’s most vulnerable elderly and children, and contributed to a typhoid epidemic.

The deputy governor of Badakhshan province, Shams Ul Rahman, told CAI employees that several avalanches have struck in the region this winter, with the worst being in Shekai district, which killed at least 47 people.


The governor’s office asked CAI to help provide relief to the most-remote affected areas, where CAI has connections and access.

Although CAI’s primary focus is to promote literacy and education, especially for girls, CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson said, “Occasionally, when disasters like floods, earthquakes and avalanches strike the specific regions we serve, it is imperative we help them as much as possible, and bring their plight to the international community.”

For each family, CAI donated 50 kg each of flour and rice, 7 kg of tea, 10 kg oil and one large blanket. Locals estimated the aid could sustain a family of eight for up to three weeks, until the first spring thaw.

“Everywhere there is much thanks for Dr. Greg, for CAI,” said Sarfraz Khan, CAI’s NE Afghanistan program manager, who organized the relief effort. “People in these most remote villages are happy that CAI does not forget them, and thank Dr. Greg for his many years of help to our children and women, and they pray for his long life.”


CAI’s requests to the U.S. military command and Afghanistan Army Aviation for helicopter airlifts were turned down, due to the unrelenting bad weather, lack of fuel in the region for refueling stops and hesitancy to fly in the mountains under these conditions. “The weather is very bad and now again snow is coming,” Khan said at one point.

So Khan delivered all the aid by road. Travel was tedious and dangerous as road conditions varied from snow-packed and icy to impassable due to avalanches.

Getting aid to the Kyrgyz people, nomads who live in the Little and Big Pamirs in far northeast Afghanistan, was especially important to CAI.

The Kyrgyz face particularly difficult circumstances. Laws prevent them from crossing the borders into neighboring Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, but they get scant help from the Afghan government. This winter’s bitter cold, unrelenting wind, icy mountain passes and avalanche danger further complicate their already precarious existence.

“At least 20 people died in Little Pamir this winter,” Khan said. “There is much disease (pneumonia, typhoid and starvation) in Pamir and no help, no medicine during wintertime; only in summertime some NGOs help. The Kyrgyz say, ‘We have many people dead, old people and children, especially children. They have some disease, much coughing, no breathing and the children die.’ Also the pregnant women, because there is no doctor or nurse and have problems with (delivery).”

The Kyrgyz in Little Pamir also lost nearly 2,000 goats, sheep, horses and yak. “Animals die from cold, much wind and much cold,” Khan said.


Khan arranged to meet the Kyrgyz from the Little Pamir in Sarhad, at the eastern end of the rough dirt road through the Wakhan. At the request of the government, Khan also collected and delivered government-issued flour to the Kyrgyz.

The Big Pamir delivery was even more complicated. Khan and another CAI worker, plus two drivers loaded the goods in Ishkashim, Afghanistan, and then crossed the border into Tajikistan. Then, accompanied by Tajik government representatives and border security officers, they began the arduous journey northeast along the Panj River and then the Pamir River to the Big Pamir.

Particularly important in facilitating the relief to the Afghan Kyrgyz was Gov. Qodiri Qosim of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan, who ordered snowplows and road crews to clear the way through southeastern GBAO province.

Khan said the journey was still hazardous and precarious. After two days, they reached the border of Tajikistan and the Afghan Pamir. There they met Kyrgyz representatives who helped shift the emergency supplies from the trucks to their yaks and horses. Then the Kyrgyz headed back into the Pamir and Khan and the others headed back toward Ishkashim.


In all, CAI’s humanitarian relief effort for all Badakhshan delivered 106 tons of food and blankets. Badakhshan Province is the most impoverished and remote province in Afghanistan, with one of the world’s highest maternal and infant mortality rates, and many of those deaths occur in winter.

Delivering this help required endless hours of logistical coordination and help from the provincial and district government leaders, as well as local shura (elders). Other NGOs providing winter disaster relief were the Aga Khan Foundation, FOCUS, Red Crescent Society, UNDP, and World Food Program.

This is the fifth time in the past decade that CAI ‘s Board has elected to help with disaster relief. The first time was in 2005, after the devastating earthquake in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan; the second followed a massive landslide in Hunza, Pakistan, in January 2010; the third was in response to the historic 2010 summer floods in Pakistan; and the fourth after a devastating flash flood in Baltistan, NE Pakistan, in August 2011.

— Karin Ronnow

For more information about Afghanistan’s deadly winter, view our World News links in left sidebar.

All photos by Sarfraz Khan, 2012.


March 9, 2012 – CAI Delivers Relief to Villagers in Wakhan Corridor

Wakhan aid

Man with food: A Wargeant, Afghanistan, man rests before returning home with the emergency food and a blanket provided by Central Asia Institute in late February. Wargeant, an impoverished village in the Wakhan Corridor in Badakhshan Province, has been hard hit by years of drought and an unexpectedly harsh winter.

Wakhan aid

Villagers in Sarhad help unload a truckload of emergency food supplies for the Kyrgyz people of the Little Pamir. Five Kyrgyz men traveled three days on horseback from their high-mountain winter camp to Sarhad in the Wakhan Corridor to collect the food and blankets, which were provided by Central Asia Institute, according to CAI project manager Sarfraz Khan. Sarhad marks the end of the road in the Wakhan.

Wakhan aid

Three Kyrgyz men stand with jugs of oil and bags of flour and rice provided by CAI in early March. The Kyrgyz – a nomadic people who reside in the Little Pamir, at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor – are largely ignored by the Afghan government.

Wakhan aid

Kyrgyz men stand behind two of the yaks that will help carry emergency food supplies back into the Little Pamir. Five Kyrgyz horsemen brought 35 yak and 20 horses to help deliver the load of emergency food to their isolated community.

Wakhan aid

A Kyrgyz man pulls the strap to tighten the load on a yak. More than 20 Kyrgyz, mostly children, have died this winter as a result of starvation and extended exposure to bitter cold temperatures, Khan said. There are no medical services of any kind in the Pamir during the winter months.

Wakhan aid

Hot tea and bread are served during a welcome break from loading food and blankets onto the yaks and horses on a cold, windy day in early March.

Wakhan aid

With the Hindu Kush Mountains creating a majestic backdrop, a Kyrgyz man leads his sturdy packhorses toward the rest of his group.

Wakhan aid

A Wakhi boy watches as the Kyrgyz ready their pack animals before heading home.

All photos by Sarfraz Khan, 2012.

— Karin Ronnow


March 1, 2012 – CAI providing winter disaster relief in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province


Central Asia Institute is delivering truckloads of food and blankets this week to people trapped by brutal winter conditions in remote mountain villages of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province.

The humanitarian relief is intended to relieve the unprecedented situation created by extreme cold, deep snow, food shortages and cold-related sickness. Many people have died since the beginning of the year; children are especially vulnerable.

And the death toll continues to rise. Another 35 children “died as a result of pneumonia caused by severe weather” this past weekend, according to an Agence France-Presse report. Access to many of the remote districts where these children lived has been cut off by heavy snow, landslides and avalanches.

“The scope of the disaster is much more significant than reported,” CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson said during an interview in Pakistan. “The governor of Badakhshan is pleading with CAI to do something since the Afghan government has been unable to mobilize or do much so far. Aid from the large NGOS has primarily targeted the more accessible urban areas. That leaves the most remote areas with no help.”


The first need is food, “to keep them alive,” Sayeed Imran, a former district governor in Badakhshan, said Friday.

People were not expecting such a hard winter and were unprepared. Successive years of drought and skyrocketing food and fuel prices further complicate the situation.

“This is the first winter in the last 50 or 60 years that people see such cold and snow,” Imran said. “Many people have died. They do not have enough food and good protection in warm places, so therefore people die, mostly the children. For the moment, this is the big problem.

“Also there is not enough fuel. Gas is very high price and people are poor, they cannot pay this. Therefore people are compelled to cut their fruit trees for burning,” he said.


CAI’s Northeast Afghanistan Program Director Sarfraz Khan is orchestrating a relief effort intended to help hundreds of extended families from several well-situation distribution points in coming days. On Sunday he led a caravan of trucks carrying food and blankets into the Wakhan Corridor. The massive loads of flour, rice, oil and tea should be enough to help families for at least a couple of weeks, depending on the size of each household.

“We give 50 kg atta (flour), 50 kg rice, 7 kg tea and 10 kg oil, plus one blanket to each house,” Khan said Monday via phone from Wargeant. “Today is much cold and wind and snow on ground, but people coming here are much happy. Twenty-one households are here.”

Wargeant was hard hit by a polio epidemic a few decades ago and many young adults, who had the disease as children, suffered partial yet permanent paralysis, which handicaps their ability to work. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the world where polio has not been eradicated. CAI has a health-care worker and a women’s vocational center in Wargeant.

From Wargeant, the caravan continued east, stopping in Goz Khun village, where CAI has one school, closed now for winter break, then on to the end of the road in Sarhad. At several junctures the road was so snowy or icy that Khan and those traveling with him had to shovel a path for the vehicles, or help the drivers navigate the slippery, uneven surfaces.

In Sarhad, representatives of the Kyrgyz people from the Little Pamir, the home of CAI’s Bozoi Gumbad School, met Khan and the caravan in Sarhad. On Wednesday, Khan intended to distribute the aid, which the Kyrgyz will take to their families via yak and donkey.

In coming days, Khan intends to deliver similar loads of food and blankets to the Kyrgyz in Big Pamir via Tajikistan; and then on to help people suffering in Baharak, Jurm, Shohadoh, Koran-wa-Minjon districts of Badakhshan.

Travelling in this part of the world during the winter is difficult and dangerous.

The rise in militant activity in Badakhshan and neighboring Nuristan Province recently add to the complexity of any mission.

Add to that the high risk of avalanches, which have killed more than 30 people in recent weeks, according to news reports from the region. Avalanches are common in the province during the winter, “but this winter there is much snow and it is much increased,” Imran said.

And there’s typically only one way in and out of most of these villages. “Badakhshan is the most inaccessible part of Afghanistan, with very few all-weather roads,” according to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency.

And now a good many of those dirt and gravel roads are blocked by heavy snow.

“There are more than 11 districts closed, people cannot come and go from there at all because the roads are closed,” Imran said. “Even when the roads are open it is very difficult for cars because of the ice. There are two kinds of risk: slide off the road and into the river, or try to drive on roads made very rough by ice.”

Kabul’s nasty winter


About 200 miles south of Badakhshan, residents of the capital city, Kabul, are also dealing with an unexpectedly difficult winter, according to Wakil Karimi, CAI program director for central, southern and eastern Afghanistan.

“For the last 10 years we had no snow, this is the first time, so people didn’t prepare,” Karimi said. “They finished their entire winter supply of gas and wood in first month and because of the price, they can’t buy more. Nobody knew it would be so cold.”

Hardest hit have been refugees of the war, who fled their homes in other parts of Afghanistan and now live in crowded camps inside the city limits. More than 40 children have died, according to news reports.

Most of the children in the camps are dying from exposure to the cold and snow or related illnesses such as pneumonia. The New York Times reported that one 5-year-old girl “died of burns after accidentally spilling a pot of boiling water on herself while trying to stay warm.”


The camps are filthy, with no system for removal of trash or human waste and no access to clean water, sufficient food or firewood. Some families have tents or other patched-together shelter, but many do not, Karimi said.

“They sleep outside and when the rain and snow come, children die there,” Karimi said.

Kabul was built for 400,000 people, he added, but is now home to an estimated 8 million. Nearly everything is in short supply. Supplies of firewood and other fuel were exhausted long ago. People wind up burning whatever is available – trash, clothes, plastic – to keep warm.

“Some NGOs give food, but if it is cold, it is not enough,” Karimi said. “Warm at night is better than all kinds of food.”

Karimi said the drought in recent years, which has led to food shortages, had prompted concerns about another relatively warm and dry winter.

“During the first month of winter there was no snow, no water in the city,” Karimi said. “The mullahs said, ‘Come and pray for rain, because if this year goes like the previous year, there will be no water for drinking.’ Then all the people prayed for water and the snow started and didn’t stop.”

‘Most inaccessible’ province
But if things are bad in Kabul, at least the logistics of providing aid is relatively simple. In Badakhshan, everything is more complicated. Add months of bitter cold and heavy snow to the mix and life gets even harder to sustain.

An estimated 1.2 million people live in Badakhshan and most of them survive as subsistence farmers and herders. The economy is still largely cashless; most people barter for goods and services.

Electricity is scarce and unreliable. Only about 10 percent of people have access to safe drinking water and 90 percent must travel three hours or more to the nearest health facility, according to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency.

People here have grown accustomed to government neglect. There is no official judicial system and the literacy rate among adults is thought to be in the single digits, although no formal survey or census has been done in decades.

Badakhshan’s maternal mortality rate (women who die in childbirth) is one of the highest in the world, with 6,500 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to UNICEF. By comparison, the rate in the United States is 12 to 13 deaths/100,000 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control.


And now, “this cold winter, no one is giving the people any help,” Imran said. “They cut their trees to burn. They sell their goats and sheep to buy wheat. The government hasn’t done anything, hasn’t delivered any fundamental help on time. When the government does something, it is only for showing or for the media.”

CAI has worked in Badakhshan since 2003, establishing more than 50 educational and public health projects, according to project managers. Although the avalanches have not damaged CAI’s projects, the people are suffering and have requested CAI’s help as a long-standing community partner.

Previous CAI educational and humanitarian support efforts include response to: the devastating earthquake in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan, in 2005; the massive 2010 landslide in Hunza Valley, Pakistan; refugees fleeing Taliban attacks on their villages in the Hindu Kush mountains of northern Afghanistan; and the historic flooding in Pakistan in 2010. Read about these stories in the 2010 Journey of Hope.

“This time, life-saving relief is being delivered in response to direct requests from the communities we serve, in consultation with program managers who zeroed in on special needs in the vulnerable villages that very few other NGOs serve,” said CAI Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer. “Especially in light of the recent militant attacks and strife in Pakistan and Afghanistan, these remote villages are too often overlooked or forgotten.”

And even though spring is less than a month away by the calendar, the idea of warmer temperatures is not particularly comforting, Imran said.

“In the springtime this snow will become floods and again damage the houses, trees and we will have more casualties,” Imran said.

Janagha Jaheed, CAI’s field director in northeast Afghanistan said: “Usually it is getting warm in March and then comes the flooding. The snow melts and the raining starts – that’s more dangerous. At night you are asleep and when you wake up, you are inside a river.”

ARAB PROVERB: He who sees the calamity of other people finds his own calamity light.

— Karin Ronnow


February 17, 2012 – Bhamber Girls’ School grew from one-room presidential ‘stage’

BHAMBER VILLAGE, Pakistan – Five years ago, Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf came to this village in Punjab Province to dedicate a bridge.

The president’s crews arrived early and quickly erected a one-room structure as a staging point for a presidential speech, according to Bhamber Girls’ Middle School Principal Farsana Kosar.


After the president had come and gone, the government declared the structure and an adjacent storeroom would serve as a girls’ middle school for the rural village.

But one classroom was not enough.

So, at the villagers’ request, Central Asia Institute built another two classrooms in 2007, followed by five more in 2011. CAI also provided pump water, installed latrines and erected a boundary wall around the growing school.

And Kosar told me in January that the number of girls attending Bhamber School had doubled in just two years.

“The number of students is increasing, from 111 in 2009 to 200 now,” Kosar said. “Half come here by foot from other villages because the education is better than other schools. The parents prefer to send their kids here. Also, in these villages, people are not allowing co-education, so it’s helpful to have a separate girls’ school. And the girls are eager to learn.”

Teacher Shefaq Raza, 28, has been teaching elementary-level classes here for two years. She is one of Bhamber School’s three government teachers.

“Here in this region, education is low, especially for girls,” she said. “There are schools, but for a long time people did not agree to educate the girls.

“But education is necessary to build a nation. If the mother is educated, the children are also educated. If a mother is educated, she knows about diseases and all kinds of problems she did not know before. People begin to understand this and send their girls to us. Thank you for these buildings,” Raza said.


I visited the school, located in Punjab’s Jhelum district, on a cold, damp January day. When I arrived, all the girls were seated in the courtyard, their blue school uniforms covered by the large red shawls they had wrapped around their heads and shoulders.

Behind them, on the redbrick building CAI erected in 2007, were the words: “The right to know is just like the right to live.”

The girls then did a presentation of songs, prayers and poems and we cut the ribbon on the 2011 addition.

“It is a special gift to the girls to get an education here and we are really strict, but they are able to give you this presentation because they are getting such a good education,” Kosar said.

‘People are poor here’
We had left Islamabad in a predawn rainstorm, headed to the Jhelum district in northeastern Punjab Province. Suleman Minhas, CAI’s operations director in Pakistan, oversees projects in Punjab and had organized the trip. The combination of wet roads and many cars with inadequate lights and windshield wipers created all kinds of slow-moving obstacles on the dark highway.

As Suleman, a former taxi driver, drove expertly out of the capital city, he told me: “You must always come and check our projects, buildings and teachers. When you see it is OK, my heart will be satisfied.”


Just before sunrise, Suleman stopped for a tea break at a Pakistani truck stop on the side of the road. In addition to a big pot of tea, he ordered a typical Punjabi breakfast: tandoori paratha (flatbread), beans (cooked garbanzo beans with onions, tomatoes, garlic and chili), boiled beef and tea.

Nourished and caffeinated, we got back on the road. The rain had stopped and as the sun climbed higher in the sky, I could see the increasingly flat landscape rolling out in all directions. We passed military-green Pakistan Army pickup trucks with armed soldiers in the back patrolling the roads; bakery delivery guys on motorcycles loaded down with dozens of loaves of fresh bread; and donkeys pulling carts of produce toward the city markets.

Near Jhelum, Suleman pulled off the highway onto a dirt road, only to find it blocked by a truck with a broken axle. So he turned his Toyota SUV around and took a side road, which was clearly the preferred route of men and boys riding bicycles to work and school, bicyclists who expertly dodged puddles, cars, and herds of livestock along the way.

I asked Suleman if he liked winter in his home district. “I was born here,” he replied. “I grew up here. I grow all my crops here. Many in my family are still here. Why would I say I don’t like any time of year? I like all 12 months.”

The coal-fired ovens at the area’s brick factories were spewing smoke and Suleman pointed out a couple of gypsy camps, filled with the colorful tents of families who migrate here from southern Punjab to sell handmade children’s toys. He said most people outside the cities are subsistence farmers and a lot of local men also go to work in Europe, mostly in the UK, and send money home to their families. Jhelum district is also known for providing many soldiers to the British during World War II; Suleman’s father, who died a couple of years ago, was one of them.

“Mostly, people are poor here,” he said.

Teachers are more important than buildings
Increasingly, parents understand that education is one of the best ways to ensure that their sons and daughters will have a better future. Yet for Pakistan’s rural girls’ schools, getting and keeping good teachers – especially good female teachers – is a constant struggle.

Suleman had told me that the Bhamber School’s principal was asking for CAI’s help to hire more teachers. “Now here, like everywhere, every school, they demand teachers. But I understand. Teachers are even more important than buildings,” he said.


