A Discussion with Sakena Yacoobi, Founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL)
May 29, 2013
Can you tell us how you came to be doing what you are today? Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in Herat, Afghanistan. My father was a key influence in my life. He had wanted an education himself but could not go to school. He began as a mechanic and a driver. After two years, he bought a truck. By the age of 25 he was a successful transporter. He then got into real estate and built houses. But he still slept over his shop. He was a good teacher in my life.
My father realized that to be successful you had to know how to read and write, so he encouraged me to learn from a very early age. I began at the mosque, where there were books. By the time I was 6 years old I had read them all. Then he encouraged me to go to school. As I got older, every year, our extended family came to ask why I was not married. I was the only child who was not married, but I did not want to do that. Despite the family pressure, my father listened to me. Many were getting married at 14 then but he resisted.
I knew from my earliest years that I wanted to help the women of Afghanistan. I saw them carry a woman or child to the graveyard and had no answer as to how and why the death had happened. For many years I was an only child because my mother had miscarriages or children who died young. I remember fearing that she would bleed to death. Eleven children died, and it affected me so much.
I also became aware of poverty. In school there were lots of children who were poor. My family did not have that much. My father was not rich, but he was able to provide what I needed. I saw the empty bags that others carried. I brought some friends home to study. From an early age I was able to connect to poor people. I got into trouble for standing up for a fellow pupil when the teacher beat her. The teacher punished me. My father got involved and we went to the home of the person who had been bullied to show support.
That was a time when I began to pray, though I did not know the meaning of prayer at the time. I had, though, the sense that God was helping me and my family. As I became aware of religion, I also became aware that I was a minority. We were Shia in a culture where Sunnis were dominant. I had to learn to hide the fact that we were Shia because the majority of people then were against it. I knew what it was like to be a minority. I had friends from different groups but I also felt that I wanted to help work for a society where people were accepted for who they were and not discriminated against because of being a different ethnic group, different religious sect or being poor.
How did you get your education?
I wanted to go to medical school, and was accepted to study medicine and engineering at the university. I would have had to move from Herat to Kabul and was getting ready to do so. But while I was waiting, I received acceptance to colleges in the United States and my father decided to send me to America. My father was scared because he sensed that trouble was coming in Afghanistan. He had friends who were foreigners, Americans and Germans, which was dangerous with the Russians poised to come. So I came to America.
During my second year in America, the Russians invaded Afghanistan. For me, that meant there was no more money coming from home. So I had to support myself, doing odd jobs.
I came to the United States planning to study science as a pre-med student because I wanted then to be a doctor. I went to the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California. However, it was very difficult because my level of education was really like the fourth grade. My English was not very good. But I worked very, very hard. I was not an A student but I did all I could to learn and earned a bachelor’s degree in science. I took graduate classes part time. I found myself playing the role of a social worker, helping other students.
I was invited for an interview at Loma Linda for graduate study. People told me that it might be inappropriate for me, because they might be very rigid. But I went to the interview and I loved it. The professors were so nice, so good. So I went there to study public health, changing my focus from medicine. I enjoyed my time there and studied constantly.
When I was studying in America I had scholarships and I also worked in a variety of jobs, including in hospitals and in the library.
How did you see yourself as a Muslim at this time, studying in a Christian, Adventist university?
God made my time at university easier. When I was an undergraduate, among other courses, I took a course on Islam as a religion, from Professor Smith from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. I knew that I had to complete my education. It was then that I decided to put on the hijab (my parents were shocked when they saw me in it later).
I see myself as a religious individual; I am a strong believer in God, and have been since I was a child. Religion is a pillar in the structure of my life. It helps me to know what I am doing, and offers guidance in life. With every hardship that I have encountered, I prayed about it and I always got an answer. Religion became a center in my life. But it is not because of the Taliban that I have to be a Muslim. There are so many beautiful things in religion when you go outside the rigid parameters. I studied other religions and found many similarities, many beautiful things in them all. I have worked with several relief organizations from various religions, including Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and I spoke at the Parliament for the World’s Religions in Melbourne, and am a member of the Tanenbaum Peacemakers’ network. In every religion and every religious event I find beautiful things that inspire me.
What happened to your family during this turbulent time in Afghanistan?
The Russians knew that my father’s daughter was in America, which made it dangerous for them. There was much jealousy also. They were suspicious of my father for sending me to America. So they had to leave Afghanistan with my siblings. Someone came to their house and warned them to get out of there. The Russians took everything. When they left they went first to Iran, with nothing, to a refugee camp. They were there for a year and a half, and I had no word from them, though I sent them some money anyway through indirect channels. Through the war years, my parents were refugees, but at the time I did not know if any of my family was even alive. They lived in Iran for five years. I wanted the family to come to the United States as there were terrible stories about life as a refugee. We had some word through the radio but little else.
