Without a knock, the office door flies open. She barges into the room, a perfumed tornado disrupting every conversation and worker in her path.
Wearing skinny jeans, UGG knockoff boots and a pea coat, she carries the swagger of any self-absorbed American teen. Her long dark hair flows thick, smooth and enviable. Her makeup is impeccable -- barring one small flaw. It doesn’t perfectly match the shade of her prosthetic nose.
Only because of her nose do I realize who this is: the Afghan woman whose disfigured face graced the August 9, 2010, cover of Time magazine. Her Taliban husband and in-laws punished her for running away by hacking off her nose and ears and leaving her for dead. She became a symbol of the oppression of women in her war-torn country.
She looks at me, at my reporter’s notebook, with a knowing smile. We won’t talk on this day -- or for more than a year to come -- but the glint in her eyes says she welcomes any form of attention.
“This is Bibi Aesha,” says one of the women I’ve come to interview.
“No Bibi!” she whines, with a stomp of her foot. “Aesha!”
This term of respect for women, a title comparable to “lady” or “madam,” makes her feel old, I learn later. She can’t stand being called “Bibi.”
It’s January 2011, and we’re in the humble Queens, New York, house that serves as the U.S. office for Women for Afghan Women, a grass-roots organization dedicated to protecting and empowering Afghan women and girls.
Though the group mostly serves those in Afghanistan, including more than 4,000 who’ve lived in its shelters there over the past decade, this small New York community center offers English, driving and citizenship classes to Afghan women and others from places such as Pakistan and India. It organizes field trips, brings in speakers, facilitates job placements.
And now, it’s also in the business of saving Aesha.
After nine months in a shelter in Kabul, Aesha came to America in August 2010 for help, including reconstructive surgery offered free by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian medical group in the Los Angeles area.
In sunny Southern California, she bounced between lavish homes in gated communities. She was trotted out at a pricey gala dinner in Beverly Hills, where she debuted her prosthetic nose, a preview of what the surgery would do for her. She walked the proverbial red carpet, met Laura Bush and was honored by California’s then-first lady, Maria Shriver.
Media outlets salivated for the happy-ending exclusive.
But in the weeks that followed, the women in New York say, Aesha fought with families who took her in. She missed the women she’d lived with in the Kabul shelter. She had episodes where she shook, went stiff and her eyes rolled back in her head. She bit herself, screamed and pulled out her hair. She had to be hospitalized.
Doctors determined she wasn’t yet stable enough for the grueling reconstructive surgery. By November 2010, the California foundation couldn’t care for her anymore. So Women for Afghan Women stepped in again.
But the fairy-tale ending everyone hoped for would remain elusive.
When she appeared on the cover of Time, the accompanying story explored what U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan would mean for women there. The headline next to her mutilated face said, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.” I wanted to focus on what happened after Aesha left Afghanistan -- the complicated, messy business of saving a life.
When I approached Women for Afghan Women for this story, the organization would not allow me to interview Aesha, nor could CNN film or photograph her. So I decided to tell Aesha’s story through the people working with her. My chances to observe her sporadically in New York over the next eight months -- by far the most telling moments -- were pure happenstance.
The organization’s decision to allow Time to photograph Aesha in 2010 was calculated and deliberate. The group wanted to influence the conversation about U.S. troop withdrawals, and Aesha was its best chance. She became the poster child for the 15 million Afghan women and girls it fears will be brought to their knees, again, if troops leave too soon and the Taliban regain control.
Since then, however, the group had imposed a media moratorium. It turned down weekly requests to interview Aesha from journalists and others around the world -- including Oprah.
The women who cared for Aesha said she didn’t need the added pressure. They acknowledged that putting her out there publicly served an initial purpose. But with all the challenges Aesha faced, they said, fame was a distraction. They rolled their eyes when noting how quickly she learned to love the spotlight, which she tasted in Kabul and gobbled up in California. Now, among her pastimes: She Googles herself.
The journey for any new immigrant is fraught with challenges, but Aesha’s refugee baggage is especially unwieldy.
“We’re hoping she’ll spread her wings,” says Esther Hyneman, 73, a retired professor of women’s and multicultural studies and longtime Women for Afghan Women volunteer who became Aesha’s unofficial guardian -- and the enforcer of the media ban. “But when you’re 20 years old, from a village in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan where you’ve never been to school and can’t read or write in your own language, and you’ve never heard of France or Italy or Canada, and you don’t speak the language in the country you’re living in, and you’ve been through hell -- it’s a little hard to spread your wings, even if you want to do it.”
There’s no manual on how to help someone like Aesha. But Hyneman and the others who cared for her -- including her therapist, whom I would interview -- were employing every tool they could to help her heal and attain the skills she needed to navigate her new world. A year into that effort, though, the one thing they could not give Aesha would drive her from their grasp, and they would be left to make sense of her choice: Was it an impulsive decision made for the wrong reasons, a risk that might threaten her well-being? Or a measure of success, an act of independence?
The second time I see Aesha in the Queens office, it’s early May 2011. Women for Afghan Women has enlisted volunteers to teach her English and math. But she doesn’t seem as flawlessly put together. Her hair is disheveled, her makeup less perfect. She’s not wearing her prosthetic nose.
I’m typing away on my laptop when she spots me. She races to find paper, grabs a pen and hunches over a nearby desk. A minute later she bounds toward me, her smile wide, her eyes expectant. She thrusts out the paper with the command, “Look!”
She has printed her name, in all caps and huge letters.
My gushing reaction is the sort usually reserved for a 3-year-old. She bounces away, satisfied and beaming -- not yet in possession of a new future, or a new face, but a young woman in the midst of transformation.
