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‘Three Cups of Tea’ author speaks at MU

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 | 10:52 p.m. CDT; updated 12:43 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 17, 2008

COLUMBIA — Greg Mortenson's book "Three Cups of Tea" has been a New York Times best-seller for 83 weeks. But it wasn't always such a hit.

At first, publishers insisted the book's subtitle read "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism ... One School at a Time." The subtitle threw off readers, and it wasn't until Mortenson insisted that the subtitle be changed to promote peace, instead of reference terrorism, that sales took off.

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Mortenson, who co-authored "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time" alongside award-winning journalist David Oliver Relin, spoke and answered questions about his experiences and mission in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a crowd of MU students and Columbia residents on Tuesday night in MU's Jesse Auditorium.

"To alleviate or work with poverty, we need to smell poverty, we need to see poverty, touch poverty," Mortenson said in his speech to a roaring audience. "We can't solve poverty from a think tank in Washington, D.C."

Appreciation and respect for Mortenson's work was apparent throughout the lecture, as the community welcomed him onto the stage with a standing ovation and applauded at every opportunity.

Mortenson said it is highly important to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan because they are the core members of their communities. They will discourage their sons from joining terrorist organizations because of their education, he said.

One of the largest freshman classes in MU's history was asked to read "Three Cups of Tea" for this year's Mizzou Reads program.

To complete this goal, thousands of freshmen turned the pages of Mortenson's book before the start of the fall semester. Students were then split into small discussion groups headed by MU faculty and staff as part of the slew of Fall Welcome activities offered to incoming freshmen, according to the Mizzou Reads Web site.

These students made up a large part of Tuesday's audience.

"I liked how he went through the back door in inspiring peace," freshman Courtney Bandeko said. "I related to him ... I cried, too, when he cried — about the kids and working hard for their education."

Bandeko said the book not only reinforced beliefs she already held about promoting peace, but also expanded her view of Islam.

"It just made me think about the difference of culture here in America," she said. "Through the book we got to know certain people, and that Islam is not our enemy. They're not evil like some people would like us to think."

The event drew more than just MU students.

"This is the first time — that I'm aware of — that we've been getting a lot of requests from people ... outside the Columbia area," said David Rielley, senior coordinator for new student programs at MU.

The audience was filled with Columbia residents lining up behind the microphones to ask questions about how Mortenson's organization raises money, what kind of curriculum is taught in schools in Pakistan and whether he is looking to promote education in other parts of the world such as Sudan and the Gaza Strip. People from St. Louis, Springfield, Ill., and even Maryland planned on coming to listen to Mortenson speak, Rielley said.

As of this year, Mortenson has set up more than 79 schools currently teaching more than 28,000 children in remote sectors of Pakistan and Afghanistan to educate younger generations in hopes of discouraging Taliban recruitment and improving the overall standard of living in the region, Rielley said in his introduction.

Mortenson will receive Pakistan's highest civil award, Sitara-e-Pakistan, or the "Star of Pakistan" on March 23 for his accomplishments in furthering educational opportunities throughout the nation.

"It's education that can bring hope," Mortenson said. "It was the peaks that brought me there, but it was the people that brought me back and back again."


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