BY NICOLE VILLACRES ’18
With funding from Afghan Girls Fi-nancial Assistance Fund, Sajia Darwish ’18 opened the Baale Parwaz Library this summer in Kabul, Afghanistan. Although a native of Kabul, Darwish has been in the United States since she was 13. The idea to build the library came out of a conversation between Darwish and the co-founder of AGFAF, Joseph Highland. AGFAF supports Darwish’s education at Mount Holyoke through financial assistance.
“He works very closely with me and we were talking about what I could do and not do,” Darwish said. “I was suggesting all of these [ideas] and he stopped me and said they would fund [the library]. The both of us, we had never thought it would turn out this way. I never thought it would be something this big.”
To start the project, Darwish created a plan for the library and approached the Ministry of Education for approval.
“It was so hard to get the approval. I emphasize this above everything else because in Afghanistan, there is a lot of corruption. Everywhere you go, you have to go through so much. It takes so long to get something approved,” said Darwish.
The reality of the project set in for Darwish once they received approval from the Ministry of Education and the school. The original idea was to build a library somewhere in Kabul for the public to use. Darwish choose her former school, Mohammad Asif Mayel High School, as the site for the library, because it would have been difficult to build trust with the public in a separate location.
“It would have been so hard for us to build the trust for people to come because in Afghanistan there are so many foreign run organizations or all of these things that people don’t trust and so they end up not actually having an impact.
“The fact that so many people come to it, which I see as it being successful, is because they saw it as a person [from the community] that wanted to do something for them. They knew me because I went to this school when I was young,” said Darwish.
The BPL was completed in three months. She estimates the library has between 200 to 300 members. Baale Parwaz means “wings to fly” in Farsi, which reflects Darwish’s desire for the library to support other children’s education.
“[Afghanis] would have made the library for themselves, were they given the time, if they had the money and if they had the peace to think about it. It is not like they just don’t want this, they have never had this in Afghanistan, there are no libraries, women are illiterate. They are very peaceful, they want this and they do like to do things.
“It has just been so long [that] they have thought about how to survive that reading a book is the last thing they think about,” said Darwish.
When it came to stocking the library, Darwish was deliberate in the choices she made. She met with the heads of the school’s departments to ask teachers what books they needed. Teachers all made lists and then Darwish worked within her budget to buy the books.
“When I was in Afghanistan, the worst thing that I could never forget was the fact that teachers were not very good in their own fields because of bad education and not having access to computers and internet.” Darwish wanted the library to be a resource for all of the teachers.
“There are millions of books. You can buy a lot of books and just bring them in and no one would use [the library].”
Continuing to work with her younger sister and Highland, Darwish fields requests for new books from teachers and creates updated budgets.
Darwish’s vision for the library is to provide books and magazines as gifts to the children who work on the street. She envisions every member of the library buying one item, which they could distribute to all of the children.
“I was thinking maybe if [members] could make a gift and give it to [the children]. This would not be too radical in [Afghan] society. Maybe if the kids read that book or that magazine they would end up liking it and they would start coming to the library. Those steps are the one[s] we have to take before really going at it in this society.”
Before returning to Mount Holyoke, Darwish created two reading clubs for the library. She now shares the responsibility of managing them with her younger sister.
“[Reading clubs are] such a new thing in Afghanistan. It is difficult to get the girls or boys above the age of 16 to read because once you have not had the habit, it is hard to get into the habit of reading.”
Darwish comments that getting younger children to read is easier because their habits are more fluid, and so the reading groups focus on motivating high school aged students to read. The program buys as many copies of a certain book as there are members in the club, they take a week to read it and then discuss the book in the library.
Aside from the reading clubs, Darwish continues to manage which books will be purchased and is working on designing a winter program, when schools are out of session, to offer literacy courses to mothers of children who cannot read.
“We don’t want the library to close just because the school is not in session,” Darwish said.
The literary courses would have a big impact because children are mostly with their mothers, and if their mothers cannot read, then the children are not exposed to the habit. According to the United Nations, only 12 percent of Afghan women are literate.
“This is why we do not have a reading culture, because moms cannot read and fathers are all busy working and so children get neglected,” said Darwish.
Darwish recognizes the “darker” aspects of Afghanistan but stresses the multiplicity of the place beyond being torn by war, poverty and illiteracy.
“When you look at statistics, when you look at how the country is really portrayed by the media, by everything else and then to some point it would be true for people who are not insiders to the country. For me, when I think of it, I mean obviously all the memories I have had, all the other things that are far from the war, or the poverty, or the illiteracy, then that gives it a different image. But it is so difficult to make people see that side of it,” said Darwish.
Darwish mentioned that the practice that needs to be changed in Afghanistan is the cycle of insufficient education creating a dependency on others, which leads to the subordination of women.
“These basic things that have been left out and then it has been practiced so long and it has become the norm and then people just accept it. There has to be someone to say that you don’t have to [accept it] and that would open so many doors,” said Darwish.
Darwish says that the women in Afghanistan have not seen the other side, where women pursue education and are self-sustaining. She likens this missing perspective to the view Afghanistan has of reading and the opinions of the Western world.
“Just like in the Western world, they haven’t seen the other side of Afghanistan, the good sides, the very beautiful places. They haven’t seen how hard working, hospitable they are there, they don’t think about it. For [Afghanis] too, they haven’t seen a different life. They haven’t seen a life where people read while waiting for the bus. They haven’t seen a side where girls and women don’t have someone [to] pay for something. I feel as they are ex- posed to, it won’t be hard to get something done,” said Darwish.
Darwish notes that her education, first at the Ethel Walker School, an all-girls school in Connecticut and now at Mount Holyoke, a historically women’s college, has influenced her work. On a regular basis, Darwish was exposed to positive messages that women can do everything. She also feels inspired by all the guest speakers who have presented on their work and the women that she met over the summer.
“I met with very accomplished women who are working in Afghanistan, most of whom studied abroad. They have their own organizations; they have a lot of things going on for them. I didn’t get to see this side of [Afghanistan], but now I see it. I guess I am one of them, because I did something good not just for myself but to benefit some more people. There are a lot of women working for the good and there are a lot who want to finish their [education] and actually do something and be able to stand on their own feet,” said Darwish.
She has considered continuing to open libraries in Afghanistan, but would need to find alternative sources for funding.
“When I think about it, I would be happy to do something that has something to do with both countries, that I could come and go. I don’t think that me being in one place would work because I have really strong connections to both [the U.S. and Afghanistan,” said Darwish.
The books Darwish read growing up varied from self-help books, or as she calls them “self-recognition books,” to graduate level text books.
“When I was young there was a lot going on in Afghanistan, it was just the time that we had our first president, Hamid Karzai, the Taliban withdrew from Kabul. It was a good time because people thought the Taliban was over so a lot of time people focused on the good side, which is why I got to go to school. It just felt good to read.”