Safura Ghallehzari, a retired history, geography and social sciences teacher, has been busy building libraries for the Caspian port city of Bandar Anzali by gathering trash and discarded paper, using the proceeds to help the community and the environment. 

Ghallehzari retired in 2014 and immediately set out to pick up bottles and bottle caps out of trash cans, using the money she made from refunds to buy wheelchairs for the disabled. This brought her so much joy that she decided to continue her litter collecting with a view to setting up small libraries.  

Day by day, Safura Ghallehzari expands the circle of her dreams. She soon joined the Society to Support the Development of Bandar Anzali and now she dons the coveralls of the society, wears a pair of plastic gloves, and sets out for the city’s busy streets and its waterfront.

She has a commitment to cleaning up and restoring the environment and has described how she had always had an unpleasant feeling when she saw piles of garbage, a blot on the environment around her. Then she decided that, as a responsible citizen, it was not enough to make proclamations and criticize. She decided that practical steps were needed to help her city, which is also a perennial tourist magnet.

And now everybody in Bandar Anzali knows her. They all cooperate with her, including the port’s officials.  

In January 2019, Ghallehzari told the Iranian Pupils’ Association News Agency (PANA) that in the two years that she had been gathering discarded books and paper, she had recovered close to 13 tons of paper and successfully set up seven public libraries in Bandar Anzali’s public places by selling the recyclables [Persian link]. The libraries have been set up in locations such as the city’s prison, the hospital, the port, a sports club and the Society for the Hearing-Impaired. She has managed to convince everyone that the only way to save their city from pollution is to recycle its trash.


From Trash to Wheelchairs

Safura Ghallehzari was born to a family of educators and both her parents were teachers. For some time, her father was the head of the Education Department of Fuman in Gilan Province and she came to know books and literature as a child. And since childhood, she has always dreamed of a clean and garbage-free city and environment.

It was by chance that she came across the idea of gathering bottles and their caps and selling them to buy wheelchairs for disabled people in a student camp. The idea originated from a non-governmental organization in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan, and she decided to follow up on it. With the help of the students and her colleagues, she started gathering trash. When she had collected enough money, she donated four wheelchairs to the Welfare Bureau.

Ghallehzari felt that, in their daily lives, the people of her city had no notion of waste management. So she decided to teach them about it. She set up classes in schools and at various institutions and encouraged people to start separating trash at the origin — meaning households and places of business. This habit of separating waste has been established for several years in many countries — and it has shown to be effective both financially and environmentally.

When she started, the dean of one of the schools in Anzali came to believe in her vision and made a storeroom at the school available to her. This was her starting point. In the meantime, she also tried to convince other schools and organizations in the area not to throw away paper and join her in storing and recycling it.

But in the early days, few believed that her idea was practical. In an interview with the newspaper Iran, she said for a long time she gathered and carried the books and scrap paper on her own. She didn’t complain, despite the fact that she sometimes did it from morning until night and ended up exhausted and dirty [Persian link]. Even people close to her did not believe what she was doing was of any use. But she steadfastly believes that, although environmental action might not show quick results, everybody will benefit in the future.

Now, after a few years of nonstop efforts, 12 schools across Bandar Anzali have given up their storage space for her use. What is more, the deans take part in Safura Ghallehzari’s initiative, gathering wastepaper and storing it. Also, the people of Bandar Anzali have shown great interest and talk about and to her on social media, sharing their own ideas with her.


Promoting the Reading Habit

Now that Safura Ghallehzari's efforts are bearing fruit, she is determined to go further, moving on from the establishment of small libraries to a more ambitious target: To increase the per capita reading habits of the city’s people. If this goal is to be reached, facilities are needed so that she can encourage people to read.

“We believe that the biggest problem of our city is…the weakness in the knowledge of humanities,” she told the newspaper Iran. “We have a large number of good engineers in the city but we have no good sociologists or political and social philosophers. The only way to address this shortcoming is to read. We have decided to boost the circulation of books in the city. If there are no bookstores that [can provide the necessary books] then we must help our citizens to obtain those books.”

As part of this idea, Safura Ghallehzari is currently thinking about launching a project called “You, Too, Read Books.” The basic idea is for ordinary people to exchange books in various public spaces and at the city’s landmarks. People will sign up for appointments at these sites and exchange the books that they have read for those that they have yet to read.

Although she has given interviews, overall, this environmental campaigner is not eager to be interviewed or talked about. For her, the results of her work are far more important. She has proven that a single individual can take effective action to help the health and well-being of a city and its residents.

This retired teacher who has built libraries by picking trash says that her next step is to build a big central library to explore and promote the native culture of the people of Gilan.


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