Pakistani acid-attack victim finds new life in Houston
by Susan Carroll
She was 16 years old, working as an operator in a tiny, public call office in Pakistan, when a man walked in and saw the silver cross dangling around her neck.
He asked her three times: "Are you a Christian?"
Julie Aftab answered, "Yes, sir," the first two times, and then got frustrated.
"Didn't you hear me?" she asked.
They argued, and the man abruptly left the little office, returning 30 or 40 minutes later with a turquoise bottle. Aftab tried to block the arc of battery acid, but it melted much of the right side of her face and left her with swirling, bone-deep burns on her chest and arms. She ran for the door, but a second man grabbed her hair, and they poured the acid down her throat, searing her oesophagus.
A decade and 31 surgeries later, Aftab is an accounting major at the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a melodic laugh. She spoke no English when she arrived in Houston in February 2004, but is poised to take her citizenship test later this month.
Doctors in Houston have donated their time to painstakingly reconstruct her cheek, nose, upper lip and replace her eyelids. Over time, her scars have faded from hues of deep wine to mocha.
And, with time, the 26-year-old said, she has learned to forgive.
"Those people, they think they did a bad thing to me, but they brought me closer to God," Aftab said. "They helped me fulfil my dreams. I never imagined I could be the person I am today."
Eldest of seven
Aftab was born in Faisalabad, Pakistan, the eldest of seven children in a Christian working-class family.
She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but dropped out of school at age 12 to work in a sewing factory after her father, a bus driver and the family's sole breadwinner, broke his back in an accident. After the sewing factory closed when Aftab was 16, she took a job as a telephone operator helping people place phone calls from the small office in the city's center.
It was June 15, 2002, two weeks into her new job, when the customer spotted her silver cross, a gift from her grandfather. She wore it despite knowing it branded her as Christian, a tiny minority in the Muslim-majority country.
You are living life in the gutter, the Muslim man told her.
She tried to ignore him, remembering what her mother had taught her since she was a child: "You are no one to insult someone's religion. If someone is insulting religion, they have to answer to God."
You are going to hell, the man told her. You are living in darkness.
"I am living in the light," Aftab replied.
So you think Islam is in darkness? the man demanded.
Aftab was frightened. She knew Christians had been accused of violating Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws in the past when others had twisted their words, to make it sound as though they had attacked Islam.
"No, you said that," she replied. "Not me."
But the man was enraged and returned with the battery acid and his friend. When she finally broke away from them, the acid searing her skin and throat, she ran down the street. As she screamed, teeth fell from her mouth and hit the ground.
A woman heard her screams and threw her head cover on Aftab so she could touch her without getting burned. The woman took Aftab to her home and poured water on her. Others eventually came to help take her to the hospital.
People in the neighborhood detained the two men who assaulted her until police arrived.
Why did you do that? the men were asked.
They said Aftab insulted Islam, that she said Muslims are living in the darkness and are going to hell.
"They all turned against me," she said. "Even the people who took me to the hospital. They told the doctor they were going to set the hospital on fire if they treated me."
The police let the two men go, and did not even file an official report on the assault until Christian leaders complained, she said.
Aftab's family was turned away from one hospital, and then another. Her mother begged a doctor at a third hospital to treat her, and he relented.
Aftab could not speak or move her arms. Doctors said 67 percent of her esophagus was burned. She was missing an eye and eyelids. Her remaining teeth could be seen through her missing cheek. The doctors predicted she would die any day.
She was angry at first, she said.
"God, why did you do this to me? Why did you put me through this?"
Slowly, she started to heal. Three months and 17 days after being burned, she spoke again and was able to see through her left eye. She spent almost a year in the hospital.
Aftab quickly learned that in her old neighbourhood, she was a pariah. Her mutilated face was plastered on the news, associated with insulting Islam. Her family was persecuted, and their house was burned down.
"They wanted to hang me," she said. "They thought it would be an insult to Islam if I lived."
Aftab and her parents went to a nondenominational bishop in Pakistan, who said he would try to help. He took her in, contacted Shriners Hospital for Children, and arranged for her treatment in Houston.
He gave her one piece of advice before she left Pakistan in 2004: "If you forgive them," he said, "your wound will heal without any medication. You can heal from the inside out."
Shy and speechless
Lee and Gloria Ervin prayed together on the night they heard that a young Pakistani girl undergoing medical treatment in Houston needed a place to stay. The Ervins, active in their congregation at Deer Park United Methodist Church, had raised four children of their own, and had a spare bedroom.
They offered to take Aftab in for six months.
When she first arrived, Aftab was painfully shy, stared at the floor and dressed head-to-toe in black, Gloria said. They quickly realized she spoke no English.
Lee, a retired Shell worker, taught Aftab how to read and write using the children's picture books from the church library.
The couple would sit with Aftab when she woke up scared in the middle of the night, screaming and crying.
Doctors 'gave me a life'
Aftab enrolled in Deer Park High School, and endured surgery after surgery at Shriners and at Methodist hospitals. She credits a list of doctors with the careful reconstruction of her face, neck and ears - all done on donated time.
"Maybe those doctors don't know what they did. Maybe they think they just did their jobs," she said. "But for me, they gave me a life."
She graduated from high school and went to San Jacinto College on a full scholarship, courtesy of the Deer Park Rotary Club.
In 2007, Aftab applied for and received asylum with the help of Catholic Charities. She is scheduled for her naturalization interview on July 17.
Over time, she became part of the fabric of the Ervin family, standing at the center of the group portrait shot at the couple's 50th wedding anniversary. She still lives in the couple's spare bedroom, and calls them "Auntie Gloria" and "Uncle Lee." She says she is unspeakably grateful for them, for their kindness.
She stopped wearing all black, and now calls her scars "my jewel, my gift from God."
"You don't even see the scars anymore," said Lee, 71. "You see so much beauty."
"We are very proud of her," said Gloria, 72. "We're very proud of all of our kids."
Aftab works at Lowe's in the mornings and takes classes at UH-Clear Lake in the evenings. She plans to someday become a pastor, and raises money for a safe house for persecuted girls in Pakistan.
"There is a reason God gave me life," she said. "I don't want to miss one second of it."