When I saw the Afghans in refugee camps in Pakistan in 1992, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I left Afghanistan in 1970 to pursue my education in the United States, but I was amazed by what I saw in the camps upon return. These were not the Afghans that I had known growing up in Afghanistan.
People in the camps were traumatized; people were trying to figure out what was happening; people did not trust each other. Finally, I understood their issues. These people were changed and they were protecting themselves. It was then that I decided to start the Afghan Institute of Learning.
When I was growing up as a child in Afghanistan, our family units and our communities were very important. We lived together and enjoyed life together. We communicated with our elders, and our elders kept teaching us day to day. Every person was involved in the activities around the house — our aunts, our uncles, our grandmother and grandfather — and it was a beautiful place to be. Yes, people were poor, but those days were full of joy and happiness because on every occasion, there was a ceremony. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents: they were all there; children would circle around them and exchange gifts and we honored them and respected them. That is the way I remember Afghanistan.
Then came 35 years of war. Millions died. Our communities, our families, our country were destroyed.
Building Confidence and Problem Solving Skills
I saw in the camps that families had been torn apart. Women were alone trying to protect their children, while their husbands and brothers and fathers were fighting in Afghanistan. I knew that what we needed to do was to rebuild trust, family and community, and to rebuild the confidence that Afghans have the knowledge and skills to create a peaceful and prosperous life for themselves.
I really believe in my heart that when you educate people and try to communicate with them and teach them, they can start trusting people. They can learn to communicate in a language that will not threaten others. They can defend themselves with communication without needing a weapon and they don’t need to push people aside. So I started the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) to provide education.
Since we wanted to provide holistic educational opportunities, I started an “institute,” which meant that we could provide a variety of kinds of education from pre-school through post-secondary education.
But what kind of education? There is education that teaches people how to read and write. But, that wasn’t enough for Afghanistan. At the Afghan Institute of Learning, we thought that the only way that we could really help was to teach people with new methodologies that utilize critical thinking. When you teach critical thinking, people communicate. They ask questions, think about different ways of doing things, come up with solutions. That was our goal. We developed and designed programs to teach people how to think.
Women’s Learning Centers (WLCs) in Afghan Refugee Camps in 2002
We started by going camp to camp and talking to the elders until we found a few that listened and understood.
I remember the mullah that I met in one of the refugee camps. He was a good man and was respected by the community. As we talked in his mosque, I asked him if he wanted the girls in his camp to have education. He did, but he knew that there would be resistance in the community. People were not sure if girls needed education. More importantly, the communists were forcing education on females in Afghanistan in inappropriate cultural and religious ways. This inappropriate education was one of the main reasons seven million Afghans had become refugees. Afghans just did not trust that education was something of value and they did not trust most teachers, believing that they had been raised in a communist system.
I asked him, “Do the people here trust you and your family?” “Yes”, he said. “Are you willing to teach them?” I asked. He was startled and said that he wasn’t a teacher. I told him that the Afghan Institute of Learning trains teachers, and I would train him to be a teacher if he wanted. He said he would think about it. A week later, I received a message from him. He and his wife and family were willing to open a school in their home. The refugees in his camp were willing to send their girls to study with the mullah, and he was willing to teach them.
For three months we worked with him every day, training him to be a teacher. His wife, daughter and daughter-in-law were also in the classes, and, in time, they became teachers because more girls wanted to study. We gave him tents to set up in his compound and soon there were seven classes of girls studying.
The quiet courage of the mullah, his wife and family, the community members and the students was the beginning. Other refugees watched what was happening. They saw the results and they came to Afghan Institute of Learning and asked for support for schools in their camps. In a matter of one year, we went from 300 students to 15,000 students in all-girls’ schools in the refugee camps.
