City College employees promote peace ‘one school at a time’

Bergman in front of Korphe School, Pakistan. 1996. PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTRAL ASIA INSTITUTE
Bergman in front of Korphe School, Pakistan. 1996. PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTRAL ASIA INSTITUTE

By Lauren Tyler

Winter came early in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan during October of 1996. In the skies of this remote region of the world, a Russian MI-17 helicopter, equipped with plastic lawn chairs as seats, maneuvered towards Korphe village, in the northern region of Baltistan.

For City College librarian Julia Bergman and nine other foreigners on board of the helicopter, this was the last stop of their six-week long trip through Central Asia.

“We were flying over the most amazing landscape…crystal-clear blue skies and the turquoise Indus river,” Bergman said. “The Karakoram Mountain contain the highest concentration of high peaks in the world, it’s simply shocking.”

The pilot landed the helicopter in a valley. The mountaineer asked if anyone wanted to visit a village and when Bergman asked if it was appropriate for her to go, a group member with mountaineering experience assured her it was fine. Bergman made her ascension up an arduous, rocky trail.

As they got closer to the top they heard the voices of children. “All of a sudden we were surrounded by a dozen adolescent boys,” Bergman said.

Greg Mortenson with students at Sitara school, Wakhan corridor, Afghanistan. PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTRAL ASIA INSTITUTE
Greg Mortenson with students at Sitara school, Wakhan corridor, Afghanistan. PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTRAL ASIA INSTITUTE

The boys questioned where Bergman was from. “I said I was from the United States — that wasn’t good enough. So I said I am from California and that wasn’t good enough either. So then I said I am from San Francisco. They put their hands on me and started leading me back down the trail.”

They were leading her back to the valley where a sign, literally and figuratively, would forever change her.

“On the far edge of this open area there’s a metal sign and it reads ‘The American Himalayan Organization, San Francisco, California. Thank you Jean Hoerni,’” Bergman said.

Hoerni was Bergman’s cousin, Jennifer Wilson’s, husband. The renowned Swiss-born physicist made much of his fortune in the Silicon Valley, but was also an avid mountaineer when he was younger. Based on his own travels through the Karakoram Mountains, he had acquired a fondness for the area and donated thousands to build schools in the region.

Bergman remembered, “before I had left that July…he had given money to build a school.” She also recalled Hoerni talking about a bridge over a mighty river leading to a school on top of a mountain. She asked the boys if those things were there, and they were.

“I am neither religious or spiritual. I am rather pragmatic, but I got so emotional, I started to cry,” she said.

The experience left a lasting impression on Bergman — in 2003 she became the chair of the board of directors of the Central Asia Institute.

When Bergman returned to San Francisco in mid-November of 1996 she immediately picked up the phone and called her cousin. The phone rang but nobody answered. Two hours later, Bergman’s cousin Jennifer Wilson called her back.

“Where have you been?” Wilson asked.

“I just got home a couple of hours ago,” Bergman said. Wilson explained that she and Hoerni were visiting San Francisco from their home in Seattle because Hoerni needed a blood transfusion. Bergman asked Wilson to put Hoerni on the phone. “Jean, I saw the Korphe school,” she said. “No?” Hoerni gasped.

The writing on the bathroom mirror in Mortenson’s home in Bozeman, Mont. reads, “When your heart speaks, take good notes.” His heart spoke to him when he attempted to climb K2 in Baltistan, Pakistan, which, at 8,611 meters, is the world’s second highest mountain.

Greg Mortenson, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and co-author of New York Times bestseller “Three Cups of Tea,” spoke at City College on March 4, on account of his work as co-founder and executive director of CAI, an organization which has built 78 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, primarily for girls.

He grew up near Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where his parents developed a teaching hospital and an international school, and had always taken well to climbing.

Climbing K2 was much more sentimental to Mortenson. His sister Christa, whom he loved tenderly, had died at the age of 23 from a severe epileptic attack. In her honor, Mortenson wanted to place Christa’s amber necklace at the peak of K2.

While he attempted to climb K-2 he encountered a theme he would become readily familiar with what he considered failure.

“Failure”, the title of the first chapter in Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea.” To him, failure meant “not the end of the road, but its a way to grow and find a different path.”

Greg Mortenson, co-founder of the Central Asia Institute and Julia Bergman, retired librarian discuss his book Three Cups of Tea outside the Diego Rivera Theatre on March 4, 2009. RAMSEY EL-QARE / THE GUARDSMAN
Greg Mortenson, co-founder of the Central Asia Institute and Julia Bergman, retired librarian discuss his book Three Cups of Tea outside the Diego Rivera Theatre on March 4, 2009. RAMSEY EL-QARE / THE GUARDSMAN

On his journey, after having been lost for days, emaciated and not bathing for nearly three months. Mortenson found a path – it was the path leading to Korphe Village. Haji Ali, the village nurmadhar — village chief — stood placidly at the edge of the village.

