Reserve Family Sparks Afghan Literacy Project
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2011 Army 1st Lt. Michael O’Neill was deployed to Afghanistan when his family asked what they could send him to help the Afghan children.
Army 1st Lt. Michael O’Neill, an Army Reserve civil affairs officer who deployed in 2010 to Afghanistan, reads Afghan children native-language books provided through the “Operation: Read it Again!” campaign his family initiated. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Little did O’Neill realize at the time that his request for children’s books would be instrumental in launching an innovative literacy initiative that’s been embraced by the State Department and Afghan national government.
O’Neill, an Army reservist from suburban Philadelphia, deployed to Afghanistan’s northwestern Panjshir province last year as civil affairs team leader for the provincial reconstruction team.
A doctoral student studying clinical psychology at California’s Fielding Graduate University and now an Army captain, O’Neill understands the value of education. And throughout his Afghanistan deployment, he encountered illiteracy at nearly every turn.
So when his daughters proposed a clothing drive to solicit donations for Afghan citizens, O’Neill came up with another idea.
“I responded back and told them [the Afghans] are very, very short on educational materials, and that any kind of books would be helpful,” he said.
In fact, well-intentioned people were sending plenty of books to Afghanistan, but they all were in English. “So I kind of challenged [my daughters] to try to find things in their native language” – Dari and Pashto, O’Neill said.
Ten-year-old Caitlin O’Neill went to work, scouring the Internet for leads. She hit paydirt on the Hoopoe books website, run by a nonprofit publisher. Among its offerings were books of popular Afghan fables, written in both native languages by a well-known Afghan author. Idries Shad is an Afghan-born, British-educated novelist dedicated to preserving Afghan culture.
Celine O’Neill, Mike’s wife, contacted the publisher’s sales director to explain the project and get ordering information. Before long, their other two daughters, Keely and Nuala, had jumped into the program with both feet and were holding fundraisers at their schools. Their efforts raised enough money to send more than 3,000 children’s books to Afghanistan.
The books were titled, “The Boy Without a Name,” and “The Lion Who Saw Himself in the Water.”
When the books arrived at Forward Operating Base Lion, O’Neill showed them to his commander, as well as to local Afghan elders and religious leaders, and got their blessings to distribute them.
O’Neill recalled the children’s reaction when he started taking them out on missions and handing them out. “The kids just loved them. They absolutely loved them,” he said.
For about 95 percent, the books were the first they had ever owned. “While we enjoy [receiving] care packages [from home], it doesn’t compare to the joy of seeing a child with their first book,” he said.
O’Neill used his basic Dari skills to read them the stories, all popular Afghan folklore. “It was their story. They were the stories their parents and grandparents had been passing on orally for generations,” he said. “And here they were, in print, with lovely colored books.”
Without fail, the children uttered the same phase his own daughters evoked whenever O’Neill came to the last page of a storybook: “Read it again! Read it again!”
That led Celine O’Neill to dub the book campaign, “Operation: Read it Again!”
“So I ended up reading these same books hundreds of times across the province,” O’Neill recalled. In doing so, he quickly realized that the books helped to connect him and his fellow soldiers with the Afghan people and their leaders.
O’Neill’s company commander authorized commander’s emergency response program funds to buy a second allotment of books.
But the bigger step came when the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, at the Panjshir provincial reconstruction team director’s urging, helped the book publisher apply for a public diplomacy grant so they could purchase even more.
The State Department approved the grant to buy 2.4 million native-language books, as well as training materials for teachers to use them. “So the project went beyond just handing out books,” O’Neill said. “It actually evolved into a program for education.”
Meanwhile, the publisher arranged to have the books printed by an Afghan printer based in Kabul. A network of nongovernmental organizations, including the Red Crescent, stepped in to help distribute the books.
“So from beginning to end, the books are Afghan stories, written by an Afghan author, printed in Afghanistan and being distributed by NGOs that are largely Afghan organizations,” O’Neill said. “The Afghans have really taken ownership of this program. They realize the importance of it.”
They recognized the books project as a stepping stone toward addressing illiteracy, which affects much as 75 percent of rural Afghans.
“If we can capture the imaginations of the young children that are 4, 5 and 6 years old and get them excited about reading and excited about learning, it could increase the enrollment at schools,” he said.
These children, in turn, take their books home and read them to their family members who can’t read. “This promotes literacy and gets their families excited about reading, too,” O’Neill said.
Mohammad Khan Kharoti from the Green Village Schools in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, said the project also helps to reinforce national pride. “These books are so good for young schoolchildren,” he said. “They will help them to appreciate their rich past, and once again, employ the values the stories contain in their daily life and in their family’s life.”
Now back in the United States, O’Neill is serving a one-year tour with the 1st Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Battalion’s training brigade, preparing other Army reservists for deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa.
His family remains committed to Operation: Read It Again! and is now focusing much of its effort on school supplies to Afghan children.
Last spring, the Pennsylvania state legislature honored them for their work during a joint session in Harrisburg, with Gov. Tom Corbett declaring them role models for the state.
O’Neill said he feels “overwhelming pride that my daughters have accomplished such a terrific thing” by taking on the project, and thanked everyone who helped it succeed and grow.
“When you have the opportunity to help be a part of a team to raise a population out of illiteracy, it’s a life-changing moment,” he said. “This is a game changer, helping to raise millions of children out of poverty by giving them a shot at education and a future.”
O’Neill expressed hope that this effort will continue long after the U.S. military draws down in Afghanistan.
“We have spent 10 years there,” he said. “In the end, if we don’t leave them with something like a functional education system, I’m afraid that our efforts will have had limited impact.”