August 9 , 2007

"Healing" book finds its way into Afghan classrooms

Hamilton, ON - A book that strives to help Afghan people heal from the stress and trauma of war is being introduced into the Afghan education curriculum.

 Written by four McMaster University psychologists and peace activists—Joanna Santa Barbara, Graeme MacQueen, Mary-Jo Land and Kevin Arthur Land—and illustrated by Hamilton watercolourist Yar Mohammad Taraky, the book tells the story of a rural family coping with the turbulent struggles Afghanistan. The war hits close to home when a beloved uncle is killed by a landmine and a father loses a leg. Jobs and family status are lost, the children notice personality changes in their friends, and the family is moved to a displaced persons camp.  

The story’s straight-forward portrayal about dealing with, among other things, estrangement, parental discord, anger, and grief, offers through its characters ways to respond to those issues in the home and in the community. The importance of the grandmother’s role as comforter and advisor is highlighted. 

“Grandmothers are vital because they have knowledge of Afghanistan before the war,” says Mary-Jo Land, a fourth-year psychology student and one of the book’s authors. “They were the ones who had an emotionally balanced childhood and who are familiar with the culture and the old Afghanistan.” 

More than 42,000 copies of the book have been distributed to schools nationwide (printing of the first edition was funded by UNICEF). Land, who recently returned from Afghanistan, helped train teachers on how best to deliver the curriculum.

 With an average class size of 70 students, Land says teachers are excited about the book’s potential to keep their students engaged. Assisting in that regard are colourful hand puppets that animate the central characters in the book: Jameela, Ahmed, Bibi Jan and Merza. They add an element of playfulness to the telling of the story, and also serve as a tool in therapeutic healing. The puppets, designed by fabric artist and costumer Jan MacKie, are made by members of the Binbrook Women's Institute, in Binbrook, Ont.

 “What we’ve found in our research is that in various war zones there is a fair amount of activity around healing but nothing –other than this project—that brings together the effects of war and the value of peace education,” says Santa Barbara.

The authors also see the book as finding relevance outside Afghanistan.

“The story is of interest to anyone who wants to understand the dire circumstances and day-to-day life experienced by the Afghan people but it also resonates with refugees, particularly children, from all cultures,” says Land.

It is for that reason that the book, its images and the teaching curriculum are being made available for free at 

McMaster University, a world-renowned, research-intensive university, fosters a culture of innovation, and a commitment to discovery and learning in teaching, research and scholarship. Based in Hamilton, the University, one of only four Canadian universities to be listed on the Top 100 universities in the world, has a student population of more than 23,000, and an alumni population of more than 125,000 in 125 countries.