Giving Back for Literacy and a Better World

As I think of today's global challenges of illiteracy, it is clear that the difference between the poor and the prosperous lies in the power of words.
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I was conceived in a small farming village in Yemen. When my parents realized that I would be coming into the world, they spent their meager savings to bribe government officials so they could escape. No man had ever taken his wife out of the village: The family prohibited it. My parents reached America in debt, my dad with little to no command of English and my mom illiterate. The disenfranchisement my mom experienced as someone who couldn't read is still widespread today.

As I think of my mom's situation as a young woman and today's global challenges of illiteracy, it is clear that the difference between the poor and the prosperous lies in the power of words. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, Africa and Asia have the world's highest adult illiteracy rates, especially among women and girls. This can result in low socioeconomic status for women, larger family sizes, high prevalence of infectious diseases and staggering infant/child mortality. Studies suggest that for every year a girl continues in school, her income later will grow by 20 percent on average. When we advocate for literacy, we do not advocate for life's luxuries but rather for a critical tool which opens doors to a better life.

Now, compare that global scenario with disadvantaged neighborhoods here in America, where children are designated "at risk" in elementary school. A 2010 report by Johns Hopkins researchers showed that despite some progress, over 1,700 schools nationwide are so-called "dropout factories." Most of these schools are in high-poverty areas with high proportions of minority students, most with dismal reading scores. Children who lack the power of words are doomed before they begin. Too many young children in our communities -- and in Asia and Africa -- lack that crucial tool. Most have never seen their parents read. Literacy means participating in civil society; enjoying greater income for their families; reducing domestic violence; fostering healthier and better educated families; and, ultimately, saving children's lives.

My personal and professional experiences are what inspire my volunteer work for the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA) with its Youth Ambassadors in North Texas. I'm energized and made hopeful by the spirit of these young people who come together to learn about global poverty and make a difference in their community. Their exploration of the work of foundations and their research on sustainable solutions through case studies led them to deepen their understanding by engaging in local projects.

This past summer, inspired by an AKF USA literacy project in Kyrgyzstan, the Youth Ambassadors embarked on a three-part literacy project at a local elementary school where over 68 percent of students (314 out of 456) are considered "at risk." Ambassadors solicited partnerships with an art consultant and a paint company to create a mural in the elementary school's library. Now, on a wall facing the amphitheater where children listen to dramatic readings, they see a powerful oak tree and a landscape containing plants, flowers and animals native to Texas. In the corner of the mural is "The Spirit of the Oak," a poem by James McGirt, which likens the strength of an oak tree to the inner strength and resolve of the human spirit. Zanir Habib, lead ambassador on this project, shares that the project in Kyrgyzstan "creates a love of reading." He adds, "We wanted to make an impact in literacy." To raise awareness of global poverty, the Ambassadors created a global village at AKF's Partnership Walk/Run, where they showcased their local projects side by side with projects overseas in Asia and Africa.

Aga Khan Foundation Youth Ambassadors in Plano, Texas meet with Barron Elementary
School's principal on plans to paint a mural in the library.

This academic year, the Youth Ambassadors will carry out two more phases of the literacy project. In the second phase, they plan to record books on MP3 players for the elementary students. And in the final phase, ambassadors will incorporate what they have learned about sustainable solutions to poverty through the focus areas of environment, civil society, health and education. Four themed gardens will be created through partnerships with local businesses. With a focus on environment, they will plant native Texas plants and trees. These themed gardens will extend students' education through hands-on learning in social studies, science, music and art. Projects of this caliber increase literacy and language development for students who are at risk of not graduating.

The high school ambassadors painted the mural in the school library, featuring native
plants and a poem to foster a love of reading.

The completed mural is a first part of the Youth Ambassadors' plan to promote reading
among young students. They were inspired by a program in the Kyrgyz Republic.

By thinking globally and acting locally, AKF Youth Ambassadors are a model for the type of caring and activism needed to truly make a difference. Read deeply and broadly so that you too can have the words that stimulate discourse and inspire others to be the solution to end global poverty.

Photos courtesy of Miriam Ezzani.

This blog is part of our #GivingTuesday series, produced by The Huffington Post and the teams at InterAction, 92nd Street Y,United Nations Foundation, and others. Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday - which takes place for the first time on Tuesday, November 27 - is a movement intended to open the holiday season on a philanthropic note. Go to to learn more and get involved.

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