March 28, 2023

Sadi Ashraf, center, Outreach Coordinator for Central Asia Institute, the Reverend LeeAnne Watkins, left, Pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, and Kris Hennelly, right, a parishioner and member of the St. Mary’s Leadership Team.  (AAP photo by Tom LaVenture)

Watch the entire presentation online at


AAP staff writer

ST. PAUL (March 10, 2010) – Sadi Ashraf, the Outreach Coordinator for Central Asia Institute, was present to speak at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul last Thursday.Central Asia Institute ( is the organization founded in 1996 by former Minnesota resident and mountain climber, Greg Mortenson, who authored “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” about the experiences the helped him overcome cultural barriers to be welcomed into Pakistan and Afghanistan communities to build schools for children with an emphasis on educating girls.

Nearly 300 people packed the beautiful church on Laurel Avenue in St. Paul, with Pastor LeeAnne Watkins, introducing Ashraf on behalf of the parish Global Outreach Committee.

Reverend Watkins said the church reading circles began passing Three Cups of Tea around about four years ago, and applied its mission the church goals of meeting the United Nations Millennium Development goals of eradicating poverty, child mortality, illiteracy and empowering women. Groups began collaborating efforts and fundraising started.

“St. Mary’s Church is dedicated to addressing poverty and illiteracy,” said Rev. Watkins, adding that this is the biggest project of members who also tutor at a local grade school and on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“We have been moved by Greg Mortenson’s story and we want to do everything that we can to support him and his mission to end illiteracy,” she added.The church wanted to do something constructive with their literacy project, and Kris Hennelly, a parishioner and member of the St. Mary’s Leadership Team sent an invitation that Ashraf accepted, which she said came as a surprise, as the organization is accustomed to a much larger audience.

An artist, writer and editor from Chicago, Ashraf said she and her husband arranged to meet the “mountaineer turned humanitarian” Mortenson about four years ago. She was moved by his account as a lost and injured mountain climber who was found his way to better understanding the culture of villagers as an unlikely guest – followed through on the promise to a little girl to build a school – and a bridge – which snowballed into a much larger scale but on a uniquely grass roots level.

Mortenson’s organization was not widely known yet and Ashraf said she wanted to reach out on his behalf to the Central Asian communities of Chicago. She said that being raised in three cultures and made to feel a foreigner in each of them – it was with this type of effort that she saw this as a blessing – and as a way to roll up the sleeves and work on monumental disparities rather than sitting back as an “armchair intellectual.”

She said Mortenson has an ability to understand the culture and customs of Pakistan and Afghanistan. She called him an ambassador of goodwill at the right time in post-911 American, who could articulate peaceful dialogue to bridge two worlds that were suddenly at odds with one another.

“He says ‘there have been many stereotypes and misperceptions about Islam and the good people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They aspire to the same values, goals and hopes as Americans, and it’s important that their voices be heard if we are to ever live in a world of peace’.”

She spoke of disparities in Pakistani education where 70 percent of 25 million children go to substandard government schools, and 30 percent that go to “posh” private schools run by charitable organizations that are not consistent with a lack of standardized system.

The work was monumental. She said the current public education system in Pakistan does in substandard and does not provide opportunities for 70 percent of children to excel. The fortunate few that attend private schools run by charitable organizations have an advantage.

Ashraf described the effort to provide parallel education in the 21st century as a way to drive out extremism, where kids with opportunity are no longer at risk to be recruited to “rabble-rousing” groups.

Currently the organization has 145 schools with 58,000 students, and 38,000 of them girls. That is more than triple the 2007 totals for schools and students.

It also provides libraries, teacher training, student scholarships, and now has three new college programs in the works. It is also expanding parochial schools into middle schools with waiting lists reaching 2,000 kids per school.

The lesser known projects include sanitation and drinking water projects, medical care and eye surgery, adult literacy projects and vocational training centers for women.

She said the key to viability and long term success is to engage the community to take part with matching funds, construction and operation of the schools and programs. The grass roots movement is key to thwarting Taliban and other extremist efforts to vilify and destroy the schools as western institutions.

“What we have is a really incredible community based presence,” said Ashraf.

It is the community pride in ownership of the projects that make it part of the solution to the day-to-day problems of poverty and lack of resources. She said that the Taliban only one time wanted to burn down a border school to burn in 2007.

They encountered a community carrying sticks and guarding the school. They had donated money and land, and built it brick by brick. Most schools are watched over by the local mula to protect it, she added.

“It was that kind of community ownership, which is a successful model that Greg has created, which ensures our projects viability and long term success.”

Ashraf described a process where regional organization outreach directors for the Central Asia Institute, “the dirty dozen”, approach communities to ask what they need, and not tell them what they need. Most say they don’t want their children to die and want their daughters to be educated, she added.

The community empowerment in dealing with poverty and not war is what ultimately saves the school, she said. It also ensures the schools will keep operating long after the 30 year support of the Institute.

Ashraf said there are not many opportunities in the village and that most boys migrate to the cities to find work and girls more often return to the villages. With this trend in mind, the Institute designed a midwifery program to further train young women in midwifery.

She said an $800 investment of just one girl meant reducing an average 20 mother childbirth deaths to zero, and reducing infant mortality by two-thirds in rural areas.

Mortenson, who wants to eradicate illiteracy by 2030, has an updated version of Three Cups of Tea came out in January. The original book has been out 161 weeks and for 143 of them on the New York Times best sellers list.

Ashraf said that Mortenson’s fans include Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General David Petraeus, Commander of U.S. Central Command.

“Three Cups of Tea is mandatory reading for counter insurgency intelligence,” she said. “The pentagon has purchased 600,000 copies of the book.”

She said Mortenson has discussions with the military on the importance of infrastructure to emphasize than schools and education cost much less than bombs and do more to build a peaceful society than guns.

“Maybe if we educate this future generation we will win the war with the minds of the people and we wont have to worry so much about future generations being engaged in terrorism or in extremism like the Taliban.

She said Mortenson credit children with making the mission of the organization take off. It was them who could identify other kids. It was the children that started Pennies for Pakistan, which is now Pennies for Peace (

There were questions about whether the work of westerners in Afghanistan and Pakistan had a negative effect and if the schools were being destroyed or not used as a result. Ashraf noted that extremists are always a concern but that the buildings are designed to fit in with the local architecture, don’t contain visible signs of the organization’s presence, and have the support of the local community that build and staff them.

She said this attention to detail has in more than one instance brought out community to stand guard and protect the schools when militant leaders came in with the intent to destroy them.

Adeel Ahmed, Ph.D., a professor with the University of Minnesota Extension, was present to listen, and was invited to address the topic of Islamic seminaries in Pakistan. He added that the war torn regions produce a lot of orphan students, and that they and other boys in poverty are offered a strictly religious education.

Relatively few, particularly in the border areas, he said are considered extremist and fit the description so often portrayed in western media.

Ashraf said that Mortenson’s health is a primary concern at present and that he travels with a physical therapist and nurse. He receives around 5,000 personal appearance requests annually and ultimately makes more than 200 engagements.

She said he longs to spend more time with his own family and two children, but that people like Mortenson have an empathy that is greater than their own lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *