Lina Tori Jan, '20, speaking at a UNICEF event in Switzerland on June 30, 2022. Photo credit: Christian Schmid

Elevating the voices of Afghan women

August 18, 2022

Lina Tori Jan, ’20, fights for women’s and girls’ right to an education

Girls want an education. This simple message on her LinkedIn cover photo is deeply personal to Lina Tori Jan, ’20. The Afghan native vividly remembers the thrill of being able to attend school in Kabul after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime when she was six years old.

“I walked about two hours down dusty roads—past fields, open sewage, destroyed buildings, and broken Soviet tanks—to get to the UNICEF-supported school,” she said. “At first, my school was nothing more than tarps on the ground in a barbed-wire enclosure. My classmates and I wore long black coats, black pants, black shoes, and white scarves and joked we were penguins. We sat on the tarps in rows under the hot sun.”

Eventually the school changed: Tarps became tents, then morphed into classrooms with walls, roofs, desks, blackboards, and books. What didn’t change was Tori Jan’s love of education.

It led her on a journey to the United States, where she received full scholarships first to a private boarding school and then to the University of Richmond, where she majored in leadership studies and political science. Just prior to her 2020 college graduation, she received a full scholarship through the Jepson Scholars Program to pursue a master’s in public policy at the University of Oxford. She graduated from Oxford in fall 2021.

Now an Afghanistan policy associate at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Tori Jan advocates for the education and human rights of others.

“We have more than 100 women in our Onward for Afghan Women network,” she said. “They were human rights activists, journalists, lawmakers, and lawyers. But after the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, they had to leave Afghanistan or face death.

“My team and I connect them to professional development opportunities and spaces where they can advocate for Afghan women and girls and advise the global community with concrete policy recommendations regarding Afghanistan.”

Eight members of Tori Jan’s own family are refugees, having barely escaped their native country in the harrowing days prior to the U.S. withdrawal.

“I still have emotional moments when I think about the miracle of my family being alive and safe in the U.S. after being trampled and tear-gassed during several attempts to flee Afghanistan,” she said.

With the Afghan economy now in tatters, Tori Jan stressed the importance of prioritizing the nation’s food and shelter needs and then focusing on education and human rights.

“Girls are not able to attend school after sixth grade under the current Taliban regime,” she said. “This is heartbreaking to me.”

Tori Jan has come full circle from the days when she attended a UNICEF-supported school in Kabul. In the last year, she has championed education for Afghan girls and women in her speaking engagements at UNICEF events in Switzerland, Australia, and the U.S. In October, she appeared with sister Zohra Hunter on NBC’s TODAY Show to discuss Chai wa Dastan, their podcast featuring Afghan women sharing their stories.

Now, acting as an advisor, she contributes content on refugees’ leadership to an ongoing project—spearheaded by the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and the Legatum Foundation—to develop a values-based leadership course for youth in developing countries.

“I feel grateful and honored to play a small part in elevating the voices of my Afghan sisters.”