2013 Opus Prize Winner
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When Sakena Yacoobi was four years old, she remembers her father bringing her to a Mosque near her home in Afghanistan – even though at the time she didn’t understand the meaning of prayer. She is certain these experiences as a child fortified her belief in God, and credits her Muslim faith as a pillar that lent structure to her life and work. She also recalls at a very young age wanting to someday help the women of Afghanistan.
Sakena grew up in a very loving and supportive home, and was particularly close to her father – a self-made businessman. At great personal sacrifice and anticipating the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, her parents sent her to college in the United States where she earned a pre-med degree at the University of California at Stockton, and a Master’s degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University. Sakena supported herself through work-study jobs, eventually earning a scholarship, and spent time while in school deepening her understanding of Islam and other faiths. While she was in graduate school, Sakena’s family was forced to move to a refugee camp in Iran. They remained in Iran until 1990 when Sakena brought them to the U.S.
Sakena began her professional career as a professor for a year at the University of Detroit. The International Rescue Committee then hired her to conduct a survey and four years of follow-up work in a refugee camp in Pakistan. While working in the camp, Sakena realized that all her personal accomplishments were directly tied to her education. Her life’s work was becoming crystal clear. She began by convincing the local Mullah to serve as a teacher and she personally wrote eight manuals for teachers that are still used in her programs today. In no time at all, 300 girls signed up for classes taught by the Mullah, his wife, and his daughter.
The following year, Sakena opened 15 schools for 27,000 students sponsored by the International Refugee Committee. She monitored every school, trained the teachers, and integrated classes on health and peace into the curriculum. When the IRC ran out of money in 1995, the schools closed and Sakena started the Afghan Institute for Learning with $20,000 of her own money. The schools focused primarily on educating women. By 2002, Sakena had opened 80 schools with more than 5,000 students as well as a number of health clinics. Eventually, she also sponsored a hospital and took over five government-run clinics serving 1,500 – 2,000 patients each month.
Today, AIL is the largest Afghan NGO and is registered with the Ministries of Health, Education, Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare. With offices in Kabul and Herat, the organization runs 52 centers that provide literacy programs, higher education, arts and culture, healthcare and income generating activities. The Afghan government provides no financial support nor does it allow AIL to charge fees for service. One of the core programs continues to be teacher training. AIL manages a $1.7 million budget with 480 employees, stresses quality in each of its programs, and recently also assumed control of most government-run orphanages in Afghanistan.
Sakena dreams of a free, educated Afghanistan where women have learned to think critically and know how to care for their children, reducing the second highest infant mortality rate in the world. She recognizes that ignorance and the lack of education are overwhelming Afghanistan today, but is devoted to transforming the minds and hearts of people through education in the hope they will think for themselves and choose to be peaceful.
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