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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