November 7, 2002 - Kickoff Fundraising Mixer Speech

Hello my name is Melissa Street and I am the President of Books for Freedom. I want to thank you all for coming here tonight to support Books for Freedom. It is so encouraging to see so many of you here to support our effort to bring literacy to war-torn countries.

Shortly after 9/11 I heard a report on National Public Radio about the destruction of the library system in Afghanistan. Although the Kabul library was one of the only buildings left standing in the war-torn city, most of the library’s contents had been completely destroyed over years of civil war and strife, and more recently the Taliban’s control.

To hear the Afghans pleading for books to read, in order to learn and expand their minds in hopes of a brighter future, spoke to me. How many of us have ever been denied a book?

My love for books is what brought me to New York to work in the publishing business. I work with books every day now and probably own more than I will ever be able to read.

Because of my proximity to so many books, I thought I might be in a position to help. I asked my company, John Wiley & Sons, if they would donate books and when they agreed I contacted the reporter for NPR

Things happened quickly after I took that first step. I contacted Anne Garrels, the reporter who was in Pakistan at the time. I told her I had books to donate and wanted to start an organization to help libraries and schools in Afghanistan.

She was very excited and put me in touch with others who had contacted her, wanting to help.

I set up a not-for-profit charity and brought everyone together to form a Board of Directors and Committees. Dorsey Trailer was kind enough to donate towards our initial costs, including shipping. Thus, Books for Freedom was born.

Since then a dedicated few have put in a lot of hard work and we have gathered and shipped 20,000 books to Afghanistan to show for it.

NPR aired a piece on Books For Freedom just before our shipment left, reporting on what we were accomplishing, and streams of e-mails came in from people wanting to help and congratulating us for our efforts. One e-mail in particular stuck out for me. Charu Uppal wrote

“I want to thank you, ‘for thinking’ in the right direction. I grew up in India, and have been living in the US for a long time now. I always tell my students that the greatest strength of this country is not in its corporations, or economy but the fact that even a small town has libraries and there is this wonderful process called, ‘interlibrary loan’. Books have been my saviour in all the time I have been here.”

And books truly are in great excess here. We have received numerous e-mails from people across the country that want to hold books drives or have hundreds of dusty books waiting to be read by someone.

Hamat Sadat, an Afghan PhD student wrote to me, “Education is the key to a better tomorrow for Afghanistan.” This is one way that barriers can be brought down between the genders. The phrase “knowledge is power” rings true here. And this is exactly the reason the Taliban forbade education of women.

Our main goal for Books for Freedom is to help rebuild Afghanistan by providing the books needed for some of the Afghan people to free themselves from the brutality of ignorance and provide a foundation for the rebuilding of their personal lives.

I never expected Books for Freedom to come as far as it has. I thought there might be a chance I could get my hands on a couple hundred books and then somehow get them to Afghanistan. Now almost a year later we have accomplished more than I would ever have imagined. With all the hard work we have put in, my main concern was “Are we really helping?” Since our shipment, the most inspiring thing for me has been the e-mails I have received from Afghans, who send their heartfelt thanks and encouraging words.

For instance Mustafa Rahman wrote to me, “It takes special people with kind and caring hearts to do good things for any society and things like this is the foundation of long lasting peace and friendship. As an Afghan individual I can say that the Afghan people will appreciate what is being done for them and they will not forget it, because they are really a kind and very hospitable nation.”

E-mails such as this are encouraging to continue our work. In order to continue though, we need to raise money to gather and ship the books to Afghanistan. It cost us approximately $1 per book to get the shipment to Afghanistan. In addition, Books for Freedom is solely a volunteer organization, with members devoting free time to the cause.

I hope that we can persuade many of you tonight to get involved in this effort. If you can donate money or help us with fundraising, great! If you can volunteer to help us with website design, creating promotional materials, organizing book drives, publicity or general administrative tasks, Great! Your efforts will be going towards providing Afghans with the tools to uncover their eyes from the veil of ignorance and give them a chance at the kind of freedom we have all enjoyed. Providing the books to educate themselves is the first step in achieving freedom of speech, thought and the free exchange of ideas in Afghanistan.

If you would like to get involved, you can sign up on our sheet or e-mails us. Please feel free to check out our website at www.booksforfreedom.org. I want to thank Zanzibar for allowing us to use this space tonight and providing hord'ourves. And thank you again to all of you for coming tonight and supporting our efforts. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.