From Darkness to Light: How One Afghan Girl Struggled for a Better Future

Meet Nilab Nusrat, a courageous and talented teenager from Afghanistan with a powerful story to tell

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Nilab Nusrat, 15, dislikes the word easy. At school she likes geometry, math and physics, relishing the challenge of sitting in front of a numeric problem for hours until it’s solved, forgetting thirst and hunger. She says life has taught her she ought to be ready for the worst.

“If you can do difficult things you can do easy things, but if you do easy things you can’t do difficult things, that’s my idea,” Nilab said cheerfully on a recent morning in Brooklyn, New York City, where she was visiting from Afghanistan. After her father committed suicide when she was 11, Nilab was thrown into prison with her mother — sent there on allegedly false charges — where she languished for months, unable to study or even exercise. A nonprofit organization that works for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Women for Afghan Women, freed her through a program to take children out of Afghan prisons and provide them with education.

“I thought that I [was] born again,” says Nilab of her days that followed leaving jail. She still dreamed of her father, but the dreams were now not just nightmares. In some of them he told her she should stay strong and study hard. Nilab soon became the top student of her class.

“I saw the bad laws in Afghanistan, and I decide that if I can continue my study I should change something in Afghanistan,” Nilab said, referring to Afghan laws and cultural norms that curtail rights of children, especially those of girls. “They should respect their daughters, because they’re human and they’re alive. They’re not dolls. They’re not animals.”

During a visit to New York City, Nilab saw the ocean for the first time. The trip also opened up a promising though uncertain prospect for Nilab to receive an education in the U.S. — and hope for a life brimming with possibilities unthinkable during the hard years of her childhood.