And Kosar wasted no time getting to the point.

“The main problem is staff. We need more teachers,” she said. “We thank CAI very, very much for the extra rooms. But we request, please, CAI help us with two teachers.”

Even the students got on the bandwagon.

“Teachers come from far and it is very difficult for them,” said 12-year-old Hadija, a seven-class student who wants to be a teacher.

The problem is complicated by the fact that, in many cases, the students in school now represent the first generation of educated girls in these rural areas. And teachers from the city, who have more education, demand more money because they have to travel every day, Suleman said.

Kosar, 40, is unusual in that she has a bachelor’s degree in education and is working on her master’s degree in Urdu. She teaches different subjects, mostly English and Islamic studies, in classes two, five and eight.

Raza, too, has a master’s degree in Islamic studies from Jhelum.

“This is my passion and I want to teach my area, I belong here,” she said. “I know that the teachers did not come here and so I thought I should teach my village people, and especially girls.


“So we thank you for this building. This is a poor area. The people are very poor. The children are very poor. And this is a big problem. People cannot even pay for the notebooks. The government pays three teachers, but for 200 students, this is not enough. This is the main problem for us.”

Then, just as we were ready to leave, Tassa War, the district education officer, arrived at the school. She explained that it is hard for the government to get enough qualified teachers for all the schools, especially after the government lifted the ban on transfers last year and “many left the rural areas.” And she reiterated the Bhamber School staff’s request.

“If you can help, that would be good,” War said.

I promised to do my best.

Since then, I have gotten approval from the home office. When the new school year begins in April, CAI will be paying the salaries of two additional teachers at the Bhamber Girls’ Middle School.

QUOTE: “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” — Colleen Wilcox

— Karin Ronnow

Photos: Students at Bhamber Girls’ Middle School, Pakistan. Karin Ronnow, January 2012.


February 7, 2012 – Badakhshan: Heavy Snowfall Brings Humanitarian Crisis


The death toll from the severe winter weather in Afghanistan’s mountainous northeast rose again over the weekend following another avalanche in Badakhshan province.

At least four people were killed and six injured when the avalanche hit villages in the remote Arghistan district Saturday, according to news reports. The district is 196 miles northeast of Kabul. Click here for map.

Central Asia Institute project managers in the region said Monday that the deadly slide coincided with the “third wave” of heavy snowfall to hit the region at the western end of the Wakhan Corridor.

A few weeks ago, 10 feet of snow trapped an entire village of 72 families in their homes in nearby Ishkashim district, according to news reports. Rescue teams were sent to the area, but a provincial government official told the BBC, “We don’t have any equipment to help people there.”

More than 40 people have died in Badakhshan this winter as a result of avalanches, heavy snow and freezing temperatures.

CAI has schools throughout this part of Afghanistan, although early reports indicate no CAI projects have been damaged.

Snow and harsh winters are not unusual in the impoverished province, where most people eke out a living via subsistence farming. Two years ago, an avalanche killed at least 171 people near the Salang Pass, the main north-south road through the Hindu Kush Mountains, according to the Associated Press.

But this year’s heavy snowfall follows a long-running drought that had already put tens of thousands of people at high risk of hunger. Government officials and humanitarian groups are worried that those people are now at further risk due to their isolation combined with the severe shortage of food for themselves and their livestock.

The United Nations has sent emergency food to the provincial capital, Faisabad, but in some areas of Badakhshan the deep snow – 7 to 10 feet in some places – has blocked many of the province’s rugged roads and made delivery a problem.

“If the snow continues to keep the roads to rural and remote districts closed and we don’t get any assistance, we would face a severe humanitarian crisis,” Abdul Maroof Rasekh, a provincial government spokesman, told IRIN.

— Karin Ronnow


February 2, 2012 – Onward 2012

The giving season, overseas priorities, and the start of our annual CAI audit have kept all of us very busy the first month of this year.

First and foremost, thanks to each and every one of you for the encouraging and sustaining letters and financial support — especially over these past few months.

I want you to know that Central Asia Institute is stronger than ever. We remain focused on the work at hand despite the frustrations of having to resist, once again, inclusion in a purported class action lawsuit that now has been reformulated five times. Wild claims, however vexatious and illogical, are only that — “claims”.

Karin Ronnow returned from Pakistan two weeks ago. The first of her reports follows below. Greg is much healthier and working out of the public eye where he is most comfortable for now. CAI staff here in our Bozeman office and our overseas program managers are resilient. We will not be deflected from our great mission to promote education in remote regions of Central Asia and to inform everyone about the need to foster education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially for girls. Please see our Master Project List. It is a dynamic account of our projects. We update it regularly.

If you have any question or concerns, we are happy to answer them.

Your encouragement to all of us has come at a time when we needed to hear from you. All my hopes and best wishes to you in the coming year.

— Anne Beyersdorfer


‘Bad days and tough times’ over thanks to CAI’s KP projects

PAHARPUR, Pakistan –Central Asia Institute’s first primary school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, “duly furnished and with a playground,” was successfully completed and handed over to government authorities on Christmas Eve.


Since then, enrollment at the two-classroom Sha Daoo Government Primary School – located in the southern reaches of the former North West Frontier Province – increased nearly 10-fold, from six to 55 boys and girls.

And it continues to grow.

“Already the number of students and the strength of the students has improved,” the head teacher told me in mid-January during my visit to “inaugurate” the school. “Thank you for making a school in this backward area.”

Paharpur is in the Dera Ismail Khan District of KP, on the west bank of the Indus River. The CAI-funded building replaces a government school severely damaged by the devastating floods that swept Pakistan in 2010.

Three different Pakistan TV news channels covered the story of the school’s demise, and the village’s subsequent use of an old shelter, but the government did not respond. CAI’s chief operations officer in Pakistan, Ilyas Mirza, saw the broadcasts and offered the community CAI’s help to erect a new building.

“We appreciate Central Asia Institute’s efforts here,” said Syed Feroz Hussain, DI Khan district education officer. “I know that this school will bear very sweet fruit in the passage of time.”


The reference to fruit may have been unintentional, but it suits. The area is famous for its date trees, which look like palm trees to the uninitiated. Farmers also grow sugar cane, wheat and other fruit. Said to be one of the hottest places in the world, where summer temperatures reach 120 degrees-plus, the area is green and lush, even in January.

But its proximity to Pakistan’s tribal areas – Waziristan’s mountains can be seen in the distance –and the presence of militant Islamists means the region is unsettled and dangerous.

Two days before we arrived, a group of suicide bombers attacked the District Police Officers’ headquarters in DI Khan, killed four people and damaged the building. News reports said Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. It was one of several recent militant attacks on security personnel in KP’s southern districts.

As a result, the extra security provided for my January visit was especially intense.

“Welcome to the land of hospitality,” Idrees Mirza, Ilyas Mirza’s brother and the man who handled the security logistics, said upon our arrival at the provincial border checkpost. He was serious, but also trying to make light of a tense situation.

“This is no problem. You have many guards,” he told me, gesturing to the half-dozen armed guards behind him. “They are my cousins.”


Family protects family in this region, which is largely populated by Pashtuns. But the local government also provided a police escort, just in case. And we moved quickly across the flat landscape, past date palms, camels and fields filled with families harvesting sugar cane.

At Sha Daoo School students, teachers, and village elders, including the man who donated the land, Ghulum Jilani, 59, greeted us.

“I do this for the education of the children, for their better future,” Jilani, a thin man with a long white beard, said through a translator. “Islam values education. This is something we must do.”

Jilani looks after property, with the assistance of other village elders and government officials – all of who were grateful for CAI’s work in the area.

“The services you delivered here are very good, especially for girls’ education,” Hussain said. “A woman plays a pivotal role as a mother. Men are dominant here, but women should take their own place and play a role in the country’s development.”

The kids said they liked the new school, but they were particularly fond of the new playground.
“Such parks are scarce here,” Mirza explained. “There are no others in a radius of about 100 miles.”


But there will be a couple more when CAI completes its other projects in the area — a new primary school in Matwala Shah, and repairs to two “existing, dangerous buildings” in Jabbarwala, Mirza said.

When we arrived in Matwala Shah, we found the students sitting in the dirt under a piece of propped up canvas practicing their ABCs. They’ve been studying outside ever since the villagers deemed the old school unfit for classes in 2006.

“Nobody took care of the building and it is dangerous,” said teacher Allah Nawaz. “For five years the children have been sitting on the ground. We used to have 136 students, but now some have gone because of the situation.”

The new school, similar in size to the Sha Daoo School, should be finished in March, Mirza said.

“These students are lucky to have been discovered by CAI team,” he said. “Bad times and tough days are nearly over. Soon they will be on chairs in a new CAI building, with books and uniforms, thanks to CAI.”

Persian proverb: “Thinking well is wise; planning well, wiser; but doing well is the wisest and best of all.”

— Karin Ronnow


December 22, 2011 – To be of use

Happy Solstice.


As I sit here in the predawn darkness, a light snow falling outside, my mind is in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the people whose stories are included in the Journey of Hope.

If it is dark and cold here in Montana on this, the shortest day of the year, I can only imagine what it is like in places like Korphe, Kipkut, and Barswat – high in the mountains, where there is no electricity and people have only dung-fueled fires and heavy blankets to keep the cold at bay.

Like many Americans, I take for granted that I can turn on a light, turn up the heat and fill the teapot with clean water every morning. I expect my newspaper on the front porch. And I count on my down-filled jacket, warm socks and good boots to keep me warm when I head out the door.


But the neglected corners of the world where CAI works are my reality check. Traveling in those regions has taught me that my “modern conveniences” are actually more like “daily miracles.”

CAI’s partners in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan must work really hard to get through the winter. Even the simplest things – getting water, warming a room, or feeding a child – are real chores that require people “do what has to be done, again and again,” as poet Marge Piercy says.

They do the hard work on these dark, cold, snowy winter mornings because they have to. They do it together. And they do it because, for many, it is all they have ever known. Their “daily miracle” is their own survival.

Their persistence and determination are my motivation. And so I think of them today, on the winter solstice, as we celebrate the victory of light over darkness.

Perhaps it is a strained analogy, but I believe that CAI’s work promoting education is also about hope for a brighter future.

Persistence and hard work pay off (see Piercy’s poem below).

Better – and brighter — days are ahead.

We at CAI believe that.

So from all of us, Happy Holidays. May your days be merry and bright!

— Karin Ronnow

To be of use


The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.


The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
— Marge Piercy


December 15, 2011 – Afghan women helping women


Literacy won’t solve all the problems that plague women in Afghanistan.

But it’s a good place to start, according to the women who manage Central Asia Institute’s women’s literacy and vocational centers in Kabul.

Only 15 percent of Afghan women are literate, according to UNICEF.

Three decades of war are a big factor in that statistic, said Safiya, 30, CAI’s women’s program manager in the capital city.

“So many years of fighting makes big problems for Afghan women,” she said. “The Taliban period for Afghanistan, especially, was very dark. Women couldn’t go to school. Some were not allowed outside. There were so many problems. Now too many Afghan women don’t know how to read and write because of Afghanistan’s wars.”

But the fighting is not entirely to blame for women’s oppression, she said. Her life experience has taught her that.


Although Safiya married an open-minded man after she finished high school, she quickly learned that his family did not see the world the same way he did.

“When my husband was young, he went to Russia for 13 years to study and get education. Then he came back and his mind was completely different from his all his family,” she said. “After marriage, we lived in Khost Province with his family. My mother-in-law, she was very strict. She wouldn’t let me continue my education and she made me wear burka. His younger brother is illiterate and doesn’t approve of women getting education either.”

After the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, Safiya was optimistic. Her husband got a job working for the Afghan government and they enrolled their older daughter in school.

“But then my husband was killed by the Taliban because he worked for Afghan government, and his brother, who is Talib, said I could not work and my daughters could not go to school,” she said.

So Safiya fled to Kabul, where she and her two daughters live with her parents. With the help of a CAI scholarship, she earned her accounting degree. Wakil Karimi, CAI’s central, southern and eastern Afghanistan program manager, hired her last summer to oversee CAI’s women’s programs in Kabul.

“This is my favorite job because this work is very important,” she said. “And Wakil is a very good boss.”

Sabiera, 38, who assists Safiya as supervisor of CAI’s women’s programs, graduated from class 12, but also ran headlong into a new reality once she married.


“My father’s side are all educated – doctors, engineers, all are professionals,” she said. “But my husband’s family is uneducated and when I married I had a very bad situation with this family. I saw this problem. My husband, he is educated, but because of his family he didn’t allow me to go outside without my burka.”

But she has an inherent strength, a characteristic strengthened by her life in war-torn Afghanistan.

“After Taliban took control, my husband escaped to Pakistan. There was no work here and he fought for mujahidin, so it was not safe for him. But I stayed here with my children. I said, ‘I don’t want to leave my home.’ The Taliban would come to the house and try to stay here. I told them Massoud [the mujahidin who led the anti-Taliban resistance group the Northern Alliance] would drop a bomb on our house if they stayed there and we would all die together.

“My husband came back after about one month, but in Kabul there was just so much fighting. We moved to north of the city. We went during the night, in the dark. We took a lantern for light. We went to an area controlled by Massoud.” [For more information on Massoud, click here and here.]

After the Taliban were overthrown, the family returned to their home in south Kabul. “I decided to work for the education of women, because education is a right for all humans,” she said.

Not everyone feels that way. Women’s rights are still far from universally accepted in Afghanistan.


“Many Afghan families have enthusiastically enrolled their daughters in school, but most Afghan women wear the burka and either cannot exercise the rights that they are guaranteed by the constitution or are not aware that they have them” the Washington Post reported March 6. “With or without the Taliban, Afghan society is deeply conservative and patriarchal and it will take years of patient effort before it becomes less so.”

Key to that effort is literacy, Safiya and Sabiera said.

“So many women, they can’t read and write, so they can’t solve their basic problems,” Safiya said. “And they have no opportunities for education. But when they learn, they are stronger. Also, they will encourage sending their own daughters to school.”

CAI’s literacy programs operate in private homes, usually those of the teacher. Students range in age from 9 to 50. The centers are neighborhood based so the girls and women can walk to class each day. “We go to the poorest neighborhoods and put the classes in the houses, not far from where they live,” Safiya said.

The classes meet for two hours a day, six days a week, for nine months.

“We control the classes, observe the students and teachers,” Sabiera said. “We check students, how much they are learning, and the attendance sheets, to make sure they are coming to classes. We provide books and notebooks. Also, we help the women describe to their families how [the classes are] useful, how to talk to their husbands.”

By the time the women have finished the program, they are educated to about a fourth-grade level.


“Before, for us education was not possible,” student Bibi Maria, 50, said in September. “Now we must take advantage that you made this. This is the first time we have these kinds of classes in houses, the first time our families will let us come.”

Bibi Niamatta, 45, whose family moved to the city to escape the fighting in Kunar Province, agreed with her classmate. “It is never too late for education, because education is important for old or young, man or woman,” she said.

For girls like Zainab, 14, the centers open a world of possibilities. Until CAI opened a center in her neighborhood, her parents insisted she stay home to help them with the family carpet-making business.

“They didn’t let me go to school,” she said. “But when I got information about the center, I got permission to go. And now I am happy. My big hope is that parents should let their daughters go to school and improve the country and help Afghanistan. I want to take the opportunity for this. After I complete this class, I want to go to school and get more education.”

Safiya and Sabiera are also responsible for operation of CAI’s vocational centers – which are also home-based and offer a three-month training in sewing skills.


“After women learn to read and write, then they want skills so they can get some money and get their own income,” Safiya said. “That is very important. Most Afghan people don’t take care of women and wives.”

And they manage the additional English, math and computer courses CAI offers at several Kabul high schools, Karimi said.

All of these programs are free to participants, Sabiera noted.

She got involved with CAI’s programs about two years ago. After her own children had reached school age, she began looking for a way to help other women. She heard about CAI’s women’s literacy program and set up a “classroom” in her own home. A year later, she was hired to help Safiya run the program.

“Now my daughter is running the school in my home,” she said. “My children know people must have education – that is the source of all improvement and the only way women are going to get their rights.”

— Karin Ronnow

For a more detailed story about CAI’s Vocational Centers, read our 2011 Journey of Hope.


December 5, 2011 – Guest Blog with Randi Pritchard

Randi Pritchard heard about Greg Mortenson “and his amazing dedication” – her words – years ago. She read his books, went to hear him speak and finally met him earlier this year at a function in her home state of California.


But that was not enough for the curious 66-year-old supporter.

“In July, I was off to visit his Wakhan schools,” she said of the Central Asia Institute projects in the Wakhan Corridor in remote northeast Afghanistan. “My sister, Kari Nielsen, and I travelled by ourselves through the Wakhan. At each of the schools we were met with fantastic, welcoming smiles from students and teachers when I mentioned Dr. Greg. I promised that I would bring their ‘thanks’ and ‘helloes’ and to say that they were doing great!”

I met Randi for coffee during CAI’s Building Bridges of Peace Conference in October. Although she has a finance/marketing background, she works as an assistant teacher for children with special needs. She has traveled extensively, she said, and was not intimidated by the dearth of basic amenities or infrastructure for travelers in the Wakhan.

She then pulled out a stack of photos from her journey and told me the stories behind them.

I asked her how she was able to spot the CAI schools.


“Since the CAI schools were the reason for my visit, I already had a pretty good idea what the schools would look like – at least in theory,” she said. “Sure enough, the modern blocks of schools with their almost-shining stars stood out starkly against the gray, rugged hills. Our driver was fully aware that I came to this part of the world just to see the CAI schools and was prepared to stop by each school. I would of course have loved it if he had been able to speak English.”

But the intrepid traveler persevered and her reward, she said, was the trip of a lifetime.

Here is a transcript of my subsequent interview about her trip.

Karin Ronnow

KR: How much did you know about the CAI schools in the Wakhan Corridor before you embarked on your journey?


RP: I was probably one of the first ones to read Three Cups of Tea. Stories set in the developing world and stories dealing with education interest me passionately. Subsequently I read Stones into Schools and I was hooked. I felt I needed to go to see these schools that an ordinary man had decided to build for children in remote villages without any money, nor any previous building, educational or political experience. His only prerequisite was his big heart and to follow something he believed in. When Greg Mortenson came to give a talk close to where I live, I was quick to buy a ticket. I wanted to meet and greet this amazing man. It was beautiful to learn that Afghanistan has another side to show – not just the one about war and death.

KR: What were your first thoughts when you saw the first CAI school building, and the fifth, and the tenth?


RP: When I saw the first CAI school building standing so proudly and majestically along the Wakhan’s sole road, I knew I had reached my goal. I had made it! I felt utterly privileged. What I had only read about and seen photos of was real, right there in front of my eyes.

And what a bonus it was to be able to go inside the school to greet all the students – boys and girls together in the same classroom – and the staff. It was such a joy to watch their faces light up even more when I mentioned Dr. Greg. It was a gloriously emotional feeling to be able to share my admiration for the man who built the school.

By the second school I had learned the hand-over-heart greeting while bowing my head and saying, Asalaam Aleikum. As I visited more and more schools further up the corridor my respect and admiration just intensified. How could an individual accomplish such a huge job in such a remote part of a war-torn developing country?

