Education heroes rise above hardship in 2014 ‘Journey of Hope’

“My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results… but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.” – Novelist George R.R. Martin

In some parts of the world, just getting up in the morning, putting your shoes on, and going to school is one of the bravest things you can do – especially if you are a girl.

Gul Bahar at her home in the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Erik Petersen.

Gul Bahar at her home in the Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Erik Petersen.

Gul Bahar does it. She makes a long journey each day just to get to school. The eighth-grader walks three hours each day in the remote mountains of northeast Afghanistan just to go to school.

In Pakistan’s Hunza region, Naseem overcame enormous odds in the wake of a devastating landslide to finish high school and college. She’s about to begin her university degree, determined to earn enough money to help her impoverished family educate her younger siblings.

Rahila, a high school student in Tajikistan’s high-altitude Pamir region, goes about her daily routine without her parents, who moved to Kyrgyzstan to find jobs and send money home.

These three young women are among the more than 100,000 students enrolled in Central Asia Institute – established or – supported schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. They don’t know each other. They don’t even speak the same language. But they share a tenacity for education– despite the obstacles.

They are our heroes.

Their stories are highlighted in this year’s edition of CAI’s annual Journey of Hope magazine, published this month.

“Although illiterate and impoverished communities are often ignored by global society, the communities and individuals profiled in JOH are often willing to do anything to help their children get an education, including sometimes risking their lives,” said CAI Co-Founder Greg Mortenson.

“A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated. … No chance.” – Novelist Khaled Hosseini

Afghan schoolgirls review a lesson. Photo courtesy of Erik Petersen.

Afghan schoolgirls review a lesson. Photo courtesy of Erik Petersen.

For nearly two decades, CAI has pioneered educational projects and programs in impoverished regions often overlooked by governments and other aid organizations.

In many of these regions, illiteracy has been the norm for generations, restricting access to better health and economic opportunity. Uneducated girls were forced into arranged marriages, relegated to domestic chores, and expected to give birth to a dozen or more children. They had no part in household financial decisions. Unaided, they battled the diseases and grinding poverty that plagued their families. And many died young, often in childbirth.

But much has changed. Mortenson said he sees profound differences in communities CAI serves as the first generation of graduates become parents themselves.

“Educated women have fewer kids, their maternal mortality rates drop, and they create economic opportunities for themselves,” he said. “They are interested in news, politics, and elections. And, most importantly, they encourage their own kids to get an education.”

This year’s Journey of Hope includes statistical information on the benefits of girls’ education and anecdotal evidence of its profound effects on the lives of educated young people, their families, and their communities.

The ripple effect of girls’ education, in particular, is profound, said Shogafa Talash, a chemistry teacher in a CAI-supported school in Kabul, Afghanistan.


Girls and young women identify letters in one of CAI’s Kabul literacy centers. Photo courtesy of Erik Petersen.

“Educated women can teach kids before they come to school and they

[will] learn better,” she said. “Educated women also make better decisions about their own life and which things are good and bad. It is a big difference when women are educated, this is something clear. Education has helps them know what to eat, they know the value of cleanliness, that it will prevent sickness and not pass diseases one person to another. And if a woman is educated she can help other women, too, in her village to get educated and have a better life.”

On page 45 of the Journey of Hope, Mortenson also writes about the millions of children around the world unable to attend school and the failed international efforts to provide “education for all” as part of the Millennium Development Goals.

Pauline Rose, director of UNESCO’s “education for all” monitoring report, put it this way in remarks to Deutsche Welle (Germany) newspaper: “In the last few years, we’ve gotten complacent,” she said. “Aid to education has slowed, and we’re now in a situation where if we don’t do something urgently, many children are not going to have the chance that they deserve to have an education.”

Children in war zones, including Afghanistan, are especially vulnerable, she said. “Education just isn’t seen as a focus of children who are living in conflict-affected countries. And yet, these are the children who need education the most.”

CAI recognizes the need for urgent action. And we’re doing something about it.

“Even the air of this country [Afghanistan] has a story to tell about warfare.” – Novelist Nadeem Aslam

War and conflict touch – in some way, shape or form – every community CAI serves. The 64-page Journey of Hope includes a review of those conflicts and how they have affected CAI’s work. But in just the short time since we went to press, the ground game has changed.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced last May that the U.S. military role in Afghanistan post-2014 would be limited to 9,800 troops training Afghan forces and “hunting the ‘remnants of Al Qaeda,’” the Times reported.


Students walkig home from school in Tajikistan’s Pamir region. Photo courtesy of Erik Petersen.

But just last week we learned that the longest war in American history will not end at the end of this year. The New York Times reported Nov. 21 that Obama has extended the role of American combat troops in Afghanistan for at least another year.

Nevertheless, “The national mood in Afghanistan this year is one of cautious optimism,” Asia Foundation President David Arnold wrote in the preface to the 2014 Survey of the Afghan People.

The survey found – and CAI’s reporting from the field concurs – that security, corruption, and employment are key concerns among the Afghan people. Education plays a huge role in that.

Although much is made of the number of children now enrolled in Afghan schools – up from fewer than a million before 9/11 to 10 million today, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education – there’s still a long way to go.


New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in March 2014 that surveys indicate most Americans “have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world.” Instead, they “have enormous confidence in personalized, peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development.”

We at CAI also believe in the collective power of individuals to bring about change. And that’s where you come in.

Release of the eighth-annual Journey of Hope coincides with our 2014 fall fundraising appeal, a video version of which can be seen HERE. The JOH is a collection of reports on our work, stories from the field, updates, and stunning photos that paint a picture of how your generous support helps in a big way.

The fall appeal is a reminder that we need your help.

Like Gul Bahar, Naseem, and Rahila, the CAI team is determined to get up every morning, put our shoes on, and get to work. We will stay the course. We believe education is the surest path to sustainable peace in the region, and in the world. Will you help?

– Karin Ronnow, communications director