How One Mount Holyoke Student is Helping Girls’ Literacy in Afghanistan

Sajia Darwish ’18 smiling while seated in library

Sajia Darwish ’18. Photo by Deirdre Haber Malfatto

Where Books are Wings

Ask Sajia Darwish ’18 her favorite part of Williston Memorial Library, and, as she leans forward in her seat at the Thirsty Mind Coffee and Wine Bar, her eyes suddenly light up. “It used to be a place in the common area,” she says. “I would see everyone working and get inspired, and that would put me in the zone.” But this year, as a senior, she’s been able to reserve a carrel of her own on the fifth floor, and that’s become her new favorite. She grows animated talking about waiting in line with the other seniors at 5:00 a.m. to make her reservation for the year, and how she’s chosen to decorate her carrel, covering it with clippings and pasted-up sayings. One reminds her to be where her feet are. She put it up, she says, because at first, at Mount Holyoke, while she loved it here, she found herself constantly thinking of home. Her voice softens. “And it’s a waste of time to do it that way,” she says. But the other? The other says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s a slogan Darwish has taken to heart, creating change at her home in Kabul, Afghanistan, with the very thing she loves at Mount Holyoke: A library.

Darwish is the only Afghani student at Mount Holyoke, and she thinks often about the distance between the country she came from and where she lives now. The distance hit her particularly hard in 2015, when an angry mob in Kabul attacked a young woman named Farkhunda, beating her to death. “I felt sick for two weeks,” she says. Reading of the attack brought her back to her own childhood. “You’re always afraid. Even when I was young—I never felt safe saying this, but people need to know. I remember walking home from school and I was scared—I would run all the way home.” She travels back to Kabul every summer, and on her next trip home after the attack she found herself looking closely at the men she passed by on the street, wondering if any among them had been in that mob. “Probably,” she says, “I have looked into the eyes of men who were there.”

When Darwish entered school as a child in Kabul in 2001, the future looked bright for Afghanistan’s girls. The United States had just routed the Taliban from the city, after fifteen years of its rule. The Taliban had outlawed the education of women, closing every school for girls except the Kabul Medical Facility, which they left open because female patients had to be examined by female doctors. But with Hamid Karzai the new president, the government promised to educate every girl in the country. The international community threw its support behind the effort, with the US allotting $759 million to overhaul Afghanistan’s primary and secondary educational systems.

Members of the Baale Parwaz Library Children’s Reading Club enjoy a discussion outdoors on the grounds of the library in Kabul, Afghanistan. The club was formed to encourage children to develop into lifelong readers with critical thinking skills. Photo courtesy of Baale Parwaz Library

But the promise didn’t last long. By 2014, when the US and NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended, the Afghani government was under attack not only by the Taliban, but by Uzbek, Arab, and Pakistani fighters. These splinter groups, along with multiple fronts opened by the Taliban, stretched Afghan security forces. Violence became widespread—much of it targeted at the new education effort. In 2015 the United Nations counted 185 attacks on schools and hospitals, most committed by groups opposed to the education of girls. And far from defeated, the Taliban now contest up to 40 percent of the country’s land.

Today, Human Rights Watch estimates that only a third of Afghanistan’s girls attend school. Legally, they are entitled to education—but the security threat, government inaction in opening schools—most families don’t live anywhere near one, and a lack of resources keep families away. In 2017 the international nonprofit advocacy organization ONE ranked the ten worst countries in the world for girls to get an education. Nine were in Africa. The other? Afghanistan. “[Girls’] futures take a different path from [those of] boys and men,” Darwish says. “So it doesn’t occur to people to educate them.”

That her own path differed so dramatically was due to Darwish’s initiative, the support of her parents, and the luck of timing. Growing up as the fourth child in a family of eight girls, she loved school and quickly rose to the top of her class. She was trusted to monitor attendance and even to sign the teachers in and out. This let her get to know them, and they her.

Girls in a school classroom in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Baale Parwaz Library

Then came the experience that she credits with changing her life. In 2009 Darwish took a placement test for students interested in joining the summer camp program Seeds of Peace, which brings students from war-torn countries together. She had studied English outside of school, and had already studied more levels than the other students. She had the highest score on the English portion of the test. A teacher she had become friendly with called her to deliver the news: it was she the school would send to America for the one-month camp. “I said, ‘No, I cannot do this!’” Darwish says, recalling. She would be the youngest in the program. But the teacher believed in her. She could, he said.

The situation in Kabul at the time had become dangerous enough that, she says, families had stopped even allowing their daughters to have sleepovers, constantly worried about security. To travel across oceans was unthinkable. But Darwish’s parents encouraged her. The camp was “the first time I flew, the first time I was away from home,” Darwish says. “I still have the T-shirt! And I still remember the camp song: ‘I am a seed of peace,’” she sings. “I guess it reminds me that one person can bring change. I believe in the domino effect. It’s as though you throw a stone in water, and there are all these waves.”

