Junior Lina Tori Jan was six years old when Taliban insurgents entered her Afghanistan elementary school and started burning the students’ books. She remembers it as if it were yesterday.
Tori Jan’s childhood in Afghanistan was far from ordinary. From cutting her hair short and dressing as a boy to be able to step outside during the Taliban regime to hiding with her parents and six siblings in a basement to avoid Taliban-led raids, Tori Jan learned the significance of being a woman and valuing her education at a young age.
In her hometown of Herat, Tori Jan was considered a minority because she is part Hazara -- an ethnic group whose Asian features distinguished its members from the majority, the Pashtuns, Tori Jan said. During the Taliban regime, which lasted from 1996 until 2001, the Hazaras were the main target of Taliban killings, she said.
Although Tori Jan is a mix of the Hazaras and the Pashtuns, the discrimination toward Hazaras was so callous at the time that she could rarely go outside on her own, if at all, she said.
As a child, Tori Jan would often question why she was a Hazara and why she had been born into such an arduous life. But her differences also kindled her ambition to improve her situation.
“It started this desire in me to be rebellious against the culture norms and social norms and go after education, go after my rights,” she said. “As a woman in Afghanistan, it’s very hard to decide anything for your future -- education, marriage, how you want to live, even simple things like how you want to dress up.”
Tori Jan vividly recalls the exact moment her rebellious side was born. It was the day the Taliban invaded her elementary school.
She watched as her favorite book, "Hassani Megeh Ay Dandonam," burned in front of her eyes -- a book based on a mischievous young boy who would get into trouble for eating too much candy and failing to complete his homework. Despite Tori Jan’s devotion to studying, she admitted that at times she would get carried away, and she viewed this book’s main character as a reflection of herself during those times.
The attack on her school went far beyond the destruction of her books, though. As Tori Jan sat in her first-grade literature class that day, two or three Taliban insurgents entered the building, shot at its ceilings repeatedly and killed the school’s administrators, she said.
Their goal was to prevent the idea of education from ever crossing the minds of these children again. This event would end Tori Jan’s education for the next few years, as her elementary school was shut down instantly.
In an effort to continue learning, Tori Jan would consistently study the books she already had at home. Still, this had to be done in secrecy because Taliban insurgents routinely searched civilian homes for any form of texts, cassettes, televisions or radios. If these items were found, civilians would be taken outside and killed on the spot.
These home invasions throughout the Taliban regime were the reason Tori Jan's family would frequently seek refuge in its basement. Oftentimes, Tori Jan’s father was the only person who could safely go outside and help provide for the family because, with his facial hair and darker skin tone, he did not have distinctive Hazara features.
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It was only after the late 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan that Tori Jan was finally able, somewhat, to return her life to normalcy. She remembers the bliss she felt being able to step outside of her basement after months, hand in hand with her father, watching Taliban rebels drop their turbans and shoes as they fled from the foreign troops.
Fortunately, Afghan students were allowed to take placement exams when the time to re-enter school came. Tori Jan was able to skip second through fourth grade and enter fifth grade once the Taliban regime had ended.
She explained that although schooling was often dangerous, her parents, her mother especially, constantly enforced the idea of an education.
“My mom always has a saying that because she never went to school, even though she can see, she still feels blind because she can’t read, she can’t write,” Tori Jan said.
In Afghanistan, being born a woman comes with its challenges. Generally, young girls stay at home and are taught how to cook and clean and how to grow up to be a "good girl," Tori Jan said.
"A 'good girl' listens to her parents, doesn't go outside, knows how to do domestic chores and is prepared to get married by the age of 12," Tori Jan said. "Unfortunately, that's the story of many women in Afghanistan."
Tori Jan's mother, who was married by 15, did not want her daughters to yield to these restrictions. Instead, she would reassure her children that marriage had its time, and that they were going to get an education.
Tori Jan's family moved to Kabul shortly after the downfall of the Taliban. Even then, schooling was strenuous. From sixth through ninth grade, Tori Jan walked two hours to and from her classes every day. The entire school day was two hours, with each class lasting roughly 25 minutes.
