While growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Dina Fesler never aspired to be a teacher, never mind the founder of a school. But when, after 15 years as a fashion designer, she and her husband, Brad Leonard, adopted a baby girl from China, her worldview expanded, and her career took a new turn.
Today, instead of women's clothing, Ms. Fesler designs innovative social studies courses for middle school students. As a result of that work, in 2011 she started a school in Afghanistan called Bridges Academy, a nascent project that brings together students from rival ethnic groups.
That she would take on such a huge task didn't surprise her admirers.
"Dina is one of those people who really believes she can make a difference in the world," says Kristi Holden, a homemaker and part-time art history professor in Northfield, Minn. She met Fesler in 2009 in connection with a fundraiser for Iraqi and Afghan children. "Not from a standpoint of grandiosity, but because she thinks it's the right thing to do. She's a really enthusiastic person, and her enthusiasm is infectious, so it's easy to get swept up in her vision and to want to try to help."
In 2009, as executive director of Children's Culture Connection, a nonprofit organization she founded in Northfield, Fesler traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, to gather video footage to help create an academic course on Afghanistan. She visited a cross section of local life: weddings, funerals, schools, museums, and family dinners.
She also visited Charah-e-Qambar, a squalid refugee camp for internally displaced people, mostly Pashtuns who had fled their homes in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold and center of some of the most intense fighting of the war.
Even her Afghan guide, a former Red Cross medic, was stunned at the living conditions in the camp and by the large number of seriously ill children living there.
At one point, a man thrust a dying baby into Fesler's arms, begging her to take his child. "You couldn't have a pulse and walk away from that," Fesler says.
Calling on favors from donors and other contacts worldwide, she cobbled together an impromptu medical mission, arranging for nearly 400 children from the camp, including that baby, Rahim, to be taken to hospitals in Kabul over a period of six weeks. (Rahim, at first not expected to survive the night, is now a healthy toddler.)
When her medical detour concluded, Fesler realized that a unique opportunity had opened up now that she had gained the trust of the inhabitants of the camp, who otherwise viewed foreigners with distrust and hostility. She saw an opportunity to help the refugees and enhance her curriculum – designed to promote understanding of cultures around the world through immersing young Americans in Afghan culture.
"How do you get 14-year-olds in America to care about Afghanistan? You entertain them and connect them, in some way, with their Afghan peers." Fesler says. "Everything I've done in Afghanistan has, in some way, been in service to the curriculum we're developing."
She first tried to start a modest but desperately needed briquette manufacturing operation in the refugee camp. Six older boys were trained in the low-tech process of turning scrap paper and other waste into briquettes useful for cooking and heating.
The venture failed because of resistance from camp elders. But the training opened the eyes of three of the boys to possibilities beyond the misery of Charah-e-Qambar, possibilities that required them first to get an education.
Fesler found a progressive school in the Dashti Barchi district of Kabul, a neighborhood populated by members of the Hazara ethnic group, that would accept the Pashtun boys. She also arranged for a car to take them on the hour-long drive to and from the school.
"I didn't think they'd last a day," says Fesler. She worried that the school's structured day might be too much for older teens with no foundation in classroom learning or support from their families. But, she says, "I decided I'd feel worse if I didn't at least give them a chance to try it."
In fact, the boys adjusted to the rigors of school, made friends among the Hazara, and took their first steps along the path to literacy. But due to the contentious ethnic and religious situation in Afghanistan, having Pashtun boys traveling to the Hazara district was a grave security risk to all the students at the school, and the boys were asked to leave at the end of the semester.
After trying unsuccessfully to find a new school, Fesler enlisted the help of Abuzar Royesh, a young Afghan who had spent 11 months in Minnesota while in high school. Together they rented an empty room in the same Dashti Barchi district, hired a teacher, and Bridges Academy was born.
"In the beginning, I thought that Dina would be just like all the other foreigners who come to Afghanistan just for a short time and then leave," says Mr. Royesh in an interview via Skype from his home in Kabul. "Once I got to know her, I saw that she really wants to help the children of Afghanistan. And she wants to show the children of the United States, through the curriculum she's developing, that there is much more to Afghanistan than war."
Royesh now serves as director of Bridges Academy. Fesler keeps in close touch with him from her base in Minnesota and travels to Kabul twice a year. While in Kabul, she arranges an exchange of video recordings made by the Afghan students and teenagers in the US.
From its modest beginnings, Bridges Academy has tripled in size, and today nine students – six Pashtuns from the refugee camp and three Hazaras from the neighborhood – are learning diction, math, Persian, and reading in a one-room school. Fesler hopes to grow the school to 20 students by the end of 2012 and, in time, to enroll children from other ethnic groups.
"The way that Pashtuns and Hazaras are learning together, side by side, is unprecedented," Fesler says. "Bridges Academy is not just a place to teach these boys to read and write, but to help them start to see and understand the larger world, to get them to think in new ways and to question what they had previously been taught...."
The early results in Afghanistan have impressed Fesler's colleagues and collaborators: "She's such a dynamo!" says Maren Swanson, a lawyer in Northfield who has worked with Fesler for several years and now serves as the president of the executive board of Children's Culture Connection. "She's so creative and so articulate. She really believes in fostering global connectedness to benefit children around the world. She inspires me."
"She's a fast-paced, energetic individual who cares greatly for people in need," adds Jerry Johnson, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., and sells medical devices. He met Fesler in 2008 when both were working separately with a children's organization in Vietnam and has followed her activities in Afghanistan closely. "She has a God-given calling to work with people in need, specifically children in need."
Fesler hopes that the cross-cultural connections she and Bridges Academy are fostering will increase understanding and tolerance and, ultimately, result in peace.
"I want these kids to have the ability to lead their own lives, make their own decisions, and think for themselves," Fesler says. "Peace is what you get from people who are transformed and empowered."
• To learn more, visit childrenscultureconnection.org and click on "Special Projects."