In the U.S., you can find one in every town, every school and every college. Free libraries are ubiquitous to the American landscape and often taken for granted.
“But, in Afghanistan unfortunately, people have been far from reading for a long time. And libraries do not really exist that much,” said Sajia Darwish, a senior at Mount Holyoke College.
Darwish created the first library for her hometown in Afghanistan. She’s received a scholarship from a group called the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund. Formed in New Jersey in 2008, it helps young Afghan women pursue an education in the U.S. if they’re committed to improving life in Afghanistan.
“We raise money as a nonprofit organization, but we’re really partnering with universities who provide scholarships because scholarships don’t cover all costs including books, medical insurance and trips home during the summer to stay connected with your culture and your family. So, we raise funds to support and wrap around a university scholarship,” said AGFAF Co-founder Joe Highland.
Highland says the fund has helped over 40 Afghan students and has raised over $1 million. They help make the match between the women and a higher education institution. When students go home for the summer, they fund impact projects like Darwish’s free library and even the first braille library in the country.
“You have to have a little sense of the culture they’re coming out of, that culture does not support in many cases education of women at all, so many girls don’t go to school at all. The illiteracy rate of Afghan women is extremely high,” said Highland.
“I wanted this to be something where students could work together, they could actually have a space to read in order to expand this reading culture that has been lost to war to constant conflict,” said Darwish.
The project didn’t end there. Princeton Day School partnered with Darwish’s library on a school service project pairing third grade students from Kabul with kids in Princeton. The global connector? A book.
“Because of the language barrier, we shared lots of pictures, the kids did drawings and they were very similar drawings. And that was enlightening for our kids to think that they draw just like we do and language doesn’t matter, culture doesn’t matter. We’re all just kids enjoying the same experience,” said Princeton Day School teacher Margie Gibson.
“Even if they’re far away, we can still make the same connections because we both read the same book,” said Princeton Day School fourth grader Daniel Caruso.
“The more you can expose them to different types of literature and different types of character, you’re building a foundation they don’t even realize is happening,” said Princeton Day School librarian Jenny Mischner.
And as Darwish completes her degree in International Relations, she’s grateful for her new support network of Afghans in the U.S., and she hopes to inspire more women and more projects.