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Courage Meets Compassion: An Interview With Sakena Yacoobi

July 9, 2010

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi

In the face of great personal risk, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995, eventually establishing 80 underground schools and educating 3,000 women and girls, defying Taliban rule. Today, AIL educates over 350,000 women and children every year and has reached over one million people.
CPWR: Tell us about your work with the Afghan Institute of Learning.
S. Yacoobi: I was in the U.S. completing my education when Russia was invading my country. I did not know if my family was alive or dead. I was very worried, so as soon as I completed my education, I returned home to find my country completely destroyed. I visited refugee camps and found that the people of Afghanistan were no longer the same. People were very different; people were sick, people were poor, people were refugees detained in camps, not having anything to do—women and children especially. There were no schools. It was heartbreaking. I felt miserable, and I said, “Well, I must do something.” The more I thought about it, the more I said, “What can I do to help?”  I figured out that I could educate them realized that lack of educational opportunities had left my country vulnerable to invasion– and had ruined people’s lives. If we empower people with education, they will be able to think critically, and this will not happen again to Afghanistan.
CPWR: What sort of education does Afghan Institute of Learning provide? Dr. Yacoobi at the Afghan Institute of Learning
S. Yacoobi: The best way to provide education is to provide teacher training, because if you have a good teacher in the classroom, you keep students. But if you don’t have a good teacher, especially for students who are traumatized, students who are just in the refugee camp, students who don’t have shelter, they will not stay in school. The best way to keep them engaged is to keep them challenged. Once you provide critical thinking, then you can transform individuals, because they can ask questions and they can have a sustainable life; they can begin to feel confidence. I started working in areas of education and health in the refugee camps during the Taliban. And it’s a great opportunity for me. I can see it has had a great impact on the people, because, day to day, I can see that people are changing. Women are actually going to school, they are getting jobs, they are building capacity, and they are learning skills. Health-wise, they are developing healthy habits, they really take care of their children and they are having fewer children. I can see all these changes. It has taken a long time and it will take time. In the 20 years I’ve worked in this area, I can see a difference.
CPWR: Twenty years ago you came to the realization that you had a unique role to fill for the empowerment of women and girls in Afghanistan. How did you go about establishing the underground schools? How did you recruit the potential teachers for the teacher training?
S. Yacoobi: During the Russian system of education, the Taliban didn’t support education. It was forbidden to provide education for women. I visited the refugee camp and I tried to convince a mullah to be a teacher and, of course, he thought I was crazy.  I told him, “No, I will train you.” I went day to day for three months to different camps and tried to convince this mullah, who was a really old man, to be a teacher. He finally agreed. Because he was a respected leader in the community, people would come to his compound to learn. So that’s what I did. I hired him as a teacher, I paid his salary— I not only paid for his salary, but I provided the supplies and the tent. In one year, we went from one tent inside the compound to opening schools in the refugee camp, one after another. We had 16 schools and 1,700 students. We didn’t have to do anymore convincing because people knew what we were about, that we wanted to provide education, that we were not held back by custom and culture. We started by listening to what the people wanted. We started school after school and continued to provide teacher training, and today we have about 17,000 teachers. We also have also a portable health clinic with a van and a doctor and a nurse to provide health services. Children are learning about their environment, how to be clean, how to wash their hands. These models have been successful because people really protect the schools. They are behind the schools. We also tried to teach them skills training such as tailoring. We started offering workshops on hygiene and sex education, leadership, management, and gender issues. Through these workshops, 5,000 people came. So far, we have a reached a million people inside Afghanistan, and we provide services for 350,000 women and children.
CPWR: That’s a tremendous impact.
S. Yacoobi: It’s a great impact. But still, we have a 13 million population and 7 million to reach, but it’s a start. Women are stronger, women are participating in the political arena, they have jobs, and they are bringing income to families. In our program, many are widows, and these widows are the sole breadwinners for 10 to 15 family members. It’s great to see how they begin to take confidence, and that’s really what we are after, you know.
CPWR: You sound optimistic about the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan.
