Volunteers Connect Afghan, American Mosques

When Maryam Khan returned to Ellicott City (search) last year after five months in Afghanistan with the Army Corps of Engineers, the civil engineer found she could not leave thoughts of the Afghan people behind.

"I felt like most of the Afghans there were just tired," she said. "They were tired after years of war, and they just wanted peace."

So when Khan, 23, learned of a volunteer project to connect American Muslims with people in Afghanistan (search), she jumped at the chance.

She joined forces in late January with Sgt. Lionel Ifill, 22, an Army civil affairs specialist in Afghanistan, to help American mosques "adopt" Afghan mosques, sending clothes and blankets, food, school supplies, toiletries and copies of the Quran (search).

Since January more than 12 volunteers from five states have signed up to start gift drives at local mosques. No packages have been sent yet, but at least four Maryland mosques — in Baltimore, College Park, Laurel and Gaithersburg — are on the list.

Ifill, a Christian who says he is not active in a church, said that since arriving in Afghanistan in September he has been scrambling for ways to connect with ordinary Afghans, whose lives usually center around Islam.

"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 both have Maryland roots, but they have never met. Ifill grew up in Silver Spring and Takoma Park before moving to Philadelphia; Khan was born in Baltimore to Pakistani parents.

Khan, who was president of the Muslim Students Association her junior year at Johns Hopkins University, joined the Corps of Engineers as a civilian after graduating. She volunteered for a civilian tour in Afghanistan, helping build barracks for the new Afghan army while there, from May to October.

Since coming home, she has recruited Muslim student groups for the mosque project.

Fahad Ashraf, president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said his 30-member organization plans to send a package to Afghanistan in 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, who is studying dentistry.

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 the military and responded to worries of American Muslims who fear their gifts of goodwill could leave them open to suspicions of aiding terrorism.

To avoid security breaches, packages will be sent through Ifill's military mailing address, which has the added advantage of being faster and cheaper than regular mail. Ifill will unpack all items, document them and "send them up" to military superiors 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 an e-mail to potential donors. "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 they want, Afghan mosques can send items to Ifill in a similar gesture of goodwill. He will inspect and document them before mailing them to the United States.

Donors will not know the recipient mosques until after the gifts have been delivered, nor could Afghan mosques trace gifts back to individuals: Ifill will destroy identifying information and return addresses, Khan said.

Some volunteers are taken aback by the stringent security.

"I didn't even think of it as a problem, to be honest," said Ashraf, but he said he appreciates the safeguards.

Each package will contain a letter in three languages — English, Pashtu and Dari — for the Afghan mosque that receives it: "We do not want anything in return," it says. "We just want to send our warm wishes to you."

It is signed simply, "With peace and love."

"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.

While most educated people in Afghanistan know this, others will be surprised, said Liwal, who is on a Fulbright-funded fellowship at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.