Reaching Across the World: A Bendite's story of Helping Children in Kashmir | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

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Reaching Across the World: A Bendite's story of Helping Children in Kashmir


Indians killed Danish Khawaja's father.

The 12-year-old Pakistani boy with big brown eyes lost his dad to militants from India who fought for the controversial plot of land called Kashmir.

Like many Kashmiris, Danish's father was a jihadist in the India-Pakistan conflict. And like many children in the region, Danish could easily join a jihadist group to strike back at those who killed his father. Instead, he chooses to become a doctor.

"I want to help people," Danish told me between classes on a muggy May morning in Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Azad Jammu Kashmir.

Danish is just one of hundreds of students supported by Kashmir Family Aid, the Bend-based nonprofit organization that I direct founded in 2005 by longtime Bend resident Sam Carpenter.

We assist children in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and in Azad Kashmir, where the October 2005 earthquake, according to CNN and Newsday reports, killed at least 73,000, left 3 million homeless and destroyed more than 1,000 hospitals and 8,000 of the region's 11,000 primary and secondary schools.

Our primary goal is to counter poverty and terrorism while promoting women's rights by providing secular education to quake-affected children. No politics. No religion.


This was my first time visiting Pakistan, while Carpenter has been six times, most recently in late May. Carpenter has developed an international perspective on three of the world's most important and controversial issues -education versus terrorism, women's rights and East-West relations.

That perspective started developing at 8:50 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2005.

The Quake

On that fall morning, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake shook the mountains, crumbled buildings and crushed thousands of people in and around Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir. In Islamabad, Pakistan, just a few weeks after the quake, Carpenter wrote about life on the ground for schoolchildren:

"The quake was violent beyond words, and the children were in school when it came. Generated by the quake, there was a fiendish, from-Hell roar, and their little bodies were knocked flat to the floor to be pummeled over and over as they struggled to get up.

Each surviving child endured the horror of the quake, and the trauma is evidenced by a vacant stare. Many of them refuse to go to school, afraid the quake will return, associating the terrifying event with school itself. About 20, 000 children died. Looking in their eyes, one cannot mistake what has happened here.

I examine the life I lead back in the states.

I have been here a week and will spend two more weeks in the quake zone before returning to my home in mid-December. In my upscale Oregon resort community, Christmas will happen with all the trappings. I am expected to return to life in a beautiful home - a life interspersed with Yoga classes and lattes, along with comfortable chatter in my clean and spacious office that is decorated precisely.

As I sit here, haunted by the tent-camp children's eyes, I reflect now upon the general absurdity of my too-soft Western existence.

Too much, my life has been wrapped up in things that do not matter."

A New Perspective

After that trip, Carpenter began seriously pursuing recurring donations from corporate sponsors who would join him in his cause of countering this poverty. We visited the region in May 2008 - two and one-half years after the quake.

Despite how much time had passed, I could see signs that the earthquake's aftermath continued to haunt the region. Tents still dotted the hillsides. Concrete rubble littered the streets. And almost everyone spoke of life either "before" or "after" the quake.

One of our new plans includes constructing a school for 200 orphans and vulnerable children who currently study in tents because the earthquake destroyed their former school building - crushing dozens of students. When I met some of these children, I could not believe how seriously they took their education. Despite rain in the winter and heat spells in the summer, these young boys and girls continued to study in their tents. For them, graduating means more than a piece of paper. It is a ticket out of the slums.

This school project is in Pattika, 20 kilometers north of Muzaffarabad.

The school site is on a beautiful meadow looking down on the Nellum River which roars by far below, brown and turbulent with ice melt from the Karakoram glaciers close by to the east.

If a sponsor can be found, construction of the school will cost $25,000. Once built, that or another sponsor can support the entire operation for less than $1,000 per month, and have his or her name on the masthead.

Teachers in the Pattika tent school make less than $60 a month and had not been paid for eight months upon our visit. We covered back wages, paying the teachers in Pakistani rupees. In several other projects, KFA plans to pay teachers, build bathrooms (in one school, there is a single toilet for 400 students), and add classrooms to a primary school. We have six total projects available for individual or corporate support.

KFA will even take interested donors to Pakistan and Kashmir to meet the children and teachers - and see the schools for themselves. While overseas, donors will get to explore the region's wild rivers, ancient mosques and the world's tallest mountains in the Karakoram region of northern Pakistan. Azad Kashmir is one of the most mysterious and least-visited regions in the world.

Education versus terrorism

Pakistan is a key battleground to the broader struggle between terrorism and the West.

The U.S. State Department has concluded that "Pakistan remains a major source of Islamic extremism and a safe haven for top terrorist leaders." Al-Qaida uses tribal areas of Pakistan to rebuild its leadership and replace killed or captured fighters, according to an April 2008 report by the U.S. State Department.