I always felt that I needed to go back to Afghanistan, that God wanted me to do that, but above all I wanted to help my family. The first to come was my brother, my parents’ second child after me. He came right before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He came to live with me and went to school. I then moved to live in Michigan, in Dearborn (where I still have my home). I went to the UN. There were no lawyers who could help. There were nine members of my immediate family to get out of danger. My two sisters were at home still but my parents were constantly afraid of the risk of rape. Both of my sisters married distant cousins, one way to keep them safe. Eventually, I was able to bring all of my family—my parents, my brother, my two sisters and their husbands and children—to the United States. I bought a house and I supported the 13 members of my family until they learned English and were able to find jobs.
My family has all done well. My mother and one of my brothers with his family still live with me and the rest of my family all have houses in the area. My nephews and nieces are all attending high school, university, or have graduated. One of them has graduated as a designer; another as an engineer who works for Chrysler; another is studying nursing. Sadly, my father died seven years ago.
You started to work with the Afghan refugees in Pakistan at one point. How did that happen?
While I was studying for my Ph.D. and working on my thesis, I began to teach physiology and mathematics at D’Etre University. I did that for two years. I loved my students and they loved me but I realized that I was needed elsewhere.
I felt a pull to return to my native country. I left for Pakistan in 1992. My mother was upset with it but my father was okay. I took a sabbatical for a few months and wanted to work in a refugee camp with Afghans. I was recommended for a job at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). There were many abused women, sick and poor women who had lost members of their families. It was a very difficult time. I found that I could not live with myself doing nothing about it. They were human beings. Why were they treated that way?
What I have accomplished in my own life is through education. I believe that education is the key. But first we had to educate Afghans about the value of education. Some may pray, but they don’t always know what they are praying for or what the prayer means. I found I did not recognize my own religion in the rigid expressions I saw around me. Extremist groups sought to punish women, particularly women who were educated and were teachers. Because I believed that education could change the mind and thinking of people, I joined IRC as manager of the first teacher training program for Afghan women and eventually became coordinator of the five IRC programs for females.
After training the first group of female teachers, IRC then hired me as coordinator the female programs. There were five education programs but still there were very few Afghan girls in school. In the camps, families were reluctant to send their girls to school. I realized that I needed the help of a mullah to reach the girls in the camps. Islam was important to Afghans, but the people did not know much about their own religion and did not know that Islam encouraged education for everyone.
I went to a place two and a half hours from the Peshawar camp. There was a mullah there who was well known and trusted and respected and he was teaching a few girls to read Arabic. I went to his house. I was well covered. I offered to help him to be a teacher for many students. He was 80 years old. He said he was not a teacher. But, I answered, you know how to read the Qur'an. We went back and forth for a week. I had tea with him. I offered to help him teach the Afghan refugee girls in the first grade. He finally agreed, and turned out to be an excellent teacher. We worked all night to design a manual. We started to teach first grade in a tent in his compound. It was so successful that there were soon seven tents. People poured in, and there were soon 300 girls. His wife and daughter started to teach. We realized that there were lots of talented people in the camps—engineers, doctors, and others. They wanted to open schools in their compounds as well. They came and asked us for classes.
I went back to Peshawar. There were rumors that we were teaching. That was welcomed. Within a year there were 21,000 students in classrooms. We were trying to make people feel responsible for their lives, that they were not the slave of someone telling them what to do. We developed a whole curriculum, for training teachers and for the schools. We wrote eight teacher-training manuals, all based on a participatory methodology.
When the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, many people fled to Peshawar. They were shocked to find such a positive attitude toward learning and schools. They were killing people in Afghanistan if they had a book.
Through this period, IRC was paying for the salaries of the teachers in the schools. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was supporting the books. But they were nervous and reluctant.
What happened next?
I finished four years as an IRC coordinator of education, teacher training, and health in the camps. But then the funds decreased and donors began walking away from Peshawar and schools began to close. That was when I founded AIL, the Afghan Institute of Learning. I began it with $20,000 of my own money because people were requesting teacher training and two schools requested support.
I came back to the United States. Within two months I was receiving thousands of letters requesting support for schools and for training. That was when I began seeking funding in America.
