“The Mother of Education”
In a male dominated society where girls were banned from school, people were afraid to trust, and resources were limited, Sakena orchestrated the education of 3,000 girls through underground schools.
Meet the legendary Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, the CEO and founder of Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) and co-founder/ Vice President of Creating Hope International. Dr. Yacoobi, born in Herat, Afghanistan, moved to the US to earn her bachelors and masters. While still in school, Russia had invaded Afghanistan. Overnight, her family and herself had become refugees. At times, she went for months and years without having any contact with her family or know of their whereabouts. Nonetheless, Dr. Yacoobi persisted! Between studying, applying for scholarships and work, Dr. Yacoobi successfully completed her studies and upon completion arranged her family’s move to America.
As a professor at D’Etre University, and living with her family in the states, Dr. Yacoobi had built a comfortable and independent life. But she wasn’t satisfied. Her heart and mind were flooded with thoughts of home and its people. With the fall of Soviet Russia, the Taliban had gained control, banning women from work and girls from school. Unable to swallow the thought of millions of Afghan women’s and girls’ potential going unnoticed, Dr. Yacoobi made the bold choice of returning to her people.
“She is hopeless. I cannot save her. You cannot save her. She must save herself. That is why I give her skills, I give her training, I give her education and I give her love and courage.” – Dr. Sakena Yacoobi
But she couldn’t return to Afghanistan, yet. Her first stop was a refugee camp in Pakistan. At the time, Pakistan was housing 7.5 million Afghan refugees, most of whom were women and children. Devastated by the stories and the plight of refugee women, Dr. Yacoobi knew something had to be done. Taking inspiration from her own life and the defining agent that gave her the power to become self-sufficient and support her family, Dr. Yacoobi championed education and health as the catalyst of positive change. Within a year, 25 schools were set up, giving access to 15,000 kids to attain an education.
In 1996, Dr. Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), a grassroots organization, run by Afghan women, facilitating the empowerment and education of Afghan women. Starting with just education and health services, AIL has since expanded its services by providing health education, innovative teacher training, legal aid and emergency relief. Currently, AIL has 6 health clinics, 44 learning centres and educates up to 24,000 students annually.
However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Dr. Yacoobi or AIL. Providing services that are banned or unheard of come with their fair share of death threats, raids and fears of imprisonment. Yet what’s most astounding about Dr. Yacoobi is her innate ability to deal with those who oppose her with valor, grace and tact. One such example is when around 9 Taliban men marched into Dr. Yacoobi’s Peshawar office, questioning her about the illegal school she was running. Dr. Yacoobi asked the men if they would like tea. From the men’s negative response and aggressive tone, Dr. Yacoobi had to be careful of what she was going to say next. So, she used their ideologies against them. She told them that a few students come to learn Koran so that they could be better wives to their husbands – a fact that while not completely true was enough to placate them. Seeing the men satisfied with the response, she offered them tea again. This time they accepted.
Dr. Yacoobi’s community centred and innovative work in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been recognized and applauded worldwide. Dr. Yacoobi is a recipient of many awards and recognitions. Most notably, she has 6 honorary doctorates and was recently honoured with the Sunhak Peace Prize for her “enduring contributions to peace and human development”. Dr. Yacoobi’s vision, determination, and bravery continue to make a positive impact on the millions of Afghans displaced by a decade of war and political strife.
By: Zarlasht Jamal