It was an inspiration to experience these children’s almost desperate need to learn. Dedicated teachers were proud to show me around. The students showed me their textbooks and their writings. A few children proudly counted in English while others were able to say a few sentences. I remember in particular the one older boy who was working so hard trying to pronounce and grasp the meaning of the word “who.” Great joy when he at last succeeded!


I had brought boxes of pens to share. I wish I had brought tons of paper and journals to write in. As it was, the students used every bit of space on their papers to write on – so different to the world I work in.
It was quite a humble experience when all the children came outside, waving goodbye as I left each school.

By the tenth or eleventh school, I was tempted to say, “Just leave me here.” The satisfaction of seeing, feeling, and hearing what education really should be was an incredible inspiration to me.

KR: Where else have you traveled and how did the Wakhan compare?


RP: I’ve lived in Norway, Denmark, Iran, South Africa, Japan, the UK, and now in the US. I’ve traveled to Canada, Australia, Europe, Turkey, and the former USSR. In Asia, I’ve been to Japan, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Burma. In the Middle East, Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Egypt. In Africa – Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Morocco. And in Central and South America, I’ve traveled to Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico.

Compared to other places I’ve visited – so far! – the Wakhan was the road less traveled, no other tourists. It is the most remote place I have ever been. It was also the most inspiring destination because of what CAI is doing there. I have never before been met with such genuine kindness and pure curiosity in spite of language barriers.

KR: You mentioned that you met Sarfraz Khan in the Wakhan. What were your impressions?


RP: Running into Sarfraz Khan in Khandud village was a huge bonus. At first I had no idea who this horse-riding, handsome, English-speaking man was. He told me he had just come down from the Pamirs, where he had been working at the Bozoi Gumbad CAI school. He was so full of life.

This incredibly energetic man seemed so familiar to me, but why? He probably introduced himself, however, I didn’t hear it – I was so taken with his charismatic charm. Then, when I sat down, I realized that I knew this man through Stones Into Schools.

He took the time to share his experiences with me and show me the beautiful photos he had just downloaded to his computer of the outstanding work done to create a functioning school environment for the Kyrgyz nomad children.


Not only was a school built, but also a hostel for the students, their teachers and cook. Seeing the photos of those smiling, proud children all with backpacks and uniforms was touching. And I later saw those photos on the CAI website.

Then, before I could think about taking a photo of him, he was gone – off to Tajikistan to build more schools.

I’m pretty energetic myself, but he definitely beats me!

KR: What role do you think education of the Wakhi children will play in the future of Afghanistan, and the world?


RP: Seeing what transpires in these remote schools gives me hope that no one will interfere in their further education, and particularly that girls will continue to be educated into the future. The Wakhi educated children will benefit the development of the Wakhan Corridor. Furthermore, the education of children in the Wakhan and in the rest of Afghanistan will hopefully ensure there may be a peaceful future for Afghanistan without wars.

I am so happy that these children have been given a chance to change the world by a man coming from so far away equipped with a big heart and an idea. And I hope that CAI can continue to facilitate the building of new schools after the Americans leave Afghanistan. And I particularly hope that the Taliban will allow this to happen.

KR: Thanks, Randi.
RP: I also wanted to say that my sister, Kari, was the only one who would join me on this adventure and she is very happy that she went!

QUOTE: “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – American author Maya Angelou

All photos courtesy Randi Pritchard


November 30, 2011 – 2011 Journey of Hope

The 2011 edition of our annual Journey of Hope highlights Central Asia Institute’s accomplishments that I would like to share with all of you who make our seemingly “impossible” mission a possibility.

Our communications director and author of this journal – Karin Ronnow – has eloquently chronicled, with stunning pictures by the photographer Ellen Jaskol, some of the milestones that we have reached in our journey from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Tajikistan.

The focus of Central Asia Institute’s mission is the same that Muhammad Iqbal, the internationally honored national poet of Pakistan, so movingly captured in his famous poem “A Child’s Prayer.” I have translated that poem for you from Urdu. This poem epitomizes the universal voice of children. I hope you will enjoy this poem because it will bring you a step closer to understanding and appreciating our mission.

With gratitude for your faith in Central Asia Institute.

— Abdul Jabbar, Chair, Central Asia Institute Board of Directors


A Child’s Prayer
My desire rises from my lips like a prayer:
O Almighty, may my life be like a lamp.
May my presence dispel the world’s darkness.
May I be the source of light everywhere
May my breath beautify my country
The way a flower beautifies a garden.
May my life be in the form of a moth
In love with the lamp of knowledge.
May my life’s goal be helping the poor
And loving the compassionate and the weak.
O Allah, save me from evil deeds.
Make me tread the path that leads to virtue.
— Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938)
(Translated by Abdul Jabbar)

NOTE: The original poem in Urdu is very musical because it uses rhyme and meter. My translation is in the form of free verse, just an attempt to express the poem’s meaning without rhyme and meter. AJ

Click here to view 2011 Journey of Hope


November 23, 2011 – Attitude of gratitude

Asalaam Aleikum (Peace be with you).

And to all our stateside readers and supporters, Happy Thanksgiving.

As we count our blessings here at Central Asia Institute, it has been noted that some of them have arrived in strange packages this year. But blessings are sometimes like that. It’s what happens next that matters.


And at CAI, we opted to turn challenges into opportunities to learn and grow. After all, CAI is all about education and adaptation, about listening and growing, and, when necessary, changing. Every new project, new relationship, and new geographic region teaches us valuable lessons. We learn something new every day. We never stop learning.

So we are grateful for our teachers, who come in all shapes and sizes.

We are grateful for our supporters, who continue to believe that it is possible to make a difference in the world, one child at a time.

And we are grateful for the ties that bind us all together in our mission.

Our annual Journey of Hope publication is CAI’s attempt to document that mission with words and photos. And assembling this year’s edition has truly been a journey of hope. The process, the people, and the places – they all combine to leave me with an unshakeable attitude of gratitude, just in time for Thanksgiving.

I’m grateful for our hardworking, multitalented project managers who guide me and photographer Ellen Jaskol down so many roads less traveled. They introduce us to amazing people who entrust us with their stories and treat us like family, people whose open hearts, hospitality, and honesty leave me humbled and inspired.


I’m grateful, too, for the teachers and students. They are the heart and soul of everything CAI does. Their creativity, passion, and determination to make a better future keep me focused on what’s important.

I am also grateful for the hardworking, multitalented individuals at CAI’s headquarters in Bozeman. What a team. Layout, photo selection, proofreading, fact checking – the Journey of Hope is an enormous project and it takes all hands on deck to get it done. Shukria. Tashakur. Manana. Thank you!

And of course I am grateful to CAI’s cofounder Greg Mortenson, for his capacity to articulate the principles that continue to guide CAI into the future – take time to drink three cups of tea, listen to people, empower those you are trying to help, respect the elders, don’t rush, don’t be afraid to fail, and believe that education is the key to a peaceful world.

It takes a village, as the saying goes, and on this Thanksgiving we are filled with an attitude of gratitude for all who are part of CAI’s mission.

Thank you for your continued support.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

QUOTE: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

– Karin Ronnow


November 11, 2011 – Ten principles toward building peace

After recent CAI staff outreach at the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival, and our “Building Bridges of Peace” conference, we were made aware of an article written about an evening with co-founder Greg Mortenson that produced a list outlining Greg’s ten principles toward building peace. Tony Mussari gave us permission to re-post it here:

Ten principles toward building peace

1. Use books not bullets to bring peace to our world.
2. Harness the power in the wisdom of grandparents and elders.
3. Listen more, have respect, and build relationships.
4. Get youngsters unplugged from their digital devices.
5. Get youngsters into playgrounds with their friends where they can be children again.
6. Harness the power of a penny.
7. Understand that when girls are educated they build communities.
8. Don’t be afraid to fail.
9. Trust and believe that our children will make a difference in the world for the good of humanity.
10. Celebrate our constitutional right to happiness, and export it throughout the world.

Ten Principles

Co-founder Greg Mortenson in Tajikistan, 11/7/11

Greg Mortenson: A Face of America Commentary
By Tony Mussari
Copyright 2010
The Face of America Project
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

The seats in the Kirby Theater are empty. The room is dark, the books, pictures, graphics and all the other external trappings of Greg Mortenson’s visit are packed away. The letters on the marquis announce another event, but the memory of this magical moment will forever be recorded in the hearts and souls of the 1,800 people who filled the Kirby Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday last.

Among those memories are ten statements and five quotations that, if applied, can change our world for the better: Use books not bullets to bring peace to our world; Harness the power in the wisdom of grandparents and elders; Get youngsters unplugged from their digital devices; Get youngsters into playgrounds with their friends where they can be children again; Harness the power of a penny; Understand that when girls are educated they build communities; Don’t be afraid to fail; Trust and believe that our children will make a difference in the world for the good of humanity; Celebrate our constitutional right to happiness, and export it throughout the world; Listen more, have respect and build relationships.

On the dark days of adversity and challenge, when nothing seems to work, remember these quotations that kept this passionate man moving forward:
‘When it is dark, you can see the stars.”
“The greatness of America is in its diversity.”
“People can be empowered to control their own destiny.”
‘There is a big difference between helping and empowering.”
“You cannot plug in democracy in a country like Afghanistan; you must build it with the help of elders and the education of children.”

Greg Mortenson has been celebrated in many ways with many different words of praise, but nowhere have I found the word that in my mind’s eye best describes this good and decent man from Montana, this force for change, this living monument to determination, this giver of the gift of hope, this builder of schools for the dispossessed, this beautiful Face of America.

I watched him carefully before, during and after dinner at Wilkes University. I listened intently to his words at the 29th Annual Max Rosen Lecture Series in Law and Humanities, and I took copious notes during his presentation at the Kirby.

For me, the word that best describes Greg Mortenson is teacher. Teacher in the academic sense, we are all his students. Teacher in the human sense, he fills our hearts with hope. Teacher in the biblical sense, he sanctifies the places he visits with the good news of education, enlightenment, equality and enrichment.

If you spend an evening with Greg Mortenson, you can not help but become a better person, a more thoughtful person, a better citizen of the world and a better American. The price of admission to Mortenson’s classroom is a caring heart. The consequence of participating in his classroom is a belief that tomorrow can be better than today. The benefit of implementing what he teaches is peace and progress for everyone. It doesn’t get any better than that in any classroom anywhere in the world.

I saw the face of America today. It belongs to a big man, with a big heart who is not afraid to go where his heart leads him. May your journey continue. May your dreams be fulfilled, and may we realize that you are doing more than building schools in some of the most remote and dangerous neighborhoods on this planet. You and your work give witness to the heart and soul of America on its very best days.

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– Anne Beyersdorfer


November 9, 2011 – Earthquake hits NE Afghanistan and NW Pakistan

A moderate-size earthquake shook the remote mountains of northeast Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan late Monday afternoon, Nov. 7.

Wohid Khan, Afghan Border Security commander in Badakhshan Province, said Tuesday in a phone call with Central Asia Institute staff that no deaths had been reported so far. He had received reports of only minor damage to a few earthen homes in the Jurm and Baharak areas. Southern Badakhshan was the epicenter of the quake.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department reported that the earthquake occurred about 130 miles below the earth’s surface, with an intensity of 6.3 on the Richter scale, although the Associated Press reported it as a 5.5-magnitude quake. It happened at about 4:30 p.m. local time.

Earthquakes are common in the Hindu Kush, Pamir and Karakoram ranges where CAI’s school projects are based. The affected areas, however, are often quite remote and have limited communication with the outside world. As a result, it is sometimes weeks before the full impact of an earthquake is reported.

“The primary earthquake-relief NGO in the region is FOCUS, which does significant and important work in disaster situations here and with whom we have collaborated in the past,” said CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson, who is traveling in the region. “Our ground staff is in touch with local leaders in these communities to determine if additional help is needed.”

— Karin Ronnow


November 8, 2011 – Avalanche in the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan

We have heard and read the news being reported that three CAI employees have been killed by an avalanche in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani media reports were incorrect. A CAI program manager has confirmed that no CAI employees perished in the recent avalanche in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.

CAI staff abroad, and here in the US, send our heartfelt condolences to the families and communities of the three men lost to the avalanche.

– Central Asia Institute


November 3, 2011 – Building bridges to coexist


Rudyard Kipling famously said, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” People are often defined by what divides us — language, culture, race and religion — and Kipling was alluding to the cultural gap between the British and the people of their Indian empire. The rest of his verse is mostly forgotten, “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,” where he underscores that to coexist peacefully people must see beyond those labels.


This idea is central to Central Asia Institute, which strives to help those who are different but alike by building global bridges. CAI’s two-day “Building Bridges of Peace Conference” in Chicago, Oct. 28-29, attracted hundreds of people, including some from as far away as China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The event was an extension of CAI’s platform to promote “peace through education, and convey the importance of these activities globally.”

Jerene Mortenson, Greg’s mother and Pennies for Peace ambassador, headlined the event. Other speakers included Jack Shaheen, Bapsi Sidhwa, Zarqa Nawaz, Faran Tahir, Abdul Jabbar, Ethan Casey, Salahuddin Khan, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, Robert Renteria and comedian Maz Jobrani.

Friday’s session included two panel discussions, with speakers tracing the trajectory of peace in their personal lives as well as in their creative output in areas of activism, publishing and philanthropy. Topics included “Stereotypes in the Media” and “Philanthropy through Education.”


Jerene Mortenson made everyone laugh with her stories of children collecting pennies for peace. CAI’s Board Chairman Abdul Jabbar spoke eloquently about war and its penalties. While educating girls remains CAI’s primary mission, educating Americans about the areas where it works with outreach events is equally important. Building bridges is a two-sided process.

Students from the College Preparatory School of America in Lombard and Eastern Middle School in Indiana said afterwards that the panels, which helped them see tolerance and coexistence in a new light, inspired them. And attendee Professor Steve Duchrow of Elgin Community College said he was “moved at the various layers of context and meaning to be derived from peace by the panelists.”

The conference resumed Saturday evening with an exposition fair. Some 700 attendees visited the booths set up by 25 international nonprofit organizations, colleges and causes.

“We were honored by CAI to be included with such a stellar group of community-minded professionals and organizations all working together to make the world a better place,” said Serena Chen Low, executive director of APNA Ghar, an NGO that aids abused women.


Students from Illinois Science and Math Academy also thanked CAI for the opportunity to participate as “a youth voice for ‘The Girl Effect,’” a nonprofit organization focused on the importance of educating and empowering females. “This weekend CAI had a profound impact on our perspectives and motivations,” the students said in an e-mail.

The conference’s finale was a Saturday dinner. In spelling out why CAI opted to hold this outreach event, I credited CAI’s Co-founder Greg Mortenson with inspiring the dialogue of peace. I told the crowd: “The world is on a lexical impasse: no two people different in race, religion and culture seem to agree anymore. However, CAI gives people an opportunity to hear the voices of those [who] are silent and destitute.”


Karin Ronnow, CAI’s Communication Director shared stories of her recent trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, highlighted by Ellen Jaskol’s stunning photography. Anne Beyersdorfer, CAI’s Acting Executive Director, talked about peace through storytelling, by sharing perspectives, and introduced Jerene Mortenson, who spoke about kindness and regaled the audience with her unique Minnesota humor and wisdom.

Rockford P4P supporters Jim Keeling and Karen Bieschke said afterwards that they “were inspired all over again by the diversity and thoughtfulness of CAI’s wonderful speakers and participants.” The event “made us proud and sparked ideas of how we can spread this message of peace, kindness and education. We can’t afford to be silent.”


Numerous people pitched in before, during and after the event, including: CAI Database Manager Michelle Laxson, Reema Syed, Roohi Younus, Brian Seredynski, and a team of volunteers who helped make this event high in impact and low in draining resources.

“This night was one of the best-ever events I’ve been to and it reminded me what Greg Mortenson said, ‘The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with people,’” said Naazish Yar Khan, a public-relations specialists who attended Saturday’s dinner. “And that to me is what building bridges is all about.”

— Sadia Ashraf


November 1, 2011 – Guest Blog by Sgt. Sherrill

Abdul Jabbar

EDITOR’S NOTE: Poetry is a lot of different things, but perhaps more than anything else it is one way of telling a story.

Abdul Jabbar, chairman of CAI’s board of directors and a professor at City College in San Francisco, shared this poem Friday during a panel discussion on education and philanthropy in Chicago. The panel, which also included author Bapsi Sidhwa and educator Jerene Mortenson, was part of CAI’s “Building Bridges of Peace Conference: Dialogue through Philanthropy, Education and Storytelling.”

CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson gave Abdul the poem after he received it from Sgt. M. Douglas Sherrill, Jr, a U.S. soldier serving in Afghanistan. Sherrill wrote the poem after he read Greg’s first book, “Three Cups of Tea,” and gave Greg permission to share it with others.

Storytelling has become an integral part of how CAI communicates the depth and breadth of its work in the world. We are grateful to Abdul for both calling attention to this poem, and for reading it aloud to us.

— Karin Ronnow

Behind the Wall
by Sgt. M. Douglas Sherrill, Jr.

I hear the voices behind the wall,

Behind the wall

While my weapon lies beside my gear, I do not fear,
These voices are small,
And even though their language is not my own,
I understand,
For they laugh,
They squeal, and shriek with delight.
They giggle and yell, and maybe even fight.
A little girl screams with glee chased by an older sibling.
No, I do not fear these voices, and
I do not to my mates call, “Stand To!”
I do not fear the universal sound of children playing.

There is another Voice behind that wall.
It cannot be heard, only sensed,
Its source cannot be seen, it has no form,
Cannot be touched,

Behind the wall

And yet, we wrestle with it every day.
Yet even without form, In the hands of my Enemy,
It is a weapon.
This Voice, though not heard,
Calls out and recruits legions to my Enemy’s ranks.
This Voice,
This Weapon,
This Evil that thwarts my efforts for Peace,
Is Ignorance and Illiteracy.
My M16 cannot dispatch it,
My machine gun cannot pin it down!
Bombs dropped from planes and artillery shells
Cannot dislodge it from its entrenched positions!
Despondent and depressed I thought,
“If my weapons are of no avail, then how can this war be won?”
“What weapon will defeat my Enemy?”


Behind the wall

I heard another Voice behind the wall.
“Hear Me, Use Me” it said
“Put down your guns, bombs, tanks and planes,
“Pick up a hammer, saw, nails and a Carpenters Square,
“Build Me schools!
“Fill them with books, pencils, desks, Teachers, and Children,
“Then, invite me in, for I am Knowledge.
“Only I can disperse the Darkness of Ignorance and Illiteracy.
“Only I can silence the Voice that recruits legions to your Enemy.
“Your Enemy will be a memory”
What Voices did you hear behind the wall today?

— Sgt. M. Douglas Sherrill, Jr.


October 26, 2011 – Building Bridges of Peace

Bridges of Peace

Every day, somewhere under the Central Asia Institute umbrella, a student or teacher, village elder, health care worker, project manager or director is bridging a divide of some kind.

