On a snowy day in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2018, a refurbished public bus made its first outing as the Charmaghz mobile library, providing access to books to children living in conflict. Charmaghz now has 16 mobile libraries operating in Afghanistan. As the largest children’s library network in the country, it serves more than 2,000 children per day.
The mission of the Charmaghz mobile library is to create space for critical thinking. It provides a safe and supportive environment for children in Afghanistan. Children have a space for learning and restoring their imagination. Charmaghz believes that through these experiences, children will be empowered to create positive change in the world. In Farsi, “Charmaghz” means “four brains.” The same word is used to describe a walnut. These meanings are represented in the design of the Charmagz logo and symbolize the philosophy of the organization’s work: to grow the critical thinking skills of children.
Afghanistan continues to face a critical educational crisis. Only 7% of children are able to read by the age of 10 and nearly 4 million are out of school altogether. Children in Afghanistan who are in school usually only have access to their school textbooks. They come to the Charmaghz mobile library to access storybooks and other genres that broaden their worldview – increasing their creativity, empathy and compassion. Children are also offered the opportunity to play board games, do arts and crafts and generally enjoy a fun and safe space for play and learning while on the (parked) buses.
Charmaghz strives to provide a sense of respect, dignity and agency to children who, living in a conflict-affected area, might otherwise feel a lack of control. According to founder and Executive Director, Freshta Karim, children around the world are often seen as an “empty cup” to be filled by adults. Charmagz instead aims to create an equal partnership with children. Charmaghz empowers them with voice and choice in their learning. Children are included in the decision-making and design processes, and the librarians make a point to get to know each of the 2,000 children who visit the library every day. The mobile libraries feature bright colors and many choices of activities – all designed in consultation with children. The libraries are extremely popular on the streets of Kabul. Parents and children alike have become regular visitors and supporters. One of the biggest takeaways Charmaghz has gleaned from children themselves is that their preferred method of learning is through play. The library therefore incorporates play, personal agency, and a sense of true collaboration and partnership with children.
Charmaghz employs a team of 56 people. 80% of their employees are women. It is one of the few Afghan nonprofits that has support from the Ministry of Education to operate as a primary education initiative. The mobile library system has grown to include five bus libraries, one van library and ten library boxes that are located inside public primary schools in Kabul. Each mobile library is staffed by a librarian, assistant and driver to provide educational services. The buses are also equipped with video security to ensure the safety of the children on board. Each library is stocked with hundreds of books in Dari, Pashto and English. Fictional narratives, science and history are popular choices amongst children visitors. Charmaghz also has a licensed psychologist on staff who creates mental-health-based and trauma-informed activities for the children. Demand is increasing, and Charmaghz has plans to expand this network to as many public primary schools in Kabul as possible.
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This tactic shows that even within challenging circumstances, innovative community solutions can provide healing and access to human rights. In the Philippines, a similar tactic (Floating Boat Schools) provides educational access to indigenous children. In Colombia, donkey libraries (Biblioburro) take books into rural communities. All of these creative solutions spread the joy of reading to children who otherwise would not have access to books.