At a small kitchen table in her ground-floor apartment, Aesha is tackling what her teacher calls CVC words -- consonant, vowel, consonant -- like cup, mop, hat. Colorful pictures, workbooks and writing papers are spread between them. On a counter nearby is Aesha’s pillbox; it holds the meds meant to even out her erratic moods.
“Puh … ahh … tuh,” Aesha sounds out slowly.
She looks up at her teacher who encourages her to go on.
“Puh … ahh … tuh. Puh. Ahh. Tuh.”
I notice I’m holding my breath.
“Puhahhtuh. Puhaht? Pot? Pot!” Aesha cries.
She high-fives her teacher.
Ariela Perlman, 26, works with emotionally disturbed fifth-graders and is one of two volunteers teaching English and math to Aesha. The task is compounded by how sheltered Aesha’s life was. She was illiterate even in her native language, Pashto.
For that reason and others, her teachers must customize her lessons. A typical alphabet book, for example, would feature an X for xylophone, something Aesha has never seen. So her book features photos of people Aesha knows or magazine cutouts of items she uses: K is for Kelly, who works in the Women for Afghan Women office; P is for pen.
When Aesha first read the word hug, Perlman says, she jumped up, threw out her arms and screamed it. “She’ll tell me, ‘Good teacher,’ and I’ll say, ‘No, good student.’ ”
She has had to learn far more than language. Aesha didn’t know there are days of the week. She’s had to learn not to litter, how to board a subway and use a laundromat.
But she’s a quick study. She picked up Dari, the language of northern Afghanistan, while living in a shelter in Kabul after her mutilation.
“She loves physical affection, which is really sweet – except when you’re trying to type, and you have a 20-year-old sitting in your lap.” — Kelly Becker-Smith, former volunteer coordinator at Women for Afghan Women
Born in a village in southern Afghanistan, Aesha was given away by her father to settle a family score. Her uncle had killed someone in a Taliban family, and she was offered up for marriage as payback. In other words, the crime committed by her uncle was paid for with her body. She’s said her in-laws beat her and forced her to sleep with the animals. When she ran away after several years, she was caught, tossed in prison for months and then retrieved by her father-in-law. The Taliban court, she said in a 2010 CNN interview in Kabul, ruled that she should be mutilated for dishonoring her husband’s family.
It is no wonder that Aesha seems starved for attention, and cannot get enough cuddling.
“She loves physical affection, which is really sweet -- except when you’re trying to type, and you have a 20-year-old sitting in your lap,” says 32-year-old Kelly Becker-Smith, who holds a law degree and oversaw volunteers at the Women for Afghan Women office.
But this sort of neediness has been tempered by displays of utter compassion.
Naheed Bahram, the group’s 31-year-old program coordinator, recalls the time she suffered a migraine in the office. As Bahram clung to the toilet vomiting, Aesha swept up and held her hair, gave her water and gently massaged her head. That night, she phoned Bahram to check on her.
Aesha’s other math and English teacher, Jessica Whitney, won’t allow cuddling but lets Aesha hold her hand or arm when they’re walking. She conducts most lessons at the office, but also thinks Aesha needs to be stimulated and get outside. She makes their outings into lessons in motion.
She points at signs, quizzing Aesha on letters. She gestures toward a passing car or clothing in a window -- and asks her to name what they’re seeing. Though she’s pulled muscles in her back and legs pushing her “giant little girl” on a swing, she says she uses the time to make Aesha practice counting.
Whitney, 26, sees great potential in her student and an eagerness to learn. Aesha tells people she plans to go to college and become a police officer. She wants to protect women.
After arguments, she’s been known to march to the nearby police precinct for protection. Officers call women at the organization to come fetch her.
Although her living expenses have been covered by a special fund set up for her by Women for Afghan Women, Aesha thinks the organization is withholding money. She’s a celebrity, Afghan community members tell her. She must be wealthy.
That could not be further from the truth, Hyneman says. Never before had the New York office worried about one person’s 24/7 care. A year ago, Hyneman said the Aesha fund only had enough donations to last five more months. Grant money earmarked for programming, she said, could not be used to bankroll Aesha’s needs.
She received $20 in pocket money every week so she could learn to budget. She often blew it on chewing tobacco -- or sparkly shoes.
Aesha flips through fashion magazines and emulates what she sees. She loves high heels, especially those cluttered with glitter, bows and fake jewels. A small collection lines a wall in her bedroom.
Whitney has tried to talk to Aesha about practicality, about buying the sorts of shoes that will last. On one outing to replace a froufrou pair that had fallen apart, Aesha picked a toned-down version of what she usually likes, but still shiny, black and with some glitz. Whitney saw the price and knew there’d be trouble.
The shoes cost $40; Aesha had $20.
Whitney held up one shoe, said it was $20. She held up the other, also $20. Aesha insisted she’d have both. Back and forth they went, until Aesha stormed out of the shop, fuming.
Later that same day, at McDonald’s, Aesha saved her pocket money and insisted Whitney pay for her fries and ice cream. Though the volunteer teacher tries to set boundaries, she feared an imminent tantrum -- and reached for her wallet.
Teaching Aesha, while gratifying, comes with enormous challenges.
“Do I have to sometimes grit my teeth and psych myself up for her? Absolutely,” Whitney says.
But on this day in May 2011, Aesha’s charm, humor and big personality shine through -- just as they did in the Kabul shelter where Hyneman first met her. As we observe an English lesson with Perlman in Aesha’s apartment, she suddenly grabs the camera in Hyneman’s hand and finds a video on it to share.
On the small screen, Aesha twirls around a room, dancing. She admires herself and giggles before being forced back to her studies.
