GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Calvin University student once persecuted by the Taliban shared her journey in a new book released Tuesday.
In her book, “Courage: My Story of Persecution,” author Freshta Tori Jan gives a firsthand account of living in Afghanistan as a Hazara, an ethnic minority group that has faced relentless persecution and prejudice.
The 22-year-old author said she was in grade school when the Taliban kidnapped and paralyzed her father, leaving him unable to provide for his family. After the Taliban shutdown her school in Kabul, Tori Jan began applying to high schools in the United States.
“I just refused to back down just because the Taliban took away my opportunity because they saw it as a threat for women to be educated,” Tori Jan told News 8.
Pursuing her education came at the price of leaving her family. At 15 years old, Tori Jan left Afghanistan to attend high school in Texas where she lived with a foster family.
Tempted to return home at times, her mother said it would be too dangerous.
“She was just begging me to just, ‘Please, don’t return,'” Tori Jan said. “‘If you come here, you won’t survive, you won’t make it alive… and if your uncles find out, they’re going to force you to get married to someone 30 or 40 years older than you.'”
Heading her mother’s advice, Tori Jan moved to Grand Rapids and enrolled at Calvin University, studying pre-law and political science.
Now in her senior year, Tori Jan said she has found a community here that supports and inspires her.
“My entire life I wasn’t able to call my own homeland or my own hometown home,” she said. “Michigan has been the first place I have been able to call home.”
Over the years, Tori Jan came to accept the fact she would never see her family again. But when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August, she worked tirelessly to help them escape.
Days before her family evacuated, Tori Jan was on the phone with her sister as the Taliban took over their neighborhood in Kabul.
“You could just hear it over the phone, they were taking people out of their houses and shooting them in the streets,” she said.
Tori Jan said her family spent the next three days at the Kabul airport, surrounded by violence and unrest, before boarding a crowded evacuation flight to freedom.
In October, Tori Jan was reunited with her family for the first time in nearly a decade, visiting them at a military base hosting evacuees in New Jersey.
Her family arrived in Grand Rapids the following month. Tori Jan greeted them at the airport, relived to know they were finally home.
“That was the first time I was able to take a deep breath,” she said. “I felt like all these months and years, I was holding my breath underwater. And that moment I had them here at the airport in Grand Rapids, holding them physically in my arms, I was like, ‘They’re home’.”
In her book, Tori Jan also talks about her role as a community activist and her vision for the future.
Schuler Books is hosting a virtual meet-and-greet with Tori Jan Thursday at 7p.m. on Facebook Live.