It’s a lesson that’s proven true over and over again in her life. Seeds of Peace introduced Darwish to scholarship opportunities in the United States, and at age fourteen she returned to the US to study, leaving her home and family behind to attend the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut. An anonymous donor promised to support her education as far as she might pursue it. That support sent Darwish to Mount Holyoke.

Three girls with heads covered in patterned cloth read books

Three members of the Farsi book club read in the Baale Parwaz Library. Photo courtesy of Baale Parwaz Library

But after her first year at Mount Holyoke, the donor’s funding suddenly disappeared; Darwish still doesn’t know why. Mount Holyoke was able to increase her scholarship, but the cost to her was still too great. She thought she’d have to go home. Then an unexpected email arrived. Mount Holyoke had reached out to the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF), a scholarship organization that would now support her education. She could stay.

It took her some time at Mount Holyoke to realize just how many resources were available to students, to fully appreciate them. In Afghanistan students were expected to study eighteen subjects at once, in half-hour blocks that focused on rote memorization. Here, she could study what she wanted, and she quickly switched from the medical career she’d planned to a focus on international relations. She fell in love with the library, too. “The notion of a library in Afghanistan is a place where you can go to get books. But not to do work, not to go find resources.” Here, she saw her fellow students working and what a hub of activity the library could be. She saw, too, how easy it suddenly was to get books.

She was on the phone with Joseph Highland, a volunteer from AGFAF, when the idea came to her. Every student who benefited from AGFAF was expected to undertake a project. All had done internships, but she knew an internship wasn’t for her. Instead, why not build a place where girls could go and get a book of their own? Why not build them a resource that Darwish had come to treasure at Mount Holyoke—a library? “For girls, the first question a father asks when she asks him for spending money, even if it’s for a book, is, ‘You’re a girl. What do you need that for?’ The but is always there. I always thought how it would be if [there was a place where] a girl could walk up and get a book. This was one thing I could do, at least for girls.”

Two students place painted hands on wall

Students decorate the walls of their school with painted handprints. Photo courtesy of Baale Parwaz Library

Right away, she says, “I got so excited about the idea. I was writing lists, I was writing proposals. I had so much energy.” With Mount Holyoke on summer recess, she had already been planning to go home to Afghanistan about three weeks after the phone call with Highland. Now she went with a plan. “At first, we thought of renting a place for the library on its own. But I talked to families and others and realized to do so would be so bold, too bold in that time and place.” Security would be an issue. And even if she managed to figure out how to keep the patrons of the library safe, there would be the challenge of the perception of safety—how to convince families that it truly was. Instead, Darwish realized, it would be easier to locate the library in a school girls were already attending. The answer was in her own past: the Mohammad Asif Mayel High School in Kabul, the same school she had attended. She could reach young girls like her sisters, young girls like she herself had been. She reached out to the principal of the school and asked him about the idea. He was supportive, she recalls, but also told her he couldn’t do much. Because it was a public school, she’d have to talk with the Ministry of Education.

So she did. When Darwish describes this part of the process, it can almost sound simple. It’s not that the process isn’t daunting—but rather that Darwish herself is chronically undaunted. Indeed, she says, far from being thrown by the size of the challenge, she was instead frustrated by the government minister’s slow pace in signing the paperwork. “I wanted to confront them!” she says. She laughs. “Then I realized how strange this was for them.” The minister likely had no idea what to do with a young woman advocating for such a bold idea.

Advocating for it—and building it. When the only space the school had available for the library was a balcony, Darwish found and hired a carpenter, then supervised him as he enclosed the space and built shelving for books and reading tables. She chose the 2,500 volumes that now fill the library, and when she couldn’t find someone she trusted to run it, she trained her sister. Now her sister oversees the library as it helps some 500 students a day. There are literacy classes for adults who work at the library, and two book groups.

Students hold up hand-made signs reading "We want peace."

Participants in a workshop on teamwork display signs they made together. Photo courtesy of Baale Parwaz Library

The voice Darwish has found for herself is something she wants to help her sisters, and girls like them in Afghanistan, find. “There’s an expression here [in the US], ‘Hardships make character.’ No one [in Afghanistan] is just a teenager.” She credits their drive with why self-improvement books have quickly become the most popular genre at the library. “Here they call it self-help. But I don’t like calling it that. They’re really self-recognition books, to help you recognize your potential. The girls have these personalities, they have so much to say. And these books, they tell them that they can—and how.”

And to Darwish, they also set in motion that domino effect. Time and again, she’s watched students who use the library spread the impact to their families. When a girl comes to the library and becomes emboldened by everything available to her, “they see her acting differently. They see her, and they get inspired.” And the same has been true of AGFAF students.

There are now two other libraries in Afghanistan founded by students from the program. And it is fitting that Darwish is now the one reaching out with support. All has come together in the name she gave the library she founded: Baale Parwaz—wings to fly. “At first I was thinking [I’d name it something to do with] flight. But you can’t really fly without support. And that’s wings.”

—By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. Visit her online.

This article appeared as “Where Books Are Wings” in the spring 2018 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

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