Sitting silently, taking this all in, is Aesha’s new roommate. It is her first day.
In California, Aesha moved around, playing the role of guest in home after home. Here, Hyneman and the others want her to have her own home, one that doesn’t change. But they don’t want her to be alone, especially at night. So they’ve hired someone to live with her.
When her first roommate threw a party to help her meet people, Aesha kicked everyone out. When another took Aesha to a movie she didn’t like, she fled the theater. When a third refused to clean up after Aesha, she grew enraged.
She blares music, watches Bollywood films and bangs around in the kitchen in the middle of the night, leaving a revolving door of roommates to toss and turn in the living room.
Hyneman says Women for Afghan Women just can’t pay people enough to stay. And even if the group was flush with cash, it might not be sufficient. One former roommate said she wouldn’t stick around for a million dollars.
So among the lessons Aesha must learn is how to respect others and get along. She has to acknowledge her own mistakes -- as well as her reality.
The new roommate watching Aesha on this day will disappear by week’s end.
She screams “hi” and waves to strangers. The music of an ice cream truck sends her running. When she sees a swing set, she races to play.
In many ways, Aesha is at a crossroads -- somewhere between a wide-eyed and innocent child, a young woman who has a lifetime ahead of her, and a survivor who’s already experienced more than anyone should.
Struck by the contrast in her appearance from when I first saw her in January 2011 and then again that May, I ask the women who care for her: Why isn’t Aesha wearing her prosthetic nose? Is it an indication of newfound confidence? Maybe it’s a call for attention? Or could it be a sign of turmoil, a psychological slip downward?
I’m told she’s simply growing tired of the nose and doesn’t like the way it feels. Her advocates want her to be comfortable with who she is, yet some worry she’s too fragile to withstand the inevitable stares.
She often asks when she’ll have her surgery. She believes her life will start over after her face is restored. They can only tell her it’ll happen when she’s ready.
In California, Aesha began to display what was later diagnosed as psychologically induced “faux seizures.” Between those and her tantrums, it became clear she wasn’t emotionally prepared for the reconstructive surgery. It will be a lengthy, painful and complicated process involving skin expanders in her forehead, deep cuts, as well as bone, cartilage and skin grafts.
Hyneman says no one expected Aesha to regress the way she did after she arrived in the United States. In early 2011, Hyneman witnessed a terrifying episode. Aesha threw herself down, banged her head on the floor, pulled her hair out in fistfuls and bit her fingers. No one could stop her. Hyneman called 911. Aesha was hospitalized for 10 days. Her medications were evaluated and changed, and she turned a corner.
A team of doctors, working pro bono, was assembled to care for Aesha. Hyneman says she also was seeing specialists who work with survivors of torture. No one at the Libertas Center for Human Rights at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens would talk about her case.
But Aesha’s psychologist agreed to after getting her patient’s consent, which she said she was capable of giving.
Shiphra Bakhchi, a private practitioner, remembers seeing Aesha’s face on a magazine rack in a Manhattan drugstore. Bakhchi, a 31-year-old Persian-American, snatched the Time issue off the stand and read it right there.
“I really hope at some point she’ll be a functioning young lady that had a terrible trauma. I want it so badly for her.” — Shiphra Bakhchi, psychologist
Six months later, with tears in her eyes, she was agreeing to see her weekly.
A search for Pashto-speaking psychologists in New York will yield no results, Bakhchi says. That’s partly because mental health isn’t even a field of medicine where Aesha comes from. But the psychologist’s Farsi and Aesha’s Pashto work: “We understand each other perfectly.”
Over breakfast on a Thursday near her office in Manhattan, Bakhchi describes Aesha as a highly intelligent young woman whose smarts don’t just show in her learning; they come through in the way she manipulates others and pushes their buttons. She hurts people before they can hurt her. She lives in “survival mode.”
Aesha’s mother died when Aesha was young. Her father gave her away to people who tortured her. Why should she trust anyone?
Beyond post-traumatic stress disorder, Bakhchi says, Aesha has borderline personality disorder. Research is mixed as to whether a stressor such as Aesha’s brutal disfigurement can trigger a personality disorder, she explains, but she believes it can. There’s also a chance, though, that her disorder existed long before the attack.
Environment and genetics are thought to predispose some people to borderline personality disorder. It is marked by instability in relationships, moods, behavior and sense of self, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Though not as well understood as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the illness affects 2% of adults, most of them young women. Twenty percent of hospitalizations in psychiatric facilities are tied to borderline personality disorder, but with time and help many sufferers can transform their lives.
Bakhchi says the disorder is responsible for Aesha’s volatile behavior and black-and-white thinking. In Aesha’s worldview, a person in any single moment is either evil or an angel. Her moods swing impulsively. One minute she’s cuddled up on a lap, the next she’s screaming.
This isn’t to say Aesha hasn’t already made progress. Her faux seizures, which Bakhchi suspects began as a coping mechanism because she couldn’t handle her distress or negative feelings, ceased soon after her medications changed.
“I really hope at some point she’ll be a functioning young lady that had a terrible trauma,” Bakhchi says. “I want it so badly for her. There are a lot of people who care about her. She couldn’t be in better hands.”
Aesha sees in Yalda Afif many things she wants for herself. She was drawn to the young Afghan caseworker the day they met in the Women for Afghan Women office. Afif’s mother called, and Aesha snatched the phone to say hello. She’s come to know Afif’s family members in New York and treats them as her own.
The two young women shop for beads in Manhattan so Aesha can make jewelry to sell in local salons. They’ve run around Times Square and visited museums. Afif, 23, wants to take Aesha on a ferry to the Statue of Liberty.
