“Every time we get inside the (Aga Khan) system, we come away with an impressive feeling of the quality of its work. This is amazing stuff”
– Chris Robb, Businessman and Founding member of the Awali Group
“I think it is absolutely visionary.”
– Brian Felesky, Lawyer and Founding member of the Awali Group
Calgary group, Awali brings hope to Central Asia
By Robert Remington, For the Calgary Herald. Published on: April 27, 2015 2:17 PM MD
Our helicopter descends into the Naryn Valley, where we get our first glimpse of the site of the campus of the unlikely University of Central Asia. My initial impression is that His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV — or simply “HH” as some of his followers call him — has lost his senses.
Who in their right mind would build a high-altitude university in the poorest and most remote region of little-known Kyrgyzstan, a campus complete with its own water reservoir, geothermal heating system, soccer field and interconnected buildings to protect students against the area’s harsh winters? At the campus construction site, fences have been erected to keep out the cattle that wander freely through town.
Two similar campuses are also under construction by the Aga Khan in Khorog,Tajikistan on the Afghanistan border and in Tekeli, Kazakhstan. Established by treaty between the three governments, the University of Central Asia is the world’s first internationally chartered university.
The Calgary group — led by prominent Calgary oilman and philanthropist Jim Gray, includes Calgary lawyer Brian Felesky and businessmen Chris Robb and Sherali Saju — spent three weeks recently touring Aga Khan projects in India, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Under the name Awali, from a Swahili word for “the beginning,” Gray, Felesky, Saju and Robb head a list of 125 donors, most from Calgary, who helped kickstart an Aga Khan teacher training institute in East Africa 10 years ago. Gray, who believes in education as the best way to combat the global ills of poverty, disease and radical fundamentalism, regularly returns with various group members to visit Aga Khan projects in the developing world. For this, his fifth such trip, Gray had to pull out maps for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
“For me, there was big black hole between Russia, China, India and Pakistan. I understood Afghanistan, but north of there it was blank. When we told our friends where we were going, they said, ‘You’re nuts. It’s dangerous. It’s primitive.’ Quite frankly, it’s just the opposite.”
Robert Remington is a former Herald editorial writer and columnist. For more on this story, follow his blog at robertremington.wordpress.com/aga-khan/; watch a related video at calgaryherald.com; and check out part two of the story appearing in the Herald on Monday.
Discover, Explore and Learn more via Calgary Herald | Calgary group brings hope to Central Asia
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