Do you remember the first book you read? Or the exact moment you opened up a doorway into a completely different realm and your life instantly became just a tad bit more ethereal? When you read your first story and gained a new sense of confidence, individuality and imagination?
The significance of reading books can certainly not be denied. But especially magical and extraordinary are the places which house them: libraries! Large or tiny, overcrowded or minimal, spacious or cramped—libraries come in all kinds of sizes and styles but almost every library is a creative and inclusive space for learning and growth, full of life and magic. Equally magical is the process of building a library from scratch: shelf by shelf and book by book. I had the good fortune of being part of Team IEI, and was part of the process of establishing a library at a public school for young girls in a beautiful village, Sher-E-Sabz, located in Chipursan, an off-road remote valley in Gilgit Baltistan. The library was completed in August 2022 and the inauguration was attended by elementary school children as well as the lovely grandmothers of the kids. But let’s rewind a little bit and take you through the challenging but incredible experience of building an IEI Library.
IEI Library : From ideas to reality
To realize the dream of establishing a library we needed funds to paint the walls, make shelves, tables and chairs and purchase and transport computers. We put together an action plan for events that would help us fundraise and reach our planned target and also create awareness about IEI libraries and invite more young leaders to join the movement. All this would not have been possible without the encouragement and assistance of IEI supporters.
In December 2021, we held our first fundraising event at the Lahore Heritage Club where we were joined by young artists who sang their hearts out and helped us raise awareness about our mission. However, in January, our fundraising came to a staggering halt, as do most fundraising campaigns in the intermediate stages. But like always, Team IEI found glimmering hope in the generosity of complete strangers who came together from all over the world to donate and share our cause. This was fueled by the brilliant filmmaker, Nadir Nahidi, who visited our library space in Sher-E-Sabz and shared our mission with his online family. Our fundraising campaign reached its goal almost overnight, and we were rejuvenated by this milestone and moved on to the execution phase of our library.
A series of events took place in the following months of March, April and May to raise awareness about IEI Libraries, and none of these events would have been possible without the dedication of Team IEI, which at that point was spread all over Pakistan: in Hunza, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. (I firmly believe that if we could execute this without a single face-to-face meeting and only through WhatsApp calls that would often drop because of the weak service in Hunza, then truly anything is possible). On May 15th, we held a documentary screening at Kitab Ghar, Lahore and then soon after in District19, Karachi. Both screenings were a success and the documentary, titled Voices from the Karakoram, filmed by IEI Media Lead, Umaima Soomro, highlighted the voices of the young and old in the distant mountain community of Sher-E-Sabz. To view the documentary, tune in to our Youtube channel.
The book drives
“I never thought we would be able to collect more than 1,000 books but the collective power of people came through with donations pouring in from many different cities in the country.”
While all this was happening we were also conducting book drives inviting people from across the country to donate books for our library. In the initial stages of the book drives, I never thought that we would be able to collect more than 1,000 books but the collective power of people came through with donations pouring in from many different cities in the country. People donated books they had at home and some even hand-picked new books to donate. Children from schools in Lahore and Islamabad came forward to donate books to help build a library for fellow children in a remote village. Many were seen bringing sacks full of books from their homes (all in great condition), and some even donated large quantities of brand new hard-cover books. One student donated around 376 books! Packing the books into cartons ready for transportation was not an easy job the sheer scale of the tasks had me procrastinating and also because it meant the end of book drives! My mother took the task of pushing me to pack reminding me I was hoarding a whole room and guests could come any time. My father agreed to help me in the sorting, packing and delivering and that is how all the books in Lahore reached Hunza. A similar story was happening at our Islamabad office, a home office of our founder where her driver was responsible for collecting books, sister for packing and father for delivering. (It really is a family effort sometimes!)