They make heaps of food, throw dance parties with friends in Aesha’s apartment and sometimes agree in advance to dress up in traditional Punjabi clothes. They chat on the phone every night. Aesha, Afif says, has a giddy crush on an actor in one of the Indian dramas she watches.
Aesha grows jealous when she sees women in fancy clothes and makeup, says Afif, who wears neither. When Aesha mentions wanting surgery so she can be beautiful, Afif tells her she already is.
Through her example, Afif hopes Aesha understands that families can be loving. She wants Aesha to learn about respect, patience and modesty. She wants her to be proud of her native culture and her Muslim faith, to strive to be “a good Afghan girl.”
But the two knew very different Afghanistans. Afif was born in Kabul, not a Taliban-controlled village, and had a father who insisted she go to school -- an impossibility for Aesha. Afif’s father pushed her to pursue her dreams and achieve what she deserves. Someday Afif would like to return to her country and open a women’s university.
Though they spend a lot of time laughing together, Afif also listens to Aesha’s anxieties. Aesha worries about a younger half-sister who’s been promised to the same Taliban family. Afif fantasizes that the sister will one day join Aesha in New York.
When Aesha is feeling low she looks at online videos of Taliban members cursing, shooting and beating women.
“When she’s sad, she’s very stupid I tell her,” Afif says, shaking her head.
In late 2010, Aesha’s father-in-law was arrested for his role in her mutilation. Authorities said he held Aesha at gunpoint and ordered five other men -- including her husband -- to cut her. The father-in-law was released last July, however, reportedly because he didn’t do the cutting himself and because Aesha is no longer around to pursue the case.
Aesha’s biggest fear is that her father-in-law will travel to New York and track her down. Afif answers this concern swiftly and confidently.
“C’mon, it’s the U.S.,” she tells Aesha. “We can arrest him and send him to the biggest jail in the world!”
Afif wants Aesha to share her faith in America. They can walk around freely without being questioned. They’re so lucky to be Afghan women living here.
“Why should we remain voiceless? Nameless?” she says. “Women can do anything they want.”
When I last visited Queens, I arrived on May 2, 2011 -- just days after Aesha kicked out her latest roommate. This sudden turn of events, and the quandary it presented, pushed Esther Hyneman over the edge. She launched what became an epic blowout.
Like a mother who’d had it with her daughter’s antics, she unloaded on Aesha. Enough, Hyneman told her, you have to change.
The blunt talking-to left Aesha stomping toward the office’s exit. Before she walked out, no doubt planning to slam the door, she whipped around and unleashed her take on a newly acquired obscenity: “Puck you!”
Hyneman got in Aesha’s face.
“No, it’s fuck you! Fuck you!” she yelled back. “Repeat after me: Fuck, fuck, fuck! If you’re going to say it, you need to say it right!”
Her reaction sent Aesha into stitches. As Hyneman tells the story, she can’t help but laugh, too.
But it’s two days after the argument, and Aesha isn’t laughing. She’s holed up in her apartment, moping. Hyneman asks Afif to come with us to see Aesha, to translate. The women are worried that she’s still reeling from the fight. They’ve also got big news to share.
Aesha opens the door wearing wine-colored and embroidered Punjabi clothes. She turns back toward the living room and drops onto her dark brown sofa. On a laptop beside her, one of her favorite YouTube music videos -- “Naghma Pashto Lovely Nice Song” -- is queued up for play.
It’s early afternoon, and she looks like she just woke up. Her hair hasn’t been brushed. A space heater on the large Afghan carpet blows on her, and she wipes the place where her nose once was.
Afif sits down on the couch, next to Aesha, as Hyneman begins to speak.
“Tell her the most important thing she needs to remember is that we believe she has a good future.”
“If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t work so hard. And if we have faith in her, then she needs to have faith in herself.”
Afif tells her friend this, takes Aesha’s hand and starts stroking it.
“She has to remember how smart she is,” Hyneman continues.
“I’m not!” Aesha shoots back, not waiting for the translation. She rolls her eyes.
They sit with this for a minute. Aesha mumbles something.
“She says maybe she doesn’t have enough patience,” Afif tells Hyneman.
“She has to try. If she spends all her time fighting with people, she won’t have the energy to learn anything.”
Aesha takes her hand from Afif, bows her head and starts rubbing her temples. She says she has a headache. Afif reaches out, smoothes Aesha’s hair and rubs her back.
They wait awhile before Afif takes Aesha’s hand again. It’s time to tell her the big news of the day: Osama bin Laden has been killed.
Aesha’s eyes fly wide open. She stares at Afif, who looks into Aesha’s eyes and repeats herself. Osama is dead.
Now Aesha speaks, amid gasps.
“She says she’s happy,” Afif says. “But she wants to see the news to make sure it’s true.”
We leave the apartment just before she starts watching TV. When Hyneman and I return hours later, Aesha is with one of her teachers. She has changed into a white silk blouse and black jeans. Her hair is brushed, and her eye makeup is painted on thick.
Hyneman tells her she needs to take a photo to send to photographer Jodi Bieber, who took the award-winning Time cover shot. Aesha begrudgingly agrees to put on her prosthetic nose and then smiles.
In the background, the TV stays on. Each time Aesha hears the al Qaeda leader’s name, she shakes her head and mutters: “Osama bin Laden crazy.”
She may not have read books or articles that detail how the terrorist leader gained power and found allies in her home country. She never attended classes that explain why the Taliban secured a foothold and derailed a future that could have been hers. Aesha’s understanding is simple: A “crazy” man, one ideologically connected to those who hurt her, is gone. And for that she’s glad.
Bin Laden’s death doesn’t put an end to al Qaeda. It doesn’t wipe out the threat of the Taliban or guarantee Aesha’s happy ending.
