PORTLAND — A crowd estimated at 600 people came to the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine on Monday night to hear Greg Mortenson’s message describing terrorists’ greatest fear.

Mortenson, a world-renowned author and humanitarian, has spent the last 17 years helping to create more than 140 schools and 60 temporary schools for refugees in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

His organization, the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, establishes schools that now provide educational opportunities for more than 64,000 children. About 52,000 of the students are girls.

Since 2007, more than 2,400 schools in those countries have been shut down by the Taliban, according to UNICEF – a United Nations organization that is devoted to protecting the health of children in developing nations.

“(The Taliban’s) greatest fear is not the bullet, it’s the pen,” Mortenson said during his presentation in USM’s Hannaford Lecture Hall. “Their belief is, the ink of the scholar is greater than the blood of a warrior.”

Monday’s presentation began the Wright Express Creativity and Leadership Event Series, which its sponsors hope will become an annual series. All of the proceeds from Mortenson’s presentation went toward scholarships for USM students.

University officials said the event sold out, which forced them to open up a hall where people could watch Mortenson’s presentation on a closed circuit broadcast.

“Tonight’s speaker has won the hearts and minds of millions of people across the United States and beyond,” said Selma Botman, USM’s president, in introducing Mortenson.

Botman said Mortenson uses education to counter violence and religious intolerance in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“We’re here tonight to honor the remarkable power of education,” said Michael Dubyak, chairman and chief executive officer of Wright Express. “He is one of my heroes. It’s hard to explain, but he touches my heart and soul at their core.”

Mortenson co-authored “Three Cups of Tea, One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time.” The book has sold more than 4 million copies and has been a New York Times bestseller for over 190 weeks.

The book is required reading for U.S. military commanders who are preparing to serve in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mortenson’s second book, “Stones Into Schools, Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” will be out in paperback in November.

Mortenson said there are 120 million children across the globe who are not in school. Many of those children are being exploited as slaves or soldiers. “The slavery of children is more rampant than any other time in our history,” he said.

Mortenson, who was born in Minnesota in 1957, said his family lived in Tanzania, an African nation, for part of his childhood. His father established the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in 1971.

While in Africa, he heard a proverb that he believes in today: If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.

“If girls are not educated, society in these countries will never, ever change,” Mortenson said.

At his schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the tribal community must agree to donate the land for a school and all manual labor. The Central Asia Institute provides teacher training and support.


Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]