S. Yacoobi: Absolutely. It is important for people to understand that education is a human right. Every individual has the right to education. Before, they didn’t understand; they didn’t understand that Islam gives this opportunity, that Islam provides gender equality. It provides a principle for democracy, if people can understand it, if people can re-interpret it, and this is what we are trying to do… to teach that all religions teach equality; that you should be gender sensitive. This is something that has become popular. People really want to know. Once they come to know, they follow it.
CPWR: Would you say that your work has become easier since the Taliban lost power?
S. Yacoobi: Yes, it has become much easier, because we did not have to be underground – we didn’t have to be hiding. Our main problem is lack of security. We are now allowed to do the work, but women are scared to travel, women are scared to be by themselves. The first four, five years of the new government were fantastic, you know. But these last two years have become harder. Nothing compares to the time of the Taliban. I can say to you now that the women are better off, of course. Still, we have a lot of violence and a lot of health issues. Providing support to families in far away villages is very hard because of security. People are poor, they don’t have housing, they don’t have water, they don’t have electricity, and they don’t have a road to go from one part of the country to the next. Lack of security enables more violence, more war inside Afghanistan. So, if the issue of security were taken care of, it would be fantastic, yes.
CPWR: Your country has been making headlines recently. Over $1 trillion in natural resources have been discovered and reports say Afghanistan may be one of the most important mining centers in the world. How do you think this will affect Afghanistan’s future?
S. Yacoobi: Well, to tell you the truth, the people of Afghanistan always knew that Afghanistan has lots of natural resources. They knew that because so many people are trying to get into Afghanistan. Always somebody comes and raids us, one after another, and we knew that something must be special about this country… so great that everybody wants a piece of it. But the people of Afghanistan will benefit only if there is security. If security is not there, I don’t think that the people of Afghanistan will benefit. We need to first take care of the security issue, because people are not safe in Afghanistan. There is war inside Afghanistan. Everyday there is a war. The second issue is that corruption is everywhere. If there is corruption, no matter how many resources the government or the country has, the people will suffer. I hope that somehow this resource will benefit civil society, because they are very poor, they don’t have enough. My people have suffered for 30 years. They are refugees. And we still have 1.5 million refugees in Pakistan. I hope this resource will be a great help for the people of Afghanistan. Not intercepted by corrupted people, you know?
CPWR: Do you think the discovery of these natural resources will or can help strengthen your cause?
S. Yacoobi: It should go to education because if this goes to the right area, Afghanistan society will benefit. Education is the key issue for infrastructure. If this resource is being spent in the right place, we can educate society; society that is well educated will have good lawyers, good doctors, good scientists, and good teachers. Then our country will not have to look to somebody else to provide. They can have these skills; they can do it by themselves. If we have high technology, we can one day provide for ourselves, and that is my hope.
CPWR: What’s the most challenging aspect of your work?
S. Yacoobi: Security. Security is the first challenge. If security is taken care of, we can go province to province of Afghanistan and implement programs. The second challenge is the lack of resources, lack of funding. We don’t have enough funding. Thousands of people are waiting to get into the program and want us to open additional trainings in different provinces of Afghanistan. Human resources are lacking, because we lost all of our educated people during the war. Our government is facing problems because we don’t have human resources. We don’t have people who are skilled specialists, people who are highly educated.
CPWR: What can the global community do in order to help your work in empowering women?
S. Yacoobi: I hope that the global community can see the Afghan people, especially Afghan women, as courageous and not submissive. There are brave and courageous women in Afghanistan… very talented women. We have young women who are so smart, so intelligent. If opportunities are given to them, they can create … they are very creative. People want to do things for themselves, and the only way we can offer this is to give enough training to our people. Once we train people, we bring a skill, and, in turn, they can support us. I would like the international community to understand that lots of training needs to be done in this country, and once we get it we will be able to do it. I really appreciate funding very, very much, because then I can spend more time inside Afghanistan and do my trainings. I spend most of my time outside my country, because I have to do fundraising. I am only one individual, so, of course, God has been helping me. But it has been very tough, and it always will be.
CPWR: Yes, funding is key for providing the opportunity to the women and children of Afghanistan. If anyone reading here would like to support your work financially, how might they do so?
S. Yacoobi: The best way is to support the work of Creating Hope International. Its webpage is That is the way you can reach out to my program.
