On a cold, rainy morning, a van pulls up outside a rural elementary school, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The fluorescent green vehicle provides a flash of color on this otherwise gray day. There’s a picture of children reading books under a large apple tree, and the words “Reading is fun” are painted in English and Urdu, the national language in Pakistan.
This is the weekly visit of the Bright Star Mobile Library.
Volunteer Ameena Khan starts pulling books from shelves on either side of the van.
“One is called Faces and one’s an Urdu book,” she says. “We’re doing Bears on Wheels, which is a nice counting book. Fourth grade is going to read their own books.”
The younger children gather to hear Khan read them a book. The girls, bright-eyed and engaged, sit cross-legged on the floor in neat rows.
In Pakistan, rarely a day goes by without news of a bombing or an attack by militants. Many young Pakistanis have grown up in the grip of religious extremism, and there’s little sign that’s likely to change in the near future. But the founder of the Bright Star bookmobile is trying to reverse that trend, starting at the most basic level.
Ripple Effect Of Poor Education
A few years ago, Saheed Malik returned to Pakistan after 35 years living in the U.S., Italy and elsewhere, mostly working for the U.N.’s World Food Program.
“I found [Pakistan] had changed a lot. Unfortunately, not for the better,” he recalls. “And children, in particular, the education had really tanked, gone down the tubes, in elementary education.”
Malik says the poor quality of education is having a ripple effect on the lives of children. He remembers talking to a group of boys, 9 to 16 years old.
“And I asked them what were their plans when they grew up. And I was quite shocked with the reply,” he says. “The majority of them said they wanted to become mujahed, which is a freedom fighter.”
Malik says one boy told him he wanted to be a mujahed because if he died as a martyr, he, his family and friends would go to heaven. Malik says he was thoroughly disheartened.
“And I felt, in what way can we bring these kids back to the beauty of life, to the beauty of future, to be of value to fellow mankind and to themselves and to the country,” he says. “And I started thinking in what way can we help the children.”
Malik felt books were the way to broaden children’s minds, to introduce them to a whole world of subjects, and to help build tolerance for others. But he discovered that virtually none of the public schools in and around Islamabad have libraries. A few keep a small selection of books under lock and key; others offer children religious pamphlets as reading material.
Bureaucratic, Funding Challenges
So Malik decided to take books to the children. He says the idea of creating a mobile library came to him after seeing a similar project at the San Francisco Public Library. But Malik says he soon encountered the type of bureaucracy that can choke the life out of a project — even from Pakistan’s Education Department.
He waited six months just to get a single letter from the department, granting them access to schools
“There was absolutely no earthly reason to delay it,” he says.
Malik called in some contacts to help get the project going. The U.N. World Food Program donated Bright Star’s two vans, which were used previously as ambulances in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan’s national library, the Asia Foundation and the San Francisco Public Library donated books. There are no religious books.
Like most nascent nonprofits, funding is fragile. The project runs on a shoestring budget, and it relies on donations and volunteers, like Ameena Khan. She says she has seen a positive change in the children since they’ve had access to books.
“You would think, how can you fix so much [that] is wrong with education in Pakistan? We don’t have a very big establishment,” she says. “But we’re reaching out to that many children in just a few hours, it does make a difference.”
At the moment, Bright Star Mobile Library reaches 2,500 kids in Pakistan. Malik says that number is set to double in the next few months.