Pragmatic Afghan woman educates thousands

June 14, 2011 - 6:43 AM
Afghanistan Three Cups of Pragmatism

In this June 4, 2011 photo, women attend a literacy class at the Afghan Institute of Learning in Anjil, Herat province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan. Sakena Yacoobi's AIL has grown from a few makeshift schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to an organization running schools, women's learning centers, day care centers and clinics across seven of the 34 Afghan provinces. (AP Photo)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Sakena Yacoobi is a builder of schools and clinics who says she hopes that educating women will help bring peace to Afghanistan. But she is no idealist.

The 61-year-old Afghan woman first started refugee schools in Pakistan, then underground girls schools in Afghanistan under the Taliban. After that regime's 2001 ouster, she opened scores of women's centers teaching basic reading, math, sewing and health skills. Her programs now serve about 350,000 women and children a year.

While she has lofty goals, she says her success has come from discipline and realism.

Yacoobi doesn't run programs in the more dangerous parts of Afghanistan because she won't be able to get teachers to stay. She doesn't work with communities who won't embrace her approach because without their support a school will fail. And she orders all women and girls involved in her programs to wear head-covering scarves to show that they are observant Muslims.

As a result, her Afghan Institute of Learning, or AIL, has grown from a few makeshift schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to an organization running schools, women's learning centers, day care centers and clinics across seven of the 34 Afghan provinces. Yacoobi says it costs her about $1.5 million a year.

"I challenge anybody if they can run this same program at $3 million. They could not. Because every penny that I spend, I really watch where it goes, how it goes," Yacoobi says.

Many of her former students are now professional Afghan women working in offices, as teachers and in the government. Afghanistan's only female provincial governor attended one of Yacoobi's schools, and at least one of her graduates works in the president's office.

Yacoobi represents a refreshing pragmatism and drive in a region where efforts to build rural schools and increase access to education have been clouded by accusations of mismanagement and fraud against the man best-known for such efforts — Greg Mortenson, the author of "Three Cups of Tea."

Mortenson's accusers charge that he lied about how he became involved in building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that he used money donated to his charity for personal reasons and that he has not built nearly the number of schools he claimed and has left others abandoned without support or teachers.

The allegations have prompted discussions throughout the aid community about how to make sure money is well spent and that projects don't languish.

Yacoobi has navigated the minefields of aid, corruption and bureaucracy through the years without losing her way. Twenty years after she opened her first school in a Pakistani refugee camp, Yacoobi says it's still just as hard.

She said she hopes to one day have centers in every province of Afghanistan "and there wouldn't be one single individual uneducated or not able to read and write," Yacoobi says. "But reality is reality. Fact is fact. Education takes time. It takes a lot of time."

On a recent day in Kabul, scores of children at a kindergarten were learning songs, playing with blocks and reciting the alphabet in cheerfully painted rooms in a modest compound in a residential neighborhood. The center is free and gives priority to children of women who work outside the home. One young boy sang the English alphabet for a reporter. He said his mother works for a telecommunications company.

The director of the program said there's a waiting list and the enrollment could be much larger, but they needed to keep it manageable with no overreaching. Yacoobi asked that none of her staff be identified by name for security reasons.

Yacoobi's funding comes from a collection of international donors. She said she's tried to stay away from U.S. government funding because she is worried about not being able to be free to run her programs the way she sees fit.

"I didn't get any U.S. money and I never wanted to either. It's not that it wasn't available for me. It was," Yacoobi says. She said she just wanted to make sure she was in control. "I do my own program."

She grew up in the northwestern city of Herat when Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful monarchy. Most importantly, she grew up in a family that, well ahead of its time, valued education for women. Her father told her she could continue studying as long as she wanted and wouldn't have to get married until she was ready.

"It's not that I didn't have a choice to marry," Yacoobi said. "Since I was 12 years old, people came and asked for my hand from my father. I had a father who was visionary."

Given the choice, she put off marrying and continued with school. She graduated from high school in Herat and then was planning to go to university in Kabul when another opportunity presented itself. An American Peace Corps volunteer who had gotten to know the family volunteered to give the teenage Yacoobi a home with her family if she was accepted by a university in the United States.

So she got a partial scholarship to the University of Michigan and moved in with the family of the Peace Corps volunteer. She took intensive English courses and eventually transferred to the University of the Pacific, graduating with a degree in biological sciences.

And she never married. She says she was too busy trying first to get her education, and then trying to get back to Afghanistan to help people there. At first she thought she would come back as a doctor; it was an obvious choice after seeing how many women died in childbirth in her neighborhood growing up. Her own mother had 16 pregnancies and only five living children.

But she got a job doing surveys of Afghan refugees in Pakistani camps and was desperate to do something to help the many orphans she ran across there.

"I thought education, because if you really educate the women they can have a sustainable life. They can have a capacity to be somebody. Always I felt, who am I that I have a life like this and they have a life like this? From there I started opening schools."

But at the beginning she had no money and no funders. So she mortgaged her house in Detroit and combined it with some savings to get started. "I had about $20,000 to $50,000 and I started the program," she explained. "Since then, I have just gotten my own funding.

She was able to pay back the mortgage and still owns the house in Detroit, though she spends little time there. Mostly she's flying between meetings with donors and overseeing her programs back in Kabul.

"When I say I am opening this program, I really mean that the program is open. You come any time. If I am there or not, The program should run. The teacher should be in the classroom. The doctor should be at his post."

Asked about the Mortenson controversy, Yacoobi said she was not familiar with his schools so could not comment on how well they worked.

"I don't know about his schools because I am not in those areas. I go only the provinces that I can go to," she said.

She's all too aware, however, that money for Afghan development has been wasted amid the flood of international funding that has poured in since the fall of the Taliban.

"I am not against organizations opening. But I am against somebody who has no idea and they are running a program and they have a million dollars," she explained. "It is a waste of money, a waste of energy and not a good name for all of us."

Yacoobi says straight out that she pays low salaries. She has many former students working for international organizations who said they can't afford to come work for her. But she said her type of organization only works if her employees are more dedicated to the cause than their paychecks.

"We have lots of students who are with the U.N. programs, the USAID program, they are making triple my salary," Yacoobi explains. "I say go ahead, do a good job, go. I am proud of them."