Bringing Access and Education to Afghanistan: Sakena Yacoobi's Story

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In 2016, McGraw-Hill Education and Arizona State University recognized Sakena Yacoobi, Afghanistan’s mother of education, with the The Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education for her pioneering and heroic work to fulfill Afghan children’s and women’s rights to education, healthcare, and human rights.

For nearly thirty years, her country has been subjected to brutal wars and successions – from the Soviet Union to the Taliban – and continued conflicts from insurgents. A once prosperous and even progressive country is now one of the poorest in the world – with the worst victims women and children. Through the turmoil, nearly a million Afghan women were widowed, left with no skills or education to support their families. Today, less than 13 percent of females are literate and nearly 40 percent do not have access to schools.

Inspired to Help Others

In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Afghanistan was developing into a modern, more westernized lifestyle. It was a relatively peaceful time, and the country appeared to be on a path to success.

Sakena remembers this time fondly. It was 1954 in Afghanistan, and four-year-old Sakena recalls walking a dirt path through the local bazaar with her father to a nearby mosque. It was that day her father would pave the way for Yacoobi to earn an education, forever changing her life and leading her down a life path educating the people of her country.

“My father made sure I received an education; he was my biggest supporter,” said Yacoobi. “At that time, a man supporting his daughter’s education was unheard of in my country, even at that time. He was truly a courageous man.”

At a young age, Yacoobi was acutely aware of poverty and connected personally with poor people. At her school, she was punished for standing up for a fellow pupil when the teacher beat the student.

“My father got involved,” said Yacoobi. “He took me to the person’s home who had been bullied to show support.”

When Yacoobi wished to enter the university, it wasn’t possible at the time, so her father recommended to she look to the U.S. Yacoobi applied for a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in California and went on to earn a master’s degree in public health.

When war hit Afghanistan in 1979, Yacoobi was in her second year of graduate school in the states. Desperate to come home and support her family, her parents pushed her to stay and finish her education. She agreed but vowed to return to her country and help those affected by the war – especially the millions of women and children who were the worst victims of the conflicts.

“When Russia invaded my country, I became a refugee in the U.S.,” said Yacoobi. “I didn’t know if my family were alive or dead. But I did know that I needed to complete my education, get my family to the states and return to my country and help my people.”

Returning to Afghanistan

Once Yacoobi had completed her graduate program, she was able to focus on bringing her brother and parents to the U.S. After setting her brother up in school, Yacoobi approached her parents about returning to Afghanistan.

“I remember my mother crying,” said Yacoobi. “We had finally been reunited, and she didn’t want me to leave. But, my father understood and agreed.”

There were 7.5 million refugees in Pakistan, and her parents recommended she start there. After several years in the U.S., Yacoobi made the journey back to the Middle East.

“When I saw the devastation and the generous and happy people I once knew who were broken and crying, I couldn’t tolerate it,” said Yacoobi. “I realized the one thing that could change all their lives was education. It is a human right. I knew that was the one thing I could do to help my people.”

Yacoobi began teacher training for women and eventually opened a school, with the help of a mullah (an educated religious man) in his compound. Although the Taliban banned girls from attending school, Yacoobi trained in women’s rights, human rights, democracy and rule of law. One day, the Taliban got word of Yacoobi’s school and entered the makeshift school. Nine men entered her office and accused her of educating women, but she did the unthinkable – she shrugged, offered them tea and to have a seat.

“I said, ‘what school, there is no school,’” said Yacoobi, who says at the time she was trembling with fear inside but standing tall. “I said, ‘the women here learn the Koran to become better wives so they can obey their husbands.’”

The men whispered among them, had a sip of her tea and then left. Yacoobi single-handedly prevented a massacre of innocent lives.

20 years later, she is still helping Afghanistan’s women and children – an estimated 13 million people have received education and health care through her organization, Afghan Institute of Learning, which she opened in 1996. Today, these same students are helping rebuild their country.

“If it wasn’t for the people of Afghanistan and my staff, I would not be here speaking today,” said Yacoobi at the McGraw Prize ceremony. “I have dedicated my life to promoting the importance of education because I believe it is the only way to bring peace. We are bringing people together and peace back to our country one person at a time.”

Yacoobi is also the co-founder and vice president of Creating Hope International, a non-profit that works with grassroots organizations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In addition to the McGraw Prize, Yacoobi was honored with a 2013 Opus Prize and 2015 WISE Prize in Education, has been awarded numerous honorary doctorates and been jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Watch Yacoobi’s inspiring TED Talk.