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Freshta’s Story

“Be the heroine in your life, not the victim.” That was the motto of late writer Nora Ephron, and it could just as easily apply to Freshta Tori Jan, GRIL U alumni 2017.

Few teenagers have had to advocate for themselves like Freshta, a native of Kabul, Afghanistan, who came to the United States alone in 2015 as a 15-year-old high school student.  A year later she moved to Grand Rapids in the Fall of 2016. Growing up in Kabul, Freshta never knew a world without persecution before she arrived in the U.S.

She and her family were not only Christians, they were also ethnically Hazara, a people group looked down upon as slaves and oppressed for hundreds of years. More recently, they have been the victims of massacres committed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In Kabul, Freshta, her parents, and siblings lived lives of fear and hiding. Her brothers were kidnapped several times and miraculously returned, but her father was beaten so severely by the Taliban that eventually he would die from his injuries.

But Freshta’s parents both believed in education for their children, even their daughters, a radical and dangerous concept in the Taliban’s eyes. Freshta and her sisters attended the only international Christian school in the community, a school filled with the children of expats and tentmakers. This education opened her eyes to the wider world, so Freshta was heartbroken when the Taliban’s threats finally closed down the school in 2014.

Determined to keep going with her education and encouraged by her parents, Freshta applied at several schools in the U.S. She was accepted at a school in Texas and came to the U.S. initially on a student visa. Three days before she was to start school as a sophomore in Texas, she received word that her beloved father had died. Grieving her father, Freshta was dealt another blow when she found out her two best friends, a brother and sister, had been killed in an explosion. The Taliban had bombed their house, mistakenly thinking they were missionaries. Devastated, Freshta was able to carry on with the support of her host family and new friends.  She relished the chance to get involved with school musicals and other opportunities that would have been unimaginable for girls in her home country.

When she ran out of funds to pay the school tuition in Texas, Freshta again had to be a leader in her own life. She sent messages to everyone she knew, trying to find another school. “I couldn’t believe it when a teacher in Michigan, who had been a substitute for one week in my fourth-grade class, told me to come over and she’d love to have me live with her and go to school in Grand Rapids.”

Freshta embraced her new life in Michigan.  As she began her senior year at Grand Rapids Christian High School, she became deeply rooted in the youth program at Madison Square Church and joined the GRIL U program.

Through GRIL U she learned about accountability that teaches about seeking guidance from trusted resources to integrate faith and work in meaningful ways.  Applying this core value to real life she found her mentor, Meghan, who spoke into Freshta’s life with support and encouragement. “I have so much support in Grand Rapids, and GRIL U, Madison Square Church and Meghan were a big part of that,” she said. “At GRIL I learned that I could make a difference in the world and how to practically plan for making my dreams come true.”

Freshta notes that learning through GRIL how much money it takes to live on and study, as well as applying to colleges and for scholarships was a huge benefit to her as she planned for her future.  Today, Freshta is thriving as a Freshman at Calvin College, studying political science and working three part time jobs to make a go of it. She dreams of getting her family out of Afghanistan, and of helping those like herself who have been disenfranchised and held back because of prejudice and violence.

Watch out for this heroine and so many other GRIL participants, alumni and partners who will change the world.


Please consider making a gift to GRIL during this season of giving.  Your support is an investment into leadership development and discipleship for transformational leaders in our community like Freshta!  GRIL’s year-end Fundraising Goal is $20,000.


Out of the 222 GRIL U graduates:

·       99% graduated from High School

·       90% were accepted into college

·       66% volunteer at GRIL annually

Continued blessings,

Denise Fase, CEO


P.S.  Voices like Fresta are amplified by your generous and continued support of GRIL and our partners.


GR Initiative for Leaders (GRIL) is called to Strengthen Leaders to Transform Communities.  Our vision is to create a network of civic minded individuals doing justice together in their community where they live and work.