Working in the remote mountain valleys
With all the pre-preparation done you would think that the work is nearly done. But the real journey began in July. Materials were procured from Aliabad and loaded on a hiace to be taken to Chipursan with our library craftsperson – Iqbal Bhai. On 27th July the team that is myself, Sahar Lakho, Umaima Soomro, and of course the boss girl, Marvi Soomro, and IEI Director Art & Spaces, Rehmat Kareem left for Sher-E-Sabz, Chipursan from Karimabad Sahar, Umaima and I packed ourselves up in a Hiace with all the desktop computers and some boxes of books. Marvi and Kareem bhai rode full gangster style on their motorbike, got all drenched up on the way because of a random rain shower and still managed to reach before our Hiace did to the rest house at Chipursan.
The next morning we were welcomed by a soft breeze, gorgeous views and of course some namkeen chai. We then headed to the Government Middle School, Sher-E-Sabz to check the library and its progress. At that point, the library was completely empty. An old empty school classroom with dark walls. Iqbal bhai and his team were beginning to put on the first coat of paint on the walls to bring some brightness to the room and give it a new look. Iqbal bhai and his team’s task was design all the interior shelves and furniture as per our team’s design plan. Living in remote valleys comes at we did not have much extra funds to spare on our accomodation and meals therefore we had restricted ourselves to a short stay and merged it with our summer camp where we were conducting many fun activities with the children of the same school. Iqbal bhai gave us his word that he would have the shelves upright and functional by August 4th.
But let me tell you something about the people in Sher-E-Sabz: they are tough, hard working people, with immense skill and talent, who made it possible to complete the set up of the library in 8 days.
In a few days, Iqbal bhai had completed the shelves and had started working on the round tables and the tiny stools for the computer desks. All IEI Libraries come with murals or art installations that add a sense of awe and wonder to the space. I wanted this library to have a pop of color too so I attempted (emphasis on the word ‘attempted’) to paint a mural for the kids in the library. Umaima, our genius Media Lead, was working round the clock filming the library’s BTS whilst also working with her students at the summer camp (this year, Summer Camp ‘22 and library set up occurred simultaneously). Because all libraries need a librarian who knows what they are doing, we conducted a training session for the librarians to guide them on how to manage the operations of a library. As of now, we remain in touch with them as they send us monthly reports on the library’s functionality and workings.
But all our work and dedication would not have been possible without the kindness and hospitality of the people of Sher-E-Sabz. The families around the school took turns bringing us warm chai, ptok, and chilpek. and currently, my eyes are starting to well up as I write this because there was nothing like bonding with the team and the community over chai and snacks in the chilly evenings after all the work of the day had been done. Some days, when we weren’t able to head back to the resthouse for lunch break, Safdar bhai (whose resthouse we were staying at) would come riding on his motorbike to the library with a hotpot full of warm food and chai.
Slowly, the library started to take up a beautiful form. The shelves were all lined up. The round tables slowly took up space on the ground. The mural added color and vibrancy to the space. Desktop computers were set-up. Carpets were lined against the ground. Books came out of the cardboard boxes and cozied up on the shelves.
The inauguration day took place on a beautiful Friday morning, on 5th August. There was excitement and ecstatic energy in the air that I couldn’t explain properly even if I tried. We were joined by community leaders, parents, students, and grandmothers. The library was officially inaugurated and the students’ happiness and curiosity could not be contained. Some headed straight for the books, especially the illustrated ones. Others went to the desktop computers and opened Microsoft Word or MS Paint. The elementary school children took to the round tables and marveled at the pop-up books. As the kids immersed themselves in the library, the IEI team took a much needed break of chai and geral before we headed back to the resthouse, and a day later, headed back to Hunza.
I wish I could put to words how worthwhile and brilliant working on this project was. As humans, there is little in the world that truly fills us up with joy or without second thoughts. I can confirm that working on the set-up of the 4th IEI library was very challenging and difficult but it was the first project that left me truly overjoyed, content and without any regrets. Perhaps my only regret is that I booked my flight back to Lahore too soon.
If you wish to help us continue building libraries in distant mountain communities of Gilgit Baltistan, then reach out to us at [email protected] and donate to our cause. You can also donate books in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. All you have to do is write to us and we’ll respond!
Here’s to creating more IEI Libraries, onwards and upwards!