Drew University Student Builds Library for Girls in Kabul

“I had to show the community that it was just something new, not something bad.”

December 2019 – Frozan Shahnoori C’22 found her calling as a 10th grader in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Stemming from her own desire to learn, a drive to empower other Afghan women to have access to information and a goal of making a difference in her home country, the Drew University sophomore decided to put her dream into action. With the help of the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF), she built a library in an all-girls high school in one of the most conservative areas in the country’s capital last summer.

Here is her story in her own words and images.

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Shahnoori (center) with the high school's principal (left).

Forming her dream

I didn’t have a library in my high school, so I always had to go out to find books. Whenever I was searching I’d face a lot of harassment on the streets. I had to ask my parents to send one of my brothers with me just so I could find schoolbooks. I couldn’t be my own person. The bookstores themselves weren’t even safe. I was afraid to go there. I remember wanting to learn English so badly. I just wanted to learn more and be a better student. It all made me realize women really needed libraries inside their schools. In the 10th grade, I decided I would build one one day, and I’m so thankful for all the people that helped me fulfill this dream.

Learning how to relate across dividing lines

I became more openminded and accepting and friendly towards people when I got to Drew. Drew is such a diverse university and is so welcoming and it teaches you how to interact better with people. It helped me be able to deal with the many different people I had to deal with during this project. It was all because of what Drew exposed me to and how it taught me to be more accepting. I’m Shi’a and the entire community where this library is is Sunni. I was going two hours from my home and not a single person in this community was Shi’a and they all spoke a completely different language and here I was introducing this radical project. I had to show them that I came in peace. But thanks to what I’ve learned at Drew, I was able to figure out how to best approach them and it helped me build this library.

“Even if I can’t change the entire world or country, I can change the minds of some females in this society. These women will be mothers some day who will work hard and make Afghanistan a better place to live in the future.”

The project begins

First, I really needed a sponsor because it was impossible to pay for the books I needed by myself. The Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund gave me funding to do it and let me organize the specifics. With AGFAF’s help, I went home last summer to find a good high school for this library. AGFAF has helped build several other libraries in my region of Kabul so I decided to try to expand and provide books to other areas. I went to 10 schools in different areas made up of different ethnicities.

I had to cover my face whenever I visited the area where the library I chose is, which I’d never done in my life. It was hard but it taught me that the girls are facing a ton of problems and they need help. One of the reasons I picked this location was the way I could see how the local girls were dressed so differently just because they were from a more conservative part of the same city I’m from. The hardest part of this whole project was having to transition to basically be a different person whenever I’d visit the area. I had to change my clothes and become a different person to accomplish my goal.

On top of this, we also had our car stopped by the police on the way to the library two different times to warn us of a suicide attacker in a nearby car. They were moments where I realized life is so short and anything can happen at any minute and that I should make the most out of my life. I still feel it in my bones. They were two of the scariest moments of my life.

Creating a library

It was hard for me to pick the books. I went to buy everything myself. We have nearly 400 books in the library now and my mom and I went through the content of every single one to check for any references to ethnicities or religions that could be controversial before I suggested them to the school’s principal and teachers. My goal was to buy books that let girls have more information. We have books on computers, English, Arabic, chemistry, biology, physics, history, geography, psychology, exam prep and more. I learned how to organize and pick books from the Drew library. And being a business major and taking economics classes at Drew helped me figure out how to be fiscally responsible when getting the books and to get the most out of what AGFAF gave me.

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A few of the selected and approved books.

Finding power through books

I was excited about the psychology books because I thought it would let them see the different ways of seeing the world and show them that they were strong. I bought Michelle Obama’s book to show the girls that we as women are not weak. I tried to buy books that let them know they can do more than they knew. My main focus is to give them different ideas and to know the world in a different way than their parents do. Even if they’re in a society that tells them otherwise, they are strong and they can have goals and they have a right to go after those goals no matter what people say.

A big part of it is empowerment. You can learn a lot from books, but if you don’t accept that you’re a strong person, you’re stuck in that mentality and can only go so far. I believe the main thing that can change your life is you, and you have to know you’re strong.

Generational goals

I just want them to have a different understanding of the world around them. The overarching goal is Afghanistan’s improvement. Even if I can’t change the entire world or country, I can change the minds of some females in this society. These women will be mothers some day who will work hard and make Afghanistan a better place to live in the future. They’ll create a better world for their daughters. The women there are not weak—it’s the society that keeps them down. Afghan women are so brave and they do whatever they can to have a better life, but the way they’re brought up is so stifling. I want these girls to be different and make our country a better place. It may take 200 years, but this is a start.

Opening the library

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Shahnoori offers local officials to cut the introductory ribbon.

I wanted to make sure that the entire community felt comfortable with the library and that it wasn’t a scary thing. I went to talk to the clergy in the local mosque who have a large voice in the community and I talked to the local government officials. I never thought they’d be happy so about it! I’d let them check out the library ahead of time to make sure they were comfortable with the content of the books. They were able to see that I was playing by their rules. I had to show the community that it was just something new, not something bad. Once they saw it was not bad, they were excited.

Plans for the future

I want to establish a literacy class, a computer class, an English class and make some book clubs. It’s just the beginning now. The students welcome everything so eagerly. They love it and want more. I’m going to arrange seminars for women empowerment and human rights for the principal to lead. I talk to the principal and students all the time. We text and I get reports about how many people are using the library, what they think, their expectations, what they need, any problems, what books and programs they want in the future. It’s off to a great start and we’re not stopping here.

Last year, we talked with Bahara Mohammadi C’20 about her experiences teaching women how to code in Afghanistan. You can read her story here.

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