November 28, 2023

With a Global Citizens Fellowship from the McKeen Center, Kilani traveled to the Andean city of Cusco in June, primarily to teach English and math at a charity school run by Helping Hands Cusco and to help build two new classrooms.
Helping Hands is a small nonprofit founded by teacher Mario Díaz and his wife Rosa Gutierrez to improve the living standards of underprivileged children in the Cusco area. Kilani, their sole intern this summer, lived and worked with the Díaz family (which includes three children, ages thirteen, sixteen, and twenty-three). He also accompanied them on trips to remote mountain communities to donate books, school supplies, and food.
On his first delivery trip in late June to Phinay, a tiny village at an elevation of 14,000 feet, Kilani was greeted by a small crowd of children waving books, eager to show off their reading skills. But he was struck by the rudimentary skill levels of the kids, including ones as old as fifteen and sixteen.
Díaz explained that the children faced serious obstacles to learning to read and write: the nearest school is many miles away, requiring an hours-long walk twice a day. Once there, they often receive a substandard education, he added.
On the long drive home from the visit, Díaz shared with Kilani his dream of helping the villagers reap more money from the alpacas they raise, which would allow them to invest in a shared school building and a teacher.
Wool is the main source of income for the three villages of Phinay, Yanaccocha, and Sullumayu—all of which are supported by Helping Hands Cusco. The families sell the alpaca wool wholesale very cheaply to businesses that process it into products with a much higher retail value. 
“The Peruvian alpaca wool market is dominated by private companies who sell their products at exorbitantly high prices and exploit the natural resources found in the Andes,” Kilani explains. ”It is very unfair. With that in mind, the alpaca wool project…will provide a new narrative—alpaca wool farmed ethically, sold ethically, and whose profits empower a local community.”
Kilani told Díaz he wanted to help. When Díaz saw how interested Kilani was, he shifted his teaching hours to the mornings, and the two dedicated their afternoons to planning.
They settled on the name Proyecto Maruja (Project Maruja) for the online store, naming it for a thirteen-year-old girl Kilani met in Phinay who loves to read and learn but must walk two to three hours to attend school. 
After gaining approval for design prototypes from the village people who will be making the products, the two finalized a line of items—including thick, soft scarves and hats naturally dyed with native pigments—which they think will appeal to Westerners. 
They started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $14,000 to launch the online business and build up production capacity in the villages. They’re promising hats, scarves, and other items to early donors.
Kickstarter gave the project its “Project We Love” certification, which helped raise money from donors as far away as New Zealand, Kilani said. But the fundraiser, which will run through the end of September, currently stands at just over $1,700.
Helping Hands will assist by operating the retail store, but all the proceeds will go toward supporting the families and children of Phinary, Yanaccocha, and Sullumayu. Kilani’s task is to raise the seed money to get Proyecto Maruja off the ground.
“The alpaca wool project in Phinay will provide a new narrative—alpaca wool farmed ethically, sold ethically, and whose profits empower a local community.” — Khalil Kilani ’25
From One Generation to the Next
With his Global Citizens Fellowship, Kilani knew he could select any location in the world to work. The $5,000 summertime grant supports students who want to travel internationally to pursue community service.
As he was mulling over possible destinations, Kilani read about Helping Hands Cusco via Omprakash, a networking platform for social-impact organizations launched by Willy Oppenheim ’09. Helping Hands’ mission, to care for and educate disadvantaged children, resonated with his own experiences.
Helping Hands provides free schooling to children too poor to afford private school and who live too far to attend public schools. It also makes sure its students have regular meals, toiletries like toothbrushes, and clean clothes. Many of the children supported by Helping Hands live in rural areas on the periphery of Cusco and speak Quechua as their first language, Kilani said.
After Kilani’s mother fled their home country of Iraq, he and his brother Mohamed Kilani ’21 were born in Jordan, where they lived in a refugee camp for six years before emigrating to the United States and settling in Portland, Maine. (Mohamed graduated from Bowdoin in May and is now a school teacher in Maine.)
“I thought about the things that helped me when I was a kid growing up in Jordan as a refugee,” Kilani said. “And what helped me were people who came in from abroad and helped with education, who built the facilities so we could receive that education, and who helped us achieve food security.”
“That’s why I landed in Peru with Helping Hands.”


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