For as long as the world has known her face, it has told a story.
In the beginning, when her disfigured image appeared on the August 2010 cover of Time magazine, the story was bigger than her. It symbolized the oppression of Afghan women.
Today, Aesha Mohammadzai's face tells a story that is hers alone.
Her forehead has ballooned to the size of a baseball, and narrow, darkened, peeling and drooping flesh protrudes from where her nose once was -- before her Taliban husband and in-laws cut it off. She is six months into multistage reconstructive surgery, and her face hints at a new path lined with resilience, hope and change.
Aesha is not ashamed to show it off.
"I don't care. Everybody has some kind of problem," she says, with the help of a translator. "At the beginning, I was very scared. I was scared to look at my face in the mirror. ... I was scared to think what will happen in the future to me. But now I'm not scared anymore."
Aesha, who didn't grow up celebrating birthdays but believes she's 21 or 22, is being treated by doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is scheduled to undergo her fourth surgery on Monday, a procedure that will take about eight hours. If all goes as planned, she may be halfway done with her medical odyssey and on track to have the nose she wants by next summer.
Her transformation, though, isn't just physical. Aesha is evolving emotionally and growing up. She has managed to do this in spite of -- and perhaps because of -- the invasive and painful surgeries. And she's risen above the challenges that work against the family she lives with and now sees as her own.
A promise finally fulfilled
Aesha bounces up the stairs to the townhome's main level, wearing black leggings and a red sequined long-sleeve T-shirt touting "Glee," the popular television show she's never seen.
Though she has been in the United States for more than two years, she still prefers watching programs on her computer and gravitates to Bollywood films, Hindi dramas and variety shows.
On this night in early December, Mati Arsala -- the man she calls "momo," or uncle, but views as a father -- chats with guests while his wife, Jamila Rasouli-Arsala, finishes preparing dinner. Jamila's 15-year-old daughter from a first marriage, Miena Ahmadzai, hobbles into the room. She wears a large boot on her left leg, the result of an ankle sprain and break while playing soccer a month ago. Aesha stoops down beside the living room's coffee table and carefully lays out her most recent beaded jewelry creations.
Aesha joined this family right before Thanksgiving last year. Her move to Maryland came after 16 months in the United States, bouncing from California to New York while well-meaning people in both places tried to give her what they believed she needed.
But determining her needs wasn't easy. Aesha had never attended school and had experienced enough trauma to span 10 lifetimes. She lost her mother, she says, when she was only 2, was sent off to live with relatives elsewhere, then was retrieved by her father and forced into marriage at 16 to settle a family score. When she ran away from the Taliban family that abused her, they caught her, held her down, hacked off her nose and ears and left her for dead.
She arrived in America with the promise of a new nose, but caretakers in Southern California and then New York determined she wasn't emotionally prepared for the grueling surgeries. She threw violent tantrums and would sometimes hurt herself during what doctors called "faux seizures." Aesha was making progress and her condition was improving in New York when she decided she needed a change.
She landed in Maryland thanks to her own initiative. The task of saving Aesha, it turned out, would be taken on by the young woman herself -- and the Afghan family who embraced her. She saw in them what she wanted: people and a place that could feel like home.
She cuddles up with her family and poses for pictures. When they convince her to try a small nibble of American cheese, she grimaces and runs from the room laughing and spits it out. She makes and serves chai tea -- a weak pot for her, a strong one for everyone else -- and knows to give Mati three sugars. She takes a break from sharing yogurt with Miena so she can breathe, something she now can only do through her mouth.
Aesha's surgery is the fulfillment of an overdue promise, says Jamila, who is a trained physician. She wonders if the worry of others that Aesha wasn't ready for it might have been misplaced.
"How do you get ready for something like this?" she says, thinking about the magnitude of it all. "You can never be prepared for such a surgery. The point is you have to be prepared to support someone (who's going through) this kind of surgery."
Now that Aesha is moving forward -- getting the long-awaited chance to restore her face and seeing positive results -- she seems to trust people in new ways.
This isn't to say there aren't hurdles and fears. But the needles they poke into her, for IVs and other procedures, scare her more than the operations for which she's never awake.
Her forehead, over the course of six months, has been expanded to provide the extra tissue doctors will need to complete this surgical transformation.
Because of privacy laws, Aesha's doctors at Walter Reed were not available to discuss her case. But based on explanations provided by her family and what CNN has seen, Dr. Bauback Safa, a plastic surgeon well-versed in nasal reconstruction, described the process.
To expand her forehead, he says, doctors inserted an inflatable silicone shell, or a sort of balloon, that they gradually filled with fluid.
It's heavy, which is why Aesha sleeps with her head propped up high on pillows. Each time doctors injected saline in her forehead, she screamed. She says the pain made her eyes water, and it felt like her eyeballs might fall out of her head.