Since Tori Jan's family did not have the resources to provide notebooks or other school supplies, Tori Jan would take notes using pieces of cardboard and charcoal during these years. Her hair would also turn a lighter shade of brown as a result of her hours spent beneath the scorching sun, because there were no tents for students to gather under.
In ninth grade, she applied to the International School of Kabul and was accepted. During her junior year of high school there, Tori Jan began applying to programs in the U.S. She was offered a two-year scholarship by the Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School, one of northeastern Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking institutions.
These academic opportunities and Tori Jan’s grit are what allowed her to earn a spot at the University of Richmond, where she studies leadership and political science and serves as a Bonner Scholar.
UR surpassed any general schooling expectations for Tori Jan, though.
“The University of Richmond has given me that boost, that self-confidence in myself that I didn’t have growing up,” she said. “I always tried to do my best, but I didn’t know what my best was. It gives me that hope that there’s so much more to life than what is just given to me, and I think because of that, I always seek to do better.”
Sophomore Jessie Bonilla met Tori Jan last year when she lived in Wood Hall, where Tori Jan was a resident assistant. The two became best friends.
Bonilla smiled as she explained that despite Tori Jan’s height of 5 feet, 2 inches, her voice and authority accounted for a 6-foot-5 person.
Bonilla reminisced about a dinner she attended once with Tori Jan and another friend. In light of it being Valentine’s Day, the third friend wanted to treat everybody to that night’s meal. Upon learning this, Tori Jan decided to use the money she would have spent on herself on an elderly man who had been sitting alone at a table nearby instead.
“At that moment, I just found myself in tears,” Bonilla said. “I got that realization of how truly blessed I am to have a friend as loyal and selfless and just considerate of the people around her.”
Bonilla said she was convinced that one day Tori Jan would have her own Wikipedia page.
Tori Jan’s Bonner supervisor, Blake Stack, meets with her periodically to ensure she is on track with her volunteer hours. As one of the 25 Bonner scholars in her grade, Tori Jan is required to intern 10 hours a week at a local nonprofit, school or government agency, in return for financial assistance. This semester, she is working with the secretary of the commonwealth on the Restoration of Rights process for ex-felons.
"[Tori Jan] has a surprising resiliency and a sincere humility that is evidenced by her desire to learn and take advantage of the opportunities around her," Stack said he had learned about his advisee, despite the fact that he does not meet with her frequently. "She leverages her experiences for what's right and good for other people."
Stack is not alone. Even to her peers, Tori Jan exhibits her character effortlessly.
Senior Jeremy Lacy met Tori Jan only a few months ago, and although he does not speak with her very often, he said that whenever he did, the conversation was meaningful.
“I would say you don’t expect some of the stories and some of the strength that she conveys when you first meet her,” he said. “You kind of think she’s a very average girl, maybe just looking at her or maybe just speaking with her.”
But Lacy said that once people learned about the dangers Tori Jan had faced at home, it was unbelievable to consider how nonchalantly she spoke of it, and how she did not consider herself a victim or feel as if anyone owed her anything.
"She has seen some of the real evils in the world, and she still chooses to live her life for the good," he said.
Thad Williamson, who taught Tori Jan’s Justice and Civil Society class during the spring 2018 semester, said he was impressed with how inquisitive she was about the U.S. and American institutions and history.
This curiosity surely can be traced back to Tori Jan’s passion for her liberal arts education and gratitude for the U.S. and its tranquility, which she views as the best part about this country.
“I really appreciate that I have this mental and emotional peace,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about attacks. I don’t have to worry every time I leave my room that I am not going to come back.”
Recently, Tori Jan submitted a proposal to the World Bank Youth Summit about starting educational programs in Afghan women’s prisons. Looking ahead, she hopes to apply to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and, ultimately, her dream is to work for the U.N. and serve as an advocate for women’s education in Afghanistan, she said.
“When I look at my past experiences in life, it doesn’t discourage me,” she said. “It actually encourages me to keep going because I have survived so many difficulties in life, that I feel like there is a reason that I have to keep going.”
Contact lifestyle editor Jasmine Fernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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