For more than twenty years, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi has risked her life to teach women and children in Afghanistan. In the face of a brutally oppressive Taliban regime, she secretly used education to reclaim Islam—believing that if people had access to the verses themselves, they would see its underlying messages of peace, justice and equality. Her story is that of a woman of faith seeking to transform her country.
Although she grew up in Afghanistan, Sakena came to the United States when her country was under Soviet rule in order to attend college. She happened to land at a Christian university, where she worked side-by-side with devout Christians, and first realized how faith could inspire people to serve. As she witnessed her classmates, Sakena was moved, and began a process to totally align her own life with her Islamic beliefs. Ultimately, this experience compelled her to fulfill a life-long dream to return home to Afghanistan and dedicate herself to serving the women of her native country.
After a stint doing humanitarian relief work, Sakena was struck by the trauma and dislocation being caused by the war in Afghanistan. Believing that long-term change was needed for Afghanistan’s displaced population, she founded the Afghan Institute of Learning in 1996, the same year that the Taliban came to power. Precautions were necessary. For security, she instructed her students to vary their routes to school and even changed the schoolhouse location periodically. AIL has reached more than 12 million people since its founding, training women and children in leadership, literacy, health and marketable skills, while simultaneously teaching them how to negotiate constructive relationships with men in a patriarchal society. Each year, 25,000 students are educated; 209,000 health patients are treated; and 125,000 Afghans are trained in health education. At its core, her vision mixes faith with the transformative power of education, believing that religious knowledge leads to greater equality in society.
In addition to her work with AIL, Sakena has spearheaded other projects to promote civil society, healthcare and education in Afghanistan. In 2013, Sakena founded the Professor Sakena Yacoobi Private Hospital in Herat and the Professor Sakena Yacoobi Private High Schools in Kabul and Herat, Afghanistan. With a love of learning, Sakena created a public library and increased government protection in the surrounding area in order for students to use a restored mausoleum in Herat as a study space. In 2015, Sakena founded Radio Meraj with the hope of empowering her fellow Afghans to effect change in their communities. Less than
three months after its first broadcast, Radio Meraj 94.1 FM in Herat, Afghanistan already boasted more than 10,000 listeners.
Sakena has received great public attention since Tanenbaum selected her as a Peacemaker. She continues to receive international recognition for her commitment to the people of Afghanistan and work in peace and education. Due to her great work and recognition, Sakena has been awarded multiple international awards, including the Opus Prize in 2013.
Learn more about Sakena’s role in the Afghan Institute of Learning.
This video was made possible by grants from Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Henry Luce Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action program is also supported by the Leir Charitable Foundations.