The following article appeared in the Jonesboro Sun on Wednesday, January 22, 2014.
Pakistani acid victim tells story in Jonesboro
By Sherry F. Pruitt, Sun Staff Writer
JONESBORO — A decade ago when “that man” threw battery acid on 16-year-old Julie Aftab of Pakistan because she admitted to being a Christian, she watched her cheek fall to her feet.
“I call him ‘that man’ because I don’t want his name on my lips,” she said. “My heart belongs to God. His name to my lips is hatred, and I don’t want to create hatred.”
Robert Norvell, state director for ACT! For America, a human rights organization, hosted Aftab, who spoke for more than an hour Monday at Ryan’s. He said 98 percent of the population in Pakistan are Muslim, with less than 2 percent identifying themselves as Christian.
“Every five minutes a Christian is killed somewhere in the world by a Muslim fanatic,” Norvell said.
Aftab thanks God she wasn’t killed in the attack, and she never lost her faith.
In Pakistan, men do not respect women and girls. During her childhood, her father repeatedly told Aftab, “You are nobody because you are a girl.” The man of the house feels free abuse women and girls under his roof, she said.
Nor do they value human life. When a woman or girl is raped, the blame is placed on the victim. Her family is shamed, and the family or society will sometimes kill the victim. If she survives, she is an outcast, Aftab explained. At that point, her options are suicide, prostitution or suicide bomber, she said.
“I had a strength,” she said. “I stood up for myself.”
The firstborn of seven children, Aftab stepped forward to earn money for her family when her father broke his back and could not work.
The attack occurred when she was working in a small telephone office when a customer — “that man” — saw a cross she was wearing on a chain around her neck. He asked her, “Are you a Christian?”
“‘Yes, sir,'” she said she replied. He asked her at least three times, offered her money to convert and told her she would go to Hell.
“‘I know where I am going. I don’t need your opinion.'” she told him. “I have everything. I don’t need anything.'”
“That man” returned to her office and poured acid on her face and upper body. When he returned, he brought another man with him, and together they poured acid down Aftab’s throat. While one man held her down, “that man” tried to “destroy the mouth that said no to Islam.”
“I saw my cheek melt and fall to my feet,” she said. “All you could see were my bones. All the skin just melted off.”
A woman tried to help, covering Aftab with her headscarf and taking the 16-year-old to her home where she put water on the wounds in an effort to help. They didn’t know the water made the acid go deeper into her body, she said. It was considered a great sin to the woman because she saved the life of a Christian. Aftab explained. But the woman didn’t know it at the time.
At the first hospital, they were told, “She deserves to be dead” before being refused treatment. A second hospital refused to treat Aftab, but her mother convinced a doctor at the third hospital to treat her. He agreed, but told her mother, “She’s not going to survive anyway.”
“They all turned against me,” Aftab 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.”
Few Pakistanis wanted to be associated with Aftab because she was a Christian. It could mean trouble. Even her own father wished ill upon her while she lie in a hospital bed scarred, blind in one eye and trying to recover.
“I was in a ward on the second floor by a window,” she said. “‘My dad said, ‘Let’s throw her out of the window. Nobody will know who did it.'”
At the hospital after three weeks, the doctor continued to say she would not survive, and if she did, she would be handicapped. Her father began making funeral arrangements. Even though Aftab had been angry at God and couldn’t understand why he would let the acid attack happen, she never lost her faith in him.
She credits her survival to the Lord. Sixty-seven percent of her esophagus was burned, she was missing an eye and eyelids, and her teeth could be seen through her missing cheek. She underwent 31 surgeries, skin graphs, and muscle transfers from her leg to her arm. Her face, chest and arms were left scarred. The lefty had to learn to use her right hand.
They wanted to hang her. A denominational bishop in Pakistan contacted Shriners Hospitals for Children in Houston and arranged for her to be treated there. Lee and Gloria Ervin took her in and taught her English. In 2007, she received asylum and has become an American citizen.
But she never lost her faith in God.
“Three months and 17 days later, God gave me a voice and eyes,” said Aftab, who was hospitalized for a year.
In an effort to help other girls and women in Pakistan, Aftab has started two safe homes in her native country. One houses 39 women and the other 47. She’s also opened six sewing centers to teach women how to be gainfully employed. She’s never allowed to return to Pakistan.
Growing up, Aftab wanted to be a physician, but she’s changed her mind. Now, she wants to be a pastor. She’s earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and is working on a master’s degree.
“This is my home, my future. This is where my children will grow up,” she said of Texas, adding she is engaged to be married.
At the same time, she cautioned Americans against taking lightly the changes non-American natives want made within the United States.
“They want to change the United States. We are letting it happen,” she warned.