My mother is the founder and board-member of a 10-year-old organization called Women for Afghan Women. WAW works to secure and advance Afghan women and children’s human rights. In addition to many other programs (see sidebar below), WAW also runs three Children’s Support Centers for children whose mothers are in jail. In Afghanistan, when mothers go to jail, the children go with them if no family member is willing to take them. The jails are awful places for the children, and without education, so WAW tries to get these children out of the jails and into the support centers, where they not only have a home and access to education, but also have a loving and supporting community and access to many programs. Because these children have spent long periods of time without education, WAW focuses on tutoring them so that they can get into good schools where they will do well. They have excellent tutors, and nearly all the children from the shelters are among the top of their classes. Nilab is one of these children.
Nilab was born in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and lived there all her life, except for a brief stay in Pakistan. For the first part of her childhood, she had a pretty great life. She had gone to school, loved her parents and siblings, and had many friends. And then, when she was 11 — just 6 years ago — her father, for reasons she isn’t comfortable with sharing with the press, set himself on fire, right in front of Nilab’s eyes.
Needless to say, this was incredibly traumatic. But her misfortune did not end there. Three months later, her mother, who had little income and was raising three kids by herself, was arrested for kidnapping children for ransom. Nilab’s mother was sent to jail. While her two younger siblings went to live with their paternal grandfather, Nilab was thrown in jail with her mother.
The next six months were, according to Nilab, the worst time of her life. The prison was a terrible environment where the children were told that they were worthless and were treated like animals. Nilab was depressed and grieving — her life had taken such a significant turn for the worse in the last few months. She had been wrenched out of her old, comfortable lifestyle and thrust into sheer hell. She had seen her father commit suicide. Her siblings had been taken away and she missed them dearly. She was put into a cold and hostile environment, and had little hope of getting out before she was 18. In her words, it was like “a long and dark tunnel with no sign of the other end.”
Six months after Nilab moved to the prison, WAW staff came to talk with the prison authorities and the inmates about the newly opening Children’s Support Center. When Nilab heard that there was a way for her to leave the prison, she demanded that her mother allow her to go. Her mother, seeing how miserable Nilab was, agreed.
Another six months passed before the CSC opened, but Nilab wanted to leave the prison immediately. WAW was able to make an exception and take Nilab into one of their women’s shelters so that she could be cared for there until the CSC was opened. Her time in the women’s shelter was relatively happy, but there was one pressing worry that she had: what had become of her siblings? Nilab hadn’t had any contact with them since the moment she had entered the prison. WAW staff tracked down Nilab’s grandfather and found and talked to Nilab’s siblings. The two kids were not allowed to go to school and were being treated like house slaves. WAW lawyers fought in the court and convinced the judge that the kids were better off in the CSC than with their grandfather. Therefore, when the CSC opened, Nilab and her siblings were reunited. In no time, all three kids were in school again, doing well, making lots of friends, and getting over their individual traumas.
After some time, Nilab’s mother got released from prison. She went to live with her sister. However, once she was out of the prison, there was a problem: the CSC was a place for children whose mothers were in jail. And so technically, WAW was supposed to send the children back to their mother. But Nilab and her siblings wanted to stay in the CSC. If they left the CSC, it would be hard for Nilab’s mother to continue giving them a good education. Nilab’s mother and WAW decided that it was best to make another exception and keep the children at the Center.
WAW’s 10-year anniversary Gala was approaching. They were planning to bring a girl from the CSC to speak at the event in New York City. Nilab was known to be a confident speaker with a touching story who also was near fluent in English, and so she was chosen. My mother and stepfather volunteered to house Nilab for however many months she’d be in the city. And amazingly, a few months later, she was at my house!
During her stay with us, Nilab seemed like she was a member of our family. She fit in perfectly. All throughout, I kept reminding myself that this was a girl who had so recently gone gone through horrors that I couldn’t even begin to understand. For the most part, she seemed perfectly fine, like any other girl. She was a devout Muslim, and it was a common sight in the house to see her running up the stairs to pray. She had her own little eccentricities and often had us all laughing: she sometimes tried to get all five of her prayers done in one go; she loved to watch Hindi movies on the iPad; and she was firmly against the prospect of ever getting married. One evening, she and I had a conversation about marriage. She told me that she could never fully trust a man enough to marry him, that “bad things” could always happen. Considering she comes from a culture where husbands are often abusive, cruel, and unloving towards their wives, this is a reasonable position for her to have. I said, “But what about happy couples? So many marriages are incredibly happy. Like my mom’s, for instance. Doesn’t she seem happy and independent?” She couldn’t believe that she’d ever find someone that was right for her.
My brother and I, on separate occasions, took her to our school — a liberal, private school populated by wealthy students. She dismissed my math class as easy, and she told me that what we were doing in science class, she had covered the year before. My brother took her to sleep over at Zuccotti Park, to support Occupy Wall Street, and my stepfather taught her how to ride a bike. In spite of her outwardly positive attitude there were clear signals that she was, deep in her heart, grieving: when she first saw my four-year-old little brother, she burst into tears because she missed her own siblings so much. But she was able to carry her head high and move on with life, with a strong mind and a strong spirit.
The night of the Gala was an incredible success. Nilab had the final speech of the night, and she recounted her life story. Her speech was powerful and blew everyone away; she received the only standing ovation.
The question was, what would happen to her next? Would she go back to Afghanistan, to the CSC? Considering that her mother wasn’t in prison, it was an awkward situation for WAW. The answer came through an Afghan boy named Assad. My older brother’s friend Ariel used to go to a boarding school in Vermont called Putney. Once when Ariel came to stay my family for a vacation, he asked if he could bring a new friend along. That friend was Assad, a boy from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, who was a scholarship student at Putney. My parents, of course, said he could stay at our house. One evening, Assad told us his whole story over dinner. He and my parents got along well, and stayed in touch.
Remembering Assad’s scholarship at Putney, my mom asked Nilab if she’d like to try and also get a scholarship to go to school in America. She put Nilab in touch with Assad, and asked Assad to get Nilab an interview at Purney. Also, Sarah, the woman who visited the WAW shelter and met Nilab years before, was contacting other schools. Sarah offered to sponsor Nilab to stay in the United States and attend school.
Nilab’s future was transforming before our very eyes. Not only did she now have a generous sponsor who was willing to pay her expenses and care for her if she got accepted into an American school, but Assad did manage to get Nilab an interview at Putney. Characteristically, Nilab managed to impress all the people she met at Putney, and at the end of her interview she was offered a full scholarship for her three remaining years of high school. Later that day, the entire school sang the Afghan national anthem for her.
This story has just begun. Just a few years ago, Nilab was living in prison, with her father’s suicide hanging over her, and her future bleak. Now, she’s taking piano and figure-drawing classes at one of the top boarding schools in the world. She is such an amazing and powerful girl. Who knows what challenges she’ll face? All I know is that she is strong enough to deal with them.
Nilab’s ambition and determination existed long before all this happened to her; years before her father died, as an eight-year-old girl, she independently changed her name to “Nusrat,” meaning “Victory.” And she truly is a victor.
Akash V. Mehta is fourteen years old and a student at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY. He enjoys writing and reading, spending time with friends and is the founder of an organization called Kids for a Better Future (www.kidsforabetterfuture.org), which strives to make the world a better place for kids, as well as to prove that kids can make a difference, too.
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