In the final installment of our 2019 Spotlight Series, we bring you a conversation with Freshta Tori Jan, a truly incredible young woman who witnessed and experienced daily injustice growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan. Read on to learn how her journey through poverty, terrorism, and persecution has shaped her as a young activist, now committed to making sure silenced voices will be heard.
Tell us a little about your journey? What about your experience as a young person in Afghanistan inspired the work you do today?
When I was growing up, I experienced and witnessed various types of injustice. I saw crowds of men beat up my mom because she was letting the girls in my family go to school. The Taliban took my dad and tortured him, and as a result he passed away. On the way to school every day, I would be sexually harassed. There were so many unjust things that happened as I was growing up, and it made me so disappointed in the leaders that were appointed to help protect us. Our leaders were failing us and the duties they had promised to the people. I wanted to become an activist to hold them accountable. When I moved to the United States, I was finally able to do just that.
When I was still back at home, I started work on issues related to girls rights to play sports, women’s rights in education, and against persecution in general. Security threats and murder threats prevented me from putting that work into practice on the level that I wanted to. So when I came to the United States, I knew I wanted to work to make sure other silenced voices would be heard.
What is your earliest memory of activism?
I was in 3rd grade. In my country, girls weren’t allowed to play sports after the Taliban came to power. At school one day, I remember seeing all these boys playing soccer. I really wanted to play, I loved soccer I watched it on TV all the time. I went over, and these boys pushed me to the ground and said I couldn’t play. I was furious. I was so mad. And I stood up and said, “Are you serious? Is this a challenge?” I scored three goals that day, and proved: girls can play sports. It was an act of resistance.
From then on, I was standing up to every injustice I saw. I was always getting into fights with men on the streets because they would harass me, and it would really frustrate me! I was also working on martial arts at the time, and carrying small weapons to protect myself. There was just so much bullying in public, and when I saw it, I just couldn’t resist. I rebelled against any type of discrimination I saw. I wanted to fight for my rights.
I didn’t choose to be born into the minority ethnic group in Afghanistan. I didn’t choose to be born a woman, and since I was, I did not stop fighting for my rights, and for everyone else’s.
It was challenging for my mom, I think. She had a hard time with me. At times, she was really encouraging and inspired and impressed by my actions, but she was also afraid that it would cost me my life, and cost me my family’s life. She would always try and talk me into not being so rebellious all the time.
Can you tell us about how you found your voice as a leader at such a young age?
I didn’t live with my family for a very long time. When I was in 4th grade, I started to live with different friends and different families. The government was after my family members, so in order to survive we had to live separately from each other.
Because I was constantly on the move, I was very observant. And I knew what I wanted and I knew what I believed, so I was on a mission to “fight the good fight” for my friends who got killed by the terrorists, my ethnic group, the children and women who have undergone great amounts of suffering.
Although my mom inspired me to stand up against injustice, I think it was God who put the thirst for justice in me and helped me find the voice as an advocate for human rights.
Why do you think it’s important to engage young people in human rights conversations?
Young people have been behind all human rights movements that have taken place over history. We have to realize that we hold the future in our hands. If we don’t stand up and create much needed change, human rights will continue to be violated. There are so many people who won’t get the opportunities that some of us have, to make the world a better place. So if we don’t work to make it a better place – who else will?
If you could give SLP students and other young activists one piece of advice, what would it be?
Take risks, but take the right risks.
Also, cross bridges that might lead you to places you never thought you’d find yourself. That’s where you are really needed, and that’s where you’ll meet your highest potential.
Thank you to the International Congress of Youth Voices for helping SLP to reach Freshta! And thank you Freshta for sharing your story.
The International Congress of Youth Voices unites students, ages 16 to 20, from around the world to learn with and from accomplished writers, activists, and elected officials. Founded by author Dave Eggers (co-founder of 826 National) and nonprofit leader Amanda Uhle, the inaugural event took place August 3, 4, and 5, 2018, in San Francisco. Youth delegates came to us from the United States, Iraq, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Syria, Ireland, Australia, Iceland, Burundi, Honduras, Cuba, Denmark, Venezuela, Zambia, and Nepal.
Politics of the world affect young people as much as anyone else, and they have little to no voice as major decisions are made. The Congress was founded as a means to amplify their ideas and energy and to unite young people for a weekend of collaboration. Student delegates are chosen based on their commitment to leadership and social justice and their passion and eloquence as writers. The event is designed to provide a path to leadership for all delegates and represents a continuum from students who have exhibited potential in local writing and tutoring programs to writers and activists who have already made notable achievements at a very young age.