Maryland Newsline

Home Page


Business & Tech


Crime & Justice


Et Cetera

Related Link:
American Muslims Reach Out to Afghan Mosques

Maryam Khan with a little Afghan girl
Maryam Khan of Ellicott City, Md., spent five months working on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan last year. (Photo courtesy Maryam Khan)
By Kaukab Jhumra Smith
Maryland Newsline
Thursday, March 31, 2005

Part of Maryam Khan's job in Afghanistan last year was to build barracks for the new Afghan army, including areas for cleansing rites and prayer.

After five months under heavy U.S. security, Khan, an American, yearned for more contact with ordinary Afghans.

When she returned home to Ellicott City, Md., last October, she found she couldn't leave thoughts of them behind.

"I felt like most of the Afghans there were just tired," said Khan, who works as a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "They were tired after years of war, and they just wanted peace."

So when Khan, 23, learned of a volunteer project that would connect American Muslims with people in Afghanistan, she jumped at the chance.

She joined forces in late January with Lionel Ifill, 22, a U.S. Army civil affairs specialist stationed along the eastern Afghan border, to help bring together neighborhood mosques in the United States with mosques in Afghanistan.

It's a way of letting Afghans know that people in the United States care about them, Ifill wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan.

Market scene in Kabul with mosque in background
A mosque's dome and minaret peek from behind this busy Kabul market. With prayers held five times a day, mosques serve as neighborhood gathering places for Afghans. (Photo by Maryam Khan)
Under Khan and Ifill's plan, an American mosque "adopts" an Afghan mosque, sending care packages filled with clothes and blankets, cans of vegetarian food, school supplies, toiletries and copies of the Quran.

Since late January, more than 12 volunteers from five U.S. states have signed up to start gift drives at their local mosques. At least four Maryland mosques -- in Baltimore, College Park, Laurel and Gaithersburg -- are on the list, although none has sent packages overseas yet.

Ifill, a Christian who says he's not active in a church, has been in Afghanistan since September. Since deploying, he has found himself scrambling for ways to connect with ordinary Afghans, whose lives usually center around Islam, he said.

"For the most part, everyone over here in the military is Christian," Ifill wrote in an e-mail. "We try to find ways to help out with the mosques, but coming from a different religion, we may not be able to relate as well as we should."

Ifill and Khan have never met in person. Ifill grew up in Silver Spring and Takoma Park before moving to Philadelphia. Khan, born in Baltimore to Pakistani parents, served as president of the Muslim Students Association her junior year at Johns Hopkins University. After graduating, she joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and volunteered for a civilian tour in Afghanistan, serving last May to October.

Khan is recruiting Muslim student groups to help with the project as well.

Fahad Ashraf, president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said his 30-member organization would send a package to Afghanistan within the next two months. With a goal of just one package per group, "it just seemed like a good, small-scale project that we could easily get involved in," said Ashraf, a third-year dentistry student.

Afghan men sitting in a semi-circle
Afghan men wrap sheets and shawls around themselves against the cold. (Photo courtesy Maryam Khan)
Ashraf Haidari, an Afghan embassy spokesman in Washington, said that encouraging American and Afghan Muslims to connect personally is "a good gesture," especially if it helps those in need during the cold Afghan winter. He cautioned, however, that assistance should reach "the right people."

Ifill and Khan say they have discussed security concerns with military superiors. They have also responded to worries of American Muslims who fear their gifts of goodwill may leave them vulnerable to suspicions of aiding terrorism.

To avoid security breaches, Ifill and Khan say, packages will be sent through Ifill's military mailing address, which has the added advantages of being faster and cheaper than regular mail. Ifill will unpack all items, document them and "send them up higher" to military seniors before re-sealing and delivering the gifts, Khan said.

"In other words, no package will come directly through the mail to the Afghan mosque or directly through the mail to the U.S. mosque," Khan wrote in a reassuring e-mail to potential volunteers. "It all will be a very controlled process."

No electronics, cash or anything that could be used as a weapon will be allowed, Khan said.

If Afghan mosques want, they can send loose items to Ifill in a similar gesture of goodwill. He will inspect and document them before mailing them to the United States.

Donors won't know the identity of recipient mosques until after the gifts have been delivered, Khan said. Nor could Afghan mosques trace gifts back to individuals: Ifill will destroy identifying information and return addresses.

Some volunteers are taken aback by the stringent security measures. "I didn't even think of it as a problem, to be honest," Ashraf said. Still, he said, he appreciates the safeguards.

A State Department official who works on Afghanistan affairs said the project would not be a security threat even if held outside military channels. "There are all sorts of people-to-people projects going on" without government involvement, said the official, who asked not to be named.


The letter to Afghan mosques in the Pashtu and Dari languages. (.pdf format)

Each package delivered to an Afghan mosque will contain a generic letter in three different languages, English, Pashtu and Dari. Khan's friends, including a contact at the Afghan embassy in Washington, wrote and proofread the translations.

"We do not want anything in return,” the letter says. “We just want to send our warm wishes to you." It is signed simply, "With peace and love."

Some see real cultural benefits to the project.

"This idea will help people to understand that in the U.S., Muslims have their rights, they have their mosques, they are free to do everything about their religion," said Ghafoor Liwal, a former spokesman for the Constitutional Commission in Afghanistan who is on a Fulbright-funded fellowship at the University of Maryland, College Park.

While most educated people in Afghanistan know this, Liwal said, others will be surprised.

Ifill has a similar goal. "I hope the outcome of this project is for the Afghan people to realize that being in the U.S. doesn't mean that you cannot be a God-fearing person," he said.

To learn more about the project, e-mail Maryam Khan at

Copyright © 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

Top of Page | Home Page