Aesha’s Complex Story: Fleeing the Taliban and “Spreading Her Wings”

Two years ago, Aesha Mohammadzai, came to the US from Afghanistan after having her nose and ears cut off by her Taliban husband and in-laws. Her face was on the cover of Time and became a symbol for the Taliban’s persecution of women. This past Thursday, the 22-year-old was admitted to  Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to begin the long process of reconstructive surgery.

As stated in the CNN video below, when Aesha arrived in the States, expecting surgery, she was “deemed too emotionally fragile to undergo the procedures.” Since then, her story has been of a young woman dealing with the trauma of her past, adjusting to life in a new culture, and preparing for a future that is far from what she could have imagined as a girl growing up in her home country. Watch “Saving Aesha: Life after Taliban Attack” to get a sense of where Aesha is now.

But stopping with the video will give you only part of the story. If you don’t remember seeing many reports about Aesha since the Time cover, you’d not be alone. That’s because Esther Hyneman, a 73-year-old volunteer with Women for Afghan Women who had become Aesha’s “unofficial guardian,” barred the media from filming, photographing, or interviewing her. This was an effort to protect Aesha from the pressures and harmful influence of fame. In a CNN article from May, Hyneman says,

We’re hoping she’ll spread her wings. 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.

The author of this in-depth article is journalist Jessica Ravitz, who had to interview those around Aesha to learn her story. Her opportunity to talk with Aesha directly came only after Aesha moved away from New York—and the influence of Women for Afghan Women—to live with an expat Afghan couple in Maryland.

When I first watched the video, attached to a story announcing the start of Aesha’s surgery, I was struck by the progress Aesha has made and the community of people who had gathered around her. I particularly enjoyed the scenes from her ESL classroom, scenes that should inspire anyone considering a future in teaching English. It made me want to find out more, and I’m glad I kept looking, otherwise I wouldn’t have found the earlier article that, while not denying the progress and inspiration, deals more with the complexity and difficulties of Aesha’s life in the US: the tantrums, the “psychologically induced faux seizures,” the borderline personality disorder, the manipulations from a victim who “hurts people before they can hurt her.”

The difficulties are sobering, but they shouldn’t be surprising. What a life of trauma and upheaval this woman has experienced. Now that Aesha’s surgery has begun (actually a series of surgeries that may take two years to complete), we are tempted to smile and move on, happy that she is finally “OK.” But it will take more time and more hard work and more help from wise and compassionate people before everything will be OK. I am grateful for Ravitz’s article. It shows that frustration, disagreement, and disappointment often accompany our best efforts to help others, especially those who have the greatest needs. It makes me glad to know that when we keep trying to make a difference in complex situations, when we do our best even though it’s not appreciated, and even when we loosen our grip to let others find their own way, we are walking on the same path as those who have stepped into Aesha’s life. Their stories, and Aesha’s story, are inspiring, not because they are simple and tidy but because they are complicated and messy and hopeful and real.

(Jessica Ravitz, “Saving Aesha,” CNN, May 2012)


2 thoughts on “Aesha’s Complex Story: Fleeing the Taliban and “Spreading Her Wings”

  1. I always think of the Locard principle, that upon which you leave a mark also leaves a mark on you. Our culture shrinks, summarizes and packages news stories, a story which will take years is too complex for most of the networks – or our pattern of thinking. I like your take – that real life is messy and complicated, and it takes time for the long term stable solution to work. I cannot imagine what Aesha has been through and is going through, and I hope she will be able to write a book in the future so we will know HER experience and feelings, not those we project upon her


    1. The CNN article says, “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.” I agree with you. Maybe she will write that book someday, at a time when it will be completely her voice.


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