Rebuilding Iraq -- Book by Book

A growing number of college students have emptied their backpacks for a good cause.

Instead of selling back their textbooks to the bookstore or letting them gather dust in their basements, students at a handful of universities have donated their used books to Iraq's war-torn capital.

The program, "Books for Baghdad," collects and distributes textbooks in science, mathematics and technology (some of the few subjects taught in English in the Middle East) and transports them to the University of Baghdad and its library in Iraq.

Safaa Al-Hamdani, an Iraqi-born American citizen, created the program in 2004. He teaches biology at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, and is an alumnus of Baghdad University. It was during a trip back to his alma mater that he became aware of the dire need for textbooks. Speaking with faculty members there he learned that many of the textbooks they used were 30 to 40 years old.

The outreach effort began on a corner table in Al-Hamdani's biology lab, but "Books for Baghdad" has now evolved into an international program, reaching campuses in England, Canada and the United States, where students and faculty have created similar book drives.

"I was reading about Iraq every day in the papers, and I just felt like I needed to do something productive," said University of Rochester sophomore Erik Tobiason, who started his school's drive.

Tobiason teamed with students in the Community Service Club and an Arab Club to spread the word on campus. Through concerts and table displays on campus, the students have collected a modest number of books. They hope that more book donations will come rolling in as finals conclude.

Mike Monteleone, a junior at the University of Chicago, helped collect more than 800 books in last year's book drives. He said he became involved in "Books for Baghdad" because he liked the cause. "I was so sick of all the division the war was creating on campus. ... This program steps aside from all partisanship surrounding the war and drew in both Democrats and Republicans and people of all religions and ethnic groups," he said.

And the program highlights the dire need for Iraqi students. "The scope of this problem is unimaginably profound," said Harvard Islamic and Middle East specialist Jeff Spurr, who has done extensive research on Iraq's libraries.

"Saddam Hussein's decades of rule severely extinguished virtually all vestiges of civil society, leaving a society that has been intellectually and culturally trampled on," said Spurr.

He had distributed the majority of government money to the military, neglecting funds for education (particularly libraries) and cultural programs.

And following these decades of neglect, many libraries were left in shambles by rampant looting that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The most widely reported incident of looting occurred in 2003, when an estimated 60 percent of the collection in the Baghdad National Library was demolished. Another significant loss, Spurr says, occurred at the University of Basra, where more than 70 percent of the holdings are gone.

"I've spoken with prominent lecturers in Baghdad who report having no textbooks to use to teach their class," says Spurr.

The schools involved in "Books for Baghdad" work to reverse these devastating losses. Through posters, book drives and other events, the group collected more than 10,000 books and $5,000 in supplies last year. This year the organizers expect even higher numbers.

And help is coming from beyond schools; independent foundations have helped pick up the cost of transporting the supplies to the Middle East.

Some could argue that these are luxury goods and that we should focus more on basic needs. After all, the U.S. government has dropped several book exchange programs.

But for college students, this is an invaluable start. Sophomore Tobiason said, "I see education as extremely important in changing the future of Iraq. In the long-term what prevents wars and saves lives is education."

Devin Opotzner, of the University of Rochester's Student Association for the Development of Arab Cultural Awareness (SADACA), said she knows the effort will have a concrete benefit for Iraq. "There will be at least one Iraqi student who will learn from our contribution, and that, for me, makes it all worthwhile."

For more information on Books for Baghdad, visit their Web site: http://www.booksforbaghdad.org/

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