But later this day, Afif tells me something else Aesha said. She voiced what they all hope will be true -- not just for her, but for the women and nation she left behind.
“Now,” she said, “we have a very bright future.”
Aesha walks into the gala cocktail reception late, without fanfare. The event photographer and media have been told to stay away from her.
Activists, donors and dignitaries mill about in exquisite attire, sipping wine and tasting hors d’oeuvres. They place bids in a silent auction, admiring hand-crafted jewelry, scarves, an Afghan rug. A large gift basket has been provided by the Long Island plastic surgeon who hopes to start Aesha’s surgical process soon.
Next to musicians playing traditional rabab music is a large original print of the Time photograph of Aesha. Donated by the photographer, the image has a minimum opening bid of $5,000. Proceeds are intended to benefit Aesha’s special fund.
No one was sure whether Aesha would show up at this elegant October affair to celebrate 10 years of Women for Afghan Women. Hyneman and the others knew they couldn’t tell her what to do. If they encouraged her to come, she’d refuse. If they suggested she stay home, she’d insist on being there. And in reality, they just didn’t care; it wasn’t about her.
But convincing her of this was impossible. She’d thrown a tantrum earlier in the day, the women told me, saying she refused to be exploited and would not go. Last time she went to a gala, in California a year earlier, she was the featured star.
I flew in from Atlanta on a gamble, with no expectation of seeing her. But Aesha called Ariela Perlman at the last minute, wanting a ride to the gala at the South Street Seaport, just as her teacher suspected she would.
Fearing her reaction if she spotted the Time photograph, she is steered into the dining area. They sit her at a table in the rear of the room, her chair facing the back wall -- and me.
This night is about making the once powerless powerful. It is about bolstering the mission to give Afghan women and girls the tools they need. There are success stories, standing ovations -- and not one mention of Aesha.
Women on stage speak of hope and describe how their projects are saving lives in eight provinces in Afghanistan.
“Our work is proof that progress can be made,” says the organization’s founder, Sunita Viswanath. The audience applauds, and Aesha looks down at the salad she won’t touch.
I have not seen Aesha since the day she learned about bin Laden’s death. A lot has happened since then. In addition to her private tutoring, she is now attending English as a second language classes with other Afghan women four times a week -- though sometimes she gets sent home for laughing at people’s mistakes. Her outbursts are more sporadic and short-lived. Her black-and-white thinking has grown less pronounced. They are starting to wean her from her medications.
Introduced as “the one, the only, the magnificent,” Gloria Steinem, one of the event co-chairs and a grande dame in the feminist movement, steps up to the microphone.
Aesha stares at the young Iranian attorney next to me who cannot conceal her excitement. “I can’t believe she’s here,” the woman gushes.
“When she first came to us, she was an emotional wreck. By the time she left, she was a different human being. … So we're all happy if she's in the right place … but we miss her.” — Esther Hyneman, Women for Afghan Women
“Who?” Aesha wants to know, her brow furrowed.
“Gloria Steinem!” the woman answers, motioning toward the stage.
Aesha glances over her shoulder at this Steinem person and shrugs, unimpressed and unfazed. She puts her head on Perlman's shoulder and is more interested in borrowing her teacher’s lip gloss.
While she’s progressed since I last saw her, in some ways not much has changed. Her political asylum application, filed in early summer, remains in limbo. And the Aesha fund, which no longer draws attention, is drying up.
At one point Aesha was offered a sizable book deal, which would have wiped out concerns about money. But Aesha wasn’t interested, and Hyneman knew not to push.
Aesha passes the lip gloss back to Perlman. The two have moved beyond a strictly student-teacher relationship in recent months. In August, Aesha got news that an older cousin of hers had been killed. He had helped bring her to safety after she was brutalized, and she looked up to him. His death, which she learned about from her cousin’s wife, made Aesha long for family in new ways, Perlman says.
She hungered to talk about her past and the relationships she’d lost. She needed to express herself.
“Her feelings were very raw and appeared more fragile,” Perlman explains later. “She was missing having a family of her own or having those connections that felt familial to her.”
Veteran international correspondent Christiane Amanpour gives the keynote address. She speaks of the Afghanistan she knows, the women she's met, the struggles she’s seen.
Aesha smiles at me and points to the necklace she’s made and her freshly painted red nails.
Amanpour speaks of acid being thrown in women’s faces and schools for girls being burned to the ground. Gala attendees hang on her words, and in the back of the room Aesha braids her teacher’s hair.
She doesn't go entirely unnoticed. A banquet server approaches, wanting to shake her hand. And when she walks across the room to hug her therapist, some stare and nudge their neighbors, not fooled by the prosthetic nose.
On the stage, women speak about how change for Afghan women and girls cannot happen overnight. They wonder if expectations have been too high. A videographer standing behind me captures the discussion.
Aesha, whose famous image will go unsold and be returned to the photographer, spots the videographer and gasps. She thinks she’s being filmed. She puts her hand up in protest and complains to Perlman.
“No,” Perlman assures her. “It’s not for you.”
What her teacher and the others don’t realize, as they continue their effort to protect and empower Aesha, is this: She is making her own plans for change.
Aesha wants something just for her, and she is going after it.
The call from Hyneman comes in early December. She wants to know if I am sitting down.
After months and months of waiting, Aesha has finally been granted political asylum. But there is bigger news. Aesha is gone.
Right before Thanksgiving, a little more than a month after the gala, she left New York. Two people from Virginia, Hyneman believes, came and picked her up at night.
Hyneman was blindsided.
