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Dr. Sakena Yacoobi Wins $1 Million Opus Prize

Article by Sara Van Wie November 14, 2013 //   4 minute read

This week, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder and president of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an Afghan women-led NGO that provides teacher training, schooling and health education to women and children, was awarded the 2013 Opus Prize at a ceremony at Georgetown University.

The Opus Prize, a humanitarian award for faith-based entrepreneurship, seeks to recognize the “unsung heroes” who work to solve the world’s most persistent social problems.  Finalists are selected on the basis of their entrepreneurial spirit and abiding commitment to address global issues such as poverty, illiteracy, hunger, disease and injustice.

Dr. Yacoobi, a trained public health specialist, began her work as an educator in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.  The abuse, poverty and hopelessness in the camps stirred Dr. Yacoobi to do something to improve the quality of life for the women and children in the camps.  “When I was growing up in Afghanistan, it was a beautiful country.  Life was so simple. People were very friendly; people trusted each other.  Today, it is so different.  For forty years the country has been devastated, the children and women have been abused, the system of education has been completely demolished, the people are nervous, and they are traumatized.”

Dr. Yacoobi realized that her own accomplishments and opportunities came directly from education, and she decided to invest her energy and resources into providing similar opportunities for Afghan women and children.  In 1996, with $20,000 of her own money, she launched the Afghan Institute of Learning and began opening schools and training community-level teachers.   

Dr. Yacoobi believes that basic health and education are key tools to personal and community transformation.  When people have access to health and education, they begin to have hope for a better future.  Dr. Yacoobi dreams of a free, educated Afghanistan, where men, women and children can think critically and create communities that are peaceful and prosperous. 

Since 1996, AIL has built and supported 342 schools and learning centers.  It has trained 21,364 teachers, educated 295,000 students, and treated over 1.6 million health patients.  AIL employs 425 Afghans, whom Dr. Yacoobi praises for their dedication and passion to serve.  Dr. Yacoobi has transformed lives, instilled self-confidence, empowered women to speak for themselves, to not be afraid and to decide what is right.  She has restored dignity and opportunity essential to health of individuals, families and communities.

Dr. Yacoobi, overwhelmed by the honor of the Opus Prize, vowed to continue the work of AIL well into the future. “For Afghanistan, it will take time. AIL will [continue to] transform life after life.”  She concluded with a plea to the audience to join her in believing in the women and children of Afghanistan. “Today, the people of Afghanistan are not the same people.  The women of Afghanistan are not the same women.  Today, the women of Afghanistan are empowered, they have confidence, they have jobs, they move from one country to another, they earn income, they are the head of households.  And, still, they are willing to do more.  I want to share this news with you.  Don’t feel pity for them.  They are strong and they have dignity.  Respect them and believe in them.  That is what the people of Afghanistan want.” 

The Bush Institute’s Afghan Women’s Project celebrates the life and work of Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, and applauds her inspiring commitment to the women and children of Afghanistan.

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