By The Associated Press

Pragmatic Afghan woman educates thousands


Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Sakena Yacoobi is a builder of schools and clinics who says she hopes that educating women will help bring peace to Afghanistan. But she is no idealist.

The 61-year-old Afghan woman first started refugee schools in Pakistan, then underground girls schools in Afghanistan under the Taliban. After that regime’s 2001 ouster, she opened scores of women’s centers teaching basic reading, math, sewing and health skills. Her programs now serve about 350,000 women and children a year.

While she has lofty goals, she says her success has come from discipline and realism.

Yacoobi doesn’t run programs in the more dangerous parts of Afghanistan because she won’t be able to get teachers to stay. She doesn’t work with communities who won’t embrace her approach because without their support a school will fail. And she orders all women and girls involved in her programs to wear head-covering scarves to show that they are observant Muslims.

As a result, her Afghan Institute of Learning, or AIL, has grown from a few makeshift schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to an organization running schools, women’s learning centers, day care centers and clinics across seven of the 34 Afghan provinces. Yacoobi says it costs her about $1.5 million a year.

“I challenge anybody if they can run this same program at $3 million. They could not. Because every penny that I spend, I really watch where it goes, how it goes,” Yacoobi says.

Many of her former students are now professional Afghan women working in offices, as teachers and in the government. Afghanistan’s only female provincial governor attended one of Yacoobi’s schools, and at least one of her graduates works in the president’s office.

Yacoobi represents a refreshing pragmatism and drive in a region where efforts to build rural schools and increase access to education have been clouded by accusations of mismanagement and fraud against the man best-known for such efforts — Greg Mortenson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea.”

Mortenson’s accusers charge that he lied about how he became involved in building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that he used money donated to his charity for personal reasons and that he has not built nearly the number of schools he claimed and has left others abandoned without support or teachers.

The allegations have prompted discussions throughout the aid community about how to make sure money is well spent and that projects don’t languish.

Yacoobi has navigated the minefields of aid, corruption and bureaucracy through the years without losing her way. Twenty years after she opened her first school in a Pakistani refugee camp, Yacoobi says it’s still just as hard.

She said she hopes to one day have centers in every province of Afghanistan “and there wouldn’t be one single individual uneducated or not able to read and write,” Yacoobi says. “But reality is reality. Fact is fact. Education takes time. It takes a lot of time.”

On a recent day in Kabul, scores of children at a kindergarten were learning songs, playing with blocks and reciting the alphabet in cheerfully painted rooms in a modest compound in a residential neighborhood. The center is free and gives priority to children of women who work outside the home. One young boy sang the English alphabet for a reporter. He said his mother works for a telecommunications company.

The director of the program said there’s a waiting list and the enrollment could be much larger, but they needed to keep it manageable with no overreaching. Yacoobi asked that none of her staff be identified by name for security reasons.

Yacoobi’s funding comes from a collection of international donors. She said she’s tried to stay away from U.S. government funding because she is worried about not being able to be free to run her programs the way she sees fit.

“I didn’t get any U.S. money and I never wanted to either. It’s not that it wasn’t available for me. It was,” Yacoobi says. She said she just wanted to make sure she was in control. “I do my own program.”

She grew up in the northwestern city of Herat when Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful monarchy. Most importantly, she grew up in a family that, well ahead of its time, valued education for women. Her father told her she could continue studying as long as she wanted and wouldn’t have to get married until she was ready.

“It’s not that I didn’t have a choice to marry,” Yacoobi said. “Since I was 12 years old, people came and asked for my hand from my father. I had a father who was visionary.”

Given the choice, she put off marrying and continued with school. She graduated from high school in Herat and then was planning to go to university in Kabul when another opportunity presented itself. An American Peace Corps volunteer who had gotten to know the family volunteered to give the teenage Yacoobi a home with her family if she was accepted by a university in the United States.

So she got a partial scholarship to the University of Michigan and moved in with the family of the Peace Corps volunteer. She took intensive English courses and eventually transferred to the University of the Pacific, graduating with a degree in biological sciences.

And she never married. She says she was too busy trying first to get her education, and then trying to get back to Afghanistan to help people there. At first she thought she would come back as a doctor; it was an obvious choice after seeing how many women died in childbirth in her neighborhood growing up. Her own mother had 16 pregnancies and only five living children.

But she got a job doing surveys of Afghan refugees in Pakistani camps and was desperate to do something to help the many orphans she ran across there.

“I thought education, because if you really educate the women they can have a sustainable life. They can have a capacity to be somebody. Always I felt, who am I that I have a life like this and they have a life like this? From there I started opening schools.”

