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Girls and boys share a classroom in one of AIL's schools. Herat, Afghanistan. (Alissa Everett)

Ordinary Superheroes

Sakena Yacoobi Wins Opus Prize, $1 Million, for Her Work in Afghanistan

The founder of the Afghan Learning Institute is honored with a $1 million prize from Georgetown.

As curator of the International Museum of Women’s current exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that one of the women we’ve showcased in the exhibition has been recognized as the truly fearless change-maker she is and won the 2013 Opus Prize.

Sakena Yacoobi, founder and president of the Afghan Institute of Learning, received the prestigious award which “honors unsung heroes of any faith tradition with a $1 million award for efforts to solve today’s most persistent and pressing global issues, including poverty, illiteracy, hunger, disease, and injustice.”

Presented by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, the prize was awarded by Georgetown University President John J DeGioia, who said, "Dr. Sakena Yacoobi has demonstrated an inspiring commitment to the promotion of education and health services for women and children in Afghanistan. She is an eminently deserving recipient of this faith-based humanitarian award—for her disproportionate contributions to the betterment of our global family."

For the past several months, I’ve been in contact with Yacoobi for the Muslima exhibition. Born in Afghanistan, Dr. Yacoobi grew up seeing widows forced to beg for money or work for just a little food. She told me she saw “women and children who could not read [and the] impact poverty was having on my country; there were no clinics, no schools, no way for people to learn skills that would better their lives.”

To change that, Dr. Yacoobi founded Afghan Learning Institute (AIL) to bring education and work training to women and girls. In 1995, the organization began by helping in the refugee camps then soon supported secret homeschools inside Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, she said, “we established learning centers where people can come to get an education and the skills they need to have a better life.”

Although she faces serious obstacles to education because the country continues to grapple with security issues, Dr. Yacoobi is “optimistic about the future.” She says, “The seeds have been planted and they will grow ... 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.”

Today, AIL supports more than 40 learning centers and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has impacted the lives of thousands of women and girls. To learn more about Sakena Yacoobi and the incredible work of the Afghan Institute of Learning, visit Muslima. While you’re there, make sure to check out the many other Muslim women we’ve showcased from around the world who, like Dr. Yacoobi, are fearlessly leading the charge for peace, equality and change.


Click below to see a gallery of Sakena Yacoobi at work.

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