In 1995, Dr. Sakeena Yacoobi founded the Afghan Institute of Learning as a way to combat the lack of education and healthcare that the Afghan people had access to, after years of war had taken its toll on the country.
Born in Herat, Afghanistan, Yacoobi moved to the US to study after struggling to find female accommodation in her home country.
Shortly after commencing her study, Russia invaded Afghanistan, turning Yacoobi into a refugee and preventing her from re-entering the turbulent country.
“My family were refugees at home, so I had a rough life trying to study, get scholarships and jobs to support myself all the while worrying about my family,” she told The Independent.
Despite her intentions to remain in the US, her unshakable will to assist the country she had left behind, saw her appeal to the UN to fight for her rights, and those of her family. Eventually, she was able to bring her family to the US, putting her younger brother through school and forging a new life for her parents.
Eventually, Yacoobi announced that she would be returning to Peshawar to help.
“My mother was in tears. She couldn’t believe that after so many years of being apart, I wanted to leave them to go to a war zone. But my father understood. He said, ‘let her go. If that’s what she wants to do, let her do it’.”
There she began her quest to bring safety and education to the women of Afghanistan. One day, a group of armed men surrounded her school, but instead of fleeing, Yacoobi invited the Taliban members in for a cup of tea. Eventually she was able to convince them that her school could operate without their interference.
“Of course I thought they were going to kill me,” she said, “but I wasn’t scared. With the help of god I stayed calm and defended myself, telling them how the Quran states a woman’s right to an equal education.”
Since then, she has been responsible for helping 12 million people, many of them girls, in both rural and marginalised parts of Afghanistan.
It is this tireless campaign to end the persecution and promote education for women across Afghanistan that prompted Yacoobi’s nomination for WISE winner in this year’s esteemed ceremony.
“It is particularly meaningful because this is such a crucial time in Afghanistan,” Ms Yacoobi said, accepting the prize in Doha, Qatar.
“I dedicate the prize to the AIL and all of the women, men and children we are educating.”
The $500,000 education prize awarded by WISE, assisted by the Qatar Foundation, recognised Yacoobi for her unrelenting campaign to break down barriers surrounding education – especially for females, in Afghanistan and bring about real change.
“With this prize, we know that we can continue to educate more and more Afghans, giving them hope and encouraging them to go forward no matter what they are facing,” Ms Yacoobi said.