“Family is one of her favorite things to talk about. … We couldn't simulate the family she needed and wanted.” — Jessica Whitney, volunteer teacher
She’d spent the bulk of that morning and afternoon with Aesha at Elmhurst hospital. Aesha was treated for an ear infection, and then Hyneman accompanied her to appointments at the center that works with torture victims. She dropped Aesha off at her apartment around 4 p.m.
Soon after, Aesha showed up at the Women for Afghan Women office. She was in high spirits, everyone remembered, and announced that she was going to Virginia.
This, they all assumed, was simply one of Aesha’s games. She had a funny habit of making out-of-nowhere pronouncements in jest. “I’m going to Afghanistan now,” she’d sometimes say. Or, as she walked out of the office, “I’m going to California. Bye!”
“Have fun!” the women might call out after her, playing along.
So when she randomly announced she was going to Virginia, no one took her seriously.
Aesha’s teachers, Jessica Whitney and Ariela Perlman, couldn’t wait to take her the next evening to Manhattan, where they’d watch the blowing up of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. The next week she had another appointment with the plastic surgeon. There was a ticket for her to see her first Broadway show, “The Lion King.”
Now she was in Virginia?
Actually, I’d find out later, she was in Maryland.
Hyneman learned she was with a couple she had met during a weeklong summer getaway. They were relatives of Fahima Vorgetts, a former board member of Women for Afghan Women and head of the Afghan Women's Fund, who had hosted Aesha at her home in West Virginia. She’d welcomed Aesha as a favor to Hyneman, whom she’d known for a decade and who thought Aesha needed a break from Queens.
When Hyneman and the others learned Aesha was gone, they thought she would return after the long Thanksgiving weekend. Even the couple thought she was with them just for a visit. Aesha, however, had her own idea. She planned to stay.
Hyneman was initially crushed. For more than a year, she’d dropped everything for Aesha. She hadn’t traveled to Afghanistan as she usually does. And during rough patches, she’d slept in the Women for Afghan Women office so she could be closer to Aesha. Still, she doesn’t judge her for anything she’s done.
“I was personally really attached to her. She called me grandma. That was irresistible to me,” says Hyneman, who has no children of her own. “When she first came to us, she was an emotional wreck. By the time she left, she was a different human being. … So we’re all happy if she’s in the right place to further her development, but we miss her.”
Others in the office were confused by what had happened and wondered if they’d known Aesha -- and her needs -- at all. There was plenty of concern about whom she was with, what their intentions might be and how deep the support network would be once the honeymoon phase passed. Some confessed feelings of relief, as the journey with Aesha had become all consuming. Now they could focus on the hundreds of other Afghan women they serve from their Queens office.
Yalda Afif says she was initially outraged and felt Aesha’s sudden move was a slap in the organization’s face.
“At least you can say bye to someone!” she remembers telling Aesha the first time she called from her new home. “Everything we could do for her, we did. … And it seems she never had any kind of love or respect for us.”
Her teachers, Perlman and Whitney, who are close friends, have another take: They and the others in New York had been foisted on Aesha; none had been relationships of Aesha’s choosing.
“We were picked by the situation, not by Aesha,” Whitney says. She hadn't had “that organic feeling of participating in picking a relationship. … Family is one of her favorite things to talk about. … We couldn’t simulate the family she needed and wanted.”
Aesha certainly wasn’t their prisoner, and the fact that she chose a family could be viewed as a sign of growth.
“She’s taken a step of her own initiative,” Perlman says. “And that’s an important piece in the context of her own discovery.”
I barely sleep the night before I see her next. It’s late January, almost a year to the date after Aesha surprised me by barging into the Queens office. I’m in Maryland, on my way to her new and chosen home.
For the first time, I’ll be able to speak to her. But also for the first time, I’ll meet her adopted family. I’ve talked my way inside but don’t know how long they’ll let me stay.
On the drive to Frederick, about an hour northwest of Washington, I wonder what sort of Aesha I’ll see. Will she be as eager as I am to finally talk? Or will she see me as a remnant of a past she wants to escape? Most of all, I want to know: Is she happy?
I can’t help but wonder, too, if she’s living in a palace, enjoying the luxury I know she craves. I fantasize about finding her in a pair of sparkly Christian Louboutin heels.
Mati Arsala and Jamila Rasouli-Arsala welcome me into their modest but well-kept town home, which sits in a sleepy subdivision of tract homes and apartments. Aesha is barefoot and in jeans. Her makeup, no surprise, is perfect. And she’s without her prosthetic nose. She’s more relaxed than I’ve ever seen her. With a warm smile, she plays hostess, serving tea she brings from the kitchen. She curls her feet beneath her on the couch, where she prefers to sleep instead of her bed.
The phone calls from Aesha began soon after Mati and Jamila met her in July, when she had regaled and delighted them with her humor and stories. The attraction was immediate, for everyone.
Aesha saw what she wanted. Back in New York, she launched her phone campaign. Every other night, in the middle of the night, she called Jamila. She griped about her life in New York. She told Jamila she wasn’t being taught English or getting the surgery she wanted. She said she was lonely and wanted to live with them. And as the months wore on, Jamila and Mati understood that they could offer something no organization could.
“What she was missing in her life was a family,” Mati says.
“She doesn’t have a picture of how a healthy family lives, a man and wife,” Jamila adds. “We just wanted to give her the opportunity to have this view.”
“We are focusing on stuff to make her independent,” Mati says. “Until she can stand on her own, she will not move out of this house.”
Aesha sets the table while the woman she sometimes calls mother, sometimes aunt, prepares a traditional Afghan feast featuring heaping platters of rice, lamb and chicken kebab. She shows me her bedroom downstairs, which she uses more like a walk-in closet. In the first weeks after her arrival, in the wee hours, she’d pad upstairs from the couch where she slept to wake Jamila and Mati -- complaining of nightmares and headaches. Now she busies herself, while others sleep, glued to her computer.