But at the beginning she had no money and no funders. So she mortgaged her house in Detroit and combined it with some savings to get started. “I had about $20,000 to $50,000 and I started the program,” she explained. “Since then, I have just gotten my own funding.

She was able to pay back the mortgage and still owns the house in Detroit, though she spends little time there. Mostly she’s flying between meetings with donors and overseeing her programs back in Kabul.

“When I say I am opening this program, I really mean that the program is open. You come any time. If I am there or not, The program should run. The teacher should be in the classroom. The doctor should be at his post.”

Asked about the Mortenson controversy, Yacoobi said she was not familiar with his schools so could not comment on how well they worked.

“I don’t know about his schools because I am not in those areas. I go only the provinces that I can go to,” she said.

She’s all too aware, however, that money for Afghan development has been wasted amid the flood of international funding that has poured in since the fall of the Taliban.

“I am not against organizations opening. But I am against somebody who has no idea and they are running a program and they have a million dollars,” she explained. “It is a waste of money, a waste of energy and not a good name for all of us.”

Yacoobi says straight out that she pays low salaries. She has many former students working for international organizations who said they can’t afford to come work for her. But she said her type of organization only works if her employees are more dedicated to the cause than their paychecks.

“We have lots of students who are with the U.N. programs, the USAID program, they are making triple my salary,” Yacoobi explains. “I say go ahead, do a good job, go. I am proud of them.”

Less prison time sought for NY abused women

By The Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – Advocates for women prisoners in New York state are pushing legislation to cut sentences for domestic violence victims who strike back at abusers or get coerced into committing other crimes.

Arguing that abuse victims pose little threat to others, sponsors acknowledge resentencing bills won’t pass this year, but the debate should start following a Cornell Law School study finding limited leniency for “survivor-defendants.”

The bills would give judges discretion to cut a sentence for first-degree manslaughter, for example, from five to 25 years to one to five years or probation.

Prosecutors say victims already get consideration with lowered charges, like manslaughter instead of murder, and lower sentences than others.

The Correctional Association of New York, the study’s co-author, says less than 175 women in state prison could be affected by passage of resentencing legislation.

85-year-old Neb. woman swims to stay in shape


Lincoln Journal Star

BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) – When the 27 women in the early-morning water aerobics class at the YMCA begin jumping and gyrating in the temperature-controlled aqua blue, it’s a little rough on the lone woman in the lone swimming lane.

But Lois Rush remains unruffled.

The grandmother in a white swim cap and black one-piece continues her languid backstroke, each arm lifting in a Miss America-like wave before disappearing once again.

Back and forth, back and forth, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while the water aerobics class does its thing.

Freestyle first, backstroke second and then into the 104-degree hot tub.

“I’m old,” says Lois, 85, taking a dip in the steamy water, “but I’m not that old.”

Lois has a fan club here at The Y on the east edge of this Gage County town.

You can count “Aquasize” members Gail Butler (who called the newspaper) and Doris Ourecky (who swam straight for a reporter to gush) among them.

The first time Doris watched the Pawnee City woman ride the waves with such grace, she posed a question: Were you once a synchronized swimmer?

“She just gave me a blank look,” Doris said recently. “She said, `I didn’t start swimming until I was 70.”’

That sounds about right, Lois says.

She doesn’t remember the exact year, but it was after she’d raised her four boys and moved from Omaha to the Southeast Nebraska town 45 miles from this low-slung brick building and its roomy indoor pool.

Her knees were bad — arthritis — and walking was painfully out of the question. But she wanted to stay active.

“I had a son,” she says, “who showed me you don’t quit.”’

That son’s name was Bill.

A boy born with his umbilical cord compressed in the birth canal, cutting off oxygen for two minutes. Two doctors told her he’d be blind, deaf, unable to speak and incapable of learning, Lois says. They told her to put him in an institution.

Bill Rush became the first quadrapeligic to graduate from UNL — and with honors to boot.

He was a writer and an activtist, his story featured in Life magazine.

Bill was 49 when he died in 2004, a married man who’d had his autobiography published _ each word typed letter-by-painstaking-letter with a special stick attached to a helmet on his head.

“You couldn’t tell him, `You can’t do it,”’ Lois says. “Or that it wouldn’t work. You just kept going, even if it hurt, even if it wasn’t graceful.”

His mom and his brother were more than a bit alike, says Jim Rush, oldest of the four boys.

“You’re not going to tell her what she can do.”

Or can’t.

And Lois couldn’t swim much more than a lick when she started. But she’d always liked water, so she went to buy a suit, asking for a “dressing room with no lights and no mirrors.”

