‘Life and possibility beyond the violence’: How a mobile library is inspiring Afghanistan’s youth

War doesn’t have to deprive children of chances to learn.

Afghan youth enjoy the Charmaghz mobile library in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
Afghan youth enjoy the Charmaghz mobile library in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Freshta Karim was born into an Afghanistan of upheaval and turmoil.

Within a month of her 1992 birth, the nation’s final communist government would give way to one led by former anti-Soviet jihadi leaders. But the fall of communism only led to renewed difficulties for millions of Afghans, including the young Karim, as the alliances that the jihadi leaders had forged quickly fell apart and the Afghan civil war began.

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Soon, Kabul was divided along ethnic lines as the one-time jihadi leaders began to rain rockets on the Afghan capital. Kabul, which had largely been spared the physical destruction faced by the provinces during the decade of communist rule and Soviet occupation, was decimated.

Afghan children like Karim were once again robbed of their childhoods.

Four years later, the Taliban would arrive in Kabul.

“Instead of days on the football field or playing with our toys, we have had to live in constant fear of the next rocket attack or suicide bombing,” Karim said of the last four decades of Afghan history.

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“We didn’t have the experiences and opportunities that every child should have, because we had to worry about where our next meal would come from.”

It is exactly these kinds of grim memories that Karim wanted to spare children in Afghanistan — if even temporarily — when she decided to launch the Charmaghz mobile library in Kabul last month.

She, along with three other young Afghans, hoped to offer children in the city with a chance to gather in their bright blue bus and read books — in Pashto, Dari, and English — about heroes in fantastical places, Islamic teaching, history, and any number of other topics.

Freshta Karim speaks to a group of youth at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
Freshta Karim speaks to a group of youth at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

“We want children to know that there is life and possibility beyond the violence,” Karim said.

So far, the project has been a resounding success. Each day, dozens of children, some as young as four, rush to their bus as it parks in various neighborhoods across West Kabul for two hours a week.

The bus has even found regulars, like a precocious young boy who refers to himself as Tarzan.

“He asked us for a book about the king of the jungle, we didn’t have it, so we gave him a similar story, but within minutes he saw through it and demanded the actual book,” said Mohammad Shaheer Qateh, a university student who was one of the founding members of the project.

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But it’s not just children who are enamored with the Charmaghz project, so far the bus has been visited by area parents who provide the volunteers with tea and snacks, a mullah and a local administrator, all of whom encourage children in their areas to gather there.

Afghan girls read at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
Afghan girls read at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

Some have even offered whatever financial assistance they have the means of providing. Within days of the bus’ launch, one parent handed Karim 200 Afghanis ($2.89) after observing the children reading to one another. Recounting the encounter, Karim said she was honored by his generosity.

“I knew that was all he had. To us, it was like he had handed over $20,000,” said Karim.

To Karim, Qateh and Elayaskhil, another college-age member of the Charmaghz team, the bus, named for the Dari word for walnut, serves many purposes. In a nation suffering from a 64 percent illiteracy rate, the bus also offers young Afghans a chance to think critically and embrace creativity — both of which they say is sorely missing from the current Afghan education system.

They also hope it will encourage more children to stay in school at a time when Save The Children estimates that 1,100 children a day will drop out due to violence and hardship in the 2017-2018 school year. Currently, more than 1,000 schools across the country have been closed due to insecurity. Last year, it was estimated that insecurity kept more than 3.5 million Afghan children — 85 percent of which are girls — out of school.

That passion for education was evident in children like Mohammad Najib, a 10-year-old resident of the Kotei Sangi neighborhood, who was lost in a Pashto-language book about Islamic teachings when he spoke to ThinkProgress aboard the Charmaghz bus.

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“I learned to read when I was seven, I love story books and Islamic teachings,” Najib said as he sat by one of the tables built into the vehicle.

This appetite for knowledge was why the team chose the word Charmaghz, literally four brains, for the name of the bus.

Mohammad Najib reads a book at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
Mohammad Najib reads a book at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

“We wanted a name that was simple and common enough for everyone to understand, but would still question why we chose it,” Karim said. Aside from the word’s meaning, the Charmaghz team liked the symbolism of the walnut, which is seen as a source of intellect in Afghan culture.

“If you look at an actual walnut it looks like a human brain,” said Karim.

Now, nearly a month since the bus’ launch, Karim and her team are looking to embrace even greater segments of the Afghan youth, including those in provinces outside Kabul.

For Elayaskhil in particular, there is one group of young Afghans that too often go unserved — street children. UNICEF currently estimates that there are more than 60,000 children working and begging on the streets of Kabul alone.

The Charmaghz team knows that working with children who grew up hustling on the streets of the Afghan capital presents its own challenges, but they are determined to find a way to reach out to them.

Elayaskhil said that spending their days on the streets has left these children susceptible to unscrupulous groups and local mafias.

“There must be a way to help them, I’m determined to do it because they are so often taken advantage of,” he said.

But the burgeoning program is already facing challenges, namely finances. The bus’ driver, Reza, left a job as a local taxi driver to commandeer the bus, but the work has already placed on a strain on his own finances. At least 40 percent of his monthly salary goes to pay his rent.

An Afghan girl selects a book at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
An Afghan girl selects a book at the Charmaghz library. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

Though parents who visit the bus are happy that the Charmaghz project is an Afghan-led endeavor and that the team has yet to take on foreign aid, Karim and her colleagues worry that without greater financial support they will have to reign in their ambitions for the future.

The team has many plans for the bus — including installing solar power unit to be able to screen documentaries and a cafe that can serve as a source of much-needed income — but without money, they won’t be able to make those dreams into reality.

“There must be a way to help them, I’m determined to do it because they are so often taken advantage of.”

Beyond the cost of books and improving the bus, the Charmaghz team is faced with a simple reality of operating a mobile library, fuel costs. With fuel costs hovering around $1.07 per liter and the traffic on Kabul’s packed streets, petrol costs are a constant cause of concern for the team.

Beyond being a service to Afghan youth, the Charmaghz is another sign of the creativity and ingenuity of Afghan youth, who are looking to their own talents to make a better life for their people.

Despite the economic and educational setbacks in the country, Charmaghz is only the latest in a series of remarkable feats by Afghan youth. In 2007, an 18-year-old amateur astronomer built a 100-millimeter refractor telescope and eventually started an astronomy program for Afghan school children. In 2012, a high school student in the eastern province of Ghazni came up with a math formula that was approved by the Kabul center for science. A robotic excavator designed by another teenager in Logar province won praise by former President Hamid Karzai in 2014. In 2015, a 30-year-old self-trained engineer in Kabul developed a solar-powered motorbike. In the central province of Bamiyan, a group of young women started a bicycle riding team for girls, and last year, the female robotics team from Herat earned global recognition for their prototype that harnessed solar energy for farming.

The youth of Charmaghz mobile library laugh and clap together. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)
The youth of Charmaghz mobile library laugh and clap together. (credit: Ali M. Latifi for ThinkProgress)

In taking the old bus and redesigning it as a gathering point for Afghan children, the Charmaghz team wants to show other young Afghans that war doesn’t have to deprive them of chances to learn, grow and possibly become the next great Afghan risk takers and innovators.

“I just want children to not miss out on the things we did,” said Karim as she waved goodbye to the children before heading on to their next location.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the bus’ driver. The correct name is Reza.