Indeed it sometimes seems as if there are far more things that divide people in this world than bring them together – culture, politics, geography, education and economics, just to name a few. Yet it could just as easily be said that all those things bring us together, too.

Bridging the divides — cultural, political and geographical, educational and economic — is at the heart of CAI’s mission. And we here at CAI are excited about the events planned for this weekend in Chicago as part of our “Building Bridges of Peace Conference: Dialogue through Philanthropy, Education and Storytelling.”

The event kicks off Friday afternoon with several panel discussions. Although tickets for the panel discussions have already sold out, there a link on CAI’s website,, where people may sign up to be on a waiting list.

Over the course of the afternoon the panelists – educators, authors, philanthropists and creative entrepreneurs – will discuss two basic topics: “Education through Philanthropy,” and “Images and Stereotypes in the Media.” In addition, Abdul Jabbar, chairman of CAI’s board of directors, will expound on the topic of “Reading and Writing with Multicultural Literature.”

The discussions will be held at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, 720 S. Michigan Ave., in downtown Chicago, beginning at 12 p.m. The event is scheduled to wrap up at 6:15 and includes time for one-on-one networking with the speakers.

Saturday night will be an evening of storytelling, music and comedy, also at the Hilton. The reception begins at 5.30 p.m., and the program starts at 7 p.m.

CAI’s speakers will include CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson’s mother, Jerene; Acting Executive Director Anne Beyersdorfer; and Communications Director Karin Ronnow, who has just returned from five weeks in Afghanistan and Tajikistan with fresh stories – and photos ! — of CAI’s ongoing work overseas.

Special guests include singer Najam Sheraz, Jack Shaheen and comedian Maz Jobrani.

Tickets for the Saturday night event are $35 and are available online at, or at the door. The event is made possible with help from Writers of the Round Table Press, Zindagi Trust, From the Barrio, the Skinless Project, Latism, Lal Qila Restaurant and Professional Party Planners.

Central Asia Institute is dedicated to building bridges of peace and we look forward to two days of storytelling, brainstorming and celebrating with you, our loyal supporters.

Persian proverb: I murmured because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

— Karin Ronnow


October 14, 2011 – Guest Blog by Steve Linn

“There is a candle in your heart ready to be kindled”

Editor’s note: As we at Central Asia Institute put together our “Building Bridges of Peace: Dialogue through Philanthropy, Education and Storytelling” outreach events in Chicago later this month, we will share stories here from people who contribute their steadfast support for making a positive impact on humanity. These are the stories that give us oomph at critical moments, and makes our spirits soar. CAI’s has always been and will always be about much more than one person.

Steve Linn

My name is Steve Linn. I am a sculptor, originally American and now with double nationality having lived in France for the past 18 years. After having read the two books, “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools,” I was completely taken with the amazing dedication of not only Mr. Mortenson, but the entire group of people who have dedicated their lives to this noble cause.

I don’t care about the controversy that was stirred up. The fact remains that women are being educated in unheard-of numbers in the most isolated mountain regions of Central Asia. The rewards of this education have been particularly impressive in the areas of health, nutrition, and living conditions of these remote people.

I have made a sculpture honoring Greg Mortenson and CAI’s work advancing education in the remote reaches of these troubled parts of the world. The title of the piece – “There is a candle in your heart ready to be kindled” – comes from a line of poetry by Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic poet. The resource material comes from “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into Schools.” The characters depicted are Greg Mortenson, Haji Ali, and three anonymous students who benefited from this incredible vision to build peace in these neglected and war-torn countries one school at a time.

I have pledged that if and when the piece is sold I will donate 10 percent of the sale price to your organization.

I am sorry to say that I will not be able to participate in your upcoming Chicago event. I arrive a day later, Oct. 30, to exhibit another work at SOFA Chicago at Navy Pier.

Thank you very much Greg Mortenson and Central Asia Institute for all you do to advance peace in these troubled times.

— Steve Linn


October 5, 2011 – CAI’s Annual Report (September 30, 2010 and 2009)

Annual Report

With the ending of our fiscal year September 30, 2011, we take stock in the work we have done and in the work at hand. Operationally, we have: restated our mission to highlight our historic dual purposes; verified the status of our overseas projects by way of survey teams sent overseas to work with our in-country staff, and, based on those assessments and evaluations, prepared and posted our Master Project List on our website as a dynamic record of our projects; updated CAI by-laws; undertaken a comprehensive review of our policies with particular attention to our overseas expenditure policy; released a new website with important updates (CAI Communiqué); produced an interim issue of Journey of Hope; published our Form 990 Tax Return; and provided, in unprecedented detail, records and financial information in response to requests from our auditors and accountants as part of an independent financial audit of CAI for FYE September 30, 2010 and 2009.

CAI’s Annual Report documents our efforts to change the world, one child at a time. Much of what we have been able to accomplish is referenced in this report. Going forward, this format will be used to provide clarity and context about our programs. You can also view the Form 990 and CAI’s Annual Report on our Financials Page.

Central Asia Institute is a strong organization with a solid foundation. We have provided educational support to over 250 projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan and assisted in the education of thousands of students.

We thank all of our supporters for patience and understanding during this difficult and challenging time. In the words of Greg Mortenson: “Onward!”

— Jennifer Sipes, CAI’s Operations Director


October 3, 2011 – Guest Blog by Bill Meers

Promoting CAI’s Mission at the Dayton International Peace Museum

The Dayton International Peace Museum in Dayton, Ohio created a major exhibit in 2010 on the ideals and work of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute. The ten-panel exhibit, “Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs,” was featured at the Peace Museum from October through December 2010. Prior to its opening at the Peace Museum, the exhibit was installed in the student center at Xavier University, Cincinnati, in support of Greg Mortenson’s visit to Xavier in September 2010.


Karen Witt, Bill Meers, and Patricia Tilton

The exhibit is now on display in the library of Dayton’s Sinclair Community College where it will remain until mid-October 2011. We hope many of the college’s 25,000 students will view the exhibit and be inspired by CAI’s story of building a peaceful world through relationships and education.

Certainly, our Dayton International Peace Museum volunteers know that the work of peacemaking is never easy. It’s very challenging to manage our small, all-volunteer community non-profit— even in a familiar and safe environment with the tools and resources at hand. We can hardly imagine the depth of spirit and body that Greg Mortenson and the CAI team have had to call on to accomplish their amazing work in the distant, isolated communities of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.

The Dayton International Peace Museum is proud to have been able to share CAI’s message of peace and reconciliation through our exhibit and related activities. We hope the exhibit has helped viewers see the essential choice of books over bombs and friendship over war. We send our wishes to Greg for good health and offer our thanks and solidarity to CAI and its advocates around the world for your inspiring commitment to peace.

May Peace Be with Us,

Bill Meers
Dayton International Peace Museum
Dayton, Ohio, USA


September 29, 2011 – Photos from the field

Karin Ronnow has been visiting CAI projects in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and was without any internet connection until today. Following are some of her photos from her journey so far.

Salaam from Afghanistan. Below are some photos I took in Badakhshan Province. They are “tourist” shots, in a way, rather than “professional” anything, so pardon my amateur eye. But I wanted to share a few sights from the most recent leg of our trip, which took us up the Wakhan Corridor to Sarhad-e-Broghil, at the end of the road, and to Zebak District, near the Pakistan border. Just being here always fills me full of hope and inspiration. Wakil and Sarfraz have helped build a staggering number of projects and programs and manage them all with such efficiency and accountability. Blows me away every time. I hope these photos convey a little bit of that.

Photos from Field

Girls just released from the lower classes at CAI’s Central Zebak Girls’ High School in Zebak District, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, stand outside the boundary wall. One of four CAI schools in Zebak, this one enabled students and teachers to move out of a conglomeration of tents and into a building in 2009. The headmaster said all are relieved to be off the ground, out of the dust and dirt and concentrating on education. The villagers have started a garden around the schools, including trees and flowers.

Photos from Field

Girls smile at photographer Ellen Jaskol in Yuzuk, near Khandud in the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan.

Photos from Field

Photographer Ellen Jaskol shooting CAI health worker Parveen Varghand in her kitchen in Wargeant in the Wakhan Corridor. Parveen’s family lives in a typical, Wakhi-style house made of mud and straw.

Photos from Field

Parveen’s daughter, Tahira, in the kitchen of her family home in Wargeant. The 11-year-old girl is in class six at CAI’s school in the village.

Photos from Field

A twist on the old signboard tradition, the CAI emblem is inscribed and painted on the newest CAI schools in the Wakhan and other parts of northeast Badakhshan Province. This high school in Chilkent, the second-to-last village in the Wakhan, was built in 2010. Students were off on this particular day as the nation mourned the assassination of former president Berhanuddin Rabbani.

Photos from Field

Little Bibi Sera, who entertained us with her smile and toddler antics at the home of another CAI health worker, Bono, in Sarhad at the end of the road in the Wakhan Corridor.

Photos from Field

On the right is Momo, the woman who serves as the secretary for CAI’s Women’s Vocational Center in Baba Tangi. She blew me away when I first met her two years ago in the Wakhan and time and experience seem to have made her even stronger and more self-confident.

Photos from Field

Feeling ridiculously tall and ungainly, here I am with Rubina (center), her sister (left) and her daughter-in-law. The photo was taken as the women prepared tea and bread for us during a midday visit. CAI has provided support and encouragement for Rubina since Greg and Sarfraz met her in the Wakhan in 2004.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” – Edward Abbey

— Karin Ronnow


September 21, 2011 – Sarfraz and Karin in Khorog, Tajikistan

Karin Ronnow dispatches from the field:


Goats delay drive to Khorog

Hello from Khorog, Tajikistan, where fall is settling in.
From our friends just to the south of us in Afghanistan, we got news last night that a suicide bomber in Kabul killed former president and peacemaker Burhanuddin Rabbani. This heartbreaking news rattled us all and left us feeling sad and fearful about the future.

Rabbani was from Badakhshan Province, so everything, including schools, will be closed for a few days as the people grieve his death. So we are switching gears – such is the nature of this part of the world. We will see what the day brings.

The good news is that Tajikistan is peaceful and beautiful. There’s a chill in the air this morning, but the hot tea is making up for it. After spending so much time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Tajikistan seems almost well off. But I am constantly reminded that it is still one of the poorest countries in the world and that the peace – hard-earned following a civil war in the 1990s after the Soviets left – and independence are still relatively new.

In the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (of which Khorog is the capital), officials say more than 300 villages need new schools, and at least 10 percent of the region’s schools are in dangerous, “emergency” condition.

The location of the first CAI school here is, of course, remote. The narrow dirt road winding up the mountain to Zhamag crosses three rickety wooden bridges and is, in places, barely wider than a trail. The village still bears the scars of the Jan. 2, 2010, earthquake, which destroyed houses and damaged the already crumbling 1960s-era school.


Sarfraz Khan at Kala-i-Khumb school

Since the quake, Zhamag School’s 332 students have been attending classes during the warmer months in tents. When it gets cold, the villagers have agreed to let their children shift into the damaged school. It is far from optimum. But they have no other choice if they want their kids to get an education.
Sarfraz loves a challenge and he has met one head-on in Tajikistan. While we, and the communities with which we partner, hoped to build CAI’s first school in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains before the snow flies, circumstances may demand we wait until spring to break ground.
We are determined to do it right the first time. Construction of the other two CAI-Tajikistan schools – one in the Tajik Wakhan and another near the eastern city of Murghab – will also wait until all conditions ensure sustainability. As it has been from the beginning, we are taking time to listen and learn to make sure CAI’s involvement follows our “teach to fish” principles.


Meanwhile, it is oh-so good to be back in the mountains. The Tajik people are amazing, friendly and full of smiles. The children are beginning to learn English in school and try out their “hello, how-are-yous” on us everywhere we go.

We visited three schools on the long journey from Dushanbe to Khorog. We traveled along the M41, which started as a paved road in Dushanbe and quickly gave way to broken asphalt and stretches of gravelly dirt.

“In Russian time, the road is nice,” said Boi Mahmad, one of our Tajik travel companions. “When Russians leave, then we have no money. That’s why the road is some places bad, some places better.”

We climbed from 800 meters in Dushanbe to 3900 meters at the top of the Khaburabot Pass. At that altitude, the air was so clean, the smell of sage so sweet, I was tempted to say, “Just leave me here.”


Girls sell honey in Tajik village of Yozgan

I refrained, however, and we continued our journey through the Pamir Mountains to the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.

We wove through canyons along a rocky road that hugged the rivers. Along the way children ran out to the car selling apples, dried figs, pomegranates and pears. We bought honey from girls in Yozgan when we stopped for tea.

The relative gender equity means Tajiki women do not have to cover their faces. No burkas here. Females typically wear what look like dresses over leggings or pants and some wear kerchiefs tied Russian-style around their heads, but some of the younger women who work in schools and offices are bareheaded.

The women work – they have to. Many of the men head west to Moscow to get jobs and spend years away from home, sending money back to their families and visiting when they can.

The people are poor. But they are working hard to improve things for their children.

So, that’s the latest. We’re happy, safe and working hard.

— Karin Ronnow


September 10, 2011 – Guest Blog by Clark Eberly

CAI: Preventing future 9/11 terror attacks through educating children


“As the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attack approaches, a number of thoughts arise. One is to pray for the many people who died on that day, and for their loved ones who remain with us.

Another is to offer thanks to Heaven for protecting our country from a repeat of that horrendous crime, as well as to acknowledge our debt to all the police, security and intelligence officers who strive each day to protect America by discovering and preempting terror attacks before they can be carried out.

I’d also like to propose a heartfelt thanks to the people of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), an amazing group that strives to prevent hatred and violence in general by promoting education for children in some of the most remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If no one ever attempts or even dreams of launching terror attacks on September 11, 2021 or September 11, 2031, it may be due in part to the work of organizations such as CAI.


There are several reasons that CAI schools can help to encourage peace and prevent the emergence of future extremists from the region. One is that the group strives to promote the kind of schools that teach children not only education basics such as writing, reading, math and science, but also crucial aspects of character such as compassion, hard work and tolerance for people who are different from themselves.


Another is that when kids are literate and educated, they have a chance to pursue happy, productive lives. Such young people will be far less likely to be recruited by extremist groups such as the Taliban. A December 4, 2009 article in the Christian Science Monitor quotes Shoukat Ali, a teacher at one of CAI’s schools in Pakistan and a former Taliban himself: “The extremists are small in number. They can be minimized. If the people have opportunities for jobs, to own land, and go to school, most of the problems with the Taliban will go away.”

Yet another advantage of CAI schools may be that they educate a larger percentage of girls than boys. I think this is due in part to the fact that a large number of Afghan and Pakistani schools educate boys and neglect girls entirely. However, the key rationale behind CAI’s strategy seems to be the belief that educated girls will in many cases later become mothers and will tend to pass on what they have learned to their children and to others in their villages, thus multiplying the benefits of the education they have received.


“The tribal communities of northern Pakistan taught Mortenson a critical lesson … Sustainable and successful development can only occur when projects are entirely initiated, implemented and managed by local communities. He also learned that it was important to listen to the people in the communities served, rather than impose external evaluations or judge what is best from an outsider’s perspective. The philosophy to empower the local people through their own initiative is at the heart of all CAI programs.”

This kind of involvement by local mullahs, tribal councils and villagers in the education of the children of their villages may help explain why CAI schools have for the most part, been safe from threats and attacks from the Taliban. In Afghanistan, where over 800 other schools were attacked or destroyed by the Taliban between 2007 and December, 2009, CAI schools had been largely left alone. The Taliban seem to know that CAI schools are fiercely supported by their communities.


Finally, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that CAI has had its critics, some of whom have accused the group of failing to spend enough of the donations it receives on the actual work of building and maintaining schools in Central Asia. However, the CAI website offers what I feel is an honest and convincing rebuttal to the complaints.


Initiatives such as the CAI’s work in Central Asia are crucial. This group is offering a viable way in which future extremism and terrorism can be diminished or outright averted, by giving children a decent chance at life through simple, basic education. I think that as you examine their website, you will feel the same.

“God does not like terrorists. Terrorism is not promoted in the Koran. They are not only the enemy of America; they are our enemy. All of us have to work together to stop them.” — Muhammad Azan, Maidan Wardak Province, central Afghanistan, from the Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 4, 2009


Clark Eberly sent the following message to CAI staff after his article was published September 5, 2011 in the Washington Times:
“… Many thanks to all of you on the CAI staff, to Mr. Mortenson, and to all of your many allies in the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan who dream of, and work to promote peace through education. I’m sure it has occurred to you, but no great reformer in history has been without his or her critics. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, those who worked to abolish slavery in England and the U.S. – they all had plenty of critics. Thankfully, they never gave up their dreams, and thus the whole world benefited from their goodness and hard work, as the world will also be blessed by the work of groups such as CAI.”

Full Article

Original Posting


September 9, 2011 – Karin in Kabul

Karin Ronnow dispatches from the field:

Karin in Kabul

Salaams to all.
Things are going well here. Yesterday’s monsoon rains stopped and things are drying out a bit. Driving anywhere in the city the past few days has been weird, in that all the shops are closed for Eid and traffic is minimal, and the city is eerily quiet. Also, I see many more women and girls walking on the street, which is unusual, but Wakil explained it was Eid visiting time. Despite the lull in traffic, there are still those annoying drivers who get themselves sideways with oncoming cars, bringing everything to a halt, and crazy pedestrians who risk their lives to dash across traffic. But for the past few days everyone seemed to have had a lot more patience and good humor about it.

Karin in Kabul

At the office, Wakil and I reviewed various financial details and checked CAI’s master project list against his list. I’m impressed with his recordkeeping and took photos and notes. Wakil was also keen to figure out new, better ways to better communicate all the information he has with the Bozeman office, so we hammered some of that out, too.

We had a late lunch in a downtown restaurant where we sat cross-legged
on big Afghan-rug-covered tables above the ground, our grilled meat kebabs, pilau and nan spread out before us in a feast for two. Lots of families there, celebrating the end of the holiday. We talked and laughed and reminisced.

Karin in Kabul

Then we left the restaurant and headed for Wakil’s pickup only to discover someone had blocked our way. Much consternation and hollering ensued as we tried to find the owner. Then, someone was finally sent to move the car – a 7-year-old boy! Tiny person in the driver’s seat, stretching his neck and shoulders up to see ahead of and behind him. It worked, but it cracked me up. Ah, Afghanistan.


Karin in Kabul

Salaam from Afghanistan, where we’ve had some long days on the road in Wakil’s Toyota – some of which took us to semi-distant places while others entailed many stops without even leaving Kabul (just getting across the city is a journey in itself!).

Our road talk runs the gamut from CAI’s enormous accomplishments here to Afghanistan’s history, Dari and Pashto vocabulary lessons and the merits of marrying a “serious” woman. We laugh a lot, tell stories and drink (and spill) a lot of water as we bump along Afghanistan’s endlessly bad roads.

Karin in Kabul

We’ve visited six provinces thus far and seen at least a dozen schools, three literacy centers, one vocational center, and two provincial education directors. Two days ago we visited the tent school Wakil/CAI has established for the nomadic Kuchi people. And yesterday we made a quick trip in and out of volatile Maiden Shahr, a trip that drew gasps from the women who work at CAI’s Kabul office. A few places we went last year “have become not safe,” as Wakil says, and so unfortunately we won’t be able to revisit those projects. But there is no shortage of work. Wakil has built a network of people, projects and programs of which everyone affiliated with CAI should be REALLY proud.