Underground Support for Girls
From inside Afghanistan, where the Taliban had closed girls’ schools, teachers heard about Afghan Institute of Learning programs and asked for support for underground schools for girls in their homes. The girls wanted to continue studying and their teachers wanted to teach them. The risks that the girls and their teachers faced were enormous. The girls had to wear burqas and come at different times to their teacher’s house. The girls, the teachers, the parents and the community members arranged how the students would come so that they would be safe. The previous government school books that they were using had been banned. If the girls or their teachers had been discovered, all would have been put in jail or worse.
But despite these risks, by 2001, the Afghan Institute of Learning was supporting 80 underground home schools for 3,000 girls in four provinces of Afghanistan. Most students were in the first through third grade but some schools had students up to the eighth grade. With the fall of the Taliban and the lifting of the ban against education for girls, by the end of 2002 all of the home schools had closed because the students were either attending government public schools or studying in our newly opened Women’s Learning Centers, and their teachers were back teaching in public schools.
That is the courage of the girls, their families, their teachers and their communities. These girls were very bright. They wanted to learn so much, and their families and teachers wanted to learn, as well, so they found creative ways to make sure that the schools could continue and the girls could be safe. No school was ever discovered and closed. There were close calls, like the day that soldiers were positioned on every corner of one of the cities after the girls had gone to the home of their teacher. The brothers of the girls diverted the attention of the soldiers so that two by two the girls could slip out of the house and go safely home.
Fourteen years later, these educated girls, from the refugee camps and from the underground schools, are now in universities. Following in their footsteps, many communities have started their own Women’s Learning Centers with Afghan Institute of Learning support. Young girls and boys, their mothers, aunts and grandmothers are now learning to read and write in Afghan Institute of Learning Women’s Learning Centers, where they also learn about human rights, women’s rights, leadership and peace.
It still takes courage to go. Older women are teased by others about learning at their age. Girls sometimes have to ask repeatedly to be given permission to go to learn. In some places, people still believe that girls should not be educated and schools are threatened.
But still the girls and the women come to study. Their courage is our future. As dark as it seems to be in Afghanistan now, much is happening. While the news is filled with war, terrorist bombings, burning of schools, kidnapping, drugs and all kinds of other horrible things — and those things happen every single day in Afghanistan – that is only part of the story.
Communities Reap Benefits
The Afghan Institute of Learning, alone, has provided education, training and health services to over 6.9 million Afghan women and children. Afghans are changing. The seeds of learning have been planted and they are bearing fruit. Individuals are learning from the model of the Afghan Institute of Learning and are starting projects in their own communities.
Just last year, a young teenage girl, who had had to wait for a year for permission from her father to go to an Afghan Institute of Learning center because of her father’s concerns about security, finished her literacy and tailoring class. She returned to her village and, with the permission of her father and the rest of the members of her family, opened a tailoring class in her own home for the girls in her village.
Community members and women are joining together to start education and health centers; local government agencies and communities are working to increase the quality of education in their schools. In a rural village in Kabul province, one community member has donated land for an Afghan Institute of Learning clinic. Another offered a room in a house for a center for girls until a school for girls could be built. When the room became too small, the local educational authorities broke tradition and let the girls study in the boys’ school in the afternoon. The education authorities in the community requested that the Afghan Institute for Learning train all of its teachers so that all students could have as good an education as those studying in the centers. Now this village has English and computer classes for girls and boys supported by the Afghan Institute of Learning and held in a community center recently built in the village.
Afghanistan is moving back toward the way I remember it as a child. Families are educating themselves; they are making sure that their children – girls included — are educated. They are finding new ways to solve their problems. Each day, the women, children and men of Afghanistan leave their homes to face the dangers of their world in order to bring the gifts of knowledge and hope to their families. This is courage and a building of freedom — one step at a time.
Sakena Yacoobi is the Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, an NGO in Afghanistan and Pakistan which provides education for women and children; training in pedgagogy, leadership, human rights, administration and health; and health services and education to rural women and children. Dr. Yacoobi has won numerous awards for her international work in peace and human rights, and serves on over 15 affiliated group panels and boards. See more information at www.creatinghope.org/sakenayacoobibiography.