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Pulitzer Center Update January 22, 2016

Jeffrey Stern and "The Last Thousand"


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Jeffrey Stern, a former Pulitzer Center grantee, is coming out with his first book, The Last Thousand: One School's Promise in a Nation at War on January 26, 2016.

This book is the fruit of a dream and also some risky decisions. Right after college, Stern wanted to be a writer, but he wasn't sure how this was going to happen. He had a small portfolio, few contacts, and as he explains it, no patience to follow the "normal" track of starting small and working your way up. So he did the only rational thing—after graduating, he took out all the money in his bank account and moved to Afghanistan.

Now there is a bit of a backstory to this decision. About a year before he moved to Afghanistan he was an intern at CNN when one of their correspondents based in Afghanistan resigned. Knowing that he was woefully unqualified, Stern made a joke to his boss that he should be the man to replace the correspondent. The joke was a hit. Eventually, everyone in Stern's family had been told the one-liner and loved it. However, as time passed, Stern started taking his joke seriously. "Why not move to Afghanistan?" he thought. At that time Stern knew that no editor was going take him seriously, but if he moved to Afghanistan they would have to. So he booked the flight and off he went.

Afghanistan was the perfect place to be a war correspondent in 2007. There was a close-knit group of expats and the U.S. was just beginning to escalate operations. Soon, the city of Kabul was bustling and expanding rapidly. This was where he wanted to be—the only problem was that he wasn't a war correspondent. Not technically, at least. He had just moved there, and his resources were dwindling fast.

Stern figured that he had roughly two weeks until he was penniless. A small bit of freelancing helped him out, giving him a few hundred dollars here and there, but he needed something stable. And, 10 days after landing, he found his first job. Nothing glamorous—an administrative assistant at the American University of Afghanistan. They provided housing, and the hours were lenient enough so that he could also freelance. His supervisor, an Afghan-American and part of the Hazara community, launched him into the world of the Hazaras, notably introducing him to the Marefat School. When his supervisor fell ill, he asked if Stern could take over the class for the day. Stern had never taught an English class to foreigners, but it is not exactly easy for anyone to say no to their boss.

Stern made the long drive out into the desert, as the school was far from the main city of Kabul, and fumbled through his first English class. It would not be his last though.

The Marefat School was unlike any other school in Afghanistan. Boys and girls were in the same classroom, students were learning to question authority, and the children enjoyed coming to class every day. More impressive was that all the students were Hazara, a group which most of the Middle East has looked down upon. Now, their school was more advanced than others, both in academics and their progressive policies.

He continued to teach the children, and grew close to the head and founder of the school, Aziz Royesh, known commonly in the community as "Teacher." The more he learned of Royesh's journey from holy warrior to refugee to being the head of one of the finest private schools in Afghanistan, the more he wanted to tell the story of Royesh and of the oppressed people, the Hazara.

He pitched the story, found a publisher and had a basis for the book. Stern spent a lot of time with Royesh in the next year—as well as a community fearful for their lives, with the Taliban still encroaching and their greatest allies, western armies, leaving. The Hazara people had disarmed themselves, just as the U.S. asked them, but now the U.S. would not be there to protect them.

The book takes a hard look at what happens to these communities after the U.S. leaves and they fall out of mainstream news.

Stern has a book signing in D.C. on February 2 and a talk in Philadelphia on March 10 scheduled.

The Last Thousand: One School's Promise in a Nation at War can be purchased on Macmillan.