While going to a library to read, study, and work may be a conventional option for many people here in the United States, it is unfortunately not for most Afghans.
Decades of war and never-ending conflict have decimated Afghanistan’s library system and its once vibrant literary culture. Illiteracy among women is staggeringly high (83 percent according to the United Nations), and their engagement in politics, or efforts to improve their own lives or society, continues to be predominantly absent.
When I had the opportunity to design and implement a project through the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF) in 2016, I knew what to do: build a library. Envisioning Baale Parwaz Library (BPL) was not difficult for me, since I grew up wishing for a place just like it: safe, quiet, clean, and offering an abundance of knowledge through books. That childhood desire, combined with the countless hours spent at the libraries of my high school and college here in the US, gave me a good idea of what I wanted. However, such a setting in Kabul did not seem realistic. Yet I was determined to give students, especially girls, the opportunity to read, to think critically, and to discuss issues relating to them and their communities.
Established as a small library serving school children of all ages, Baale Parwaz has, in the past three years, grown from providing books to becoming a full functioning resource center, offering a range of non-traditional classes such as digital literacy, photography, and self-defense, as well as book clubs and STEM camps led by AGFAF students during the summers.
On a daily basis, hundreds of students, teachers, and community members use the library and benefit from its resources. The BPL team also organizes social activities like Acts of Kindnesses, where students put together gifts based on the needs of the targeted groups. This year, we have been working on a knitting project, providing a source of income for women who create hats and scarves, which will then be purchased and given to street child laborers in the cold months of winter.
Building BPL was an undertaking and its success is humbling, but it would not have been possible without the mentorship of AGFAF board member Joseph Highland, my family’s support, and my prior exposure to the process of changemaking through Seeds of Peace.
I was less than 13 years old when I set foot on the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine. Back then, I did not know that I would remember many things, both big and small, from those 21 days, and carry them with me for the rest of my life. The damp earth, the deep green trees, the blue water … everything was new for me, but there were moments which instantly made me feel at home. Some of my favorite memories are from the dialogue sessions where I learned to see people as people, to not demonize them, and to hear their perspectives as individuals rather than a roaring collective.
After six years of schooling and living in the US, I was feeling anxiety around starting BPL in Kabul, as I was not sure what reaction to expect from my people. I knew that many would not take well to a woman leading such an initiative. After all, it was only a couple of months prior that they had beaten and burned alive a woman named Farkhunda, merely because of an accusation. So, I had my fears, but I also had my dreams, and they were what drove me. Throughout the process of building and operating BPL, I faced many obstacles, mainly because of my gender. For instance, some vendors and contractors did not want to deal with a woman. However, during this process, I also learned that my assumption was true only for a small group of people and that the majority welcomed and appreciated my efforts.
Seeds of Peace taught me to not blanket others with my own assumptions. This lesson, along with a Seeds of Peace shirt, will always stay with me. I believe that change, like anything good, comes gradually and needs constant nourishing. The seed that Camp planted in me is still growing, and I see BPL as a branch or extension of that seed.
For all the Seeds out there, keep growing, spreading, and making lives greener, because the world needs you!