Meet Freshta Karim, the founder and director of a mobile library called Charmaghz in Afghanistan. Through Charmaghz, Freshta and her team are helping bring the joy of reading and spirit of critical thinking to hundreds of children around Kabul city. With around 300 visitors a day and hundreds of books in Persian, Pashto and English, the library, which is hosted on an actual bus, is on a roll. Read more in conversation with Freshta.
Pary: We love that Charmaghz, a mobile library and place of opportunity for critical thinking, has been successfully up and running in Kabul. What originally inspired the idea?
Freshta: I think two things motivated our team to start this initiative: our own deprived childhoods, and our shared vision for Afghanistan. Afghans of my generation had difficult childhoods in the 90s. While the key political decision-makers of the world and our country were struggling over power and resources, many of us lost our childhood in conflict and war. The little beautiful parts of life that we deserved as children felt like unreachable dreams. This is still the case for many children across this country. We understand what it means to not live your childhood and what it means to be deprived of your basic human rights. We decided to do something about it and Charmaghz was what we came up with. Our vision for Afghanistan is to have an educational system and a society that accepts and encourages critical thinking, as we strongly believe that critical thinking is crucial for the empowerment of our children and development of our country.
Pary: What are some of the activities at Charmaghz?
Freshta: Our first initiative in Charmaghz is a mobile library. It is a beautiful blue bus, 12 meters long with hundreds of books. It goes from community to community. Children read books, ask questions, play chess, tell stories to each other, and sing together in this space. We are giving them not only access to books- which obviously many of them don’t have- but also a safe space where they can ask questions, play and have fun.
Pary: Would you share a story of how thinking critically and being well-read has personally served you in life?
Freshta: I would not have had the opportunity to think critically about many issues in life if I had not started working as a journalist when I was 12 years old. At school, we didn’t have the opportunity to think critically but as someone creating reports on lives of children, I had the opportunity to ask questions. That opened many doors for me. Curiosity, questioning, and the quest for answers made me explore my potential and creativity. It also helped me produce solutions to some of the problems I was dealing with as a person and problems of children who I was reporting about. I want all Afghan children to have opportunities and safe spaces where they can learn critical thinking and define their potential.
Pary: What differences have you seen in children who visit Charmaghz regularly?
Freshta: We routinely visit the same communities. Initially when we used to visit them, children would read books and be content with what we offered. Now they demand more. They challenge us to come up with creative ideas and keep them involved. Sometimes they propose new initiatives and join hands with us to implement it. We are very glad that after only four months of our work (at least in some communities), many children who feel empowered enough to ask for more and to contribute more.
Pary: What are your future plans for Charmaghz?
Freshta: We want the wheels of our mobile library to keep going. Our team is working extremely hard to raise funds, monitor the daily operations, and keep the mobile library active and fun. Besides ensuring the sustainability of our current programs, we are being ambitious and dreaming big. We hope to have more mobile libraries and expand across the country within five years.
Pary: Returning back to Afghanistan can seem daunting to many Afghans living in the diaspora. What keeps you going, despite the risks?
Freshta: There is a popular poem of Mawlana Jalaludin Balkhi (also known as Rumi) that reads:
هر کسی کو دور ماند از اصل خویش/ باز جوید روزگار وصل خویش
It means, “Whoever is removed from their roots will seek a reunion”. I feel strongly connected with this poem and feel an immense sense of belonging to this city. Kabul is where I call home. I grew up here and I studied in a public school in Kabul – all for free. Many of the scholarships I received were given to me because I am Afghan. I owe a lot to Afghanistan. I was out of Afghanistan for my education and I experienced the luxuries of the developed world, but I never enjoyed it because I kept comparing our lives with theirs and saw the depths of our problems. For me, the real joy comes when we create those luxuries in our country, even if we have to start small and the process is painful and long.
Pary: How can those who are inspired by you help join the mission of Charmaghz?
Freshta: When we started Charmaghz, many citizens of Kabul – especially young professionals – joined hands to help us. Some helped with the design of the bus, others with branding. Some offered books and others made financial contributions. It was a very inclusive initiative and I think that is why people like and support it. We want to keep that going. Charmaghz belongs to all of us. For those who are able to contribute, we would appreciate small and big contributions to our online fundraising campaign. You can also visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook to learn more and get the latest on our activities.