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Greg Mortenson visits children at the Gultori Girls Refugee School in Skardu, Pakistan. Schools founded by Mortenson emphasize the education of girls.

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Pakistani children find champion in lost mountaineer
November 5th, 2008
By Michael Vick

When Greg Mortenson first pitched his story, “Three Cups of Tea,” the publisher allowed him to choose the title. The subtitle, on the other hand, would be up to the editors.


Over Mortenson’s strenuous objections, the wording chosen was “One man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations ... one school at a time.” Mortenson wanted to say, “One man’s mission to promote peace.” He was overruled.


However, he struck a bargain with the publisher: if the hardcover version did not sell well enough, the paperback subtitle would be his choice. The original hardcover of the book, which Mortenson co-authored with journalist David Oliver Relin, did not fare well, Mortenson told a packed crowd of more than 1,200 at a Sept. 8 appearance at the University of San Francisco.


The paperback, with his preferred subtitle, has been a New York Times bestseller for 83 weeks.


”If you fight terrorism, or even if you promote terrorism, that’s based in fear,” Mortenson told the predominantly student audience. “If you promote peace, that’s based in hope. We live in hope.”


Mortenson’s journey from unknown mountaineer to world-renowned philanthropist began on the heels of tragedy and failure. His sister, Christa, who suffered from epilepsy since she was 3, died at 23 of a severe seizure on the eve of a trip to the cornfield-turned-baseball-diamond where her favorite movie, “Field of Dreams,” was filmed.


In her memory, Mortenson set off to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world and one of the most difficult to summit, hoping to leave Christa’s necklace at the peak. He failed, and almost died trying. Lost and exhausted, he later wandered into the Pakistani village of Korphe, where he met and befriended members of the native Balti tribe who live in the shadow of the Karakoram Range of which K2 is a part.


There he learned of the tradition of three cups of tea. With the first shared cup, one is a stranger. With the second, one becomes a friend. After three cups of tea, one becomes family.


”For family we’re prepared to do anything, even die,” Mortenson said, recalling the words of Korphe’s village chief, Haji Ali.


In return for saving his life, Mortenson promised to help them in any way he could. Their only wish was a school for their children. The village had none. Mortenson pledged to return after raising the money for a school.


He tried in vain reaching out to a number of philanthropic groups, and even wrote letters to 580 different celebrities in the hopes that they might bring publicity and funds to the cause. Only one responded, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, with a check for $100. Mortenson said Brokaw, who has since promoted “Three Cups of Tea” on the air, acknowledged guilt that he had only given $100.


”I haven’t had the courage yet to tell him he can always write another check,” Mortenson said.


Mortenson eventually raised the funds, largely through the efforts of school children donating hundreds of thousands of pennies through his Pennies for Peace program, and large donations from benefactors.


He did not stop with the one school. He has continued building schools in the region. Today dozens serve tens of thousands of students.


Most students are girls, which is by design, Mortenson said, explaining that schooling for girls is scarce in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Important side effects, he added, include reducing the infant mortality rate, addressing the population explosion and improving the quality of health.


”If we don’t educate girls, nothing will change,” Mortenson said.


Mortenson has run into difficulties. Two fatwa (Islamic religious rulings) called for his banishment from Pakistan. The declarations were later reversed with the help of respected Shia leader Syed Abbas.


One school was taken over briefly by the Taliban; a local militia leader who favors Mortenson’s work recaptured it.


After September 11, Mortenson faced death threats in the U.S. for “helping the enemy.” The threats led Mortenson’s wife, Tara, to suggest he go on a speaking tour.


”I wanted to talk to people about hope and compassion,” Mortenson said. “Instead of building walls, we need to build bridges. The women (of Pakistan) told me ‘We don’t want our babies to die, and we want our children to go to school.’ I think that’s a pretty simple request.”


Mortenson said with the help of tribal leaders and communities that “fiercely embrace education,” he has been able to turn a failed trip up a high peak into a journey with much loftier goals.


”I didn’t find my field of dreams in Iowa, and I didn’t find my field of dreams on the summit of K2,” Mortenson said. “I found my field of dreams in Korphe.”

From September 19, 20008 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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