When I worked for IRC, they let me do my own work and use my approach that involved community participation. I wanted to continue to expand grassroots, community-based programs. In 1995, when I visited Afghanistan, so many girls wanted to study, and teachers wanted help. After the Taliban took over, teachers sent me messages secretly asking for support for home schools. It was very dangerous so we discussed how to do it. We decided to have secret schools in homes of the teachers but they had to get the support of the entire community so all would be safe. The community had to decide and find a house, and hire a teacher. Once the teacher had the support of their community and homes to work in and students, they wrote us. Then we sent books and salaries for the teachers and the school started. The classes ran from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. They used different houses (so they would not be found out). They went from first to ninth grade. By 2002, we had 80 home schools in both urban and rural areas and 3,000 girls in schools in four provinces of Afghanistan. In a few places there were mobile libraries and health programs as well.
In 2002, when so many refugees came to Peshawar, we opened tent schools for as many children as we could and we used abandoned buildings for other schools. Women came to us and asked us to start classes for them when the school was out. This was the beginning of the women’s learning centers and literacy, sewing, and other classes for women. When we opened our offices in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, we shifted our educational focus to women’s learning centers, catering to all ages: from 6 to 60. Each center had an individual curriculum. At first, even young girls were coming to the centers, but as the government built schools, the centers became mostly for older girls and women.
I was living from a suitcase during this period. My office was in my home, and I was back and forth between the United States and Afghanistan all the time.
I love my job, and I enjoy what I do. My strength comes from the faces of the children. It is a joy that I could not get in any other way.
What kinds of programs are you supporting?
Many kinds. We have supported many learning centers. We support clinics and health education and we have a lot of training. One focus we have is on orphans. We support 400 orphans in our programs. The government did not let people adopt children, and they were generally cared for in orphanages that were poorly equipped. So we felt we had to give them a place. They used to get no education, or training. The only future for children in the official orphanages was to become a beggar. So when the government asked us to provide health services to the orphans, we agreed. We started with health services and health education and now we have hired a teacher for the government orphanage, who also serves as a manager. Adoption is possible now but it is so difficult. The orphans now live in a huge building that we use in Herat. It is so beautiful now, with a lovely garden, with vegetables. Recently, the government has also asked us to help with a street children program and that is just starting for 50 street children.
In our programs, we focus mainly on education. Education is a long-term process. The outcome is beautiful, and along the way lots of work. There is a lot of work with the government, politics and complications. But the results are women and children who have had a fire lit in them. They are no longer dull but alive and excited.
We also work in health. We started with a mobile clinic and 50 outpatients. We taught health education in villages. The government saw it was succeeding and they asked us to support clinics. They had huge buildings but no one came because the service wasn’t good and the people didn’t trust them. But our clinics went well. When we began supporting the clinics, we turned them around in one week to provide clean and good service. We hired good doctors, nurses, and health educators who cared for people and we trained them. There are doctors who tend to treat patients like dirt and scream at everyone. But not in our clinics. We now have four clinics. I have also built a private hospital which charges patients who can afford it and gives care at reduced prices to those who are poor. My hospital is clean, gives good service, and serves everyone.
And, of course, we continue to have training. We provide teacher training using the curriculum developed by our staff. We have trained over 20,000 teachers. Our training staff also has developed curriculum and given hundreds of workshops for leadership, gender, violence against women, peace, social justice, human rights, reproductive health, women’s health, democracy, elections—so many topics. Whatever the people request, we develop a topic and give a workshop.
One of the greatest contributions that AIL has made to Afghanistan has been in the area of empowering women. Not only are many women now literate, they are also healthier and their families are healthier because of the health education that we give in every one of our programs. Also, many women have now learned different skills and they can work and support themselves and their families. They are tutors, teachers, translators, IT workers, tailors, carpet weavers, and beauticians. They have their own businesses. Many have continued their education and are now studying in universities to be doctors, engineers, teachers, and lawyers. Graduates of our programs are community council representatives, elected representatives in the parliament; they are holding important positions in government ministries.
And, above all, we work for peace. From the beginning we have encouraged discussions on peace in all of our programs. Last year we held the first peace, love, and forgiveness conference in Afghanistan and so many discussions about how to achieve peace have grown out of that conference.
How does your relationship with the government work?
It is very good. We follow the rules. They stay out of our work. I am not looking for a big role. I am asked to go on TV and I say no. I keep a low profile. During the time of the Taliban in Afghanistan, our school programs in Afghanistan were not open. Now all of our programs are open in Afghanistan.
What is the legal status of the AIL?
It is legally incorporated as an NGO in Afghanistan. That has to be renewed each year. The purpose is education, health, training, and women’s and social welfare. We have an excellent reputation. We are non-partisan. Right now AIL is supporting 38 centers, that work on literacy, higher education, arts, and culture. We work for the new generation.