I appreciate the modern amenities we have here (when the power works, that is), but I look forward to getting out of the city and into the mountains. Kabul may hold opportunities for many war-weary, impoverished people, but it is also terribly overcrowded, dirty and noisy. Besides, the older I get, the more I like the wide-open spaces.

— Karin Ronnow


September 7, 2011 – Eid, the Festival of Family and Food


Recently, Muslims around the world celebrated the religious holiday of Eid, which Fozia Naseer, CAI’s Women’s Development & Scholarship Director and Former CAI scholarship student defined as “the festival of overeating!” The holiday is observed by Muslims by visiting family and – after a 30-day fasting period – going into self-induced food comas.

Eid-ul-Fitr is a Muslim holiday that takes place after the month of Ramadan. Eid means festivity in Arabic and Fitr denotes breaking the fast – celebrating the laborious rite of fasting from sunrise to sunset for a month. Eid is celebrated by one-fifth of the world’s population and officiated in Muslim countries by a three-day holiday. It is a celebration of gratitude and recompense for blessings.


Eid-ul Fitr begins with a visit to the mosque or hall where communities gather to begin the day with prayers. In the US, American Muslims convene in assemblies at banquet halls in a tradition that is both religious and social. After morning prayers, the day is spent bonding with loved ones. People visit friends and family all day long, exchanging gifts and indulging in the specially prepared food.

Growing up in two Muslim countries, I observed the differences in the traditions of Eid. In Mauritania, Eid is celebrated with a laidback attitude that mixes local Bedouin-African heritage with age-old Islamic traditions. In Pakistan, South Asian culture and Islamic practices intertwine into a vibrant tapestry of Eid. Western Muslims celebrate Eid with a unique blend of their diaspora heritage and modern cultural dynamics.


Suleman Minhas, CAI’s Pakistan Operations Manager shared his favorite Eid traditions with me recently. After fasting, he especially enjoys his favorite foods. On Eid, his family goes to a Mosque near the Rawalpindi High Court to pray. He says, “My favorite Eid tradition is when my wife cooks kheer (a sweet rice pudding made with savory spices) and halwa served with chai for a hefty morning meal. Then my kids greet and hug everyone and get their Eid money.”

Though Eid is feted around the world with varying customs, there are some shared traditions: buying new clothes; giving money to children; and preparing special food to be shared. In the midst of feasting and fun, Muslims are reminded of their charitable obligations. Donations made to the underprivileged are called Zakah-ul-Fitrana – a special end-of-Ramadan charity incumbent on all Muslims capable of contributing.

In Central and South Asia, girls enjoy shopping for Eid by buying embroidered clothes, glass bangles and jewelry. They also decorate their hands with henna. Henna painting on hands is a shared culture that stretches from Northern Africa to South Asia; however, each heritage applies it in their unique ways.


Children eagerly anticipate Eid every year as they get new clothes and money from the adults when they greet them with, “Eid Mubarak” or “Happy Eid.” It is tradition to respectfully hug each other three times, repeating the salutation, “Eid Mubarak.” During Eid, children are gifted money from elders called Eedi. In Jordan, special carnivals are set up for Eid so children can spend their Eid money and in Central Asia, children save their Eedi to buy toys at bazaars.

Mohammad Nazir, CAI’s Baltistan Project Manager strategically plans Eid with his wife to make it a stress-free holiday. He explained on a phone call recently that they do all their shopping for food and clothes a week ahead in Skardu otherwise, “bazaars gets sold out and bakeries get empty closer to Eid.” Nazir’s Eid joy comes from seeing his two children dressed in their finest asking him for Eedi. He says, “Seeing my children reminds me of when I was a kid and my favorite tradition of Eid was getting money!” They start the day by going to the Mosque giving their Zakah-ul-Fitrana there to a local charity. His wife cooks Balti specialties and their favorite is fried zairchong made of flour, butter, sugar and cumin.


The specialty in Kashmir, according to Fozia Naseer, is Savayian or vermicelli, a dessert which is an Eid staple in Central Asia. She explains that for her Eid is all about family, “We take special joy in seeing the youngest member of our extended family, Rehan. It is his first Eid, so he is the central attraction.” Fozia says that her favorite part of Eid is that her family spends quality time with each other. More than a billion Muslims would agree that best tradition of Eid is family time.

— Sadia Ashraf, CAI Outreach Coordinator


September 2, 2011 – “Without labor nothing prospers” – Sophocles

Labor Day

Today, CAI staff, including Karin Ronnow, is in Kabul with our Afghanistan program managers drinking tea, surveying projects, and making plans for CAI’s initiatives for the coming year.

Here in Bozeman, temperatures are getting cooler. Everybody’s back to school, the start of an unofficial “new year.” Summertime flew by for CAI staff with Greg on the mend and an important list of governing and operational initiatives well underway. As we approach the holiday weekend and take a break from loads of work, we are prompted to report our Labor-Day status.

Accountability and Hope
Central Asia Institute is a strong organization with a solid foundation.

CAI recognizes that through a period of rapid growth organizational weaknesses and deficiencies occurred. We have taken full responsibility and appropriate action on several fronts: we have clarified our historic dual purposed mission, conducted focused in-country surveys to verify the status of our schools and projects, updated CAI by-laws, and undertaken a comprehensive review of our overseas disbursement procedures and policies in concert with our overseas program managers.

Labor Day

CAI’s dual mission, as described in the original 1996 certificate of incorporation and in its application for recognition of exemption as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization filed with the Internal Revenue Service, is to establish and support education in remote mountain communities of Central Asia and to educate the public about the importance of these educational activities.

This dual mission and that of its co-founder, Greg Mortensen, focuses on empowering communities in remote mountain regions of Central Asia to self-determine educational opportunities, and educate the American and international public about the need to expand education in these complex regions as a way to promote peace. More specifically, as outlined on our Program Page, CAI’s programs include: school building, academic scholarships, teacher support, public health, women’s vocational centers, and global outreach. Global outreach allows CAI to promote awareness of the importance of primary education, literacy, and cross-cultural understanding through its websites, publications, public events, the Pennies for Peace Program, and the books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.

As the need and desire for education is elemental and universal, we pledge accountability in continuing CAI’s mission.
The work continues, we will publish a comprehensive Journey of Hope this fall.

The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it. ~ Mother Teresa

Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. ~ 
Albert Einstein

— Central Asia Institute


August 29, 2011 – CAI champion escapes attempted bombing

News of a suicide bomber’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up a mosque in Baharak, Afghanistan, Friday is a grave reminder of the constant threat of death that hovers over our Afghan friends.

Wohid Khan

Wohid Kahn with students in Bozoi Gumbad

Border Security Force (BSF) Commander Wohid Khan, a long-time advocate of CAI’s work in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, the local maurif (education official), and community elders were in the mosque that day.

Baharak district, home to an estimated 14,000 people, is in the center of Badakhshan Province, which is in the northeast corner of Afghanistan and the gateway to the Wakhan corridor, on the northern route of the Silk Road. The mountainous province was one of only two Afghan provinces never occupied by the Taliban during its 1996-2001 reign. Its estimated 875,000 residents are desperately poor and historically neglected by the central government in Kabul.

Wohid Khan

Wohid Kahn with students in Bozoi Gumbad

CAI learned Saturday that a suicide bomber from Waziristan, Pakistan, had almost killed Khan and other important community members and elders in the Baharak mosque during Juma (Friday) prayers. The suicide bomber’s jacket failed to detonate, and he was arrested. Police say the bomber was apparently linked with the Haqqani network in North Waziristan (Pakistan).

This is tragic news, but we are grateful that no one was killed. Khan has been an incredible champion of girls’ education in a difficult time and region. There has been an infiltration of militants in Badakhshan this summer. This past week about 400 militants based in Nuristan and Badakhshan actually did a “reverse attack” and attacked remote Pakistan military and Frontier Corps outposts near Chitral (across the border from Badakhshan) and killed Pakistan soldiers, police and Frontier Corps.

The 16-year-old suicide bomber’s attempt to blow up the Baharak mosque coincides with suicide bombers’ amped-up efforts across Afghanistan in the days leading up to Id al-Fitr, next week’s celebration marking the end of Ramadan, according to a New York Times report published Saturday.

Wohid Khan

Wohid Kahn with jirga of elders

“Security forces nationwide have been on high alert anticipating increased violence with the onset of Id al-Fitr, in which Muslims celebrate the end of the month of fasting,” the Times reported. “Here in the capital [Kabul], more than 13,000 extra police officers have been put on duty though the three-day festival, which begins early next week, to thwart Taliban threats of intensified attacks.” Click here for full story.

Yet not all the news is bad. The attack on the Baharak mosque came one day after 110 armed militants and their commander surrendered in Badakhshan and “joined the peace process in Badakhshan Province,” according to the Bakhtar News Agency. “They promised to the government to perform their best in ensuring security and [support the] peace process. According to the source, these persons had anti-government activities since last year.” Click here for full story.

Then on Sunday, Bakhtar reported that another 18-member militant group had surrendered in Badakhshan’s Dariem district, bringing the total number of militants who “joined [the] peace process” this week to 138, plus Mawlavi Abdul Hadi, the commander of both groups.

Wohid Khan

Wohid Kahn with jirga of elders

“The joined people handed over one RPG-7 rocket, five Kalashnikovs, one 11-shot gun and one Karabine gun to the security officials,” the news agency reported. Sometime back a 50-member group of armed oppositions has joined in the same district with their hand arms to peace process.” Click here for full story.

In the midst of all the controversy surrounding CAI in the United States, we never forget our true mission, to serve the children in the remote mountains of Central Asia and provide them hope through education. It is the dedicated work of the CAI family in those regions, who serve at great risk and sacrifice, which makes it all possible. Please especially remember them in your thoughts and prayers as we work as hard as possible to ensure our shared mission of peace succeeds.

Chinese proverb: The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed during war.



Taliban-designated district chief detained in Badakhshan

The Taliban-designated “shadow” district chief for Baharak district has been arrested, Pajhwok News Service reported Wednesday.

Mullah Amruddin was detained with bomb-making expert Qari Mhibullah by National Directorate of Security operatives, according to the news service. The two men had confessed to planning the Aug. 26 suicide attack during Friday prayers at the Najm-ul-Madaris mosque in Baharak district.

The teenage boy intended to detonate his explosives inside the mosque but was captured by men attending Friday prayers before anyone was hurt. The detained boy told interrogators that he had received training for the attack in a Haqqani madrassa in Peshawar, Pakistan, Pajhwok reported.

— Karin Ronnow


August 26, 2011 – Cherry-picked, manipulated, and misrepresented

No matter how some media outlets continue to cherry-pick data, manipulate information, misrepresent context and attempt to remain relevant and/or get ratings, CAI’s mission to build cross-cultural relationships and educate children, especially girls, continues and proceeds with renewed energy.

Greg with students

When “60 Minutes” informed Central Asia Institute Thursday afternoon that it will rebroadcast its April segment about the organization and its co-founder Greg Mortenson this coming Sunday evening, CAI staff sent the following statement to include in any update:

“Details of Central Asia Institute’s ongoing project survey, which credentials the organization’s performance in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are documented in the Master Project List available at ‎

Also at are financial information and CAI’s Communiqué, which provides relevant information and includes responses to specific media allegations made against CAI.

Co-founder Greg Mortenson is recovering from his open-heart surgery and making good progress with cardiac rehabilitation. On advice of legal counsel, he is not available to the media due to ongoing litigation in Montana, as well as the ongoing inquiry by the Montana attorney general with which he and CAI are cooperating fully.

Greg and CAI remain hopeful the legal issues will be resolved soon, and we all look forward to Greg telling his side of the story.”

Students in class

At the time of the original broadcast and in the months since, CAI has made a concerted effort to address the allegations and correct the misinformation and half-truths.

Executive Director Greg Mortenson’s Message to Supporters 04/17/11
CAI Board of Directors Statement 04/16/11
An Important Message from Executive Director Greg Mortenson 04/15/11
CAI Board of Directors Response to “60 Minutes” Questions
Executive Director Greg Mortenson’s response to “60 Minutes” Questions

June 28, 2011 – CAI Communiqué Introduction
July 7, 2011 – Literacy and Liberty
August 1, 2011 – CAI School on Roof of the World

CAI’s supporters have reached out in great numbers to express their continued confidence that the organization’s work to empower communities of Central Asia through literacy and education, especially for girls, promote peace through education and convey the importance of these activities globally will survive the attacks – support for which CAI is eternally grateful. No one does this work alone. We all have a vested interest in the education of the world’s children.

CAI staff is available to answer any questions or concerns. Please contact us at 406-585-7841 or

QUOTATION: Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. ~ Buddha

— Anne Beyersdorfer and Karin Ronnow


August 23, 2011 – Dear Dr. Greg: Letters from scholarship students


The young women who benefit from Central Asia Institute’s Gilgit-based scholarship program are full of hope for a better future.

They come from their home villages across Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region to the “big city,” where they buckle down and concentrate on getting a higher education.

Their dreams run the gamut. They study economics and science, arts, education and history. They aspire to be teachers, politicians, doctors and poets.

And they are grateful for the opportunity to pursue those dreams.

“I belong to poor family and there is no way of income. My father was died in accident who was the head of our family. After his death, my mother request [help from] CAI and they give me. I am very thankful,” Rashida, from Chapursan Valley, wrote in a letter to CAI Executive Director Greg Mortenson this past spring. She is a third-year student in Gilgit.

“Dr. Greg is a man who works in our villages, built one vocational centre and school. He helps other needy people through his other activity. I am very satisfy from Dr. Greg’s work. I love you Dr. Greg. I am praying for your good health. God bless you. Thanks Dr. Greg.”

“Click Photo to View Video”

Rashida and the other scholarship students wrote to Mortenson in May after learning about his health problems and the controversy surrounding CAI in the United States. For all these girls, English is a third or fourth language; they speak their local language; study in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan; and learn Arabic in order to study the Koran.

Although the letters contain grammatical mistakes, they are also full of emotion and sincerity and are quoted here unedited so as to preserve the integrity of their words. To protect the privacy of the letter writers, only their first names are used.

A student named Atta wrote that she is “very thankful to Dr. Greg and CAI to give me a beautiful chance for my study through their scholarship. I belong to a very poor family and region of very high altitude where basic facilities are not available. So I am very, very thankful to Mr. Greg.

“You are helping thousands of people. … You are a great man. Thank you very much,” Atta wrote.

CAI has given the girls and women of this region many opportunities, wrote Salima, from Chapursan Valley.

“Greg Mortenson is light, in not only our village, in also our Pakistan,” she wrote. “We love our Greg. We are also praying for his health.”

That light-in-the-darkness metaphor appears often in the letters.

“Dr. Greg is one of the noble mans of the world who helps needy and poor people,” Asia, a first-year student at public college in Gilgit, from Chapursan, said. “He helps those people who in dark, Dr. Greg appear as a light for them.”

Some of the young women also issued challenges to CAI’s critics.


“I am orphan girl,” Rubina wrote. “The people in our area are poor and they cannot give us facilities to get education. Dr. Greg give all facilities to us and we are very thankful to him. We are always praying for him. We love him a lot.

“If someone have objection on Greg Mortenson, then I request them to come to our area and help us and give facilities to continue education,” she said.

Dhadiga, a student at Mountain College of Economics in Gilgit, wrote, “Many people are blaming Sir Greg Mortenson, but it is not truth. We are always praying forever for his good health. I love Sir Greg. I love him a lot. May God give him good health and happiness forever.”

And Sobia from Danyour chimed in with: “If anybody objects to this scholarship and Greg Mortenson, they must face those who are in remote areas.”

The collection of letters also included a few from students and teachers at CAI’s Higher Secondary School-Imit in the Ghizer region, west of Gilgit.

CAI’s work in the region is “valuable and honourable because this institute focus on education and skill development in Ghizer region,” teacher Far Wali wrote. “Central Asia has built splendid buildings in Ghizer area and furnished all the classrooms [with] standard office chairs, student chairs and well-equipped classroom. Being an employee of Central Asia, I am proud that no other institution compares with any matter.”


Until CAI built the Imit school, which extends education for girls through class 12, there was “no education after matriculation” from high school, a young woman named Bulbul, a student at the school, wrote.

“We had faced so many problem[s]. The main problem is financial problem. Still now this problem is faced by so many people. They can’t support their children financially.”

But with CAI’s help, the lack of educational opportunities “will clear now. This is the kindness of this institute. We hope that, Inshallah, the remaining problems [of the region] will be solved. We are working hard to succeed and, Inshallah, will be very bright and successful in future.”

Ultimately, though, it is the human connection that strikes a chord for many of these young women.

“I love Dr. Greg because he look after us like his child,” Jamila from Chapursan wrote. “God bless him.”

Gulshan, in her third year at the F.G. Degree College for Women Gilgit-Baltistan, expressed her gratitude to Mortenson and CAI and added, “I won’t forget you in all my life.”

Click here for some examples of CAI scholarship girls’ letters

See Pakistan Education System.

Persian proverb: “Go as far as you can see, and when you get there you’ll see further.”

— Karin Ronnow


August 22, 2011 – Actions in Ramadan


My 7-year-old daughter recently asked me, “Mommy, when can I fast like you and Daddy?”

I replied, “It might be hard for you just yet, because your tummy is too tiny. Wait a few more years.”

She protested, “But I want to wake up at night with you and Daddy and eat because it seems so fun!”

For now, she is consoled by joining us for the sunset breaking of the fast, or iftar, that Muslims observe each day during the month of Ramadan. But her questions made me nostalgic for my childhood celebrations of Ramadan in Muslim countries.

Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, which, following the lunar Islamic calendar (each month begins with the sighting of the crescent or new moon), falls in the ninth month.


Shoppers buy fried goodies for opening the fast

Since the cycle of the lunar calendar differs from the Georgian solar calendar, the dates for Ramadan shift slightly every year; falling neatly in 2011 from Aug. 1-30.

Muslims believe Ramadan is blessed as the Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) by Angel Gabriel during this month in 610 AD. The particular night marking the revelation usually falls on the 27th day of Ramadan and is known as Lay-lat-al-Qadr or the “night of power.” The Quran alludes to the fact that religions preceding Islam also fostered the tradition of fasting: “O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous. The month of Ramadan (is that) in which was revealed the Quran, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion.” (Chapter II verse 183)

Growing up in Pakistan, I felt Ramadan was everywhere, manifested culturally and spiritually. We were awakened at dawn by a flamboyantly loud drummer who trolled the streets — a tradition that died out with digital alarm clocks. Then we joined our groggy family for a pre-sunrise meal, called suhoor. Most families go back to sleep after dawn prayers, rising later for school or work.


Chefs getting ready for Iftar guests at a restaurant.

No food or drink is permissible until the evening when the daily fast ends with iftar, during which sautéed appetizers, dates and rose water essence drinks are served. After an evening prayer is observed, a full meal is eaten and consumption is permissible until dawn. A spirit of festivity reigns as family and friends share food and visit each other more frequently. Bazaars come alive as people shop for gifts and food.