The couple married six years ago; it is the second marriage for both. Mati, who says he’s “around 60,” has two kids who are grown; 46-year-old Jamila has a daughter who lives with them. Miena, 14, is an honors student, an athlete and as dependent on her iPhone and Facebook account as she is oxygen. Mati and Jamila had talked about adopting a young child from Haiti or foster care, but now they have Aesha.
As their 22-year-old unwraps a lollipop, they tell her to wait till after dinner. With a grin and a defiant “no,” she shoves it into her mouth. They roll their eyes, and we chat about her stubbornness. She understands everything we’re saying and laughs.
She is hesitant to speak in English, though. They’ve enrolled her in a Saturday ESL class that’s scheduled to start soon.
In spite of the language barrier, she tries to swap memories with me. Remember the time you came when Osama bin Laden was killed? Did you like the gala? Remember how I told Esther “Puck you”?
She wears a ring she says her Afghan friend, Yalda Afif, gave her, but she says she doesn’t miss New York. Sometimes she misses some of the people. She says she’s happy here.
At the dinner table, she bends over a piece of paper and begins writing: “My name is Aesha Mohammadzai.” This is her legal name. Earlier, it’d been spelled Aisha. She writes it confidently and proudly, lower case letters and all. It's the name that appears on the Social Security card she received soon after she was granted asylum in the United States. Mati says Aesha now receives about $280 a month in benefits.
Mati and Jamila discuss politics. Jamila, who moved from Germany when she married Mati, loves President Barack Obama and practiced English listening to his speeches. Mati, who’s been in the United States since 1971, is a dedicated Republican. Aesha pipes in with her preference.
“I like Bush.”
“Why Bush?” I ask.
“I like his eyes,” she says. “They’re green.”
Minutes later, I catch her staring at my face. She mutters something in Pashto, and the couple translate for me. Her original nose, she has told them, looked just like mine.
They’re hopeful the new team of doctors they’ve taken her to in Maryland soon will give her the reconstructive surgery she deserves.
Pen to paper, she writes again. “Thank you Jessaie.” They ask me to spell my name correctly for her and she continues. “I love Jessica Jan,” she writes, adding a term of endearment to my name, before crossing out “I love.”
We move to the living room, where she’ll later wrap her arms around me, curl her legs onto my lap and hold one of my hands as I try to take notes. But now she plops down on the couch beside me, her laptop open.
On the YouTube page she has up, she begins playing videos. Her playlist isn’t just autobiographical. It includes stories about other girls who’ve been gang-raped or mutilated like her: “Afghan Women's Nose & Ears Cut off by her Husband,” “Pakistan: Fazeelat Bibi's nose and ears cut off” and “12 y old girl in Afghanistan victim of violence by husband.” She has watched one so many times she mimics the journalist’s words.
Plenty more document her celebrated arrival in America. ABC News’ Diane Sawyer honors her smile and new beginning with “Bibi Aisha Unveils New Nose.” She’s on display with Maria Shriver, cameras flashing, and wearing the prosthetic nose she no longer uses in “New look for Afghan attack woman.”
Abruptly switching gears, she pulls up videos of music performances by her favorite Bollywood stars. As she jumps up and dances along to a Salman Khan variety show performance, I ask Jamila how often Aesha watches these videos about her past, and the torture of other women.
Jamila, struck by what she’s just seen, answers in a whisper: “That’s the first time I’ve seen her do that.”
Two months later, I’m back for one last visit, this time with a videographer. Aesha is thrilled.
“You want my picture!” she says, before striking one of many poses.
She leads us to her tidy bedroom, where she now sleeps, proud to show it off.
“My bed,” she says. And with sweeping motions of her arms, “My makeup. My jewelry.”
She pulls strands of vibrant beads from a plastic bin. She learned to make jewelry during the months she spent in prison in Afghanistan for running away -- before her father-in-law retrieved her and made her pay an even more brutal price for her so-called crime. It was also in prison that she learned to chew tobacco, a habit her doctors say she must kick before she can have surgery. She insists she has.
“My heart breaks for her. She didn't have any time to be a kid. … She's acting like a kid because she has a chance now. There's nothing wrong with that.” — Jamila Rasouli-Arsala, whom Aesha calls mother
Beyond occasional meetings with the doctors and her four-hour ESL class on Saturday mornings, Aesha doesn’t have a lot to do to keep her busy. Mati, a civil engineer, and Jamila, an OB-GYN in Germany who must complete a residency program in the United States but is now doing pathology research, are away at work. And Miena is in school all day, followed by track practice, plans with friends and homework.
Esther Hyneman, who on a drive to Washington in March stopped by to see Aesha, worries that she’s isolated.
I ask Aesha if she’s bored. She doesn’t seem to understand the question. I ask if she’s made friends. “My friend computer,” she says.
She stays up until 2 or 3 a.m. with her friend on most nights, then sleeps until early afternoon. On the nights before her ESL class, Mati turns off the home’s Internet connection at 11 in an attempt to force her to bed.
Jamila says she wanted to sign her up for dance classes, but Aesha refused.
“I no like dance class,” she says. “I like English.”
It would have been fun for her and good exercise, Jamila tells me, and a way to lift her moods.
For months now, Aesha has been off her medications. She’s seen a psychologist three or four times. She can still hold a spotlight with her humor and stories.
She is nearly brought to tears with laughter as she recounts the time she lost her prosthetic nose in a New York subway station. She imitates how she scurried about in the crowd, searching for the nose she never found, as strangers walked by without noticing or caring.
