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Aesha, three years later: 'I'm a very lucky girl'

NBC's Ann Curry sits down with Aesha, the young Afghan woman whose mutilated face became the symbol for brutality against women in Afghanistan. Today, she has a new life, and a new nose.

By Ann Curry, Shoshana Guy, and Becky Bratu
Rock Center

Three years after her photograph appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and became a symbol for oppressed women in Afghanistan, Aesha Mohammadzai has made incredible strides recovering from the night when her father-in-law, husband and in-laws cut off her nose and parts of her ears.

An Afghan-American family in Frederick, Md.,  took her into their home, and that’s where Mohammadzai, 22, has been able to begin a journey to a new life and a new face.

Mati and Jamila Arsala caught their first glimpse of Mohammadzai in TIME. Mati was shocked when he later met her for the first time.

“I'm a father. God forbid if somebody would do such a thing to my daughter.  Or to my son,” Mati told NBC News’ Ann Curry. “What would I do? I will burn the world.”

Mohammadzai’s father gave her away when she was 12 years old to settle a family dispute, in a traditional practice known as baad. She said her husband and in-laws were rooted in the Taliban and abused her severely for five years.

“At that time, I was very scared. I never thought I could escape,” she told Curry. “Then I said, whatever it takes, I want my freedom.”

When Mohammadzai finally ran away, she didn’t get very far before being arrested and put in jail. Five months later, a judge ordered her to return to her husband – but he and the rest of the family were not ready to forgive her.

“They tied my hands. They tied my feet. When they cut my nose, I lost consciousness,” she said.

Mohammadzai dragged herself outside in the dark for hours, knocking on door after door for help, but even her relatives told her to go back to her father-in-law’s house.

Finally, a cousin helped her get to an American military hospital. From there, she was transferred to a shelter run by the New York-based organization, Women for Afghan Women.

The executive director of the shelter, Manizha Naderi, said Mohammadzai’s is just one of the many cases of extreme abuse in Afghanistan.

Interested in helping Aesha? Find out more: AeshasJourney.com

“I would say probably 90 percent of Afghan households experience some form of abuse,” Naderi said.

Mohammadzai’s photo spurred uncountable offers of help. Shortly after she arrived at the shelter, she was flown to the United States to receive reconstructive surgery.

But Mohammadzai struggled emotionally and was prone to violent outbursts, which made it difficult to find her a home. Running out of options, Women for Afghan Women sent her on a retreat with one of their board members, who happened to be Jamila Arsala’s cousin. The two stopped by the Arsalas’ house for tea.

“She didn’t want to go back with my cousin,” Jamila said. “She asked her if she can stay overnight.”

Jamila said they couldn’t deny her request, even though they had just met.

“Because I feel so much pain as she told me her story,” Jamila said. “She lost her mother, she was two years old. She's a person who survived all her life.”

“We couldn't say no to her,” she added.

Jamila and her husband were both born and raised in Afghanistan. Mati is a civil engineer and a volunteer soccer coach, while Jamila practiced medicine in Europe before getting married. With her medical background, she was able to help Mohammadzai prepare for surgery. 

WATCH: Aesha's journey to a new life and face

At first, Mohammadzai  wasn’t psychologically ready for the operation, but in the Arsalas home, she began to stabilize. In the summer of 2012, doctors decided she was ready to begin the grueling series of procedures.

The reconstructive surgery involved enlarging her forehead to create skin for the outer layer of her nose.

And while her journey to recovery is not over, Mohammadzai finally has what she wanted most.

“I never thought I would have a nose again,” she said. “I'm happy now that my surgeries are taking place. I endured a hard time but something good is coming out of it for me.”

It has been difficult for the Arsalas to care for her financially -- though her surgeries are paid for by the U.S. military because she is considered a casualty of war. In December, Mati was laid off from his engineering job.

“It’s hard but we will manage,” he told Curry. “We did our part for Aesha. And we will be doing it as long as we live.”

For her part, Mohammadzai is grateful and looks forward to the next phase of her life.

“I'm a very lucky girl that I finally got my own freedom,” she said. “And I always want and pray for every woman to get her freedom like me.”

Editor's Note: Watch Ann Curry's full interview with Aesha Friday, June 14 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams