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January 19, 2012
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Journey of Hope stops in Vail Friday for Vail Symposium presentation

Karin Ronnow and Ellen Jaskol have hero stories, lots and lots of hero stories.

And their heroes pick up a child more often than a gun. They'll be sharing some of those hero stories at tonight's Vail Symposium presentation.

Ronnow is a journalist and Jaskol a photojournalist. They travel to some of the world's most remote and impoverished places, collecting stories and images of the Central Asia Institute's (CAI) work in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Like Bibi Khanim's story.

Khanim, 30, is the only woman in her Afghanistan village to finish high school. She and her husband have four children between the ages of 8 and 14. That means her oldest was born when she was 16, Ronnow said.

Besides trying to survive in that high altitude, arid environment, she volunteers as a middle school teacher. She does it, Ronnow writes, because Khanim, like most parents, wants her children to have a better life than she has.

"I don't want my children to live like this," Khanim told Ronnow.

So Khanim and others like her are doing everything they can to increase literacy and provide medical training and care to her village where she's the only one with any medical training - the stuff that hope is made of. She handles everything from opium addicts to childbirth.

Those stories are heartbreaking and inspiring and horrifying and thrilling. Ronnow and Jaskol will share those stories tonight.

"We get to visit remote villages most people never see," Ronnow said. "We are invited into people's homes and trusted with their stories and their dreams of a better future."

Ronnow's and Jaskol's journeys take them to some of the most isolated villages on the planet, usually high in the mountains of central Asia. Electricity and running water are rare. Grinding poverty, hunger and illiteracy are not.

But still, the payoff happens right before their eyes.

"We witness change as it happens in communities where education is making a difference, one child at a time. As a result, our travels are highlighted by qualities that are increasingly rare in our fast-paced, divisive Western world: gratitude and grace and hope," Ronnow said.

Ronnow was thinking about Khanim recently because she kept tripping over reminders that it was International Women's Day, she said.

"Although I am decidedly not a fan of international or national whatever-it-is days/months/years, I was struck by how much of the coverage of this 100th annual celebration noted the importance of educating girls and women," Ronnow wrote in a column for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

At least part of the reason for Ronnow's and Jaskol's journey was to check on whether schools former CAI director Greg Mortenson claimed he had built actually existed. Mortenson remains in the crosshairs of controversy. Allegations against Mortenson include reneging on a promise to build a school in a town he visited; claiming that a visit with frontier tribesmen in Pakistan ended in a kidnapping by the Taliban; and taking benefits from CAI to which he was not entitled. Mortenson refuted the claims, but is no longer with the organization. Anne Beyersdorfer is the acting executive director.

Ronnow joined the CAI as communications director last spring after a quarter century as a newspaper journalist. Since 2007, she has made 11 trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan and Tajikistan, to document the CAI's work in those countries.

Jaskol has been a photojournalist for 27 years. Prior to starting her own photography business in 2009, she was staff photographer for 17 years at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and nine years at the Los Angeles Times. Her work has taken her to Italy, Jamaica, Mexico and Cambodia, and now, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in 2010 and 2011 for CAI.

As they travel, they wonder what would happen if world leaders spent some time in the remote places of Afghanistan and Pakistan they visit, and meet the people they met.

"We'd have a radically different foreign policy," Ronnow wrote.

Staff writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 19, 2012 03:55PM Published Jan 19, 2012 03:45PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.