Activism

Meet Freshta Karim: The Afghan children's rights activist bringing books to Kabul's kids

Five years after Charmaghz Libraries was founded, its 16 buses draw up to 1,000 children each day in the war-scarred capital 

Freshta Karim

Chris Poole wrote about Freshta Karim in his latest piece, an Afghan children’s rights activist bringing books to Kabul’s kids

In 2018, Freshta Karim told a story. 

In her home city of Kabul, Afghanistan, her nieces and nephews gathered round as she read. She had asked them to bring their friends, expecting one or two to tag along; instead, 30 children converged. She realised just how hungry for knowledge the city’s children were. It led Karim to found Charmaghz Libraries the following year, which operates mobile libraries in the streets of Kabul. Five years later, despite brutal crackdowns in education and equality, its 16 buses draw up to 1,000 children each day, providing oases of learning in the war-scarred capital. 

Each library has a librarian, assistant and driver on board to read to and support children. is stocked with 400 books in Dari, Pashto and English, from picture books to non-fiction titles covering topics including science and history. 

In 2021, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. Distraught, Karim and her colleagues wondered if they could continue their work. Somehow, they found hope: “It’s easy to be brave in normal times. But the darkest times call for true bravery. We knew that the children would need us,” she says. 

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Freshta Karim now resides in Oxford. As founder and director of Charmaghz Libraries, she manages the organisation from a distance. It’s a change that has brought its challenges.  

“Being on the buses was always so inspiring. I learned so much from the children: we teach them, but they also teach us. They help us keep our inner child alive,” she says. 

War, among other things, is noisy. Karim recalls how the sound of explosions distracted children in the libraries. The buses have frequently had to avoid areas prone to bombing. In Oxford, meanwhile, things are far quieter. “War can be so loud you can barely hear your own heart. Here, I can encounter the silence of the library. It’s a silence where you can hear so much of yourself that you don’t always hear.” 

During Covid-19, Karim recorded herself reading picture books, closing some of the distance between herself and the buses. However, Charmaghz won’t be moving to Zoom any time soon: “Remote and digital learning is useful in a lot of contexts. For us, though, nothing beats the buses. 

“The buses were disused until we repurposed them,” she continues. “There’s a lesson in that for the children: even if what you have isn’t perfect, you can make it work.” 

Those buses provide a positive environment, where children can build important skills. Initially focusing on critical thinking, the organisation now addresses a more basic need. “Ninety-three per cent of Afghan children in school don’t have basic literacy by the time they finish primary school,” Karim explains. The buses now prioritise the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, in one of the many changes brought about by recent years. 

In 2021, the Taliban banned girls from attending school past 11 or 12 years old. Women’s libraries closed down. Universities stopped offering courses to female students. Those restrictions reverberate in Charmaghz Libraries. “The girls on board are aware that their studies will be limited. It’s heartbreaking.” Karim says. “The boys sense it too. They know that their sisters and friends will have to stop learning.” 

The Taliban takeover also halted years of progress. Prior to the takeover, Freshta Karim and her colleagues consulted with a range of politicians, media bodies, and organisations to advocate for education. UNESCO reports that, between 2001 and 2018, the number of Afghan children in schools rose from one million to 10 million. That progress is now at risk. 

Children of Kabutz benefitting from Charmaghz's mobile libraries
Children of Kabutz benefitting from Charmaghz’s mobile libraries

Only 7% of children in Afghanistan can read by the age of 10. Nearly four million school-age children don’t attend school at all.  

Karim tries to see these developments in a wider context. “I take comfort in history,” she says. “Historically, no period of darkness lasts forever. Still, I often question myself: where will the light come from again? How will we get out of this?”  

She has faith in the children, who she sees as changemakers. Many of Kabul’s kids have witnessed the horrors of conflict. According to Karim, they also face abuse in their homes. The libraries, therefore, adopt what she calls a “trauma-informed” approach to education.  

“We had a child psychologist who developed games and exercises to help the children lower their stress levels. They also learn to identify and share their emotions. We teach them to understand their mental health.” 

Freshta Karim plans to study child psychology at Cambridge. In the meantime, she attends a course in creative writing and is working on a children’s book. 

Storytelling is at the centre of the libraries, and Karim thinks of her work as a story in of itself. “Years from now, when I’m older, I want to be able to tell a good story to future generations. I want to be able to tell them that I did something during this hard time.”  

charmaghz.org 

Chris Poole is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

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