Fasting is incumbent only on the healthy; children, pregnant women, the sick and elderly are exempt. The restrictions on eating and drinking are only the physical observances of Ramadan, which according to nutritional science help release toxins from the body. Beyond that, Muslims are expected to spiritually cleanse themselves and not lie, cheat, be unkind or commit any crime.

During Ramadan, charitable giving is also emphasized and Zakat (poor-due) donations increase markedly. The distribution of free meals, or langar in South Asia, is also widespread. For many of the extremely poor, Ramadan is the only month they get proper meals.


Free Iftar at a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan.

When people undergo pangs of hunger the whole day, they feel spiritually connected with those who are underprivileged. This Ramadan spirit benefits nonprofits organizations that work in Muslim countries and are able to maximize their contributions. My work at Central Asia Institute becomes more meaningful during Ramadan as I think about the thousands of students — including young girls my daughter’s age — who have benefited from its charitable model.

CAI staff in Pakistan and Afghanistan fast devoutly during Ramadan, even as they break ground for school foundations, scout remote regions on horseback, or discuss education prospects with scholarship students in the cities. This reminds me what Bukhari said about actions during Ramadan: “What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the sufferings of the injured.”

— Sadia Ashraf, CAI Outreach Coordinator


August 19, 2011 – Global Citizen – Fereshta

In celebration of our Global Outreach program, we are pleased to highlight Afghan-American Indie artist Fereshta, who is contributing a portion of the proceeds from her performances and sales of her CDs to CAI:


“Born in war-torn Afghanistan, Fereshta’s parents fled persecution with baby Fereshta in their arms, and hope and determination in their hearts. They journeyed to Pakistan in hopes of one-day reaching America. Sponsored by a Baptist church in New York, Fereshta and her family began a new life in Virginia, where she soon found healing and inspiration in rock n’ roll. “I was deeply moved by the level of passion, raw power and self-expression so beautifully embodied by the genre.”

A natural poet, she began to combine her words with the rock n’ roll she loved so much. Her lyrics speak to the human experience, to the shadow aspects and emotions we all have and the journey we all share, with a message of compassion and common humanity. “I believe music in its greatest form and expression can be the voice of humanity. It can powerfully move our hearts and heal us.”

Currently working on her CD release party slated for the summer, Fereshta aims to heal the divide between her two beloved nations. “I have a profound view straddling the cultural fence. I want to make a stand for these two incredible nations. They share so many of the same values and carry many of the same hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their children. I can see very clearly where the misunderstandings are, and I intend to participate proactively in the unification our human family.”

Combining her deep love of music with her passion for sacred activism, Fereshta aims to support both of her homelands through peaceful dialogue and benefit shows. A portion of proceeds from her CD release party and record sales will benefit girls’ education via the building of schools in Afghanistan through the Central Asia Institute. ‎

As Greg Mortenson, the Executive Director of CAI points out, “Young women are the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world — a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as the Girl Effect. No other factor even comes close to matching the cascade of positive changes triggered by teaching a single girl how to read and write. In military parlance, girls’ education is a force multiplier.”

Excerpted from

Fereshta recently e-mailed CAI staff:
CAI is my charity of choice. The work you all are doing to educate the children in my homeland is a true passion of mine and I am honored to donate a portion of proceeds from my CD and upcoming performances to CAI. I am thinking of using the holiday season, Thanksgiving through the New Year, to donate 100% of cd sales to CAI. Hopefully my fans will be inspired to donate $10 to educating young children in return for a free and rockin CD.”


August 17, 2011 – Guest Blog by Jim Morrell

Your schools in the Wakhan Corridor

Wakhan Corridor

Last month I took my trip of a lifetime through the Wakhan Corridor. One of the highlights of this 3-week adventure was my visit with students and teachers at some of your schools in this remote area.

The tour from Ishkashim to the remote Lake Cheqmaqtin (led by the adventure travel company, Wild Frontiers, U.K.) took our group by 11 of your schools, all of which appeared to me to be well maintained and actively used. We were privileged to sit in on classes and talk to the teachers at three of these schools, including the ones in Langar, Sarhad e Broghi, and your remote school in Bozai Gombaz, located more than 40 miles from the nearest road via strenuous mountain trails!

Wakhan Corridor

I saw first-hand how your efforts mean so much to these people! It was an emotionally moving experience to watch young students (including girls!) proudly demonstrating their ability to read and eagerly learning subjects ranging from math to geography out of their own textbooks in simple, but well lit classrooms with desks and blackboards.

I also visited your main school in Ishkashim. It was after school hours, but Nissar, a member of the judo team working out in the school yard, kindly took me on a tour of the building and introduced me to his instructor and fellow team members.

Please keep up your good work! I would be glad to provide additional photos and other details of my trip, plus any other assistance I might be able to provide.

For more information, contact:

— Jim Morrell

Wakhan Corridor

Wakhan Corridor

Wakhan Corridor


August 16, 2011 – Guest Blog by Jenni Lowe-Anker

Jenni first sent CAI this message she submitted to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Outside Magazine in April. She subsequently gave us permission to post it here on our communiqué.

A friend’s perspective
I am heartbroken that with so much injustice in the world, Greg Mortenson has been singled out as a villain.

In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly he has human frailties just as we all do and that could have been addressed in a much different and more decent way. This man has chosen to do something verging on impossible with his life.

We all know his work with CAI is for the good of humanity, to promote peace and offer educational opportunity to impoverished, wartorn, and forgotten cultures providing important emphasis on educating girls and women. We also know that he has been an example and inspiration to millions of people to open their hearts and minds and extend their own purpose to others in a world filled with need. This is a vital part of his work and mission. He has raised the bar on “what is possible for one man to do.”

It was Greg who suggested and encouraged me to start the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, and even suggested our first project in Mongolia, introducing me to the people who were in need.

I have known both Greg and Jon Krakauer for 15 years. Jon also offered kindness when my late husband, Alex, died and he sits on the ALCF board. He generously wrote the forward to my book, “Forget Me Not,” and offered guidance in writing it. I care about both of these individuals and found the scathing “60 Minutes” report typical of reality TV and dramatized news. So sad and, from my perspective, unwarranted.

I know Jon as a writer, an impassioned person for the ideals that he lives by and the tireless work that he pursues to be a watchdog for truth, justice and the untold story. I respect him for that. But the bottom line here is that there are two very different perceptions of a greater good by two very different individuals.

While one lives for and takes note of the minutia of history, events, and correct reporting, the other sees only a bigger picture of bringing equity to an unfair world. He tirelessly strives to do so, sometimes with bumbling kindness. The world we live in is fraught with cavernous divides. There are religious divides, cultural divides, political divides, and many others. They all make the idea of world peace such a fleeting notion. I know that the women and children who benefit from CAI’s work will be hoping and praying that the divide which has occurred in our complicated society will not come to bear on them.

I can’t help but think, too bad they couldn’t have gone climbing together and sorted this all out on a beautiful shared summit.

— Jenni Lowe-Anker

Jenni is an artist, author and longtime friend of Greg Mortenson and his family. She lives in Bozeman with her husband Conrad Anker and their three children.


August 10, 2011 – CAI scholarship students Jahan and Tahira break trail in Baltistan

Jahan Ali and Tahira Parveen are no longer the little girls introduced to the world in Three Cups of Tea, tugging on the shirtsleeves of the village’s male elders, pleading for permission to continue their education.

They are college graduates. They are married women starting their own young families. And neither of them are done with their studies; both of them want to pursue master’s degrees.

Jahan & Tahira

“If CAI can support me further, I can manage to keep going,” Tahira said last fall.

These two scholars, now in their mid-20s, are pioneers. They were among the first girls to finish eighth-grade at Central Asia Institute’s Korphe School in Baltistan, Pakistan. They were the first girls to say that, for them, an eighth-grade education was not enough. And they are the first female college graduates from their village.

“My life is really changed because CAI supports my education and now I am educated,” Jahan said last fall. “I am in Skardu and standing next to all those girls getting education and I am so proud. If CAI didn’t help, I would be in my area, in my village, not knowing anything.”

Global awareness of the girls’ stories — and the fate of so many like them — increased when CAI Executive Director Greg Mortenson wrote “Three Cups of Tea,” the story of his work promoting literacy in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan published in 2006.


Before CAI came along, there were no schools in Balti villages like Korphe. Even after CAI started working in these remote areas, girls’ access to higher education was limited by cultural and religious constraints. But Jahan and Tahira bucked those constraints.

With CAI’s help, they left their mountain village on the Braldu River to Skardu, Baltistan’s capital city, where they lived with male relatives and attended high school.

It wasn’t always easy. They had to adapt to city living — traffic, noise, vastly different social norms and even indoor plumbing. They needed extra tutoring in some subjects. But they finished two years of high school and four years at Skardu Government Degree College for Girls. See Pakistan Education System below.

Throughout, CAI has covered the costs of their tuition, room and board, books and school supplies.

“It was important to me, and all those girls who got help from Central Asia Institute, and that happened because of Dr. Greg,” Jahan said.

Mortenson often quotes an African proverb: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.” Jahan and Tahira are proving the proverb.

Girls’ Education
Their accomplishments are all the more laudable given the odds against them. Female literacy rates remain frustratingly low in Pakistan.

“The picture of illiteracy in Pakistan is grim,” Aamir Latif wrote in a 2007 report posted on the UNESCO website. “Although successive governments have announced various programs to promote literacy, especially among women, they have been unable to translate their words into action because of various political, social and cultural obstacles.”

“Click Photo to View Video”

That is especially true in rural areas like Baltistan, where girls are often married young, sometimes as early as 12 or 14, and quickly become “baby machines,” as one school headmaster described it this past summer.

The Federal Education Ministry of Pakistan in 2007 reported an overall literacy rate for school-age children of 46 percent, but only 26 percent for girls. And Latif noted that “independent sources and educational experts” are skeptical of those dismal figures. “They place the overall literacy rate at 26 percent and the rate for girls and women at 12 percent, contending that the higher figures include people who can handle little more than a signature.” And things haven’t changed much in the past four years – for myriad reasons.

Families often want girls to remain at home to help with farming, raising livestock, collecting firewood and water, housecleaning and cooking. Some are farmed out to work as domestic helpers in other homes to increase the household income. But many believe some of Pakistan’s religious and political leaders want an illiterate populace that will blindly follow their lead. When radical Islamists gain power in an area, one of the first things they do is ban girls’ education. In the Swat district in 2009, for example, the Taliban shut down an estimated 400 girls’ schools during its power struggle with the national government, according to news reports.

Banning girls from school on religious grounds is “a gross misinterpretation of Islam, the dominant religion in Pakistan, which like all religions urges men and women to acquire education,” Latif wrote.

Married with Children
At first, Jahan wanted to be a doctor. She tried focusing on science subjects, but her grades in that area were weak. Nevertheless, after high school, she took a six-month government course to become a “Ladies Health Care Worker,” with basic skills in first aid, health, hygiene and nutrition. Then she joined Tahira at the college.


Hungry for knowledge and skills, the girls often took supplemental courses during their school vacations. They learned how to use computers, polished their English skills and boosted their grades. One summer they both participated in a handicraft-training course offered by an Italian NGO, and for awhile, Jahan dreamed of having her own shop and selling traditional Balti crafts to the mountain climbers, trekkers and tourists that visit her homeland each year.

Like all young women, Jahan’s aspirations have morphed as her knowledge of the options has increased. Her goal now is to teach — eventually. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old is still bucking tradition, insisting on continuing her education.

She completed her BA in psychology and education in July and is awaiting her final exam results, which should be delivered in September. That will determine what comes next for her.

Whatever comes next will be somewhat complicated by the fact that she is now married and pregnant. She was married in November 2010. The baby is due in September. But she’s not letting her new reality slow her down.

“I want to get master’s degree in English,” she said in June. “But if I am not getting high enough marks to go and get master’s degree in English, then I would go in education or psychology.”

Once her exam results are in, CAI will help Jahan and her new family relocate in a bigger city for a couple of years so she can get that degree.

“And then I want to teach in one of Dr. Greg’s schools,” she said. “I want to help many people in Braldu Valley.”


Tahira, too, wants to teach. For her it is almost a family tradition; her father, Master Hussain, has taught at the Korphe School since it opened in 1996.

With her father’s constant encouragement, Tahira, now 26, also earned her BA in psychology and education. Her interest in psychology is driven in part by her observations of untreated mental illness — ranging from depression to schizophrenia — in rural Baltistan. Her interest in teaching history, economics and geography stems from her frustration with people’s ignorance of the world around them.

“I want to go back to Korphe and be a teacher,” she said last fall.

Tahira married in 2009, an educated man who is also from Korphe. A year later, the couple had a baby boy, which Jahan helped deliver in the Skardu hospital.

But she’s not done with school either. She took some time off after the baby was born and recently took her final exams. While she waits for those scores, she remains in Skardu, in a rented home, with her husband, young child and two younger brothers. “They are here for better education, also. Thanks to CAI.”

Pakistan Education System
Pakistan divides education into seven levels:
Prep: Nursery and/or Kindergarten
Primary School: Grades one through five
Middle School: Grades six through eight
Matric (Matriculation) or High School: Grades nine and 10. Completion results in a “Secondary School Certificate,” or SSC.
Higher Secondary School / FA or HSC: Grades 11 and 12. Often called “college.” Completion results in FA degree, and receipt of a “Higher Secondary School Certificate,” or HSC.
BA or BSc University: Two years (14 years education) for bachelor’s degree
MA or MSc University: Four years (16 years education) for master’s degree

Pakistani proverb: If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it.

— Karin Ronnow


August 8, 2011 – Flood, landslide hit Talis village

At least one person was killed and more than 130 houses washed away in Talis village in northern Pakistan July 31 when a flash flood triggered a devastating landslide.

Talis Flood

The disaster hit the small village on the Hushe River just one year after the Aug. 7, 2010, flood that killed 13 residents of Talis. The village is in the Ganche District of Baltistan, about 80 miles east of Skardu.

“Here again now we have landslide at Talis village,” Central Asia Institute’s Baltistan program manager Mohammad Nazir said in a phone interview Sunday. “One person is dead and 137 houses disappear because it came in the daytime.

“The glacier melted and that created the problem. Last year the same village had flood and this year they had already fixed a lot of things. But it all washed down again. And this time it was terrible, big scale – crops and trees and all things finished,” Nazir said.

Nazir visited Talis a day after the flood and quickly provided tents for families who had either lost their homes or whose homes were significantly damaged.

“Click Photo to View Slideshow”

“CAI gives 160 tents and blankets in this affected area this year,” he said. “People have much thanks for this help.”

Talis is home to about 5,000 people who live in 500 houses, the Associated Press-Pakistan reported. The July 31 flood affected an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 people and destroyed shops, farms, livestock, crop storage, roads and bridges.

See more:
Video 1 – Talis Flood 2011
Video 2 – Talis Flood 2011
Video 3 – Talis Flood 2011

The Pakistan Army and Red Crescent Society have also responded to the disaster, providing food and a medical camp. The APP reported that people are being accommodated in tents and a school building.

Background: CAI helps after natural disasters

Although Central Asia Institute focuses on education initiatives in remote regions of Central Asia, communities, government and other NGOs frequently ask for its help in the wake of the earthquakes, floods and landslides that plague the mountainous region.

Talis Flood

CAI’s goal is to provide relief, working in conjunction with local government authorities. The rationale is that while disasters usually trigger a significant amount of emergency aid, education needs are often ignored. CAI has a keen interest in keeping the education process going as much as possible by setting up temporary tent schools, identifying and supporting teachers to organize classes and making sure the government continues to pay teachers. Ultimately, education provides communities with continuity and stability in the wake of a disaster and hope in the midst of despair. Some examples of such work include:

* Summer 2010 brought unrelenting rain to Pakistan’s northern areas, triggering flashfloods, landslides and mudslides that killed more than 180 people across Gilgit-Baltistan, according to Pakistan government statistics. Thousands of people were left homeless and much of the region’s fragile infrastructure — bridges, roads, irrigation channels and power lines — washed away. Read more: 2011 Spring Journey of Hope.

And the disaster kept moving south. Gilgit-Baltistan’s swollen rivers and streams poured into the Indus River, creating a slow-moving crisis that moved steadily downstream the length of Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. The swollen Indus destroyed more than 1.4 million homes, uprooted an estimated 20 million people and killed at least 1,500. The nightmare grew to become Pakistan’s worst-ever natural disaster.

Talis Flood

In Baltistan, 13 people died in the flash flood in Talis that destroyed dozens of homes and flourmills along the nala (feeder stream); 38 people died in a flash flood in Qumrah Skardu (Indus Valley); and Hoto Ranga (Indus Valley) was also hard hit. In addition to helping families in these villages, CAI responded to a request from the government hospital in Skardu for medicine, mostly to control skin and eye infections.

In the Ghizer District west of Gilgit, CAI also provided flood relief in villages up and down the major river valleys, including Darkut village, where 55 houses were destroyed and more than 220 families affected.

In October 2010, Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Syed Mehdi Shah wrote a personal letter of gratitude to CAI for being one of few NGOs to reach out to the region.

* CAI has also played a significant and ongoing role in assisting the thousands of people affected by a January 2010 landslide on the Hunza River. The massive slide destroyed two villages created a massive deepwater lake that flooded riverside villages upstream, and completely blocked road access to the northernmost parts of Pakistan and the China border.

CAI provided food and shelter, but primarily put its resources into setting up temporary tent schools in Aliabad-Karimabad and Lenabad and providing scholarships for dozens of girls.

* After a massive earthquake killed over 78,000 people in Azad-Kashmir in October 2005, CAI stepped in to help rebuild more than two-dozen schools. Read more: 2007 Journey of Hope and 2008 Journey of Hope.

In addition, it has constructed a handful of women’s vocational centers and clean-drinking-water projects and established a girls’ scholarship program for higher education. See more: Nouraseri school students get letters, Azad Kashmir Pakistan.

Work is also under way this summer on reconstruction of a large teacher-training college in Azad Kashmir, where students have been studying in tents for nearly six years.

Arab Proverb: He who sees the calamity of other people finds his own calamity light.

— Karin Ronnow


August 3, 2011 – Teachable moments in Washington, D.C.

A delegation of 10 Pakistani-Americans, including CAI Outreach Coordinator Sadia Ashraf, met with lawmakers and diplomats in Washington, D.C., in July to discuss improving relations between Pakistan and the United States.

Ashraf was invited to join the delegation that, among other things, highlighted the charity and development work supported by the Pakistani Diaspora in the U.S.

“It was a productive whirlwind of meetings with senators, congressmen, policymakers, and U.S. State Department officials,” said Ashraf. “The delegation brought up topics as diverse as immigration laws, international market access, the growing entrepreneurial spirit among Pakistani youth, the Central Asia Silk Road projects and nonprofit development.

“We also met with Ambassador Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke,” Ashraf said.

President Barack Obama appointed Grossman, a career diplomat and foreign policy scholar, to replace Holbrooke as U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan after Holbrooke’s sudden death in December.

