Founders of Bright Star Mobile Library (BSML), Saeed and Siddiqa Malik, visited the Give2Asia staff in San Francisco and spoke to us about their experience improving literacy rates for elementary school children in Islamabad, Pakistan, and where they hope to take their program next.
When Saeed Malik left the United Nations World Food Programme after 35 years, he returned home to Pakistan with Siddiqa. One day, he got into a conversation with a group of young boys outside their home. He asked the boys what they wanted to do. They replied that they wanted to become "mujhadeen," or freedom fighters. The last boy he asked was the most shy, responding “as if he was doing something wrong,” that he wanted to be a doctor.
It was this moment, he tells us, that it struck him that Pakistan as a country was moving in the wrong direction. There needed to be a way to better educate and empower these children. When Saeed and Siddiqa found that the poorest schools in Islamabad were not adequately teaching reading, they knew that literacy was one way to engage the problem. It was not until a trip to San Francisco, though, when they visited the San Francisco Public Library and learned about their “mobile library” program, that it clicked.
Today, Bright Star Mobile Libraries (BSML) operates out of four refurbished U.N. jeeps vehicles. They service over 5,000 young students in government or private elementary schools, which do not have library services of their own. A group of volunteers, most of whom are young college graduates, pay weekly visits to twenty schools, bringing some 800 books straight to the hands of eager young children.
But BSML is not only a space for access to education; as we spoke with Saeed and Siddiqa Malik, it was clear that their model of routine school visits is about forging relationships. Teachers, volunteers, and students return again and again to participate with the program. That consistency is important to their success, building relationships between teacher and student, and more importantly, between student and reading.
“They develop a love and respect for books,” Saeed tells us. Students have demonstrated an immense interest in consuming English- and Urdu-language stories, and BSML programs are a popular service and educational tool amongst Islamabad elementary schools and its teachers and administrators. Parents do not object either, as “the children come home and recite the whole story to the parents,” he says.
Feeding the insatiable imaginations of young students, Saeed and Siddiqa Malik hope that they can grow their organization further, ideally serving twice their capacity now, to 10,000 students in Islamabad. As book donations come from the San Francisco Public Library, the National Library of Pakistan, and the Asia Foundation, much of the gap in funding is in fueling the bookmobiles themselves, as well as paying drivers. More than basic operating costs, however, the couple hopes to fortify BSML’s investment in education by engaging “older” students (i.e., sixth graders), providing training to BSML teachers, and providing small snacks, as many of the students come from low-income and poor families. All these micro-investments, however small, would have enormous impacts on the efficacy of their program.
“It’s learning, reading, social change, and much more,” says Saeed, “I don’t think ‘library’ [captures] it.”