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 â€“ 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.