August 2014 Archways

Student Spotlight

Nabi resizedThe Incredible Journey of Laila Abdul Nabi ’14

By Matt Gray

With Bryn Mawr welcoming students from as far away as Nepal, China, and India, Laila Abdul Nabi’s journey to campus may not represent the longest distance traveled.

But not every journey can be measured in miles alone.

Nabi’s story begins in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1996, when she was four and a Taliban bomb ripped through the family’s watch store, killing her father and leaving her mother, Saddiqa, with virtually nothing and five children to care for.

Fearing for their safety, the family fled to Quetta, Pakistan, with the help of an uncle.

“If not for our uncle, I don’t know what would have happened to us,” recalls Nabi. “But it’s not like he was rich. He got us set up, but he had his own family to support and we had to make it on our own.”

The family moved into a two-bedroom mud house with little furniture and limited electricity and plumbing.

“I can remember my mother actually rebuilding the walls and we were constantly chasing out mice and bugs,” says Nabi.

Saddiqa took domestic work, while Nabi’s older brothers, who were 12 and 11 at the time, helped make ends meet by peddling socks and other small items on the streets. At home caring for their five-year-old brother, Nabi and her then nine-year-old sister, Jaila, devoted their spare time to doing embroidery and needlepoint on garments and draperies to sell for additional income.

“My mother’s family was very conservative so my sister and I didn’t go to school. The idea was that women should aspire to being a wife and mother and that the best way to prepare for that was to stay home and learn from your mother and care for the home, which is what we did,” Nabi says.

Cost also kept the girls from school. “Elementary school wasn’t free and my mother couldn’t afford it. My brothers and mother earned just enough to feed us,” Nabi adds.

The sisters’ most important jobs were housekeeping and fetching water from the homes of neighbors wealthy enough to have pumps. “We would go out at 10 each morning with buckets and go from house to house collecting water so we’d have enough to drink and to do the cooking and cleaning,” Nabi recalls.

The family scraped by for several years, but conditions in Pakistan worsened. Inflation made life more and more difficult, and luxuries, like the two eggs the family split once a week, became even harder to obtain. And while they were likely safer than they would have been in Afghanistan, the family was still vulnerable.

“We got robbed a few times. I don’t understand what the thieves thought they would get, but they took what they could find. They even took our water buckets,” says Nabi.

In 1999, Saddiqa learned of a UNICEF program that resettled widows and their families in the United States. She applied again and again and in 2004 the family boarded a plane for Boston and a new life. That fall, Laila and Jaila Nabi, 13 and 14 respectively, entered a classroom for the very first time.

“It was so hard for us to believe we were finally at school,” Laila Nabi explained in a Boston Globe article that appeared when the sisters graduated from high school. “Every day, as soon as we got home, we would study. All we had was our books, and we loved them.”

The girls excelled in the classroom, not just catching up to their classmates, but going on to take honors and advanced placement courses.

Their hard work paid off, with both sisters attending college—Jaila at UMass Boston and Laila at Bryn Mawr.

At Bryn Mawr, Nabi showed the same drive she had previously, now focusing her energies on exploring her career opportunities.

“Ever since I was a little girl I thought I had wanted to be a doctor, I guess because I was able to see and understand the impact they could have on the world,” says Nabi. “But when I got to Bryn Mawr, I was a little unsure if that was what I really wanted to do, and my dean encouraged me to explore all my options before making a decision.”

During the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, Nabi did an internship with a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital and her doubts grew even stronger.

To help her figure out what career path she wanted to take, Nabi turned to Bryn Mawr’s externship program, spending each winter and spring break until her junior year shadowing and learning from different health care professionals. “I followed a surgeon, an ob-gyn, and a general practitioner, and each job was interesting but none seemed to be exactly what I wanted to do,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until she took part in another internship at Massachusetts General, during which she got to research the nuances of providing treatment to various populations, that Nabi found her passion—public health.

“I was able to attend a public health conference and talk to people in the field. That’s when I realized that this is really what I want to do,” says Nabi. “It took a while for me to figure it out, but thanks to all the opportunities I had while I was at Bryn Mawr, I’m now confident that I’ve found the right career for me.”

Now that she’s graduated, Nabi has returned to Boston, where she’s taking a year off from school as she prepares to enter a graduate program.

“These past 10 years I’ve done nothing but focus on school,” says Nabi. “I want to take this year off so I bring the same passion to grad school that I have to all my other studies.”

She was joined at graduation by her mother, sister, and brothers.

“Everything I’ve been able to accomplish is because of the support of my family,” said Nabi days before graduation. “My mother and older brothers in particular have given so much to allow me to succeed. More than anything else I’m happy that I can share this moment with them and know that I’ve made them proud.”