We have two main offices, in Herat and Kabul. Community participation is a key element in our approach. For example, most of our centers are in peoples’ houses; they provide them for free and also provide the gatekeeper.
Financing is a challenge, constantly. Our clinics used to charge fees, but the government said no. We were upset because we need revenue and also, we think that people should pay a little. When we were able to charge fees, we bought things that the clinics needed like motorcycles for outreach vaccinations. The government is supposed to do that but they have no funding.
Our budget is $1.7 million a year, when you include the value of donations in kind from the communities and outside donors. We have been at that level for some time but we could easily double it. There are thousands waiting. We have 420 people on the payroll. We do many small things that earn us the trust of the community.
We have reached more than 10 million people so far, and could reach many more in the next four to five years—even half the population of Afghanistan. Afghans need a quality education and they need to learn to develop their critical thinking and reasoning skills. We need to teach about the rule of law and democracy. Already AIL is doing these things but we can reach even more people.
How do you see the religious scene in Afghanistan?
The scene is not promising. If the problems are not addressed, we cannot achieve anything. The issue is how to keep the religious zealots away from taking over and stopping education. High quality leadership alongside true Islam is what we need. That way we can see lives changing. AIL changes the lives of people because it follows Islam, which encourages education for males and females.
We need to be able to follow traditions and to follow our beliefs but without rigid rules and fundamentalism. We need to distinguish our traditions and culture from religion. The hijab is not in the Qur'an. The way that religion and tradition are confused is terrible, and it becomes very complicated.
In the Haddith it is clear that a purpose of education is to question. There are arguments within Islam. It is part of the fiqh. AIL’s aim is to help people to apply religion in their lives. It is to reach for the poor. That is what it is to be Muslim.
How do you see the madrasas in Afghanistan?
The very conservative madrasas are very detrimental. The students just sit and are filled with negative ideas. It is nine years of brainwashing. There are some individual scholars who are serious and do good work. They go to different places to study, like Iran, but there are not many.
We also have the phenomenon that lots of children from Afghanistan go to Pakistan, where they go to madrasas. There is lots of foreign influence there, especially on the Afghan border. Half the madrasas are in Afghanistan, though. Children disappear and many are still missing. No one knows where they are but we guess they are in a madrasa somewhere.
What is your relationship with religious authorities, the mullahs?
They do their work and we do ours. They respect us. Some are easy to work with and have open minds. Others do not. There are some excellent scholars, but not many so it is difficult to discuss issues that need to be talked about.
Four years ago, I took a group of young leaders to India for a peace conference sponsored by the Global Peace Initiative for Women. There were 27 young people. One was a religious leader from Afghanistan who we had gotten to know. There, we could talk, laugh, and discuss. He became a supporter of AIL. But that kind of a conference could only happen outside Afghanistan.
What do you see ahead?
Afghans have been behind a closed window for 30 years and have experienced years of trauma. Today the education system is deteriorating and, in order to get a quality education, people have begun sending their children to private schools. This is not good news, for most people cannot afford to pay for their children’s education. Because so many people requested that I open quality schools for children, I now have four private schools. I give as many scholarships as I can so that poor children can also go to school. But this is not a good way. Something needs to change in the education system so that everybody has access to a quality education. We are told that a great deal of money has been given for education and health but we are not seeing the results. In so many schools, education is very poor. The teachers are underpaid, have little support and are exhausted. Most have other jobs. Private schools are starting all over the place. The teachers that we have in the centers are trained and supervised and are very good even though they work in the poorest parts of the population. We need good schools but that depends on the teachers. AIL has excellent teacher trainers but our staff is relatively small and cannot train everyone.
My four private schools can serve as a model of how you can have quality education and still reach rich and poor students. They are what I call profit for nonprofit. The people who are rich and can pay, do. Those who cannot, do not. Some pay half. The same system works in my private hospital. But the bottom line is that they are self-sustaining while also offering a quality education. There are other good private schools but not all private schools offer a quality education. Some are just businesses.
We hope that our schools can serve as a model. In theory everyone is for education but that is not the reality on the ground. The kids are not the absolute priority as they should be.
We are also running a model preschool program where we charge fees. We are about 80 percent self-sufficient. Using our curriculum and teacher training manual, we have trained the teachers of many government preschools and many of our preschools are as good as any in America. Children learn the basics but they also talk and sing, they dance, they paint. They learn respect in their relationships. This is a foundation for democracy because the same issues are involved.
How does your organization work?
