SOUTH HADLEY — Growing up in Afghanistan, Sajia Darwish found few places where she felt safe. But there was one refuge: books.
In her school in Kabul, a couple of shelves in a closet held a meager supply. There were no books geared to children, but Darwish made do. At age 11, she found a Farsi translation of Dale Carnegie’s “Secrets of Success.”
“It spoke so much to me at that time,” said Darwish, now 19. “In Afghan society, girls are seen as not very compatible with success.”
She would go on to study in the United States at a boarding school and, currently, at Mount Holyoke College. At these institutions, she discovered libraries were much more than holders of books. They were places to study, learn, and struggle with ideas.
Last summer, Darwish brought her love of libraries home. She organized a project to build a library in her former school.
No longer in a closet, the books are now displayed on shelves in a room big enough to have tables for quiet study, where there are reading clubs and tutoring throughout the day.
That is a remarkable feat in a country where the literacy rate is among the lowest in the world, particularly among women. Fortified by her own quiet optimism and financial backing and guidance from a US aid group, Darwish accomplished something many adults could not.
That she did this as a woman in a male-dominated culture is something Darwish finds particularly satisfying.
“I don’t want gender to decide what a person can do or not,” she said in a recent interview at a coffee shop across the street from Mount Holyoke’s leafy campus, recounting details of her project in a soft, lilting voice. “I want to show that what you get out is how much passion you put in and that should be what defines who you are, not gender.”
It would be hard to argue that Darwish has let limitations define her. In a country where reading is hardly a commonplace bedtime ritual, Darwish learned to read at age 6 using the Koran.
Now she speaks six languages. She attends Mount Holyoke thanks to the nonprofit Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund. The all-volunteer, 7-year-old organization supports the US education of girls from Afghanistan who plan to return home to use their education as “a tool for social change,” according to Joseph Highland, an assistance fund volunteer.
Darwish came to the United States at age 13 for the international Seeds of Peace summer camp for children from war-torn countries. It was there she learned about scholarships for high school.
She applied and wound up attending a boarding school in Connecticut, and later she connected with the assistance fund, which helped her with college costs. The fund asks its students to return home in the summers to maintain strong connections with their culture and their families and covers the cost to do so.
While planning her visit home this past summer, Darwish and Highland talked about the library idea.
“Sajia gets all the credit for taking the concept and making it a reality,” Highland said.
She had to persuade the school’s principal and win approval from the Afghan government — not easy in a country where it’s dangerous for women to travel alone, much less negotiate with men in positions of authority.
Highland said he was amazed at how quickly she gained the required approvals.
“I looked very young,” said Darwish, who has brown eyes and short hair, smiling at the memory of sitting down with Afghan officials. “They were lost more than me. They didn’t know what to do with me.”
At the school, there was no spare room so she won permission to use a balcony. She had to find, hire — and essentially supervise — the carpenter. He enclosed the balcony, creating a long narrow room lined with bookshelves and tables where students can study.
Darwish, a junior who is majoring in international relations, went shopping to purchase carpeting and other supplies, sometimes accompanied by her sisters or father.
She also spoke with teachers and others about the role of women in Afghanistan. Darwish said her time in Kabul this summer helped her gain insight into the Afghan culture and a greater understanding of the women who live there.
“The assumption that they are fine staying home is so big, I actually started to believe it,” Darwish said of Afghan women. “To me, staying home and not doing anything, I would rather die. These women, it’s not that they like it. I learned that they have aspirations.”
To fill the shelves, Darwish consulted with teachers. She bought the books, mostly in Farsi and Pashto, another Afghan language, from market vendors who talked to her about the years before the Soviet invasion and before the rule of the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement that was in power from 1996 to 2001.
In these conversations, she learned about Afghan writers and a time when reading was valued — and she talked to people who value it still.
“I liked that so much because I thought this culture was so lost from the Afghan society,” she said.
Highland said that under the Taliban, the Afghan library system was decimated, free thought dangerous. Spending $12,000 to $13,000 to build the library fit well with the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund’s mission of using education as a tool for social change.
Darwish believes exposing children to books at a young age is a form of social change because reading sparks a hunger to learn more.
“I just want them to think for themselves,” she said.
Anshree Bhatia, a 20-year-old Mount Holyoke junior from India who met Darwish during their first year on campus, said she’s impressed, though not surprised, that her friend pulled off such an ambitious project.
“I’ve seen her work for other things on campus and I know that she’s very focused and that she gets things done,” Bhatia said. “She’s probably one of the most hard-working people I know.”
She added: “It’s very inspiring for me as a woman.’’
In August, Darwish helped dedicate the new library she named “Baale Parwaz,” which means “Wings to Fly,” because she believes that’s what books provide.
She was thrilled to purchase every one of its 2,500 titles, including children’s books, textbooks, dictionaries, novels — and of course, a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “Secrets to Success.”