Stones into Schools

I have been reading the second book of Greg Mortenson’s, “Stones into Schools”, and follows his life helping kids in the most remote reaches of Afghanistan and Pakistan by building schools and lifting the crushing poverty that has plagued this group of people living there. The more I read, the more inspiring his stories are and never in my life have I read the book so moving, to the point where I just made a donation of USD10 to the Central Asia Institute, the non-profit organisation that helps to finance and plan the construction of schools since its first formation by Mr Greg himself. His life story, his failures and successes are both enormous and greater than life.

One particular passage in his book struck me particularly hard personally, and after reading it, sealed my decision to actually make the transaction to donate some money to the CAI online. Read on to find out…

This is from a passage in the book while Mr Greg is in Afghanistan, traveling toward the north-eastern regions of the country to survey the area in setting up schools in local villages:

The greatest likelihood of our being abducted or attacked was during the thirty-hour drive from Kabul to Baharak, and on this stretch of the drive, Sarfraz’s [local guide accompanying Mr Greg] concerns about security occasionally placed him at odds with my desire to get to know ordinary Afghans – a point of contention that he and I will wrestle with even today. This difference first surfaced during one of out earliest trips together in the spring of 2004.

As usual, we had left from Kabul late in the afternoon in order to pass unimpeded through the Salang Tunnel, which was only open to civilian traffic at night. Just north of the tunnel, the rattletrap jeep we had hired emitted a loud sizzle, and steam began pouring out of the engine. Sarfraz ordered the driver to drift down the hill about a mile and pull into a roadside mechanic shop. There, a boy who was no older than eleven stepped up with a pair of flip-flops to ask what we needed. His head was shaved and covered with a black woolen cap, and he wore an oil-stained shalwar kamiz that was coated with grease. His name was Abdul, and he walked with a limp.

Abdul jumped into the engine compartment like an acrobat, and by the time Sarfraz and I had eaten a quick meal and had a cup of tea at a nearby canteen, our young mechanic had deftly replaced our radiator and hoses. He told us the price was fourteen hundred Afghans (about 28 dollars) and as Sarfraz counted out the money, I tried to get a sense of who Abdul was and what his story entailed.

“Where is your father?” I asked. “It is nearly midnight and you are working alone?”

“I am an orphan from Pul-e-Khumri,” he replied matter-of-factly. “I have no father because the Taliban killed my entire family.”

“Where do you live?”

“I live here – I sleep in the truck trailer over there where we keep our spare parts.” He pointed to a rusting metal container.

“How much money do you make?” I asked as I searched in my pocket to offer him a small tip.

“None,” he replied. “I don’t get paid – I only get some food, tea and a place to sleep. I work day and night, every day, and sleep when there is no customer. And if my boss finds out I have taken any money, he will beat me with the iron rod over there.”

By this point, our driver was revving the engine to signal that we needed to get moving, and Sarfraz had lit up a cigarette and was glaring at me with impatience. It was the middle of the night on a dangerous road, we were behind schedule, and it was time to go.

“Sarfraz,” I replied, initiating an exchange that he and I were to repeat endlessly over the next several years, “can’t we please do something here?”

“Greg, this is Afghanistan – you cannot help everyone!” Sarfraz barked. “If he works hard, this boy might eventually own his boss’s garage. But for now he has food and a place to sleep, and that is better than half of the orphans in Afghanistan.”

“Okay, but how about if we just – ”

“No Greg!” He declared, cutting me off. “I promise that when I pass through here again, I will stop to check on Abdul. But we really need to go now, or we will become shahids  on the highway, and that your wife will never forgive me.”

Knowing that he was right, I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the boy mechanic, and then we drove away.

On his next trip north, Sarfraz did indeed stop to check on Abdul and discovered that another young boy was working in his place. Sarfraz asked what had happened to Abdul, but no one in the shop could offer any information. Perhaps he had gone north to Faizabard, or maybe south to Kabul. No one knows anything except that Abdul, whose story seemed to mirror that of so many others in this nation of orphans, had simply dissapeared.

In the black-and-white image I shot at night, Abdul is standing in the garage, covered in grease and oil, with a flat expression of resignation and loss that no eleven-year-old boy should ever feel. The photo sits on my desk in Bozeman, and I see it everyday that I am home.

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