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Country:       Afghanistan

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Sakena was the first person in her family to pursue higher education and the first woman from her hometown to earn a degree in the United States. She received her bachelors degree in Biological Sciences in 1977 from the University of the Pacific in California and four years later earned her masters degree in public health from Loma Linda University in Southern California.

Despite doubts that a Muslim woman would be accepted, Sakena was welcomed by her peers their peaceful lifestyle and appreciation for nature appealed to her. She respected their faith and participated in the community. Sakena’s ability to transcend and challenge traditional, faith-based social boundaries has become a theme throughout her life.

Later, as a consultant and educator in the United States, Sakena provided family therapy to private patients and counseled individuals on a wide range of health issues. As a professor at D’Etre University in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, she taught biology, mathematics, and psychology.

While Sakena was abroad, the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan, turning millions of people, including Sakena’s parents, into refugees. In response to this invasion and the subsequent Afghan refugee crisis in Pakistan, Sakena left the U.S. and joined the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as manager, and later coordinator, of its women’s education and teacher training programs in Peshawar, Pakistan.

During her time with the IRC, Sakena realized that Afghans needed to become involved in their educational process, so she established a grassroots program within the IRC. Within a year, the number of Afghan girls enrolled in the IRC’s schools quadrupled. The program also trained female teacher trainers, with the dual goal of improving education overall and of increasing girls’ and women’s access to an education. She managed a staff of 680, and oversaw programs serving 17,000 refugees in the areas of primary education, health education, pre-school education, English language training, and computer and office training.

When the Soviet war ended in Afghanistan, the IRC’s work with women received a decrease in funding, and in 1995, Sakena founded AIL to continue her efforts and expand throughout Afghanistan. Under her direction as President and Executive Director, AIL quickly became one of the largest women-led, citizen organizations in the country. With 470 employees, 83 percent of whom are women, it is a leading model in rebuilding Afghan civil society.

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