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Grand Rapids college student's memoir on courage and persecution encourages more equitable future

A photograph of the author, Freshta Tori Jan, standing in front of greenery on a clear day.
Freshta Tori Jan
Drawing on her experiences as a young girl growing up in an Afghanistan terrorized by the Taliban, Freshta Tori Jan's new book, "Courage: My Story of Persecution," encourages young readers to envision a more equitable future.

As a young girl in Afghanistan, Freshta Tori Jan remembers seeing the beauty of the night sky one evening, but soon realizing something else was going on.

“I had mistaken those pretty lights in the sky for stars, but unfortunately they were actually bullets and rockets that were shooting across our house because the Taliban had come again and they were attacking our town,” Tori Jan said.

After that night, the Taliban would go on to shut down her school, kidnap and injure her father and restrict the rights of women in Afghanistan. Tori Jan eventually moved to the U.S. as a teenager, and she published her memoir, Courage: My Story of Persecution, on Jan. 11.

Her book is part of the I, Witnessseries from Norton Young Readers and geared towards an audience between 9 and 12 years old, the age Tori Jan was as many of the traumatic events in her life unfolded.

She said that she wanted to reach a younger audience in hopes that they would stop the cycle of oppression inherited from older generations, but it wasn’t easy to write about the traumatic experiences for such a young demographic.

“Part of me was just breaking inside because I didn't want to share this with such a young audience, but at the same time I wanted [them to] know that there are other people around their age around the world that are experiencing very tough and violent events in their lives.”

In her memoir, Tori Jan wrote about seeing the bodies of people killed by the Taliban dumped on mountain sides. As a student, she was beaten by teachers and bullied by peers. Furthermore, as a Hazara woman — an ethnic minority group in Afghanistan — Tori Jan didn’t see her history in textbooks and said that her teachers only painted a negative picture of Hazaras.

Despite this, she made sacrifices to go to school. At first, she struggled with literacy and didn’t know English, which was taught in the school she attended.

“I loved school and I remember picking up books, and, you know, at the time, I didn't even know I was holding them upside down," she said.

Tori Jan said more she learned, the more she realized how much of a threat that she, an educated Hazara woman, was to groups like the Taliban.

“I realized how much fear it would cause to the conservative community, to people who didn't want women to be in powerful positions and most importantly, how threatening it was to the terrorists,” she said. “They were doing everything they could to shut down schools, to take away any opportunity for Hazara kids and women to, you know, not make advancements and not to bring development because they saw education and literacy as a way to the end of their control and extremist ways.”

She moved to the states and continued her education in Texas and Michigan when she was 15. Today, she’s a senior at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. Though coming to the U.S. meant an escape from the Taliban, it wasn’t without its challenges.

“There was a lot of survivor's guilt involved,” Tori Jan said. She left her family behind to pursue her education in the U.S.

She was plagued by the contrast of life in Afghanistan with her newfound safety, exemplified in her ability to attend school without fear, go out in public by herself, and wear a skirt.

She said this tension motivates her to continue advocating for people who are in dangerous situations like she once was.

“At this point, I don't have anything more to fear,” she said, knowing that her activism makes her a target for those who view the education of women and Hazaras as a threat.

Despite the dangers, Tori Jan said she continues to highlight the violence that Hazara people face through her advocacy.

“If you want to make the world a place where justice and freedom are more valued than racism, persecution and oppression, it's up to you," she said. "You have to take the hard risks, and it won't be an easy journey. But if you stay silent, revolution and change will never happen. And if you wait to speak, it may be too late.”

Her book is available wherever books are sold.

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Claire Murashima is a production assistant for Stateside.
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