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Mam-Yassin Sarr has helped hundreds of girls who are not able to receive an education in The Gambia through her non-profit Baha’i-inspired school Starfish International.
In The Gambia, the majority of the families, if faced with the choice of only educating their boys or their girls, choose to educate their boys. Girls are rarely provided with equal opportunities, but as a Gambian woman, Mam-Yassin decided to start a school which would help offer these girls what they deserve – and what the Baha’i teachings recommend for every girl, as expressed by Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, the founder and prophet of the Baha’i Faith. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
… strive by all possible means to educate both sexes, male and female; girls like boys; there is no difference whatsoever between them. The ignorance of both is blameworthy, and negligence in both cases is reprovable. …
The command is decisive concerning both. If it be considered through the eye of reality, the training and culture of daughters is more necessary than that of sons, for these girls will come to the station of motherhood and will mold the lives of the children. The first trainer of the child is the mother. The babe, like unto a green and tender branch, will grow according to the way it is trained.
Mam-Yassin has faced opposition from others in her community, but she continues to do what she does, despite others’ opinions. She truly is an inspiration to many, not only within her community, but worldwide. She has successfully transformed the lives of thousands of girls, giving them an education along with teaching them many other life skills.
Mam-Yassin, inspired by her mother’s experience growing up as a woman in The Gambia, tells how her mother wanted her children to have the opportunities she never had access to. Mam-Yassin describes her mother’s motivation this way: “She was the first girl in her village to go to high school. When she finished, she wanted to go to college, but her parents said she couldn’t because she was a girl … She was so hurt that she decided all of her children were going to go to college.”
Thanks to her mother’s promise, Mam-Yassin, her brother, and her sister all had the opportunity to study abroad in the United States. Her mother did all she could to ensure that her children had a bright future, and that they would reach their full potential. “I wanted to help more women have more choices,” Mam-Yassin says, “and that is why I started Starfish.” Mam-Yassin’s school, created and run with the assistance of her husband David and many donors and contributors worldwide, now offers an education to hundreds of young Gambian girls.
The Starfish girls face scrutiny for studying, since the primary role of a woman in The Gambia involves housework, and Mam-Yassin has experienced oppression from the larger community for doing what she does in the field of women’s empowerment and education. That reaction to her work threatens her along with her family, but she continues to serve the girls of her country, saying “I think that the girls motivate me the most because I can see the difference in their lives.”
Mam-Yassin shares a beautiful story surrounding the introduction of a teenage girl who came to Starfish International. She had asked the girl to bring her birth certificate. The girl responded and told Mam-Yassin, tears shadowing her words, “I don’t have a birth certificate. My parents never registered my existence.” She said to the girl “What are you going to do about that?” The girl then went home and came back a few months later with a smile on her face. She explained how not only did she get her birth certificate, but she got a passport for herself. Mam-Yassin said that most of these girls come into the program “timid and shy,” but then find their voice and their place in society. “If they can do it,” Mam-Yassin says, “then I need to help support them do even more.” She realizes that the Starfish students will face obstacles and hardship throughout their journeys in this world, but at Starfish they are taught how to not only overcome those challenges, but to come out of them stronger.
Mam-Yassin has worked very hard to expand Starfish International, resulting in the exponential growth of the program within the past few years. One thing that really stands out and makes Starfish unique, she emphasizes, is the fact that all the donors become directly related to or familiar with the school and its girls. “I do not want funding from everybody. I want people who come and know the girls and love the girls and try to help them maintain their dignity to then be able to support them.”
Mam-Yassin speaks about how this funding strategy formed an obstacle when it came to first developing the school, but as it’s extremely evident, the school has now developed what she describes as a “glow.” This glow sparks from not only building a place for victimized girls, but gradually building a community and a unified family of future female leaders. As Abdu’l-Baha said in a talk he gave in Paris more than a century ago:
In this Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs. Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present conditions; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious …
Mam-Yassin hopes to see three things happen at Starfish international within the upcoming years: “I want Starfish to do major things in education, major things in health, and major things in agriculture.” Not only does she have a vision for the school, but she has a vision for the future of her country. “I think that Africa has a lot of potential for agriculture, so I want to invest in sustainable technologies… You saw how many mangos we have in the country. What if we exported mango juice, what if we dried mangos and sold dried mangoes to other communities that don’t have mangos there? There are so many things we can do if we have the knowledge and the technology for it.”
Anyone who visits Starfish International can readily see that Mam-Yassin Sarr has fulfilled her goals and continues to set new ones, which she is working towards accomplishing.
The shining faces and glimmering eyes of the many young girls who receive their diplomas — as the Baha’i teachings say all girls should be able to — supplies the main motivation behind women’s empowerment in this small African country. Mam-Yassin Sarr’s vision of the future, towards developing women’s rights in The Gambia, has proven to be an unstoppable force in not only her community, but in the world. Girls are powerful,Ï and at Starfish these girls are aided in finding that power within themselves. “To me success looks like finding out what you are passionate about and what makes you unique,” Mam-Yassin says, “and using it for a purpose bigger than yourself … It’s also a moral education, like compassion you can learn it, truthfulness you can learn it, service you can learn it, so the education is not just math and English, it’s virtues as well.”
Starfish girls learn to be leaders in society, to speak up in communities, and use their leadership to help others. Mam-Yassin Sarr and Starfish International look to the future, confident in that “all-glorious” future that awaits the world of women.