She started paddling around in a lake near her Pawnee City home, until her boys and a swarm of water snakes convinced her the chlorinated waters of the Y would be a better choice.

That’s where she learned to put her head in the water “and blow bubbles” like the little kids she watched at their swimming lessons.

Since then she’s lapped a hundred miles. The Y gave her a T-shirt.

She doesn’t mind the three-times-a-week drive. She hauls a few “ladies” with her. “We have a kid who comes with us; she’s 51.”

Lois laughs her raucous laugh.

Then she’s out of the hot tub and back in the pool for a set of water exercises before heading back home.

Her son says his mom told him a reporter was planning to show up at the pool to write about her.

“She told me last night,” Jim said. “She thinks it’s kind of stupid.”

That’s because Lois thinks her swimming isn’t very special.

“I figured I drove 20,500 miles to swim 100 miles. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?”

Now she’s shooting for 200. Don’t tell her she can’t.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,

Wis. chancellor named Amherst College president


Associated Press

The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been selected as the next president of Amherst College, a prestigious liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, school officials announced Tuesday.

Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, one of the nation’s top openly gay university leaders, will become Amherst’s 19th president later this summer. She served as Cornell University’s provost before becoming UW-Madison’s chancellor in 2008.

She will be the first female president of Amherst, which was founded in 1821 and has about 1,750 students. Her starting date wasn’t immediately announced but is expected to be in late August.

The 60-year-old Martin takes over for outgoing Amherst President Anthony Marx, who has led the school since 2003. He is leaving to become president of the New York Public Library.

“I will remember fondly and miss so many in the University and Madison communities, more than I can possibly say,” Martin wrote, vowing to remain an “unconflicted, indeed, a rabid Badger fan forever” even as she roots for Amherst to defeat rival Williams College.

Martin is a native of Timberlake, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she received her nickname during infancy as the family’s “biddy baby” to differentiate her from her slightly older brother.

She received her undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary and advanced degrees from Middlebury College and UW-Madison. She was a professor of German studies and women’s studies at Cornell before becoming its provost.

She has been open about her sexuality as a gay woman and has written extensively on gender issues, but has said she prefers for the focus to be on the mission of the schools she has served.

She said in her letter Tuesday to UW-Madison students, employees and alumni that deciding to leave her alma mater for Amherst was one of the most difficult decisions of her life.

“The chance to combine my belief in the transformative power of the liberal arts with the presidency of the leading liberal arts college in the country is the best opportunity I can imagine,” she wrote. “I would have left UW-Madison at this point for no other school, and considered no other.”

Amherst, one of about 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. with endowments exceeding $1 billion, is consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts schools.

Jide Zeitlin, Amherst’s board of trustees chairman and leader of the presidential search committee, said Martin emerged at the top of a “very robust pool” of applicants for the presidency, including some candidates from outside the U.S. He cited her administrative skills, passion for liberal arts, knowledge about life sciences and breadth of experience.

“She has formidable intellect and she’s somebody who’s very well respected,” Zeitlin said. “This is somebody who’s got an ability to range across the disciplines in a very formidable way. … She also has two decades of deep leadership at highly respected institutions, so we’re excited to benefit from that leadership experience.”

In 1999, Amherst became the nation’s first college to eliminate loans for low-income students and replace them with scholarship packages.

It extended the program for all students in 2008, saying it would help the school be more accessible to middle-class students with the talents — but not the financial ability — to attend Amherst without accumulating student loan debt.

Amherst costs about $41,000 annually in tuition and fees, though the average student receives more than $35,000 in scholarships.

Its famous alumni include U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, the famed Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Prince Albert II of Monaco.

Martin’s departure from UW-Madison comes after her failed New Badger Partnership proposal with Republican Gov. Scott Walker to split the Madison campus from the rest of the University of Wisconsin System. In exchange, Martin agreed to have the Madison campus shoulder half a $250 million budget cut that Walker proposed for the entire university system.

Martin’s position and close allegiance with Walker divided the campus community. The plan never gained traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature or with leaders of the other UW campuses.

Walker said Tuesday that he considers Martin an “innovator” and was grateful for her friendship.

“Beyond that, I respect the tremendous courage she exhibited by being a strong leader of our state’s flagship university and showing independence from the bureaucratic status quo,” Walker said.

Despite the controversy over the New Badger Partnership, Martin endeared herself to many Madison students during her tenure and inspired a student-written novelty song, “My Biddy,” in which the singer expresses his love for the chancellor. Martin even appeared in a video of the song.


Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.

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