Other delegates included Chicago community leader Kamran Khan; Dr. Manzoor Tariq, Associated Physicians of Pakistani descent of North America (APPNA) president; actor Faran Tahir (“Ironman,” “Star Trek”); and Samreen Khan, a senior policy advisor in Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s office.

Throughout the meetings, Ashraf sought to underscore the need to empower girls and women in Pakistan through education and build bridges of mutual understanding between disparate cultural groups.

“All were positive CAI networking opportunities, with positive comments about CAI’s work,” Ashraf said. “We heard from a lot of experts. Mainly the discussions focused on improving bilateral Pakistan and American relations through the activism work of Pakistani-Americans.”

Ashraf said she is proud to build awareness of CAI’s mission. A public speaker and community activist, she has orchestrated special outreach events throughout the U.S. for CAI since January 2007. She is also the editor of Alima, CAI’s electronic newsletter.

— Karin Ronnow


August 1, 2011 – CAI School on Roof of the World

Bozoi Gumbad

Central Asia Institute’s “most-remote-areas” project manager, Sarfraz Khan, recently made the long trek to CAI’s Bozoi Gumbad School on the “Roof of the World” in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains.

Bozoi Gumbad is at the far eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor in an area known as the “Little Pamir.”

When Khan arrived at Bozoi Gumbad via horseback, he confirmed that, contrary to recent media reports, about three-dozen boys and girls and three teachers were a month into their second year at the primary school. The three-classroom building — with CAI’s signature white sitara, or star, painted on the side — is set on a grassy plain at about 12,800 feet altitude. It serves the nomadic Kyrgyz people, who move their yurts with the seasons to make the most of pastureland. The school convenes only during the summer and fall months. The bitter-cold winters are too difficult to manage in an area with no electricity, no roads and scarce heating fuel. Just getting to the school is no easy matter. Khan drove the rough dirt road through the Wakhan Corridor to its terminus in Sarhad-e-Broghil. Then he got on his horse and headed up into the mountain wilderness.

Days later, the Kyrgyz, whose hospitality is renowned despite their poverty, heralded his arrival.

“There were lots of prayers and salaams for Dr. Greg and I told them he is OK and getting strong after heart surgery,” Khan said in a satellite telephone interview. “I brought uniforms, books, pencils, backpacks and food. But there is a shortage of food and dung for fuel. So I sent for more food from Sarhad and now tea, flour, sugar, rice — all is coming on donkeys after four or five days.”

In addition, he said, “We held a jirga for all Kyrgyz people come to talk about their school and students. What the Kyrgyz wanted most was a yurt hostel for some of the students who live far from the school. We made sure to make this happen.”

Although it was late June, Bozoi Gumbad was still cool. Summers in the high Pamirs are short. And busy.

“Click Photo to View Slideshow”

Since less than 1 percent of the land is considered suitable for cultivation, the approximately 1,200 Kyrgyz are dependant on their livestock for food and income. For food staples, they typically barter with traders, or with the Wakhis in the neighboring Wakhan, Louis Meunier wrote in “The Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir”. They are not allowed to cross the borders into neighboring China, Tajikistan or Pakistan.

“They probably form the most isolated high-altitude community of the planet,” wrote Meunier, a French filmmaker and “equestrian explorer.” “They live out of time, untouched by civilization, like their forefathers used to do centuries ago.

“Exposed to the implacable law of nature, imprisoned between three impassable borders, ravaged by opium, subject to abominably high infant and maternal mortality rates, the Kyrgyz of the Afghan Pamir are having a hard time. In these conditions, living is surviving. One of two babies die at birth and life expectancy doesn’t reach 40 years,” he wrote.

After the Soviets occupied Afghanistan in 1979, some Kyrgyz refugees fled by way of Pakistan to eastern Turkey. Twenty years later, Kyrgyzstan offered the remaining Afghan Kyrgyz asylum, but the community opted to stay put.

These days, the largely illiterate Kyrgyz elders see educating this generation of young people, giving them the skills they’ll need to navigate the rapidly changing world, as crucial to their survival. For a long time, the problem was just getting anyone’s attention. “Look at us. Government is no help to us,” a Kyrgyz man named Morad told me in 2009. “We can’t get good, well-trained, educated teachers without a school, but there is no school. What, all the world needs education, but for Kyrgyz, we get nothing?”

CAI heard their pleas. In 2008, Khan and his masons laid the foundation for the Bozoi Gumbad School. The logistics of delivering building materials were onerous and the project took several years, but the school was completed in late 2009 and opened in 2010.

Now the most pressing issue is keeping students in these nomadic families nearby during the school season.

Following the jirga this summer, Khan set up a yurt as a “hostel” — dubbed the Bam-i-Dunya, or Roof of the World, Hostel — for students and teachers. “I fixed with good carpet and cook,” he said. “Teachers very happy.”

Two of the teachers are from Badakhshan Province; the third is a local man. The Afghan government pays their salaries, but with food and fuel scarce, life in the high Pamirs is difficult for them, too.

Bozoi Gumbad

Khan intends to deliver several more yurts this summer, to give everyone more space. That should help keep teachers and students rooted for the short school season. “This maktab [school] is the dream of Kyrgyz leader Abdul Rashid Khan for many, many years,” Khan said. Click here to view a video of Kyrgyz elders & leader, Wakhan corridor, Pamirs, Afghanistan.

And, as often happens when CAI builds a school in a remote region, neighbors start to notice and request a CAI school for their children, too. Now the Kyrgyz who summer in Munara (also in the Pamir) have requested a CAI school.

Khan passed along their request to the Afghan government. But a week later he said, “All Munara teachers and students crying they want to come to Bozoi side. They see it working.”

After nearly two weeks, Khan got back on his horse to head to Tajikistan. On his way out, he said, he counted eight tents of people visiting the Pamir and ran into several people familiar with CAI’s work.

“Journalists come and look. One supporter came from London,” he said. “One journalist from Korea, he told me it was much good news to see Kyrgyz students in school and hostel. People are writing about this place.” The reports all confirm that CAI’s Bozoi Gumbad School is not a “ghost school.” Teachers are teaching. Students are learning. And the Kyrgyz people have a brighter future because of it.

Short history lesson
The Pamir Mountains, among the world’s highest, are locally referred to as Pomir, or Bam-i-Dunya, which means “Roof of the World.”

They are located at the junction of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountain ranges in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province and Tajikistan’s Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.

The ancient northern Silk Road route crossed through the Pamirs, bringing traders and explorers to the area. Marco Polo spent the winter of 1272 in the “Little Pamir” recovering from malaria.

The first European traveler “of modern times” to visit the Great Pamir was British Explorer John Wood in 1838, Sir Thomas Edward Gordon wrote in, “Roof of the World,” in 1876.

A British diplomat and traveler, Gordon was also an artist and is believed to have been the first person to paint pictures of remote areas of the Pamirs. In addition to the Kyrgyz ethnic nomads of Turkic descent, who are Sunni Muslims, the Pamirs are also home to Wakhi ethnic Ismaili Muslims (followers of the Aga Khan).

The relative lack of human inhabitants makes the Pamirs a rare refuge for many rare and endangered wildlife species, including Marco Polo sheep, snow leopards, brown bears, lynx, marmot and the stunning Parnassius Autocrator, a butterfly that has been almost wiped out by poachers.

— Karin Ronnow


July 28, 2011 – Guest Blog by Steve Shattuck

EDITOR’S NOTE: Charter flight pilot Steve Shattuck originally contributed these comments in response to Dan Glick’s blog post, “What’s the big problem,” on April 23. The original blog entry and comments can be seen at

In giving CAI permission to repost his comments here, Shattuck wrote, “Injustice, obfuscation of the truth and prevarication on all levels needs to be confronted. I commend all of you for doing what is so obviously good and right.”

He then went on to explain that, in the “charter world” of VIP air transport, “we have an unwritten rule that the business (and dare I say, identity) of the client is never discussed outside the local organization. After the ‘60 Minutes’ piece and resultant [media storm], I could not sit idly and watch my friend be vilified.

“In 20 years of flying the VIP world I have transported kings, heads of state, politicians of all persuasions, Hollywood talent (or lack thereof), etc., etc., etc., and I can count on one hand the individuals that stand head and shoulders above all others. GM is solidly on that hand. … He always, and I do mean ALWAYS, put OUR needs and requirements above his. That is unique and beyond compare. In short, Greg truly had a major impact on my life and I am honored to call him friend.” — Karin Ronnow July 27, 2011

What’s the ‘Big Problem?': Originally posted at

At the end of any day, most of what we take away from our fellow man is our experience of that individual. Through various times this past year I have been fortunate enough to be the captain on some of those “evil” private jet flights Greg has utilized in furtherance of his mission. I believe a little perspective is in order.

First and foremost, prior to booking any of these trips, Greg approached his board of directors to gain [its] approval for the private flights. He proffered the argument that he could maximize speaking engagements by managing his time more effectively, which he certainly did. We could, and frequently did, cover four cities in four or less days that otherwise would have taken at least a week-plus with normal “commercial” air travel. On many of these trips Greg would fly alone and literally work from wheels up to touchdown.

Moreover, as is his practice, usually upon completion of his engagements he conducts a book signing and the man will NOT leave the venue until the last guest has been spoken to and/or had a book signed. No matter that it is 3:00 in the morning. In short, travel in this manner is a shrewd and calculated business practice. There’s a reason why the majority of the Fortune 500 companies all have private aircraft at their disposal.

As to his work ethic, I’ve seen Greg exhausted to the point of physical debilitation. A 24 workday is NOT unusual for him and I’ll submit this is not the MO for someone [who] has ulterior motives. As to financial enrichment, it’s hard to say without some sort of independent audit, but I can attest to the fact that when he arrives at his home airport in Bozeman, it’s in a (circa 2004) four-door sedan (I believe of Japanese make). Notice it’s not a Ferrari or Rolls.

Finally, Greg values his wife and children beyond description and if I may, never, in all the time we spent together, did I ever see any narcissistic or self-aggrandizing tendencies or behavior. I believe he eats a generous portion of humble pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We’ve all been “fooled” before, but usually only because we obviate the signs telling us otherwise. Again, my personal experience of Greg just doesn’t track with [Jon] Krakauer’s and the media’s portrayal. As to motive, only they know, but I do believe there are those that on many different levels would love to see Mr. Mortenson’s mission fail. Regardless the outcome of the allegations, I believe Greg will prevail on a personal level. What will suffer [will] be the mission and those in most need of CAI and GM’s benevolence and compassion.

We in the West frequently lament the actions of others in places on the other side of the world. Long ago I believe Greg realized, at least on some level, the way to a better understanding and acceptance of diverse cultures was through education. Does it really matter if there’s 135 schools, or 141 schools? I think not. I, for one, stand by Greg and his mission and do so proudly and unequivocally.

— Steve Shattuck


July 26, 2011 – Kindness is contagious: Lessons from our elders.

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.” ~ Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)


“Kindness has gone out of fashion,” Jerene Mortenson told me the other day. “People hardly ever use the word anymore.”

Jerene sees bullying, the antithesis of kindness, everywhere she looks — in the schools, the media, politics and entertainment. She sees it in the way people drive and treat service workers, and even within families. And she sees it in the recent media attacks on her son, Greg Mortenson, cofounder of Central Asia Institute (CAI). “It makes me angry and it makes me sad,” she said of those attacks. “People ask me why he was so brutally attacked. All I can say is that I don’t know.

“And then I shift the conversation to kindness,” she said. Kindness is a virtue; it is action motivated by goodness and charity, by tenderness and concern for others. Aristotle described it as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, not for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.”

Reports of so-called “random acts of kindness” pop up periodically in the United States. Those are helpful. And perhaps “random acts” are still fashionable. But Jerene is focused on something less random, more innate and increasingly rare — kindness as an expression of the human desire to connect and support others. And while kindness can make a person vulnerable, since there is no way to predict how people will respond, she said that is one of the reason that it feeds our souls, fuels justice and makes our lives richer and more interconnected.

Putting heart into it
In recent months, Jerene has emphasized kindness in the presentations she does for CAI and Pennies for Peace (P4P). She is a valued ambassador for the organization, bringing her talents as a lifelong educator, her Lutheran faith and her Midwestern common sense to bear at every event.

The story of CAI and P4P, “gives people hope,” Jerene told the East Side Review News in St. Paul in March 2009. “We all want a better world.”

Jerene has been part of CAI’s story since its inception. Born Jerene Doerring, she spent most of her childhood in Iowa, before moving to Pequote Lakes, Minn., where she attended high school. Her father was a teacher, coach and principal.
She met Dempsey Mortenson and they were married in the late 1950s. Shortly after their first child, Greg, was born, the young family moved to the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to serve as Lutheran missionaries. Jerene and Dempsey had three more children – Sonja, Kari and Christa.

Dempsey started the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center and Jerene taught school. But her most ambitious effort was founding the International School Moshi in 1969, where she was headmistress to students from dozens of countries.

Upon returning to Minnesota, Jerene earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Minnesota. She spent more than a decade working in an urban-education program in Minneapolis. Then, after her kids were grown, she took a job as principal at Westside Elementary School in River Falls, Wisc.

Those familiar with Greg’s story know that Christa, his youngest sister, died of severe epilepsy in 1992. Greg was determined to climb K2 in 1993 and leave her amber necklace as a memorial to Christa’s life at the summit. Circumstances on the mountain intervened and he never made it to the top. But his life took a dramatic turn during that trip when he promised to return to remote Baltistan in northeast Pakistan and build a school.

Back in the states, Greg started fundraising for that first school. So Jerene invited him to come to Westside to speak about his efforts to help students in Pakistan. The kids got it. They organized a “Pennies for Pakistan” drive to help him out. A few weeks later, Jerene wrote to Greg to announce that her students had collected 62,345 pennies, or $623.45. It was the largest donation he had received to date. And it launched Pennies for Peace.

A few years later, Jerene joined Greg and his family in Korphe for the dedication of that first school. “After I saw the school way off in the distance, I cried all the way up,” she says in “Three Cups of Tea.” “I knew how much of his heart Greg had put into building it — how hard he worked and how much he cared. When your kids accomplish something it means much more than anything you’ve done.”

Popular speaker
Jerene continued as an educator until her 2000 retirement. But she hasn’t slowed down much. She resides both in Minnesota, where her daughters live, and Alaska, where she bunks with her cousin’s family. She loves to cook. She travels. She has 10 grandchildren.


Although she says she is “naturally shy and introverted,” she has become “a popular speaker at book clubs, churches, AAUW, teachers’ groups and schools,” telling Greg’s story, the East Side Review News in St. Paul, Minn., reported in March 2009.

Jerene typically greets her audiences with the traditional Muslim greeting, “Asalaam Aleikum,” which means “Peace be with you.” She wears traditional Pakistani clothing, in the form of a shalwar-kameez and a headscarf. And she brings along a slideshow to illustrate her stories.

“Speaking about the work my son Greg is doing building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan has given me the opportunity to meet people everywhere,” she wrote in a short on the Holden Village Audio Archive, where more than a dozen audio recordings of those talks have been posted. “Their commitment to make this world a better place for everyone has strengthened my own.” And it would be a better place, she said last week, if kindness were more common.

Kindness is not hard. Pay someone a compliment, let another driver pull in front of you or bring doughnuts to the office. Once you get in the groove, you could mow your neighbor’s lawn, take flowers to a senior center or buy books for a day-care center. And then, look out.

“Researchers have shown that generosity is contagious,” Brandon Keim wrote in Wired magazine in March 2010. Goodness spurs goodness, they found: A single act can influence dozens more. [It is] simple behavioral mimicry: Monkey see, monkey do, human style.”

Perhaps that’s because kindness yields real physiological benefits. It reduces stress, lowers heart rate and blood pressure and strengthens the immune system. Be kind and “you end up feeling safe and connected to that which is good and true in the world and the result is inner calm, clarity of thinking and a heart full of love,” according to Lauren Miller, a cancer survivor and author of several books on stress relief.

Sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, perhaps. But so what? Learning from our elders is a key lesson in the P4P curriculum. And if kindness is in Jerene Mortenson’s lesson plan, I for one am going to listen.

“In the end, kindness is the foremost virtue. It’s a survival technique, this kindness. Our civilization depends on it.”
~ Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

— Karin Ronnow


July 26, 2011 – CAI’s Bumper Sticker Available

CAI’s new bumper sticker, which is removable and easy to reattach, was popular with educators at the NEA conference in Chicago earlier this month. July 7, 2011 – Literacy and Liberty. To request one, please contact with your name and a postal address.

Bumper Sticker


July 25, 2011 – Guest Blog by Safida Begum

Educational journeys overlap in remote Afghanistan
I come from Gilgit Baltistan of Pakistan, a place that was isolated for centuries. Then in the 1960s, construction of the Karakorum Highway and interventions of the Aga Khan Development Network created a huge momentum in developing human capital and physical resources in the area. In response, development occurred in every field of life — education, health, social development. Today, the Hunza region has almost 96 percent literacy rate.

I have been a pioneer in initiating change at the personal, institutional and community levels. The first example is early marriage, which I came across when I was 11. My curiosity for reading and writing always motivated me to learn and grow. I remember my pillows wet with tears when I was stopped thrice from going to school. I also remember when a new girls’ school opened in my village for the first time and I was not allowed to attend. Having a school building is a blessing for a girl because it opens the door for her to learn to read and write, gain confidence, learn a language, feel socially or culturally secure, listen to others and grow as a human being. It enhances girls’ self esteem. So, it’s difficult to explain how disappointed I was on that day, how hard it was to be left out. But I promised myself that once I entered the school, I would never quit school.

My educational journey included many such obstacles. Girls’ education was a threat to the local traditions and cultural norms. I was alternately permitted and forbidden from school, my books were sold, my family would forget or ignore the need for other books for another grade and I was married young.

Yet this back and forth strengthened my motivation for learning and growing. The blessing of God, my husband’s permission, my mom’s support and prayers, my commitment to my children’s better future and to making a difference in my area combined to give me the strength to carry on. I was able to continue my education, earn a master’s degree in education from the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development and become the first woman school principal in Aga Khan Education Services-Northern Pakistan in 1987. I also worked on education and development for the area with Care International in Pakistan’s earthquake area and as a professional development advisor for Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan. Currently, I am in the United States for the purpose of learning.

These experiences push me today to express my views, ideas and perceptions about Greg Mortenson’s work. I understand how difficult it is to work for poor people in poor areas. He seems to be a real philanthropist who constructed schools for poor girls in poor areas where people cannot afford to buy books, feed nutritious food to their children and provide proper clothing. Poverty damages children’s emotions and hides their intellectual capabilities. Therefore, schools become a hope for these children. While, I have been writing these words, I am thinking of those kids who play with stones and run around in the dirt. Let us ask ourselves, what kind of future do we expect from these children whom we ignore today? Would we be in safe hands tomorrow? I believe education is the only key to a peaceful society. Let us support the builders of schools and of human capital today for a better future tomorrow.

