On a cold, rainy morning, a van pulls up outside a rural elementary school on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The fluorescent green vehicle provides a flash of color on this otherwise gray day. There’s a picture of children reading books under a large apple tree, and the words “Reading is fun” are painted in English and Urdu, the national language in Pakistan.
Volunteer Ameena Khan starts pulling books from shelves on either side of the van.
“One is called Faces and one’s an Urdu book,” she says. “We’re doing Bears on Wheels, which is a nice counting book. Fourth grade is going to read their own books.”
The younger children gather to hear Khan read. The girls, bright-eyed and engaged, sit cross-legged on the floor in neat rows.
In Pakistan, rarely a day goes by without news of a bombing or an attack by militants. Many young Pakistanis have grown up in the grip of religious extremism, and there’s little sign that that is likely to change in the near future. But the founder of the Bright Star bookmobile is trying to reverse that trend, starting at the most basic level.
Malik says the poor quality of education is having a ripple effect on the lives of children. He remembers talking to a group of boys, 9 to 16 years old.
“And I asked them what were their plans when they grew up. And I was quite shocked with the reply,” he says. “The majority of them said they wanted to become mujahed, which is a freedom fighter.”
Malik felt books were the way to broaden children’s minds, to introduce them to a whole world of subjects, and to help build tolerance for others. But he discovered that virtually none of the public schools in and around Islamabad had libraries. A few keep a small selection of books under lock and key; others offer children religious pamphlets as reading material.
So Malik decided to take books to the children. He says the idea of creating a mobile library came to him after seeing a similar project at the San Francisco Public Library. But Malik says he soon encountered the type of bureaucracy that can choke the life out of a project — even from Pakistan’s Education Department.
Like most nascent nonprofits, funding is fragile. The project runs on a shoestring budget, and it relies on donations
and volunteers like Ameena Khan. She says she has seen a positive change in the children since they’ve had access to books.