A blue bus full of books in an agonised city
It was a homecoming of sorts for this young Afghan national and an alumna of Post Graduate Government College for Girls (PGGCG), Sector 11, Chandigarh as she returned to the college after a gap of almost five years to deliver a talk to its students.
Having first come to the college in 2010 as a undergraduate student, Freshta Karim, 26, who went on to pursue a master’s in public policy from Oxford University, has a lot to share when it comes to achievements and experiences.The one closest to her heart, however, is the mobile library she has set up for children in her turmoil-hit country.
Growing up amid the civil war tearing Afghanistan apart, Karim, who had to live in Pakistan for some time as a refugee, says that as a child she had limited access to books. This, she feels, had an impact on her student life later.
“In my first year in GCG, I felt completely lost. I had language troubles and was failing in several subjects. The coursework too seemed extremely difficult,” says Karim, who didn’t let the initial setbacks unnerve her. Soon, she had worked out an elaborate study plan and approached her teachers for tutoring help, eventually pushing up her grades.
“International students like me struggled with the coursework here because at that time, we did not have the same kind of educational facilities and infrastructure back home,” she says.
This realisation made her want to go back to Afghanistan and make a difference in the lives of children. After graduating from GCG, she returned to Afghanistan and worked with a few non-governmental organisations before going to Oxford University in Britain on a Chevening Scholarship. It was here that she was exposed to the concept of critical thinking and the need to ask questions.
“I believe that my country or even my time at GCG did not prepare me to fearlessly ask questions. Oxford changed that. Rather than cramming up lessons, or chasing marks, I started analysing everything and asking the question why,” she says. “I soon realised that while asking why, I also have the responsibility of introspecting at what I am doing.”
So while Karim asked why her country didn’t have a good educational infrastructure, she also questioned herself about things she could do to change that.
And it was from here that her initiative ‘Charmaghz’ — which in Dari means walnut, resembling the human brain — was born.
As part of the initiative, Karim and her team take a blue bus full of books to different localities in Kabul, where, because of frequent terror attacks, people live in a constant fear for their lives.
“The blue bus is where the children aged between four to 16 can come and read story books in Pashtun, Persian and English. They tell stories and express their opinions freely,” she says.
They are also encouraged to play chess as it promotes critical thinking.
Funded by friends and well wishers, the bus, launched in February this year, currently operates mostly in parts of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.
Karim hopes to expand the initiative to many more areas in the coming years, keeping with the motto of her alma mater, GCG-11— ‘Courage to Know’.