Sakena Yacoobi:
How I stopped the Taliban from shutting down my school

(Arabic) I seek refuge in Allah from cursed Satan. In the Name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.

I was born in a middle class family. My father was five years old when he lost his father, but by the time I was born, he was already a businessman. But it didn't make a difference to him if his children were going to be a boy or a girl: they were going to go to school. So I guess I was the lucky one.

My mother had 16 pregnancies. From 16 pregnancies, five of us are alive. You can imagine as a child what I went through. Day to day, I watched women being carried to a graveyard, or watched children going to a graveyard. At that time, when I finished my high school, I really wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a doctor to help women and children. So I completed my education, but I wanted to go to university. Unfortunately, in my country, there wasn't a dormitory for girls, so I was accepted in medical school, but I could not go there. So as a result, my father sent me to America.

I came to America. I completed my education. While I was completing my education, my country was invaded by Russia. And do you know that at the time I was completing my education, I didn't know what was going on with my family or with my country. There were months, years, I didn't know about it. My family was in a refugee camp. So as soon as I completed my education, I brought my family to America. I wanted them to be safe.

But where was my heart? My heart was in Afghanistan. Day after day, when I listened to the news, when I followed what was going on with my country, my heart was breaking up. I really wanted to go back to my country, but at the same time I knew I could not go there, because there was no place for me. I had a good job. I was a professor at a university. I earned good money. I had a good life. My family was here. I could live with them. But I wasn't happy. I wanted to go back home. So I went to the refugee camp. And when I went to the refugee camp in Pakistan, there were 7.5 million refugees. 7.5 million refugees. About 90 percent of them were women and children. Most of the men have been killed or they were in war. And you know, in the refugee camp, when I went day-to-day to do a survey, I found things you never could imagine. I saw a widow with five to eight children sitting there and weeping and not knowing what to do. I saw a young woman have no way to go anywhere, no education, no entertainment, no place to even live. I saw young men that had lost their father and their home, and they are supporting the family as a 10-to-12-year old boy -- being the head of the household, trying to protect their sister and their mother and their children.

So it was a very devastating situation. My heart was beating for my people, and I didn't know what to do. At that moment, we talk about momentum. At that moment, I felt, what can I do for these people? How could I help these people? I am one individual. What can I do for them?

But at that moment, I knew that education changed my life. It transformed me. It gave me status. It gave me confidence. It gave me a career. It helped me to support my family, to bring my family to another country, to be safe. And I knew that at that moment that what I should give to my people is education and health, and that's what I went after.

But do you think it was easy? No, because at that time, education was banned for girls, completely. And also, by Russia invading Afghanistan, people were not trusting anyone. It was very hard to come and say, "I want to do this." Who am I? Somebody who comes from the United States. Somebody who got educated here. Did they trust me? Of course not.

So I really needed to build the trust in this community. How am I going to do that? I went and surveyed and looked and looked. I asked. Finally, I found one man. He was 80 years old. He was a mullah. I went to his tent in the camp, and I asked him, "I want to make you a teacher." And he looked at me, and he said, "Crazy woman, crazy woman, how do you think I can be a teacher?" And I told him, "I will make you a teacher." Finally, he accepted my offer, and once I started a class in his compound, the word spread all over. In a matter of one year, we had 25 schools set up, 15,000 children going to school, and it was amazing.

Thank you. Thank you.

But of course, we're doing all our work, we were giving teacher training. We were training women's rights, human rights, democracy, rule of law. We were giving all kinds of training. And one day, I tell you, one day I was in the office in Peshawar, Pakistan. All of a sudden, I saw my staff running to rooms and locking the doors and telling me, "Run away, hide!" And you know, as a leader, what do you do? You're scared. You know it's dangerous. You know your life is on the line. But as a leader, you have to hold it together. You have to hold it together and show strength. So I said, "What's going on?" And these people were pouring into my office. So I invited them to the office. They came, and there were nine of them -- nine Taliban. They were the ugliest looking men you can ever see.

Very mean-looking people, black clothes, black turban, and they pour into my office. And I invited them to have a seat and have tea. They said no. They are not going to drink tea. And of course, with the tone of voice they were using, it was very scary, but I was really shaking up. But also I was strong, holding myself up. And, of course, by that time, you know how I dress -- I dress from head to toe in a black hijab. The only thing you could see, my eyes. They asked me, "What are you doing? Don't you know that school is banned for girls? What are you doing here?" And you know, I just looked at them, and I said, "What school? Where is the school?"

And they look at my face, and they said, "You are teaching girls here." I said, "This is a house of somebody. We have some students coming, and they are all learning Koran, Holy Book. And you know, Koran says that if you learn the Holy Book, the woman, they can be a good wife, and they can obey their husband."

