Nilab Mohammad Mousa’s lifelong quest for learning began innocently enough: in the form of letters, arriving in the mail from her father, who lived in Moscow, Russia. Although she was born in Pakistan, Nilab’s family is from Afghanistan, and the letters — a mysterious and magical form of communication — were her connection to her father. Her mother would read them to her children, which compelled young Nilab to teach herself how to write.
She says: “ ... So I could read letters and send letters myself.”
When Nilab was old enough to go to kindergarten in Afghanistan, it was not safe for her to go to school. But every day, she would disappear upstairs to an apartment on the second floor where a kindly neighbor taught little kids.
She was amazed by how her elder brothers knew the secrets of the calendar; she learned how to tell what day it was, too. And when her brothers brought home their math books, Nilab would read them with her new words. She couldn’t solve all the problems necessarily, but she was fascinated.
“When I actually registered for school ... I told them that I don’t want to be in first grade, I already know all these, so the principal gave me an exam. It was oral as well as reading, and then she put me in second grade.”
4 languages and counting
Nilab’s thirst for education continued through her family’s move to be with her father in Moscow and when she, her mother, two elder brothers and a younger sister came to the United States in 2008. Nilab, who already spoke Dari, Farsi, Urdu and then Russian, added English to her collection of languages.
“I had a dictionary. I did learn words. We already knew the alphabet and I could read my way out of it, I guess.”
She was nothing if not confident. Against the odds, after just six months, Nilab left Boise’s school for non-English speakers and enrolled herself at Boise High School.
“(The ELL program officials) thought: That’s a formula for failure, it’s going to be a disaster, you’re not going to make it in your home school (which was Boise High). ”
In Nilab fashion, she took three math classes at the same time. In retrospect, that was a wise move for her.
“I had time to kind of get used to the environment while working on something that was a universal language — math. It wasn’t as intense as English or things I wasn’t already used to.
“(Also, because) I took geometry, algebra I and algebra II all at the same time, I got the bigger picture of how everything works together; how things from one class applied to something else I’m doing in another class. Which (normally) students would forget by the time they get there. So it was an amazing experience.”
Nilab took AP classes at summer school and in zero hours, leaving little time for arts or music classes — which she regrets. But Nilab graduated from high school in three years, with better than a 4.0 grade point average. She was 17 years old.
“I’m not a miracle. I’m not an exceptional student. It’s all little things that played a role. And, of course, your hard work counts, but it’s not enough. You can work as hard as you want, but there are other things that play into the equation. Like having good people around me.”
In May 2014, Nilab graduated from Boise State University with a degree in computer science — including honors college and changing her major just once, from civil engineering. She works now at a software company Downtown.
She loves what she does, but she’s not ready to give up academia entirely, so she takes one class a semester in BSU’s computer science masters program. Her goal is a PhD.
“In the long run, I would like to be a professor in the university, teaching. I’m interested in teaching, whether it’s math, computer science, chemistry.”
Underlying her thirst for education are several things, including taking care of her mother and family as well as making her parents proud. But there’s a deeper significance.
“To me, it’s pretty simple and straightforward. The meaning of life is to worship the One and Only God.
“Worship is an umbrella word that contains many things ... (and) if I were to explain it by examples, loving and serving God’s creation is worshipping Him. Praying is worshipping Him.
“Going to school is worshipping Him, because you’re acquiring knowledge. Because if you don’t know yourself, how would you know Him?”
Nilab’s earliest memories growing up are going to the mosque with her grandmother in Afghanistan. When she was older, she was curious, so she read the Quran from cover to cover — in Russian.
“You really do need to know yourself — this universe, this world — to realize how complex it is. And then to appreciate the Creator behind it.”
What God wants
Nilab has an opportunity every year to do just that. This is the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by prayer, fasting and reading the Quran. Nearly one-fourth of the world’s population is Muslim and everyone except the sick, pregnant, elderly and very young is expected to fast.
Nilab says: “You’re encouraged to (read) the Quran, to do more prayers and do good deeds. Their religious reward multiplies during the month of Ramadan because it is a very special month; so anything you do will count toward many, many times. ...
