BOZEMAN – Walking around the remote village of Patika, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Greg Mortenson, at well over six feet tall, was hard to miss that day in 2006. Some villagers understood he was there to build schools, but since the devastating earthquake a year before, they were used to relief workers coming and going.
Mortenson’s bestselling book, “Three Cups of Tea,” had been read and discussed in just about every woman’s book club in the US, but in Kashmir he was a virtual stranger.
Never one to miss an opportunity to learn something new, law student and teacher Fozia Naseer invited the stranger for tea in the refugee tent she shared with her mother and sister, set amid the rubble of her once pleasant town. In this Muslim part of the world, a woman inviting a man for tea was nontraditional – even bold.
But ever since she was a child worrying her conservative elders with dreams of becoming a lawyer, Naseer was not afraid to veer from the norm.
Little did she know just how far from the norm those few cups of tea would take her. Mortenson’s visit lasted just over an hour – “He talked about education,” Naseer recalls simply. But Mortenson saw in Naseer impressive drive and intellect – exactly what his nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI) has been trying to tap in women in the developing world for 12 years.
He left her $250 to help her finish law school, and he shot off a note to Genevieve Chabot, CAI’s international program manager, asking her to pay Naseer a visit upon her return to Kashmir.
That’s how Naseer now finds herself at Montana State University (MSU) high in the Rockies, far from her home below the towering Himalayas.
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In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson recounts exhilarating, often perilous stories of his immersion in Pakistani culture as he struggles to build schools for girls in mountain villages. Now, using a scholarship that MSU gave him for the person of his choice, Mortenson has immersed Naseer – who is portrayed in his upcoming second book – in American culture. Along with classes, she’s training to become a CAI liaison in Kashmir.
Getting Naseer here wasn’t easy. It involved negotiations with her traditional uncle, Ilyas Hans Sahib, a father figure to Naseer since her father died in 1984. He’d just arranged a marriage for Naseer and was wary of sending her off to America without a family escort.
Although she was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of being the first woman from her village to visit the US, she had to let him make the decision. “I never tried to talk to my uncle about coming here,” Naseer says.
It took six months of casual meetings between Chabot and Sahib to convince him that the value of the journey would outweigh perceived dangers and that Naseer’s marriage could be postponed.
Naseer now seems to fit right into the cowboy culture of this land-grant university, often wearing jeans and Western wear (topped by her colorful Muslim scarves). She has impressed her hosts, Lori and Scott Lawson, with a surprising ability to take things in stride in such a foreign culture.
“Fozia is really accepting of other lifestyles,” Lawson says, noting that once her husband searched online to find the exact direction of Mecca, Naseer showed no discomfort breaking away to pray in their home. Mrs. Lawson says Naseer’s a quick study, too. After being shown the basement washing machine, Naseer nonchalantly threw in a load of laundry and turned it on. When they were walking back upstairs, Lawson discovered that Naseer had never seen a washing machine before that.
There have been plenty of other firsts: her first film in a movie theater, first sushi, first trip to a hair salon, and first time riding a horse.
Nothing much seems to shock her. That is, until the first time she ate at the MSU cafeteria: “I just couldn’t believe how much food there was, and how much gets thrown away.”
Perhaps as influential as any class she’s taking (including English composition and computer studies) is the exposure to daily American life.
“Here she is surrounded by strong women,” says Chabot. “And that’s important because back at home, for CAI, empowering other women will be her No. 1 job.”
Naseer agrees: “Where I’m from, most women stay home. It’s really different, but it’s easy for me here.”
Perhaps the biggest cleft of difference between here and there, for Naseer, was created at 8:50 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2005, when the comfortable life she and her family had with her landowner uncle became much more like that of the struggling masses. Naseer was writing on a blackboard, teaching in a village near her own when she felt the floor rattling.
“Run!” she yelled as she and her 5- and 6-year-old girls scrambled out seconds before the building collapsed in a whoosh of choking dust. One girl died at that school, but 70,000 people died in the quake throughout Kashmir.
Naseer frantically ran home, stumbling past wailing mourners to find her family of 10 sitting in front of their collapsed home.
“It was a really bad moment in my life,” she recalls of the days Naseer’s family and 30 neighbors hovered under a large sheet, hiding from nasty weather and mourning, taking turns digging through rubble for food.
With all the schools leveled and the road to Muzaffarabad blocked, life became a daily struggle just to survive. It has continued that way for Naseer until she landed here in August, greeted by the startling availability of food, entertainment, and, most important, the freedom to come out of her shell.
She admits that she misses her family. But the thought of returning after the freedom she’s experiencing is daunting – especially with an arranged marriage. “If I chose not to, I would be expelled from my family and village. Most girls just say ‘OK,’ ”she explains.
Naseer has had two public speaking events and more are lined up. Though speaking to groups is new to her, she says that it’s part of the education she needs to take on a leadership role. “I like it,” she says. “I know I must be confident to work for CAI, so I’m trying to do my best.”
She also is taking tae kwon do. “I want to be strong,” Naseer says. “It helps you with discipline … I like that. It gives you power.” Power, perhaps, she can’t experience at home.
“Here you have the freedom to do anything you want,” Naseer continues. “It feels good. I’m here to learn different things. I want to get experience about everything.”
What does she hope to accomplish with all of these new experiences? “Education,” she says. “That’s what I will bring home to other women in my village.”
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On a crisp day, recently, leaves were crunching under the wheels as Naseer was learning to ride a bike. With her host family rallying around, she was visibly frustrated as the bike teetered unsteadily beneath her after her umpteenth try.
So she gave up: “I felt like a child. I fell a lot and started to get so mad at myself.”
In her village, with rocky roads, no one owns a bike and no one in her family had ever learned to ride one. But after weeks of watching bikers cruising Bozeman, she’d fancied that freedom and asked her hosts for the lesson – so she was embarrassed to give up.
But early the next morning, Scott Lawson walked outside to find Naseer riding the bike on her own, with an ambitious look in her eyes.
“She’s just a quietly determined individual,” Lori Lawson said.
That quiet determination of a woman wanting to learn as much as possible – over a few cups of tea or on a bike – is just what Mortenson had in mind when he built his first school for girls in the developing world, and when he brought Naseer to the US.
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