And I tell you one thing: that's the way you work with those people, and you know --

So by that time, they started speaking Pashto. They talked to each other, and they said, "Let's go, leave her alone, she's OK." And you know, this time, I offered them tea again, and they took a sip and they laughed. By that time, my staff poured into my office. They were scared to death. They didn't know why they didn't kill me. They didn't know why they didn't take me away. But everybody was happy to see me. Very happy, and I was happy to be alive, of course.

Of course, I was happy to be alive. But also, as we continuously gave training during the fall of the Taliban -- of course during the Taliban there is another story. We went underground and we provided education for 80 schoolgirls, 3,000 students underground, and continuously we trained.

With the fall of the Taliban, we went into the country, and we opened school after school. We opened women's learning center. We continuously opened clinics. We worked with mothers and children. We had reproductive health training. We had all kinds of training that you can imagine. I was very happy. I was delighted with the outcome of my work. And one day, with four trainers and one bodyguard, I was going up north of Kabul, and all of a sudden, again, I was stopped in the middle of the road by 19 young men. Rifles on their shoulders, they blocked the road. And I told my driver, "What's going on?" And the driver said, "I don't know." He asked them. They said, "We have nothing to do with you." They called my name. They said, "We want her." My bodyguard got out, said, "I can answer you. What do you want?" They said, "Nothing." They called my name. And by that time, the women are yelling and screaming inside the car. I am very shaken up, and I told myself, this is it. This time, we all are going to be killed. There is no doubt in my mind. But still, the moment comes, and you take strength from whatever you believe and whatever you do. It's in your heart. You believe in your worth, and you can walk on it.
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So I just hold myself on the side of the car. My leg was shaking, and I got outside. And I asked them, "What can I do for you?" You know what they said to me? They said, "We know who you are. We know where you are going. Every day you go up north here and there. You train women, you teach them and also you give them an opportunity to have a job. You build their skills. How about us?"

"And you know, how about us? What are we going to do?" I looked at them, and I said, "I don't know."

They said, "It's OK. The only thing we can do, what we know, from the time we're born, we just hold the gun and kill. That's all we know." And you know what that means. It's a trap to me, of course. So I walk out of there. They said, "We'll let you go, go." And so I walked into the car, I sit in the car, and I told the driver, "Turn around and go back to the office." At that time, we only were supporting girls. We only had money for women to train them, to send them to school, and nothing else.

By the time I came to the office, of course my trainers were gone. They ran away home. Nobody stayed there. My bodyguard was the only one there, and my voice was completely gone. I was shaken up, and I sat on my table, and I said, "What am I going to do?" How am I going to solve this problem? Because we had training going on up north already. Hundreds of women were there coming to get training.

So I was sitting there, all of a sudden, at this moment, talking about momentum, we are, at that moment, one of my wonderful donors called me about a report. And she asked me, "Sakena?" And I answered her. She said, "It's not you. What's wrong with you?" I said, "Nothing." I tried to cover. No matter what I tried to do, she didn't believe me, and she asked me again. "OK, tell me what's going on?" I told her the whole story. At that time, she said, "OK, you go next time, and you will help them. You will help them." And when, two days later, I went the same route, and do you know, they were not in here, they were a little back further, the same young men, standing up there and holding the rifle and pointing to us to stop the car. So we stopped the car. I got out. I said, "OK, let's go with me." And they said, "Yes." I said, "On one condition, that whatever I say, you accept it." And they said, yes, they do. So I took them to the mosque, and to make a long story short, I told them I'd give them teachers. Today, they are the best trainers. They learn English, they learn how to be teachers, they learn computers, and they are my guides. Every area that is unknown to us in the mountain areas, they go with me. They are ahead, and we go. And they protect us. And --

Thank you.

That tells you that education transforms people. When you educate people, they are going to be different, and today all over, we need to work for gender equality. We cannot only train women but forget about the men, because the men are the real people who are giving women the hardest time.

So we started training men because the men should know the potential of women, know how much these potential men has, and how much these women can do the same job they are doing. So we are continuously giving training to men, and I really believe strongly. I live in a country that was a beautiful country. I just want to share this with you. It was a beautiful country, beautiful, peaceful country. We were going everywhere. Women were getting education: lawyer, engineer, teacher, and we were going from house to house. We never locked our doors. But you know what happened to my country. Today, people cannot walk out of their door without security issues. But we want the same Afghanistan we had before. And I want to tell you the other side. Today, the women of Afghanistan are working very, very hard. They are earning degrees. They are training to be lawyers. They are training to be doctors, back again. They are training to be teachers, and they are running businesses. So it is so wonderful to see people like that reach their complete potential, and all of this is going to happen.

I want to share this with you, because of love, because of compassion, and because of trust and honesty. If you have these few things with you, you will accomplish. We have one poet, Mawlānā Rūmī. He said that by having compassion and having love, you can conquer the world. And I tell you, we could. And if we could do it in Afghanistan, I am sure 100 percent that everyone can do it in any part of the world.

Thank you very, very much.

Thank you. Thank you.