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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 30, 2009

Changing the world, one school at a time

Sometimes the world seems small. Tuesday morning was one of those times.

A quiet and courageous man spoke earnestly to students at Altamont Elementary School.

“Our schools,” said Muhammad Raza, “deliver good education to poor children who might otherwise end up on the streets.”

Raza, a Pushtan from Pakistan, grew up in a war-torn country. He went to a public school in his village and had to walk several miles each way in sweltering heat. Electricity was intermittent and the drinking water was poor. “Every student had to drink from the same glass,” he recalled.

But Raza had a thirst for knowledge. He went on to study at the University of Pashawa in the capital city of the North West Frontier Province. At the edge of the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border, Peshawar is the cultural, political, and economic capital of the Pashtuns in Pakistan — a place where moderate, extremist, and liberal Islam clash.

Raza said he came from a middle-class rural family with land holdings in their village. “I did not have to work in the fields,” he said. He studied law but did not pursue a lucrative career. Instead, he became an activist and human rights lawyer.


“I was a student in the days of the Cold War,” he said. “I have been a witness to huge violence for a long time — three decades. It has impacted me deeply….I felt myself responsible to alleviate what I could. We want to produce a critical mass who stand for peace, tolerance, and democratic values.”

Raza was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and, in 2005-06, studied at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., earning an LL.M. and certificate in International Human Rights Law.

In June of 2006, he worked with friends to start a foundation to set up schools for the Pushtun people in the border towns near the Khyber Pass.

“We wanted to provide a quality liberal education to poor students who might otherwise end up in a madrassa,” he said, referring to the Islamic religious schools that educated many of the Taliban. During the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan preached war on infidels — the enemy then was the Soviet Union; now, the enemy is America.

Raza stressed the importance of “people to people” relationships.

Currently, Raza said, “There is not a good public image” of America in his country. “Rather, there’s an anti-American sentiment,” he said.

Raza went on, “The government of the United States has historically supported military dictatorships rather than representative governments. There is a perception the U.S. government is not people friendly, that it promotes policy at a cost to the common people.”

Raza’s foundation is named the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation — online at www.BKEFoundation.org. It is named after Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known, in Pashto, as Baacha Khan or King Kahn. A pacifist and devout Muslim, Kahn was a follower of Mohandas Gandhi. “He was known as the Frontier Gandhi,” said Raza. As a Pashtun spiritual and political leader, he led non-violent opposition to British rule in India.

 “Baacha Khan and his legacy is a great sort of inspiration among Pashtuns,” said Raza. “The Taliban have become self-proclaimed leaders. They have demonized and destroyed the social fabric of the Pashtun community.”

In the early part of the 20th Century, Raza said, Kahn set up over 70 schools in the North West Frontier Province. Kahn accomplished this, despite oppressive British colonialism, said Raza, because he inspired community support for the schools.

Raza’s foundation is using a similar model and so far has set up 12 elementary schools, each of them for both boys and girls. The foundation is focusing on educating girls because of their low literacy rate.

The schools, said Raza, teach comparative religions, “not only emphasizing one religion,” as the madrassas do. “We teach religion in a way that highlights the humane and peace,” he said. “We are not promoting intolerance and violence.”

His work has made Raza and those in his foundation a target. His security comes from community goodwill, he said. He is working with the Open Society Institute and Soros foundation network.

“Quality education that liberates minds is the key to resolving many issues in that part of the world,” said Raza. “Only 2.2 percent of national expenses go to education. It’s an educational vacuum, an institutional meltdown.”

He went on to describe the “mushroom growth of madrassas.” Raza said, “Hundreds of thousands of youth graduate from madrassas without any useful skills. Their ultimate goal is to create another madrassa…Schemers vandalize our youth and use them as cannon fodder.”

Raza came to the United States this month to attend a conference on global development. He visited elementary schools in Berne and Altamont because of Terrice Bassler, who graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo in 1976 and went on to work for the Open Society Institute and Soros foundation networks. She worked with Raza to set up the schools in Pakistan. “It was because of her energy and support we were able to do this,” he said.

“They are really good schools,” he said of the elementary schools he visited this week. He praised “the quality of the teachers and the students and the infrastructure.”

On this visit, Raza also met with Greg Mortenson, whose bestseller, Three Cups of Tea, tells the story of his failed attempt in 1993 to climb Pakistan’s K2, the second highest mountain in the world. He got separated from his climbing group in desolate northern Pakistan. Without food, water, or shelter, Mortenson was taken in by a poor village and nursed back to health.

The village was too poor to have a school and Mortenson promised he would return to build one. He made no headway soliciting funds from prominent Americans. But the tide turned when a group of schoolchildren from River Falls, Wisconsin donated over six hundred dollars in pennies, inspiring others to get involved. Mortenson went on to set up scores of schools.

His idea is to fight terrorism with books, not bombs. The subtitle of his book is “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time.”

“His organization is not in the areas where we work,” said Raza of Mortenson. “We’re thinking about building a partnership.”

The work has not been without obstacles, some as dangerous as the face of K2. “He tried to open a school in Waziristen,” said Raza. “He was threatened. He was kidnapped. He stopped.”

Raza’s foundation has gotten requests from that area for a school. “We have the capacity,” he said.

Raza took a page from Mortenson’s book as he talked to third-graders at Altamont Elementary on Tuesday morning.

He told the attentive children how the foundation’s schools now are in rental houses, with several different grades sharing a single room. “There might not be electricity for two or three or four hours,” he said. “But they are serious about their work and studies.”

“What could students like ours do to help?” asked teacher Annemarie Farrell.

“I believe the United States is a powerful and rich country,” answered Raza. “You being the citizens of this country and the future leaders of this country have more responsibility than you can imagine right now,” he told the wide-eyed children. “The United States does very good to improve the lives of people but other issues make the government not as likeable as the citizens. So a child from the United States helping another child get an education would be a gesture with great impact.

“If you sent 50 cents — their monthly tuition fee — that child is going to remember that for his entire life….That’s what you can do.”

That’s something we each can do. Using the same philosophy of collective community that Raza has used to build a dozen schools, we can each give something to support a noble effort.  As Gandhi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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