A school is never just a building. It takes a community working together, sometimes against formidable odds, to make any school succeed.

In every community Central Asia Institute (CAI) serves, all of those pieces come together over time – the building, villagers, teachers and students – and become pivotal characters in a story of hope.

CAI schools are not architectural wonders – they are basic yet solid buildings, designed for function. Yet their stories are complex, laden with successes and setbacks, struggles and victories.

That’s been particularly true in Saw, an Afghan village high in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Kunar province, just west of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Not long after the fall of the repressive Taliban government in 2001, the people of Saw decided they wanted their daughters to go to school. They knew the world was changing.

A girls’ school was still a risky proposition in this conservative Pashtun village. But the real threat came from outside, from the steady flow of well-armed insurgents and criminals who cross the nearby Pakistan-Afghanistan border intent on wreaking havoc in Afghanistan.

“Saw is in remote Kunar province, in northeastern Afghanistan, where different groups of local Taliban, foreign militants, and extremists vie for power across a porous border,” Central Asia Institute Co-Founder Greg Mortenson said. “Local leaders struggle to maintain a degree of stability for their people in the midst of inadequate border security, heroin smugglers, kidnappers, extortionists, bandits, and human traffickers.”

Saw elders asked CAI for help in 2007. Construction of the Saw Girls’ Middle School was fraught with the complications that come with working in a warzone, but the school was finished in 2009.

Yet, as it turned out, the community’s struggle was far from over.

SawSchoolLesson-300x223“Since the school opened, the people of Saw have struggled to maintain their dream to educate their daughters,” CAI Executive Director Jim Thaden said. “Teachers have been attacked and killed. The headmaster was killed last year. And in February the school itself was bombed.

The villagers said no one was killed or injured in the nighttime bombing, which occurred while the school was closed for spring break. About 20 percent of the 10-room school was destroyed.

“CAI remains committed to supporting the community’s dream of peace through education,” Thaden said. “We’re working together to rebuild the school and ensure that Saw’s girls have the same opportunities as girls around the world. But this is pioneering work involving change over generations. It requires patience and perseverance. It also takes money, and we’re going to need some help,” Thaden said.

This week CAI launched its first Spring Capital Campaign: Building Hope. We need to raise $360,000 for school-building construction, expansion, and repairs – including reconstruction of the heavily damaged Saw Girls’ School.


Architect William A. Browne, Jr. was speaking about much grander buildings than the humble schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan when he talked about narrative architecture in 2010. Yet his words hold true for CAI’s projects.

“Their stories can sometimes be discerned easily, and at other times need to be discovered through thoughtful consideration,” Browne said. “The story can be as simple as a metaphor or as complex as a novel. Just as the adage goes, you can’t judge the object (book) by its exterior (cover). The richness of the object is its contents.”

afghanistanwindow-226x300The stories of CAI’s schools are less about form and more about function. But these humble structures embody communities’ hopes and dreams. And every project CAI has selected as a beneficiary of this capital campaign is also the story of a community that needs our help.

One of CAI’s distinguishing characteristics is the long-standing relationship with each community it serves. Locals provide the leadership to make projects work, but often don’t have the money to rebuild, or expand, or repair their schools.

“CAI is unique among NGOs in that we nurture and maintain those relationships at the village level, and we continue to support the schools, students, and teachers to the best of our ability,” Thaden said. “Saw village needs us now. But so, too, do communities throughout these mountainous regions, all of them struggling to sustain hope for a better future through education.”

The Saw School work is an emergency repair. The need for regular maintenance and improvements on other schools is constant, especially given the harsh weather, frequent landslides, and other natural disasters that plague the areas CAI serves. This year those projects include refurbishing CAI’s schools in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor.

Elsewhere, schools need to be expanded to accommodate growing enrollments. And CAI continues to invest in a limited number of new projects that fit its unique formula.

PakGirlSchoolwork-227x300In each case, CAI has worked with the communities to outline needed work and the corresponding budget. Those details, along with stories of the schools, can be found in the first edition of our spring Footsteps publication.

“We’re excited about all of these projects,” Thaden said. “Each one epitomizes CAI’s philosophy and the long-term investment of everyone involved.”

In the weeks and months to come, CAI will provide updates on the progress of these projects. Please check this blog and our website homepage or sign up for email updates.

And please considering making a contribution to help us keep the stories going.

These communities need your help.

The children need your help.

– Karin Ronnow, communications director