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Books as building blocks in northern Afghanistan

Books as building blocks in northern Afghanistan

UNHCR is supporting an Afghan refugee in Iran seeking to build a brains trust by running a library and mobile book fair in northern Afghanistan.
29 April 2008
Afghan students browsing through the book fair at their school in Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, April 29 (UNHCR) - As a law student, Abdol Hamid Ansari likes to play by the book - literally. The 25-year-old has started a library and mobile book fair in his northern Afghanistan hometown of Mazar-e-Sharif to stress the role of education in rebuilding his country.

"It's been some years since the reconstruction process started in Afghanistan, but little has been done in some areas," said the third-year law student at Ferdowsi University in Mashad, north-eastern Iran. "Afghanistan still faces many problems in education and there is an urgent need for educational resources in the country."

Ansari started a library with 300 books in Mazar-e-Sharif last year, using his savings and with the support of volunteers, among them returnees from Iran. His father provided a venue for free and the library was endorsed by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture.

"I want to help my people and city to become more familiar with books and reading," he said. However, he found that girls were not coming to the library because of family restrictions. He drafted an outreach plan and discussed it with UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller when she visited Mashad this February.

"I find it commendable that he has taken this initiative and that an Afghan refugee student is interested in contributing in this way to the rebuilding of his country," said Feller.

The UN refugee agency is now funding Ansari's plan to bring books to Afghan students through mobile book fairs. Some 900 Farsi-language (Persian) books have been bought in Iran and sent back to Mazar. The books are relevant to the Afghan school curriculum and are suitable for students who speak Dari, which is very similar to Farsi.

"I am delighted that we are going to make this happen and I'm heartened that close relations between UNHCR and the refugee community are enabling refugees to become a positive force for change and development in their own countries upon return," said Feller.

Since late March, the books have toured eight schools for boys and girls in Mazar. Each book fair lasts several days and ends with a one-day seminar on the importance of reading, the benefits of library membership and the need to expand library services in Afghanistan.

Ansari has received requests for the books to travel to rural schools. Students have also asked for religious and literary books, as well as study materials for university entrance exams. In between tours, the books are stored at the library in Mazar, where Ansari is working to set up a governing body and to clarify regulations on access and usage.

"The project is simple and does not require much investment," he said of the US$5,900 project. "If it's successful, I want to expand it to other cities in northern Afghanistan."

For now, he jumps between his studies in Mashad and the book project in Mazar. When he graduates in August next year, he plans to return home for good with his wife and two children to book his place in Afghanistan's reconstruction effort.

Some 860,000 Afghans have returned home from Iran since 2002. There are more than 900,000 registered Afghans still living in Iran today.