Teamwork is the most important thing. I am the leader of the team. Everyone on our staff is trained to do a variety of jobs and they do whatever is needed. There is a shared responsibility for the whole and this is clear in staff meetings. Everyone has an understanding of how the whole works and what is happening.
What about the new bill on status of women that has been considered in Afghanistan?
The bill that is being considered now is very important, because the rights of women are so important. It is about how to apply (or not) Proposition 13 in the Constitution, which speaks of equality. There are some now who want to revise it. I don’t believe it should be revised but I think that we are going to need support from the international community to help Afghan women find their voice.
What sorts of cultural activities do you do?
We started our cultural program one year ago in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and with the advice of a prominent writer, who is a Muslim from the Sufi tradition. We have a program that is helping to revive the traditional arts and crafts of Afghanistan. Using rooms in the restored Citadel in Herat, we are teaching miniature painting, silk and carpet weaving, calligraphy, tilemaking, and glassmaking.
We publish an education and health magazine every four months and we have published a book about Heart’s historical places as well as a calligraphy book.
Afghanistan has a rich culture but very few Afghans know about it. They do not know their own history, for example about their Buddhist past, and that Afghanistan was the cultural center of Asia. I believe that we need to work to achieve peace through culture and we are starting to do that.
What do you have in mind for the future?
We want to continue to expand our base education, training, and health programs to other parts of Afghanistan. We now have centers in seven provinces and train in several more. Our largest programs are in Herat. But eventually we would like to work in all the 33 provinces of Afghanistan. Because we are driven by the community, the grassroots, we want to continue to offer leadership, peace, human rights, and other workshops requested by Afghans. We want to continue our peace and women’s networking conferences.
Among other ideas we want to establish a TV station focused on health and education. It will be designed to help with communication and to introduce new ideas and new ways of thinking to people who are in remote rural areas. I also would like to start a gymnasium for women and a digital library.
There are very, very poor people in Afghanistan, but there are also a group of very, very rich. Some 70 to 80 percent of the people barely survive. But in five to six years the economy could be very different. Our plans are bold. I am thinking of a lot of things. I have a lot of things planned—skills training for orphans and street children, more training for women and, perhaps a factory run by women. Already we are training many women who are now supporting their families. But in the future, I hope to create many more jobs for both women and men.
Some of our most important plans for the future are our continuing efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan. Because of having access to quality education, which encourages critical thinking, already the minds and thinking of Afghans that we work with are changing. Love and forgiveness is what is important. It is at the basis of what we do. Once people learned the basics, then they were ready to open their minds. So, with the support of the Fetzer Institute, we held the first peace conference in Afghanistan emphasizing love and forgiveness using the poetry of Rumi. The response was amazing. Men and women cried. Students who heard about the conference wanted to learn more. More and more people began to write poetry. We are helping to facilitate a meeting of young poets. They share their poetry and soon will publish a book of poems. We want to continue to hold these conferences and continue to facilitate the discussions that grow out of them.
What will happen to improve the situation of education?
The government will wake up, or the people will wake up. Everyone wants money now, but people are also desperate for education. They want quality and they have a sense of what that involves. But it is a long-term problem. There are millions of children who need education.
What we really want and need is a good government and good leadership. Nobody thinks that the government cares about the children, even though they are in front of their eyes.
But if the government is not able to improve education, then the people of Afghanistan will find a way to be educated and to transform their lives. I believe that the staff of AIL, who believes in the same vision that I have, will be leaders in helping the people of Afghanistan to be educated.
Everyone looks to AIL for quality programs, which involve the people, the community. If the government can’t provide quality education, our approach will eventually empower individuals and communities to do things for themselves.
I know that I will keep on doing what I am doing, and I won’t stop. This is my path. This is God’s mission for me. Sometimes I am asked if there will be another Sakena. I laugh and say there are many people like me but I am not sure they can tolerate another Sakena.
What is your vision?
My vision is to see the people of Afghanistan transformed, through education, so that they ask questions, think for themselves and find ways to solve their own problems working with others. We must all understand that there is more than government; we, the Afghan people, can find our own way to peace and prosperity.
How do you see the future?
I am optimistic about the future, God willing. The people are amazing. Education is the answer. They have a taste of democracy. There will probably be setbacks and many will suffer, but Afghans are changing and are transforming their lives through education and learning what they can do for themselves. This will not stop. The seeds have been planted and they will grow. Most importantly, I see a future in Afghanistan where women and men work together as equals, where no one’s human rights are abused, where there is harmony and justice for all. Already there are communities of men and women where this is happening. Inshallah, in the future, those will be the only communities in Afghanistan.