Connecting to Persian-speaking countries and sharing experiences with reading promotion groups has been a longtime dream of “Read with Me”. Most recently, Read with Me has been able to send 1100 books and library resources to Parande, a library to be established in Panjshir, Afghanistan. This endeavor was made possible by the support of Read with Me Fan Club as well as a number of children’s books publishing houses. In addition to providing these facilities, Parande librarians and promoters will attend Read with Me Online Workshops and train on how to introduce the world of books to children in this region.
Below, you can read an interview with Mahdi Housaini, a Mahboba’s Promise volunteer behind the establishment of Parande Library. In September 2019, he participated in the Child-centered Environment Workshop held by a Read with Me expert in Kabul. During the expert’s visit, he had talked about Mahboba’s Promise’s orphanage, the location allocated to Parande Library and his dreams for Panjshir children.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us where you are from?
My name is Mahdi Housaini. I’m 24 years old and was born in Sydney, Australia. My parents are from Kabul, Afghanistan who migrated during the last years of Soviet-Afghan War.
How did you end up in Panjshir and start your activities there? Were you familiar with the region before?
My arrival at Panjshir has a long history. My mother used to tell me stories of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary military commander who fought against the Soviet Union, Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Massoud was from Panjshir and led his most noteworthy battles in Panjshir valley. So, before coming here, I had a mythical vision of this place. 5 years ago, I travelled to Afghanistan and spent a week in Panjshir. That’s when I was truly drawn to this region. The mountain ranges, the roaring river, the peaceful villages, the kind, hospitable people with their fighting spirits. All of these made me fall in love with Panjshir. Right then, I decided to work here as soon as I finished my studies in Sydney. Fortunately, it all worked out.
How would you evaluate the position of books and reading in Afghanistan and Panjshir?
Younger people show great enthusiasm in books and reading. And in the Afghan culture, especially in Panjshir, reading books is praised and valued. If anyone finds a book on the floor, they pick it up and put it on a shelf, because they believe books are too valuable to be laying there. In Panjshir, there are traditions of reading Shahnameh and Masnavi. Especially during long winter nights, people gather around while someone recites poetry in singing form and another person interprets the poems for everyone else. Nowadays, these traditions are slowly fading away. The 40-year-long war has definitely affected such cultures and traditions. Adults have not been able pass these traditions along to the younger generation because of the hardships induced by war. So, I would say that people are very interested in books in general, but books and libraries are scarce. Especially in villages and marginal areas which hold the most population in Afghanistan.
What have been your motivations for promoting reading for children?
The motivations underlying my main goal in life, which is to serve, are love of humankind, responsibility and empathy. Service can be realized through many different platforms. But I chose building a library to achieve it because I have been familiar with books since my childhood and I know how positive an effect it can have on people’s lives.
Considering the challenges Afghan children face, how do you think reading books will impact their lives?
Books give them the power to dream. Someone who is always confined within a room or a small village, cannot think further than that room or village. Books introduce children to the world. They show them new ways and possibilities. So, children can make their own dreams. Stories are also inherently inspiring, therefore they can instill the belief in children that they have the ability to realize their dreams.
Have you ever encountered a case of books influencing children in crisis (such as war)?
Yes. A year ago, a number of Badakhshan residents migrated to Panjshir because their region was occupied by Taliban. I took books to the homeless children and youth living in tents. Upon seeing the books, they lit up as if all their surroundings had disappeared. I just watched their happy excited faces. That’s when I realized that books give us hope in the depths of despair and assuage troubles.
How did you come across the “Read with Me” program?
When I was collecting money for building the library, I came across the Read with Me program in Iran through my searches on the internet.
How did you decide on building Parande library in Panjshir?
I had been working in Mahboba’s Promise organization for a year, but I felt like I should be doing something more fundamental since I have come all this way to Panjshir. I wanted my work to have a lasting impact. The first thing that came to mind was building a children and youth library. Such a thing didn’t exist in Panjshir at all. So, I was determined to start working in that direction.
Tell us of some of your challenges and work process regarding the library.
First, I needed to write a proposal for the project, make a webpage to collect donations and make an introduction video which was put up on the website. Through lots of emails and requests to different people and sources, I had to provide the necessary finances, search for a location, build the library and finally equip it with facilities such as books and computers, things that any well-equipped library has.
I faced many challenges throughout this process but never gave up because I believed in my goals. Financial aids were collected very slowly. Sometimes it seemed like we could never collect enough money for the cause. A lot of doors were closed on me. In the beginning, I was not known in Panjshir, so a lot of the people had suspicions and created problems. Now, I thank God and am grateful for all the supporters of this library for allowing it to be built in Panjshir. Currently, we are working on collecting books for the library.
How do you feel about all of this?
I am happy for being able to realize my dream and feel like this service has been, is and will be the proudest achievement of my life.
What are your plans for the future of Parande library?
I intend to hold eventful programs at the library. Computer lessons, English language and other educational courses, showing movies, holding reading sessions and weekly conferences led by children themselves, reviving the Masnavi-khani tradition now lost to the younger generation and so on. I have a lot of plans, if life allows me.
What are your wishes for children?
I wish that no child ever opens their eyes to a world full of poverty, torment and war. I hope that none of them has to work in streets. My ideal is that all children get to go to school in peace, read books, discover their abilities and develop their skills. I wish for them to be able to work towards building a world of peace, justice, amenities, joy and freedom.
Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Housaini. We wish you and the children of Afghanistan all the best and impatiently await great news from your amazing library.
Read with Me team, preparing the books to be sent to Parande Library:
Visit these websites for more information on Parande Library in Panjshir, Afghanistan.