Central Asia Institute Fundraising Gala in Santa Clara
By Ras H. Siddiqui

Pictures above: Glimpses of the Central Asia Institute Fundraising Gala in Santa Clara

The Central Asia Institute or CAI (https://www.ikat.org/) is a Bozeman, Montana-based 501(c) 3 non-profit organization with a winning motto “Peace and Hope Begin With Education: One Child At A Time”. Its mission is to promote education, especially for young girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in this quest it has already built 168 schools and educates over 68,000 students in these areas.

On Saturday, September 25 th, about one thousand people (yes, this is not a typo) attended the CAI Fundraising Gala at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Santa Clara to participate in what can only be called a grassroots movement and to listen to author and institute founder Greg Mortenson along with Oscar winning actress Helen Hunt and others who came to offer their support to this worthy cause.

There are few places in the world where such a movement is possible, and the US is one of them. America is fighting a full-scale war in Afghanistan and a more limited “Drone War” in parts of Pakistan, neither of which is popular in the region. But at the same time, we have Greg Mortenson’s CAI adding a peaceful community-based campaign to fight a war against ignorance in the region, one which is already paying dividends and increasing America ’s stature there. If anyone in this country has not read the book “ Three Cups of Tea” yet, it is never too late to do so. But it is important that Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and the Commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, have read it (it appears that their respective wives suggested that the do this). Some believe that the essence of this book could be a possible game changer for the region. 

Returning to the event, Sadia Ashraf bid everyone welcome. She acknowledged a number of dignitaries present including Greg, Helen Hunt, Mayor of Santa Clara Patricia Mahan and a number of others for their participation and contribution to the evening’s success. Sadia announced a replacement in the entertainment lineup with Alamgir to appear instead of Shehzad Roy who could not make it. She also invited Imam Abdurrahman Anwar for the starting invocation.  

Television and movie actor Michael Rady ( Melrose Place and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) was emcee for the evening and came on stage next. He thanked the CAI for the wonderful work that it is doing. “Your being here tonight is inspiring,” he said to the huge turnout. He shared his own inspiring story about a late aunt who introduced him to the book “ Three Cups of Tea”, one of the reasons why he was present at the event.

Next “The Improbable American” Todd Shea introduced his organization Shine Humanity ( http://www.shinehumanity.org/) which has been busy helping in disaster efforts like running a charity hospital on the Pakistani side of Kashmir since the 2005 earthquake. Todd just cannot ignore a disaster because “I can tell you with all certainty that my life has been a disaster,” he said. A down an out musician who was inspired to help others during the horrific day of 09/11/2001, Todd took us on a journey back since 9/11 and to his work today. The earthquake in Haiti and the recent floods in Pakistan have also kept Todd very busy recently. 

A full course Pakistani dinner catered by Mehran Restaurant featuring a menu inclusive of Afghani Kabuli Pulau made quite an impression on the diverse community of guests present (80% were non-South Asian), an indication of the huge following that Greg Mortenson now has in mainstream America. The organizers also took the opportunity during dinner to show a movie highlighting some of the great work that the CAI is doing in Afghanistan these days. Groups like CAI’s are making their contribution. But a much larger education drive is also underway. For example, in the year 2001, only around 800,000 kids went to school in Afghanistan. Today the number is close to 9 million.

Next, a not very silent “Silent Auction” took place to kick off the fundraising effort.

A couple of paintings/prints inspired by Three Cups of Tea, jewelry, airline tickets (Etihad Airways) and even a coat from Helen Hunt’s wardrobe from the movie “What Women Want” went to the highest bidder collecting tens of thousands of dollars for CAI’s efforts.

Actress Helen Hunt who won the Academy Award for best Actress in a leading role for the 1997 movie “As Good as It Gets” in which she starred with Jack Nicholson was warmly welcomed. She has been a familiar face on television for us in America since Swiss Family Robinson during the mid-1970’s. Her appearance in the TV series “ Mad About You” during the 1990s is still fondly remembered by many viewers. We are also looking forward to her roles in at least two soon to be released movies. What we did not know is how well she commands a live stage before, but now we do. Helen’s introduction of Greg Mortenson at this event was just plain incredible. She described three strengths as probable reasons for Greg’s success in what he has set out to do. They are: 1) Humility, 2) Patience, and 3) Perseverance.

Greg Mortenson presented the 2010 Central Asia Institute recognition awards, which went to individuals who certainly deserved them. This year Todd Shea and Seattle based writer Ethan Casey were recognized for their contributions towards both Pakistan and Haiti.

Greg started his keynote with the words “Asalam-o-Alaikum” or the Muslim greeting of Peace Be With You. He thanked all the organizers, especially Sadia and Tauheed Ashraf along with others, and the numerous volunteers who helped in this effort.  He requested his friend Lt. Col. Ilyas Mirza from Pakistan to come to the stage and say a few words. Ilyas recalled the day when Greg asked him to assist in going to a certain hard to reach part of the country. He said he asked Greg two questions: “Are you an American?” and “Are you in your senses?” Later, he realized that this man was a special individual.

Greg Mortenson proceeded to share his experiences, both private and public, that had brought him to where he is today. His childhood in Tanzania. His sister’s epilepsy and death in 1992. His encounter with the second highest mountain in the world K2 and his failure to reach its peak plus his harrowing experience on its descent and arrival in the village of Korphe where he met Haji Ali and was moved by the hospitality of the poor people of the area. His promise to help build them a school and his subsequent attempts to raise funds in the US. In other words the inception of the “ Three Cups of Tea” story and the movement which started helped along with grassroots projects like “Pennies for Peace”.  

It is noteworthy that Greg’s attempts at peace through education have finally reached the highest levels of military leadership in the United States. “It is great to help people. What is really important is that we empower people,” he said. He also highlighted his opposition to landmines which are still killing and maiming people in Afghanistan today.   Explaining why militants in the region have been attacking girls’ schools and blowing them up, he said that they were afraid of the power of knowledge and the pen. He added that there was no military solution to the war in Afghanistan and that the actual aspirations of most of the people in that region were that they did not want their kids to die and they wanted them to go to school. One could go on with many other aspects of Mortenson’s speech but due to space constraints that is just not possible here.

An entertainment segment headlined by Alamgir ended the program. And before we forget thanks are in order to Event Chairs and Committee Members (those not mentioned yet) namely Reema Kamran and Sayira Khokhar of R&R Event Management, Dr. Abdul and Talat Jabbar, Annie Akhtar, Javed and Naveeda Ellahie, Carol Silver, Margaret Pfeiffer, Lynn Schrempf, Diane Lattanzio, Daniela Roberts, Jamie Holecek, Noreen Tariq, Brian Seredynski, Sara Khan and Talat Khan for their efforts towards the success of this event. At last glance, over $292,000 had been collected or pledged for CAI at this venue.       

In closing, there is just too much to reflect on after attending an event like this one. But what one can come away with is that wars are not always the best option. Like other places in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ordinary people desire a better life for themselves and their families. But ignorance and the right mechanism for implementing change remain a problem. The big difference that Greg Mortenson brings to the table is his ability to communicate and to look beyond the stereotypes. Tea, anyone?



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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