Pakistan is now one of al-Qaida's key havens, a place where at least one group connected to the Taliban has created thousands of Madrassas, Islamic fundamentalist schools that often teach militant jihad to young children, author David Relin wrote in his New York Times bestseller, "Three Cups of Tea."

"The Madrassa system targets the impoverished students the public system failed," Relin writes. "By offering free room and board, and building schools in areas where none existed, Madrassas provide millions of Pakistan's parents with their only opportunity to educate their children."

A World Bank study estimated that by 2001 at least 20,000 Madrassas were teaching a strict Islamic-based curriculum to as many as 2 million Pakistani students. Lahore-based journalist Ahmed Rashid - one of the world's leading authorities on the link between Madrassa education and the rise of extremist Islam - estimates that more than 80,000 of these young students became Taliban recruits.

While not every Madrassa is a hotbed of extremism, the World Bank concludes that 15 to 20 percent of Madrassa students receive military training, along with a curriculum that emphasizes jihad and hatred of the West at the expense of subjects like math, science and literature.

After talking to Danish, the boy in Muzaffarabad who lost his father to Indian militants, I could see just how easy it is for a young boy to become a jihadist. They get paid well. They have a brotherhood. And their family gets honored when they die.

"The seemingly endless supply of jihadists is not because America has stirred up negative emotions in the area," Carpenter said. "It's simpler than that. In many Madrassas, children are educated from their earliest years to hate the West. Then they are offered paid jobs as jihadists. They have not been educated to do anything else. Our secular schools offer a child a chance to learn math, science, English and history - it's a ticket to a life of contribution and advancement rather than one of religious warfare. Here is where the war on terror will be won."

Women's rights

Bushra wants to become a policewoman. Her friend wants to teach. Another longs to be a doctor. All three of these young Pakistani children that I met in May have something in common - their dreams might become reality because of what we're doing in the country.

"What we promote is women empowerment," said Mubarik Ahmad, headmaster of the Nilore Model School that KFA financially supports. "And we believe that's through education."

The semi-rural town of Nilore is situated about 40 kilometers east of Islamabad.

Ahmad told me over a cup of black tea with buffalo milk that he has trouble finding teachers because there is a lack of educated women. Ninety percent of his students come from illiterate families, and 70 percent of their teachers have illiterate parents. More than 70 percent of females in Pakistan can't read at all.

As a result, KFA focuses on educating girls because they tend to marry young via arranged marriages, receive the least amount of education, remain in the villages or work in the fields. While Pakistan has many girls' schools, they still meet resistance from terrorist groups. In 2006, the Taliban shot, bombed, beheaded and burned people alive for allowing girls to attend school. Just last March, The Times of India reported that militants blew up a girls' high school in northwest Pakistan after warning the students to stop attending secular classes and join the Madrassas.

Despite this resistance, the schools keep growing because the vast majority of local residents strongly support the secular education of their children.

Nadia, a teacher at the Nilore school, told me she already needs more classroom space and computers. She would even like to set up an e-mail exchange program between her students and children with Bend-La Pine Schools.

One of our projects that a corporate sponsor can support is to add a secondary school addition to the Nilore School at a rough cost of $15,000.

East-West relations

Contrary to popular opinion, most Pakistanis are not terrorists.

I could not believe how much respect the people have for Americans because of the United States' assistance after the earthquake. Whenever I entered a house, our host family stood up. Whenever we sat down for a meal, the family served us first with spiced chicken, lamb and buffalo milk black tea.

Even in gas stations I was treated like royalty.

Carpenter described this respect during his 2005 visit that brought him to a tent occupied by Shaukat and Yasmeen Ali and their three children, a Muzaffarabad family KFA continues to support:

"I met Yasmeen today while taking a new route back to my temporary living quarters. She says, 'Hello,' with a smile and immediately invites me into her tent for tea. It's always that, the invitation for tea.

Hissing, the tiny gas stove does its job, sitting on a plank on the floor up against one of the tent walls. There is no food that I can see: just sugar, salt, spices and some cold soup in a pot, over to the side. Yasmeen fires up an egg on the other stove burner and, against my gentle protest, begins to boil it for me.

The family speaks haltingly of finding each other after the quake - of the horror of those first nights, the blackness and the cold rain.

Things grow silent as I run out of questions.

I assume the body language of one ready to depart. But before leaving, I ask Shaukat if he has something he wants me to say to Americans.

'Tell America I am thankful to your people,' Shaukat said. 'And that I want to go to America with my family.'

I say that America is great because when it started it was filled by people who were poor and who wanted a better life. And, I tell him, the people who live there now still love their country because it has opportunity.

America began with people just like you."

Christopher Stollar is director of Kashmir Family Aid. Stollar has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Gutenberg College, a Great Books philosophy school in Eugene.

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