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Carol Mark’s revolution

Toronto gallery owner uses art to fund literature—in Afghanistan

BY Sonja Mikovic
Photography by Steve Payne

Carol Mark, a 52-year-old nurse, art gallery owner and humanitarian powerhouse, was committed to Afghanistan before the landlocked country of perpetual turmoil was thrust onto the front lines of the global arena. Inspired by the number of women and children denied access to health care under the Taliban, Mark decided to fly overseas to do what she could to help, even though she admits that she couldn’t point out Afghanistan on a map. “I was thinking to myself, ‘God, it’s a place no one has heard of, I’m not going to raise money very easily,’” she says. “Moments later the planes hit the Twin Towers.”

Armed with a nursing diploma, she first travelled to Afghanistan in 2002 and met with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) with the hope of starting a medical clinic. To date she has not only completed her original goal, but has also airlifted 15,000 pounds of supplies to an orphanage. But after meeting children across the country, she decided education was the most pressing issue.

So she started Kidsread Afghanistan, a pilot project with the goal of starting public libraries across the country, working with the Afghan government and Carol Mann, president of the Parisbased women’s NGO FemAid.

In 2004, with a quarter in the bank, Mark re-mortgaged her house to open the ACA Gallery (short for Art/Culture/Aid/ Spirit) in Toronto—with the motto “because art can change the world”—proceeds from which help fund her humanitarian efforts.

After five years of planning and a great deal of negotiating with government and community interests, Kidsread Afghanistan plans to open the doors to Afghanistan’s first female-friendly library in Farah later this year. The city, 400 kilometres west of Kandahar and nestled between a desert and jagged mountains, is among the country’s poorest regions. The literacy rate is below one percent, the result of poverty and a fierce Taliban stronghold. (On the whole, Afghanistan’s literacy rate hovers at 40 percent, but is half that for women, who were the hardest hit when the Taliban swept the county in the ’80s and forbade them education.)

Through her determination, Mark has been able to successfully market the libraries in a difficult cultural and political climate—technically, women have regained the right to education, but many Afghans are still hostile to the idea. “Our premise is to help the women and children. We don’t have a political agenda,” she says. The library will be housed in a newly decorated four-room brick-and-earth structure equipped with a well and garden and supplied with solar panels.

Mark is modest and direct, exhibiting a contagious mixture of hope and realism, a visionary whose dreams are tied tightly to the ground. “It takes a number of concerned citizens to change the world,” she says. “It’s not going to be the government. It’s not going to be celebrities. To create change you have to get out of your own comfort zone and be the one to take that first step.”


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