He welcomed Mortenson graciously, which is an important tradition in Baltistan culture. Haji Ali and the villagers nursed him back to health. It was then that Mortenson had his first three cups of tea.

As a trauma nurse, Mortenson was able to mend wounds and set bones, a luxury previously missing from the villager’s life. The angrezi, or strange white man, soon acquired the name Dr. Greg.

One day, with Haji Ali standing beside him, Mortenson looked over the ledge to the valley. He saw 84 school children without a teacher copying multiplication tables in the sand with sticks.

“A girl in the village came up to me and asked, ‘can you help us build a school?’ I promised her I would,” Mortenson said.

After consulting with experts on the area, Mortenson realized he needed $12,000 to build the school.

Upon his return to Berkeley, Calif., he began his quest for funding. He hand-wrote 580 letters, but of all the “Dear Mr. Michael Jordan and Dear Mr. Sylvester Stallone” letters, Mortenson only received one check from Tom Brokaw for $100.

As he was walking through the dismal fog on his way to a graveyard shift at the University of California Hospital, Mortenson felt that his hope was dampened.

His mother suggested he fly to River Falls, Wis., where she was the principal of Westside Elementary school. Timidly, her son spoke to the students about the children in Baltistan and his desire to build a school there.

“A fourth grader named Jeffrey came and said ‘I have a piggy bank and I want to help you,’” Mortenson said. Six weeks later, Westside Elementary raised 62,340 pennies. This was the beginning of Pennies for Peace, a fund raising effort 3,400 schools nationwide are now involved in.

“The irony is that movie stars and adults didn’t help, it was the children,” Mortenson said.

With meager capital and all of his belongings sold, Mortenson was frustrated but fastidious. Tom Vaughan, a fellow mountaineer and doctor at UCSF, had listened to Mortenson’s troubles. One morning, Vaughan handed him a prescription pad with the name and number of Jean Hoerni, who had read an article about Mortenson.

Mortenson called Hoerni, who immediately asked whether Mortenson would run off with his money if he were to give it. Mortenson said he simply wanted to educate children and said he needed $12,000.

“You’re not bulls—ing? You can really build your school for 12 grand?’’ asked Hoerni. “Yes, sir,” Mortenson humbly replied.

The money was transferred and CAI was born. Months and checks later, Hoerni died on January 12, 1997. In his will he left Mortenson $22,315 along with an endowment of nearly one million dollars for CAI.

Mortenson spoke at Hoerni’s memorial service at Stanford University Chapel.

“The last person who got up to speak talked about Baltistan. It was the most emotional speech. Of course this was Greg Mortenson,” Bergman said.

She approached Mortenson and said that she had seen the Korphe school. “You’re the blonde in the helicopter,” he said. Bergman told him about her impression of the school and said she wanted to help.

“Well, I want to build a library,” Mortenson said.

“I’m a librarian,” Bergman said matter-of-factly. “I was the token educator. Teacher training became my fixation.”

Originally, most CAI board members were mountaineers. Bergman changed that structure and began introducing more educators.

She inducted three City College faculty members. Abdul Jabbar, an English and interdisciplinary studies professor and ESL instructors Joy Durighello and Bob Irwin. Jabbar is a member of the board. Irwin and Durighello assisted with teacher training and wrote the Balti Handbook.

The official languages of Pakistan are Urdu and English. Through the use of English the Balti Handbook was developed. “We developed exercises in reading, writing and comprehension. We wrote it as we were teaching” Durighello said.

“Half of our organization is from City College,” Mortenson said on March 4 at the Diego Rivera theater. More importantly, he discussed the pertinence of CAI and its influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“It took three years to build one school, now we have 78,” Mortenson said. “The more I do this, the more I am convinced that global literacy should be our top priority.”

Pakistan and Afghanistan are continuously in tumultuous states. Insurgents from the Taliban and al-Qaida continue to mar any progress, especially in regards to education for girls. The Taliban, for example, bans education for females, according “Journey of Hope,” a CAI publication.

“Jihad is really a spiritual quest. A boy has to get his mother’s permission to go. If she is educated she’s not going to let him go. People want to find ways to create peace…its literacy, its educating women,” Bergman said.

“We can drop bombs, or build roads or hand out condoms. But unless the girls are educated, the societies won’t change,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson demonstrated to the audience that in 2000 only 800,000 students were enrolled in school in Pakistan. The majority were boys, ages 5-15. In 2008 that number exploded to 7.2 million students, two million of those girls.

“Their [extremist groups] biggest fear is not the bullet, its the pen,” Mortenson said. “The real enemy that we’re fighting is ignorance. It’s ignorance that breeds hatred.”

While meeting with General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen of the United States Central Command Mortenson came to an important realization. “They all said there’s no military solution in Afghanistan. They say education is the key,” he said.

“Three Cups of Tea” is now required reading for counterintelligence training and for U.S. special forces about to be deployed to Afghanistan.

CAI continues its mission, from its board members in San Francisco and its staff members in Bozeman, Mont. to promote peace “one school at a time.”

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