Then there was the time in New York when a man followed her. As she walked faster, so did he. She was terrified. But then she looked back, and he got spooked. One look at her prosthetic-free face and he ran away.
“He will never follow a woman again,” she says in Pashto.
These are the light Aesha moments. But Mati and Jamila have come to know the dark ones, too. The days when they struggle to get her out of bed. The times when anger or sadness washes over her. The moments when she’s incapable of showing gratitude.
“She’s a trauma patient,” Jamila says. “If you want to help, you have to have a very thick skin. … There’s no room in her heart for appreciation.”
They knew there would be challenges. But they couldn’t turn her away. Mati worries about how and when she’ll ever be able to support herself. They say she wants her own apartment, and they’d like her to have it. Their job is to make sure her needs are met. To that end, they hope to establish a trust fund for her soon.
When she arrived in November, they say, she wore sandals and a thin coat that was too small. She said this was all she had. She told them she only received $25 a week for food. They say she couldn’t count to 10.
They were horrified. I am, too, but for different reasons.
I remember the pea coat and UGG knockoff boots she wore the first time I saw her. I watched her, a year ago, learning math. I know her food was paid for by Women for Afghan Women.
I ask Aesha about the closet full of clothes in her Queens apartment and the collection of shoes that lined her bedroom wall. All of those things belonged to her roommate, she says. I must look dubious because she adds something in Pashto: “This is the truth.”
I want to discuss the 11 roommates she blew through in a year in New York. She crosses her arms and says, “I don't want to talk about it.”
She leaves the table and heads downstairs to her room to watch Indian movies on her computer. Out of her earshot, Mati and Jamila confess they can’t fully agree on what’s best for Aesha.
In the beginning, they say, they waited on her “like a princess.” They didn’t want her to think they’d brought her here to do chores.
But Mati is done coddling her and wishes his wife would let Aesha do more for herself. To grow, to become independent, she needs to have boundaries, accept responsibility and not get her breakfast prepared for her every day, he says. If they treat her like a child, he continues, she’ll stay a child.
Reporting This Story
CNN’s Jessica Ravitz first encountered the subject of this story, Aesha Mohammadzai, in January 2011 in the Queens, New York, offices of Women for Afghan Women. Aesha had arrived in America in August 2010, with the promise of receiving reconstructive surgery in California. But when it was determined she was not yet stable enough for the surgery, Women for Afghan Women assumed responsibility and moved her across the country to New York.
When Ravitz asked to document Aesha’s journey, she was told there was a media moratorium. No one was being allowed to interview or photograph Aesha. So instead, Ravitz brokered an arrangement in which she could write about Aesha by interviewing the volunteers who were working with her -- her English and math tutors; the imam who taught her about Islam; lawyers familiar with the asylum process; her primary guardian at Women for Afghan Women, Esther Hyneman; and others in the group’s Queens office. Ravitz also interviewed the organization’s executive director, who is based in Kabul, where Aesha lived in one of the group’s shelters for nine months.
Eventually, Aesha gave her New York psychologist permission to speak with Ravitz.
The organization’s reason for shielding Aesha from the media was twofold: It believed she needed to focus on mastering English and other tools necessary to survive in her new country, and she had not yet been granted permission to remain in the United States. Given Aesha’s psychological fragility, Women for Afghan Women officials said they feared that continued media coverage might negatively affect her asylum application.
In a handful of visits to New York, Ravitz was able to observe Aesha firsthand. Ravitz also happened to be present in the Women for Afghan Women office on the day Osama Bin Laden was killed, and accompanied Hyneman to Aesha’s apartment to give her the news.
In November, Aesha was granted asylum. By then, she had also left Women for Afghan Women’s care. Ravitz approached Aesha’s new guardians in Frederick, Maryland, and they agreed to be interviewed.
In January, about a year after she first began documenting Aesha’s journey, Ravitz was able to interview Aesha for the first time. A couple of months later, Ravitz brought her colleague, CNN digital content producer Edythe McNamee, to Aesha’s new home to film and photograph her.
Jamila hears him and understands, “But my heart breaks for her,” she says, her hand on her husband’s. “She didn’t have any time to be a kid, Mati Jan. She didn’t have any time. She’s acting like a kid because she has a chance now. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
A short walk from the town home is one of Aesha’s new favorite places. It’s a small playground she visits often and where she is free to swing.
Each pump of her legs transports her.
She begins to move and is reminded of when she was a little girl being pushed by her grandmother. That was before life became so complex, before she learned not to trust.
Her long dark hair whips around her made-up face as she rushes backward.
Here, no matter her age, education or obstacles, she can dream. She can be a police officer who protects women. She can stand on her own.
She rises toward the sky and smiles, as oblivious to the small children playing hide-and-seek around her as they are to who she is, or what she represents.
She’s nobody’s poster child here. She’s not a feel-good cause or a PR dream. She’s one human being, released from carrying the weight of others.
A towheaded boy races by. He doesn’t notice the grown woman on the swing. He doesn’t see or care that her nose is missing.
There are no mirrors on the playground. And there are no surgeons who promise to help but, for reasons she doesn’t understand, never do.
She climbs higher, and her complicated journey fades from view.
Since arriving in America less than two years ago, she’s lived in three cities. She’s been showcased like a star and protected like a fragile child. She’s been passed around by well-meaning strangers, embraced by a team of women. And she’s gone after a family of her own.
Back and forth she goes, flying forward, reaching skyward.
Here, on this swing, Aesha doesn’t carry others’ expectations. She doesn’t need a fairy-tale ending. She can soar on her own.
The only question is where, when and how softly she will land.