Lina Tori Jan, '20

April 29, 2020
Afghan native works tirelessly in support of refugees

As lockdowns go, the current COVID-19 lockdown isn’t so bad, said Lina Tori Jan, ’20. “At least in this lockdown, I don’t hear explosions.” An Afghan native, she spent much of her childhood hiding in her home’s basement from the Taliban and bombings, she said.

Personal experiences like this have driven Tori Jan to work tirelessly on social justice issues, especially those related to refugees, immigrants, minorities, and women. As a baby, she lived with family members as refugees in Iran after escaping warfare in Afghanistan. Upon returning to Afghanistan, her family experienced terrifying repression under the Taliban due to their status as members of the Hazara ethnic minority. Tori Jan eventually immigrated to the United States to attend high school and then University of Richmond, both on full scholarship.

“When I was in Afghanistan, my role in civic engagement was restricted because I was an ethnic minority and a woman,” she said. “One of the fundamental values of being human is your ability to participate in society and give back to society. I strive to do that myself and to make it possible for others to do so.

“I owe the Bonner Scholars Program a big thank-you for helping me take part in civic engagement since I’ve been at University of Richmond.”

As a Bonner Scholar, Tori Jan works 8-10 hours a week in the community. During her first two years on campus, she completed her Bonner service at the Richmond office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit that helps refugees.

“At the IRC, I taught middle-aged refugee women from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Congo how to read and speak English,” said Tori Jan, who speaks Dari, Farsi, and English fluently. “I also assisted refugees with cultural orientation, interpretation, and translation.”

Her double majors in leadership studies and political science shed light on her next Bonner placement, she said. Leadership studies classes developed her understanding of a just society, while political science classes pushed her to consider ways to use public policy to create a just society.

She applied her classroom learning to her Bonner service at the Restoration of Rights Office under the Secretary of the Commonwealth her junior year.

“The mass incarceration of certain groups of people makes you wonder about the fairness of the U.S. judicial system,” Tori Jan said. “The formerly incarcerated have barriers to participation in society if their rights aren’t restored. We want to welcome them back to society by giving them the right to vote—one of the most powerful rights of a citizen in a democracy. We also want to provide them with the resources to keep them from becoming incarcerated again.”

Her Jepson internship with Women for Women International gave her the chance to work with refugee issues again last summer, she said. Supported by a Burrus Fellowship, she worked behind the scenes on fundraising and brand awareness for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps marginalized women in countries affected by war and conflict.

“It was a home away from home,” Tori Jan said. “I was particularly interested in one of the organization’s projects, a 12- month program that trains Afghan widows—who have no formal education—in developing marketable skills to support themselves.”

This year, the senior has juggled her academics with numerous co-curricular activities—all while working part-time as a case assistant at Manelis Law, a Richmond-area firm specializing in immigration law. There, she prepares reports to support clients seeking asylum in, or withholding of removal from, the United States.

“Someone helped me with pro bono legal work when I was in need of refugee assistance,” she said. “This is a way I can give back.”

Tori Jan has garnered several awards in recognition of her contributions, including a national Newman Civic Fellowship, Westhampton College's WILL* Changemaker Award, the Department of Political Science’s Evans Scholarship, and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies' Servant Leader Award. This fall, she will enroll as a Jepson Scholar in a master's program in public policy at the University of Oxford. 

“My ultimate goal is to work as a diplomat or a United Nations ambassador,” said Tori Jan. “I have a calling to work with marginalized people. My heart has always been in helping and serving, because I have been helped and blessed by others.”