A hero is someone admired for his courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. And although Greg Mortenson, founder of more than 130 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fits this bill, he would be the last to take that title.
But, despite being a self-proclaimed "shy, understated person who is rejuvenated by 'unplugging' himself and spending time alone," Mortenson is a brilliant speaker and notable humanitarian.
Last week, Mortenson visited Western New York as a part of the University at Buffalo's Distinguished Speakers Series. Co-author of the New York Times best seller "Three Cups of Tea," Mortenson was first inspired to begin his philanthropic efforts in Pakistan when he came upon children writing in the sand with twigs. Astounded by their motivation to learn independently, he immediately made a decision that would later consume his entire life: He would build them a school.
But Mortenson's story is no fairy tale. In fact, at that point, he was a wandering hiker who returned home only occasionally. And to him, home was merely his beloved car, referred to affectionately as La Bamba. He had nowhere near enough money to begin a school on his own, and, after sending out 500 individually written petitions, he received a solitary check of $100. Nevertheless, in true heroic fashion, he persevered.
"This is my life's vocation," Mortenson said. "The rest of my life, I'll probably be doing this; I feel great joy and empathy in it."
Before accomplishing his ultimate goal and educating more than 58,000 children (44,000 of whom were girls), Mortenson first had to overcome his fair share of obstacles. He describes, nonchalantly, the eight days during July 1996 that he was held captive: "I walked inadvertently into a dispute between two clans."
Depressed at the terrifyingly real possibility of death, he resolved that the only way to achieve liberation was to befriend his captors.
"I asked for a holy Quran, and then told them I'd need their help because I couldn't read Arabic," says Mortenson. The selling argument for his freedom, though, was the explanation of his wife's nearly complete pregnancy. He believed he was about to have a son, which is cause for great celebration in Pakistan. Sharing this story with his captors helped him gain their sympathy.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mortenson began receiving hate mail, death threats and criticisms from Americans because he was continuing to advocate for the education of Muslims.
"That was the only time I thought about quitting my project," he said, remembering his worry for the safety of his family back in the States.
Eventually, Mortenson triumphed over these hindering forces and fulfilled his promise to the children of Pakistan. He swears that "the real enemy is ignorance, which breeds hatred. To conquer this enemy, we need courage, compassion and education."
Where does he suggest the work begin? With us, the impressionable youth of America. Realizing the recent increase in young people's desire to serve their communities, Mortenson is proud.
"We can especially promote peace with kids. We tend to shelter our children from the knowledge of slavery, poverty and racism, but kids can understand these concepts and can begin to think of a world where everyone gets along."
We are reminded of how lucky we are to live in a nation where the opportunities for women are essentially endless. But, as Mortenson points out in his speech, changes occur slowly, over generations. It took our country centuries to accept women as equals in society; now we can only hope that other nations acknowledge those ideas and follow suit.
Although his entire speech was filled with powerful and insightful statements, Mortenson had one quote that was particularly profound: "Why are big, bad men armed with AK47s afraid of girls going to school?
"Because what they fear most is a pen. A pen is more powerful than a sword."
To this, the crowd responds with an exploding applause, a preview of the standing ovation it will give at the conclusion of Mortenson's speech.
Christina Seminara is a sophomore at Nardin Academy.