CPWR: Is there anything else can we do to help support your work other than through making donations to the website?
S. Yacoobi: The first thing I want to say that you can pray for my country and for my people, because, really, we need the prayers. Prayer is the best thing for us. And second thing is share the information about my program with others.
CPWR: Yes, yes. We would be delighted to. We’d love to.
S. Yacoobi: Thank you.
CPWR: Thank you. Dr. Yacoobi, what do you consider to be your most significant achievement?
S. Yacoobi: When I see children going to school. When they smile, when they are happy, when they can freely play I am most satisfied. When I first visited refugee camps and followed the children around… they were crying… they were sad. Their eyes told their story. But now when you see them and they are happy and smile, that is the greatest achievement I could ever imagine.
CPWR: How has your work been shaped by your faith?
S. Yacoobi: I strongly believe that I’ve been able to do my work because I have a strong faith. I really believe in God. I am a Muslim. I practice my religion, but I am not a fanatic Muslim. I believe that God gave us this opportunity and flexibility, especially when speaking about the Qur’an.  Qur’an offers text that is timeless — for 10-15 years from now or 100 years from today. It is a text that you can use as a resource and apply that knowledge in everyday life. I believe that God is with me – always protecting me. People say, “How could you survive, and aren’t you scared?” And I say “No, I am not scared; first of all, because I have a strong belief in God, and I know that God is protecting me every step of my life, and He has been guiding me.” Otherwise, for me, just myself, to be able to reach 7 million people, to be able to provide almost $3 million in funding to my cause… any other way… would be impossible. He has been providing for me and He has been guiding me. I have a strong belief, and I consider my faith a big part of my life.
CPWR: What sort of steps do you believe must be taken in order achieve harmony among the different religions of the world? Where do you think we should begin?
S. Yacoobi: Religion is global. Everybody has a religion. And I think we should respect each other’s religion, and we should not discriminate against anyone’s religion. I also believe that every religion has something good to offer. I feel that if we really put aside our differences and work on our commonalities, we will achieve a lot.
CPWR: Can you share about your experience at the 2009 Parliament?
S. Yacoobi: The event meant so much to me. First of all, I was exposed to so many wonderful people. When you go to a conference and see so many different people from different nationalities, different backgrounds, different faiths, this was so wonderful. I met one individual that I will never forget – a very spiritual and wise individual who I’ve learned so much from. I have been talking with this individual afterward. I learned so much; everybody was so kind, generous, wise, and I learned a lot, yes.
CPWR: Would you share with us the most meaningful moment for you at the 2009 Parliament?
S. Yacoobi: When I was at the Parliament, I felt a sense of solidarity. In the moment when I was standing at the podium, I saw so many great and wonderful people who, from their heart, shared with me and listened to what was happening to me and to my country. I appreciated that very, very much.
CPWR: What message would you most like to share with us today?
S. Yacoobi: Well, today I would like to share with you that I am at a conference here and that I am getting an award, and it is wonderful. This award is not only for me; it’s for all the women of Afghanistan. When I achieve, I feel good because this recognizes the work of the women of Afghanistan. I would like to share with you that this is not my award. This award is for the women of Afghanistan and for the children of Afghanistan and for the suffering that they have undergone. One of the reasons I am successful- as individual I am successful- is because I really believe strongly in my religion. I want to share that every individual needs structure in their life, and that structure is their religion.
CPWR: Thank you so much for your time. And congratulations on receiving the award. What institution is presenting the award to you, and what’s the name of the award?
S. Yacoobi: The Global Health Council is giving me an award. It’s called the Jonathan Mann Award.
CPWR: Well, congratulations on it! What an honor. Lastly, if you could only share one final thought with us, what would it be?
S. Yacoobi: Be yourself. Offer yourself to the world. Always be yourself.
CPWR: Ah, how true. Yes.
S. Yacoobi: Very important. Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time also and your good questions. And I am looking forward to when maybe I can see you.
CPWR: Yes, hopefully at the 2014 Parliament, if not sooner? It would be lovely to have you there.
S. Yacoobi: Yes, I am looking forward to it. Thank you, thank you very much.
CPWR: Thank you so much, Dr. Yacoobi.
S. Yacoobi: Wonderful talking to you. Thank you.