One Drop in the Ocean
Many people did not know what Greg Mortenson was doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the books, “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones into School,” opened windows of opportunity to learn about his work. He got a lot of appreciation and popularity. However, this kind of popularity always touches people in different ways. The life experiences and poverty he wrote about were a great shock and eye opening for many people. But while the visibility expanded his relationships, linkages and partnerships, which extended the respect for his work, at the same time many mouths opened to talk about putting him down to stop his work.


The Sitara School in Sadpara-e-Broghil

I have never met nor talked to Mortenson, but I gained a great deal of respect, appreciation and admiration for him when I traveled on the rough and tough roads of Wakhan Corridor in May 2007. Amid the dry mountains were dozens of animals without grass to eat, broken houses, dirty poor children playing around — and a beautiful school.

My work with children and schools inspired me to find out about the beautiful building. I could not stop myself from going there and was surprised to find the main gate open. A few community members joined me when they noticed the vehicle of my organization, Aga Khan Foundation. They showed me the eight traditional rooms — including classrooms, staff rooms, washrooms — and the courtyard in the middle of the star-shaped building. The building was a huge undertaking and I appreciated the creativity in integrating modern concepts with traditional Wakhan design.


The river children cross every morning to go to school

As I talked to the community leaders and explored the school, I learned an American guy, Greg Mortenson, had constructed the school. Initially, he considered and surveyed two villages, Chilkand and Sarhad-e-Broghil, but put the school in Sarhad because the other village already had a school and there was a danger of landslides from the mountain. However, it created jealousy. Nearby villages complained that Mortenson was a friend of Sarhad’s leader so he constructed the school there. As a result of the conflict, nobody was using the facility.

Yet the Sarhad villagers and community leaders were grateful and appreciative of Mortenson’s efforts and were looking forward to someone resolving this issue so their children could use the school. They were also frustrated that in the meantime their small children had to cross a river every morning to go to school in Chilkand; the childrens’ shoes and socks (usually broken shoes and torn socks) got wet and the children got sick and missed school. There was no health facility in the village.
The head of the Sarhad-e-Broghil community, said, “Greg is a wonderful human being. Nobody can be like him. He has a great contribution for us. May God bless him.” He reiterated that CAI could not put the school in Chilkand due to landslides.


The tall boy, left, is the only student educated through class 10

A boy who had completed grade 10, making him the only educated child in Sarhad, said “The Government Education Department has not allowed us to use the facility so we cannot use it.”

Later on I met with the provincial education director of Badakhshan, who told me, “Dr. Mortenson did not get our permission before constructing the school. So we do not allow the community to use it until we get permission from the ministry of Kabul.”

I had to advocate to the provincial director saying, “What if Dr. Mortenson has not taken permission, does it mean that the building should be spoiled? Don’t you think the poor children and the community would be happy if you allow them to use the facility?”

This discussion seemed to be working. He agreed to write to the Ministry of Education and bring this issue to their attention. I also reported to my organization and recommended it intervene as a third party to resolve the conflict so the children could benefit from the school.

When I met the provincial director again after two months, he said he had written about the issue to the ministry in Kabul and it was under consideration. In my recent discussion with colleagues from Afghanistan, it appears the Sarhad school is being used and CAI has constructed more schools in the Wakhan Corridor.

Unfair Attacks
Then I came across the news about a special investigation into Mortenson’s work. Well, the word “investigation” made me very uncomfortable and I felt it a little harsh. It seems there is no recognition of anybody’s good work. I really feel sorry for Mortenson because it seems unfair to a good human being, a philanthropist and a dedicated and hardworking person who started building schools based on his emotional attachment and personal financial contributions to poor people in Korphe. When he came back to the United States empty handed, broke from giving it away, he had to sleep in his tent. Yet he is punished for creating schools and blamed because he chose the hard pathway in constructing schools for poor people in poor communities.

I wish that every human being could demonstrate that kind of performance in these harsh areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. If they did, we would have created peace, care, love for human beings, harmony, respect, tolerance and acceptance of each others’ good work. We would have built and strengthened each other. These countries would not have remained poor. And the world would better understand the pain of those of us who walk the hard pathways of life.

In recent years, 157 schools have been blasted in Pakistan. We need to ask those communities and those children how they feel without a school building. A school building secures children from the harsh weather conditions (extreme hot and cold) and provides social and emotional security that enables children to concentrate on their learning with a peaceful mind. We must salute this one man, for enabling thousands and millions of minds to focus on meaningful tasks – education in schools. Why we are always focusing the negatives and becoming suspicious?

There also seems to be a debate about CAI staff being less educated. It reminds me of an experience in my own village. At a social huge event, a well-educated young woman spoke English well. Others appreciated her language skills and scolded the old teachers for their lack of skills. One of the older teachers spoke (he was the first teacher in our village), with tears in his eyes: “If we had not initiated, struggled, faced difficulties with the traditional myths to educate girls many years ago, these men and women today would have not this quality and capability today. Need changes according to the time and realities, so if you cannot appreciate our work, please, do not dismiss us.”

I learned a lesson that day. We cannot bring quality change all of the sudden without experimentation and change. The first step to change is accessibility, then quality and sustainability. Mortenson must have selected his staff according to the needs of the time. They must have worked hard and it must have worked well for them. Maybe he was not sure he would be so successful. Now CAI has expanded, so instead of blaming them, they should be told how to bring about further improvement in areas that are lacking and what strategies and approaches might be used

Lastly, monitoring and evaluating every project is a significant part of any project. Every individual, group and organization experiments with different ideas, techniques and strategies. Every context has its own needs, so one has to deal accordingly. There is no fixed idea or concept. Mistakes are always a possibility; we learn from our mistakes.

I would urge others to use soft language to evaluate CAI’s projects because there are rumors that one of the CAI staff had his life threatened in Pakistan. This seems a critical issue.

As a human being, I am disappointed to learn that there is an investigation going on about Mortenson’s work. I think, why we do not appreciate good work? Perhaps a different approach can be explored, rather than blaming for the sake of blaming. And there should be no guilt for Mr. Mortenson. He should not question spending so many years working in the harsh, remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His self-esteem must remain high because he has created an environment where people can grow and develop as human beings. He is a demonstrator of peace. He needs to be respected, cared for and loved for his inspiring work.

For more information, contact:

— Safida Begum


July 22, 2011 – Healing Power of Art


Central Asia Institute’s cofounder Greg Mortenson often recites the Persian proverb, “When it is dark, you can see the stars,” as a reminder that it is sometimes in our darkest, lowest, loneliest moments that we see hope, opportunities and light.

New York fiber artist Judy Warner read the proverb in CAI’s 2010 Journey of Hope and got an idea. “I immediately made a note of the quote for a future piece,” she wrote in her blog at

That piece turned out to be a beautifully crafted quilt, with intricate beadwork and threadwork atop rich purple and blue fabric. Entitled “You Can See the Stars,” the quilt arrived at CAI’s Bozeman office this week – a surprise gift for Greg.

“The work of your organization touches me deeply and keeps me hopeful for the future,” Warner wrote in a follow-up email.

Warner said the quilt started to take shape in January, after she took an online beading class. “I was so enthused with the potential of the beading process that I quickly began a project I had in mind for several weeks,” she wrote on her blog.

She started with hand-dyed fabric for the background. She incorporated a thread painting of a tree she had photographed on a recent trip to Hawaii. And she used her newly acquired beading skills to create the star-filled sky.

On Jan. 31, she wrote: “Finished! I was able to finish up my tree quilt this past week. If you remember, the inspiration for the piece is a Persian proverb quoted in a report of Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute foundation — When it is dark, you can see the stars.”

The proverb has been the focus of musings for centuries. The idea that failure, hardship and despair can lead to profound insight and opportunities resonates deeply with people.

In the note that accompanied her gift, Warner wrote to Greg: “I trust that you are healing. Thank you for all that you have accomplished in promoting understanding and education.”

Thank you, Judy. You have touched us all.

— Karin Ronnow


July 22, 2011 – Food for Thought

One of Central Asia Institute’s Pakistani staff members recently shared a bit of ancient wisdom with me. He quoted Urfi Shiraz, a 16th-century Persian poet, who wrote: “Urfi tumandesh ze ghogai raqeeba. Awaz-i-saga kum na kunad rizq-e Gada ra.”

This translates roughly as “Continue with your good work with no heed to rivals’ noises, which are just like the barking of dogs and shall not effect the work in any way.”

Urfi was the pen name of Muhammad Ibn Badr-al-Din, who died in his mid-30s in Lahore in 1592. He is considered, according to Encyclopædia Britannica, “without doubt one of the few genuine masters of Persian poetry. His verses pile up linguistic difficulties; yet their dark, glowing quality cannot fail to touch the hearts and minds.”

— Karin Ronnow


July 7, 2011 – Literacy and Liberty

All of us at CAI hope you, dear reader of our new Communiqué, had a safe and happy Fourth of July. Independence Day in the USA underscores the vital roles that teachers, schools and education play in the protection of our freedoms and our constitutional rights. It also reminds us that the acquisition of knowledge must be carefully and universally promoted. This year, those truths were highlighted for us with Karin Ronnow’s reports from the NEA Expo in Chicago.

Pennies and pencils and teachers, oh my


CHICAGO, Ill. — The past few days were all Pennies for Peace (P4P) all the time for Central Asia Institute staff at the National Education Association’s annual convention. For me, the most heartening aspects of representing P4P at the convention were the vocal support, encouragement and, yes, even hugs we got from teachers familiar with P4P and CAI.

Perhaps that’s not surprising to some. After all, the NEA, which represents 3.2 million teacher members, is a longtime supporter of CAI and P4P. In 2009, the association gave Greg Mortenson, CAI’s cofounder, its Mary Hatwood Futrell Award for his work promoting education and equal opportunity for women and girls.

Yet given the unprecedented controversy of the past few months surrounding Greg and CAI, we knew we’d have to answer some tough questions at this year’s conference. And we did. We also heard a few angry remarks and one lecture. But 99 percent of those we met at the NEA convention just wanted to know about Greg’s health post open-heart surgery and about what comes next for P4P and CAI. “I know all about Pennies for Peace,” one teacher told me. “I know all about the controversy. But I love the message of Pennies for Peace and the lessons it teaches. It’s good to see you here. Keep up the good work.”

NEA’s convention, held at McCormick Place just south of downtown on the Lake Michigan shore, was expected to draw about 16,000 teachers this year — including many who have done P4P campaigns. Lynsie Gettel, CAI’s graphics-design coordinator, and I traveled here from CAI’s home office in Bozeman, Mont., and entered the sprawling maze of conference rooms, assembly halls and corridors for the first time on Wednesday, June 29. Having recently returned from visiting CAI schools in remote areas of northern Pakistan, I couldn’t help but be awed, once again, by the vast differences in the way people live on this planet. What a world.

Even with help from CAI support in Illinois, Thursday and Friday were full days for us, nine hours on our feet, passing out information, answering questions and explaining how P4P works. We shared handouts about children who have created their own humanitarian organizations and demonstrated, again, that one person can make a difference in the world. And we talked about the Top 10 Lessons of a P4P campaign, using a great list compiled by folks in Rockford, Ill.

Several Wisconsin teachers who had been involved in the recent clash with their governor spoke of their solidarity with CAI. Many asked, “What can I do to help?” Those teachers seemed particularly enamored with the bumper stickers we passed out, which stated: “IT’S EASIER TO THROW STONES THAN BUILD SCHOOLS.”

One North Carolina teacher who inquired about Greg’s health following his open-heart surgery, commented that she had watched CAI’s rapid growth over the past few years and understood the need for the organization to catch up with itself.

Many of the frequently asked questions at the show have already been answered in the 2011 Spring Journey of Hope, especially the Q&A section, and other topical articles on the website, such as the Outside Magazine article titled “Greg Mortenson Speaks”, CAI Board of Directors Response to “60 Minutes” Questions, and Executive Director Greg Mortenson’s response to “60 Minutes” Questions.

As for Greg’s personal response to other allegations, we explained that Greg’s doctors have given him strict orders to rest and focus on his cardiac rehab. He will address those allegations as soon as he is physically strong enough.

What I can add and did say is drawn from my own experience: I was just overseas in Pakistan. CAI’s projects are real. Schools are open and running. Students are learning. We delivered pencils, notebooks and other school supplies paid for with P4P funds to children in schools across northern Pakistan. Construction has started on school projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The need has not abated and neither has our determination to fulfill our promises to our supporters and to the communities with which we partner.

That was enough for all but a handful of people, who weren’t budging from their positions that the media allegations have caused irreversible damage. But they were the minority. By far, the more common response was to wish us well.

One recently retired teacher even teared up when she saw our booth. “I’m just so sorry for the controversy right now,” she said. “You are doing good work. Please keep it up.” But it was two teachers from Georgia who gave me the energy boost I needed midday Friday. After I told them about what it is like to see the schools, to see the faces of the students and know that in 20 years the world will be a different place because of CAI’s efforts, one of them said, “Bless your heart,” and shook my hand. As I reached out to shake the hand of her companion, the woman opened her arms wide and said, “Oh no, honey. You get a hug.”

And with that I was reminded of a lesson Greg gleaned from his early years in Korphe: Listening to others and nurturing personal relationships is key to building bridges and empowering people to think for themselves. It is a lesson that continues to resonate.

Illinois teacher drops claim
Additional good news from Chicago this past weekend includes that teacher Deborah Netter dismissed her claim against CAI co-founder Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea” co-author David Oliver Relin, and publisher Penguin Group. The plaintiff’s attorney filed the paperwork to dismiss Netter’s class action complaint “without prejudice” on Friday, July 1, 2011. For full story click here.

Pakistani proverb: Do not look down on anyone unless you are helping them up.

— Karin Ronnow


June 28, 2011 – CAI Communiqué Introduction

Karin Ronnow with schoolchildren

By way of introduction, I am Karin Ronnow, CAI’s new communications director and editor of this blog. I spent the past 25 years as a newspaper journalist, chasing stories, writing and editing for daily papers in Maine, Georgia and Montana. And since 2007, I have been the writer and editor of CAI’s annual Journey of Hope publication that can be found on the CAI Publications Page.

When “60 Minutes” and Jon Krakauer launched their attacks on CAI and Greg Mortenson on April 17, 2011, the daily newspaper in Bozeman, Montana — where I was the assistant managing editor — told me I had to make a choice: stay with the paper and cut all ties to CAI, or leave. So I left the paper and joined the CAI family. Although this is a new job for me, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by old friends here and overseas. Since I started covering CAI in 2007, I have made nine trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan, collecting stories and documenting the organization’s work promoting education, especially for girls. I have seen so many CAI projects firsthand that I long ago stopped counting. I have also traveled in the US and Europe with Greg on his speaking tour.

Along the way, I have witnessed the difference that this organization makes in the lives of tens of thousands of children every day. Their stories are what inspire me and I intend to share as many of them with you as I can.

But this blog is intended to be more than that. CAI’s goal is to make this an online forum, communications tool and educational resource for Greg Mortenson, CAI staff, CAI supporters and anyone interested in the communities we serve. Be sure to check back often.

Afghan proverb for the day: However tall the mountain is, there’s a road to the top of it.

Greg’s Health Update
Central Asia Institute supporters have been clamoring for an update on Greg Mortenson’s health. So here’s the latest: Greg had open-heart surgery in early June. As you may have heard or read, while his condition had originally been diagnosed as an atrial septal defect (refer to Executive Director Greg Mortenson Medical Update 05/02/11), otherwise known as a hole in the heart, the problem turned out to be more than that. The doctors found a large aneurism, necessitating a much more serious operation than originally anticipated. But the surgery went well and a week later he was released from the hospital in good condition.

The surgery was a stunning reminder of not only what is possible in modern medicine, but what a toll such massive surgery takes on a body — and soul. There is, quite simply, a lot of healing to be done. It will take weeks, if not months, of recuperation and cardiac rehabilitation. He is healing, slowly but steadily, and we all anxiously await his full recovery. Until then, he remains unavailable for interviews and events.

Upper Shigar, Afghanistan

We are more alike than we are different
Western Montana has more in common with the remote reaches of northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and southeast Tajikistan than most people realize. First and most obviously, there are the mountains. The peaks in the Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Pamir and Karakoram ranges are much higher than those in the Rocky Mountains. But mountains are mountains.

Then there is the sage, its sweet, clean smell carried along on the mountain winds. There are the dirt roads. And the scree slopes. And the mountain streams. Even magpies — those big, chatty, teasing, black-and-white birds — are as common in the valleys of northern Pakistan as they are in valleys of western Montana.
But it’s not just the landscape, flora and fauna.

Karin Ronnow with Taha

As people, we have much in common as well. Mountain people endure long hard winters, herd livestock, grow wheat and potatoes, fish and hunt, and always, always dream of a better future for their children and grandchildren.

Differences exist, too. But the truth is we are more alike than we are different.

Our shared characteristics were reinforced for me during my most recent trip to Pakistan. I spent a month traveling with CAI’s Pakistan project managers, visiting schools and construction sites and drinking many, many cups of tea.

At schools across the valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan, we distributed school supplies and uniforms to students – all paid for with Pennies for Peace funds. We met with teachers and village leaders to discuss what each school needs, and collected requests for more teachers, more classrooms, more desks and more scholarships for higher education. The admiration, concern and prayers for “Dr. Greg” and all CAI staff were overwhelming and heartfelt.

The primary goal of this trip, however, was to survey CAI’s overseas projects – with the aim of eventually visiting every project in the next 12 months or so (except those in areas where foreigners cannot travel). CAI recognizes the importance of these periodic surveys and while overseas managers maintain contact with the schools, make regular visits, and report to CAI in America, the survey is part of CAI’s ongoing monitoring of every single project on its master list.

This spring survey was motivated in part by Greg’s inability to visit projects in person for a few years due to his global outreach efforts and his deteriorating health, concerns about CAI’s project manager in Baltistan (who resigned in 2010), as well as a re-doubling of efforts to provide as much information as possible in response to recent media allegations.

However, making a list and checking it twice sounds simpler than it is. Travel in these areas is time consuming and sometimes dangerous. But with the help of photographer Ellen Jaskol and CAI’s Pakistan staff, we put a big dent in the survey work on this trip. We verified student and teacher numbers at every stop. In addition to having the opportunity to drink tea in villages all over beautiful Gilgit-Baltistan, the best part of this particular journey is that we have crafted a better system to document all CAI projects and account for changes going forward.

Journalists, the good ones anyway, are motivated by a desire to cover a story, collect the facts and make sense of it all for the reader. We are curious by nature, committed to truth and eager to learn — indeed, most journalists learn something new every day, that’s part of what keeps us coming back for more.

And I learned a lot on this trip. Although this was my ninth trip to the region, it was my first time as a CAI employee and not a contracted journalist. My goal was, therefore, different. I saw things through a different lens. And the staff entrusted me with additional information, observations and suggestions.

It has always been the human aspect of the stories behind all of CAI’s work that inspires me. That is the thread that weaves us all together as we strive to promote education in mountain regions that are so much like home — despite being half a world away.

Pakistani proverb for the day: There are two kinds of speeches and two kinds of silences. Speech is either truth or a falsification, and silence is either fruition or heedlessness. If one speaks the truth, his words are better than his silence, but he who invents falsifications, his silence is better than his speech.

Thanks for reading.

— Karin Ronnow