“So it is a big deal.”
Ramadan began this week. Because Muslims follow the lunar calendar, Ramadan falls 11 days ahead every year. Thus, Ramadan rotates through the entire year in 34 years.
“It has two meanings to me. One is that if you live 34 years from the age that you are able to fast, you will have fasted an entire year.
“And the second thing is that I think it is fair to the entire globe — one side doesn’t have to fast the entire time in summer and the other side, like Australia, doesn’t have to always fast in winter. ... It is fair that way.”
This year, Nilab and her family will get up at 3:30 a.m., which gives them just enough time to eat breakfast before first light. That will be the last food and the last drink they will have until sunset, which at this time of the year in Idaho is many hours away, about 10 p.m. (She has an app that tells her exact times. “I am an engineer,” she laughs. “I have to use technology.”)
“God doesn’t want to starve us. And at the end of the day, it’s not empty bellies and dry mouths that He wants from this month; there is a lot more to it. By abstaining from food and these physical needs, we’re expected to grow spiritually.”
When Nilab goes to work, outwardly, no one will know she’s fasting. But inwardly is where the important stuff is happening.
“Of course, you really want to have food or drink. But your heart gets to have the final say: ‘No, I will not do this.’ Your mind is God-conscious You become more aware of God’s presence.
“Because if you go to the break room at work and eat, no one will stop you, no one will say, ‘You were supposed to fast, why are you not fasting?’ Or at home, you can go to the kitchen and have some food. (Fasting is) not something that’s for other people; it’s something that’s really personal between you and God. Which is how you grow spiritually.
“Even though no one else will see you (eating or doing something you’re not supposed to), God is always there. And it’s a reminder that stays with you the rest of the year, the other 11 months.”
A stronger faith
There are those, of course, who have noticed the ways in which she observes her religion. This has led to one of the accidental benefits of moving from country to country and continent to continent: a deepening of her faith.
“When you live in an Islamic country, no one comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, why do you pray? Why do you fast?’
“Versus when you live in a non-Islamic country and people see you doing those things, they will question and say ‘Why? What is the purpose?’
“That really helped me learn my own religion. Because you have to answer to other people, you have to know what it is for yourself first. ... ”
At Boise State, Nilab was active in the Muslim Student Association with an eye toward helping others understand Islam. She served as president and next semester, her sister will take up the role.
“I always go back to verses of the Quran where God says if I really wanted to, I would make you one nation, one tribe. He wanted us to be different so we get to know each other.
“I actually do appreciate living in a city where everyone is different. I have a lot of friends from a lot of backgrounds, a lot of cultures. It does help me see Greatness of God and His power, His mercy.
“Plus to Muslims, because we believe in all the prophets before Islam, other faiths are really close to us because we believe in the same prophets and the same teachings.
“Christianity and Judaism and Islam, they’re all like siblings. You can think of Islam as the youngest child. Because we’re all Abrahamic faiths, to me, even though we’re so different, we’re still one family.”
Another part of Ramadan’s spiritual lesson is empathy.
“When you’re fasting during the day, you’re pretty sure that come 9:30 or 10 p.m., you’ll have food at your table. But there are families who don’t have that. And that’s another realization that you get from Ramadan: to be more grateful. It encourages you to be a better person, to give charity ... because you know exactly how it feels. You’re not just told; you had the experience (of hunger).”
And at the end of Ramadan, Muslims are called on to give 2.5 percent of their wealth to charity.
“The mosque doesn’t collect it. ... It’s between you and your God. ... No one will question you about it, but you will know.”
As the holy month begins, Nilab will also reflect on how her deeds and her education — her life — will align with her faith.
“What you do in life can be used no matter what it is.
“If it is computer programming, civil engineering or chemistry, it’s up to you to find that link, the link between how your profession can help you and help others; how you can use it to serve people around you, serve your community.
“It’s not very hard for me to see that. I know that I can use computer programming in projects where it will help people. Even working for my company, I know the tools we build help other people.
“It is satisfying and rewarding at the same time.”