Sakena Yacoobi on Love, Forgiveness, and Cultural Arts in Peacebuilding

In a recent radio interview on Our Sacred Journey with Audrey E. Kitagawa, Tanenbaum Peacemaker Sakena Yacoobi shared a prayer that had personal significance. The prayer began “In the name of God, merciful, compassionate” and followed with an invocation for love and forgiveness. “This,” Sakena continued, “is the God we all start our work with.”

This perspective is the driving force behind the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an NGO Sakena founded in 1995 to improve women’s access to education and health care and to increase economic self-sufficiency.
Thirty-two years of war and sectarian violence have devastated the Afghan people and left them aching for a vision of hope and opportunities to rebuild a nation of peace. In the interview, Sakena recalls a haunting visit to a refugee camp in which women who had lost male relatives in the war were left idle, hungry and exhausted. Watching their lives wither before her, Sakena asked, “Who am I that I have the privilege of education?” Sakena resolved to provide these war-afflicted women with the same opportunity she had to become educated, literate, and thereby socially empowered.
While Sakena recognizes the many adversities facing the Afghan people—traumatizing violence, crippling poverty, the abuse of human rights, and staggering maternal and infant mortality rates—she refuses to be demoralized. Instead, Sakena focuses on the progress women have made over the past ten years. What started as an underground school for girls during the Taliban regime has evolved into AIL’s 326 community-based Learning Centers with teachers who have been trained in interactive, critical thinking methodologies and with scholarships to assist those with financial challenges. “Today the women of Afghanistan are different,” Sakena insists. They are not the same submissive women from ten years ago, but are becoming actively involved in the political arena, the work force, and are enthusiastic about changing their own lives. If given the resources, Sakena believes these women “will change the country completely.” One such resource is security. So far AIL has been able to bring education and health care to 12 provinces in Afghanistan. However, if provided with security, AIL could extend that outreach to 33 provinces. Change is very possible and well underway; however, it must be sustained by additional resources and support. Sakena addresses the international community directly on the matter: “Stay with us,” she urges, “Don’t just look at the negative stuff.”
In the midst of an ongoing struggle, Sakena draws hope from the richness of her culture’s past. “After all these wars everybody is trying to protect themselves and run to a secure place,” she explains. But in the process they have forgotten who they are. They’ve forgotten that they are heirs to a heritage of poetry, religious wisdom, and art and that these cultural treasures provide a path back to peace through love, understanding and forgiveness.
It is for this reason that AIL recently organized a conference on Love and Forgiveness attended by poets, writers, Sufis and government representatives from all parts of Afghanistan and the world. The conference focused on the study of Afghan poets and musicians, particularly the work of Mawlana (Rumi), a 13th century Sufi mystic and poet who has outsold Shakespeare. Hearing Rumi’s words of love and compassion brought many conference attendees to tears, reminding them of a peaceful alternative to the 32 years of violence they have suffered. Due to overwhelming acclaim by its participants, Sakena is committed to making the conference on Love and Forgiveness an annual event.
It can be tempting to only look at the negative side of history or to become mired in daily disappointments. And yet, Sakena challenges the entire global community to stay with those who struggle for justice, to celebrate progress and cultural strengths, and to practice forgiveness as a vehicle of peace. Sakena’s story is an education for us all.