READING FIRST

A US college student who grew up with few books returned to her native Afghanistan to build a library

When Sajia Darwish was in elementary school, there weren’t a lot of books lying around her school in Kabul, Afghanistan. Civil war and the reign of the Taliban coincided with a decline in reading culture. To pass time, Darwish picked up How to Win Friends and Influence People in Farsi.

Darwish is now a junior at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, but she’s taking on the low literacy rate and dearth of reading material in her native city by returning there to build a library, where there was once just a few shelves of books.

The Baale Parwaz Library, at Kabul’s Mohammad Asif Mayel High School, opened in August. At 15 meters long and just four meters wide, the library is built on a balcony and houses 2,500 books for the students from first through twelfth grade. The library is supported by the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund, which also helps with Darwish’s college tuition.

“I always liked to read,” says Darwish, “And it was kind of weird to me that everyone around me was not [reading].”

(Courtesy Sajia Darwish)

The country has one of the lowest literary rates in the world, at about 31% of the population over 15, with only 17% for females. Kabul has the highest literacy rates for women, but it’s still just 35%.

“Because of the continuous war, people have been too busy finding ways to survive, and unfortunately reading does not seem very important,” says Darwish. “Over years, since many generations have been raised without giving much importance to books, reading culture has declined drastically.”

When she was growing up, “there weren’t a lot of books for children,” says Darwish. “I shouldn’t even say ‘not a lot’; there weren’t any.”

What constituted the “library” at Mohammad Asif Mayel was a closet with a several shelves of books that few people used. But Darwish’s father encouraged her to read, and though there weren’t many bookstores to shop at, they bought books at stationary stores.

Darwish eventually went to the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut for high school, and on to Mount Holyoke, where she majors in international relations.

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