HOUSTON, TX -- Julie Aftab watched through her one good eye as a man made his way through the crowd of more than 3,000 to stand in front of her. Nadir Hemani was a stranger to her, but he took her hand in both of his and looked intently into her face. He had an urgent, personal request. Would Aftab, a Christian, please forgive the Muslim men who brutalized her 10 years ago, leaving her with horrific scars and forcing her to flee her home in Pakistan for refuge in the United States?
He explained that in Islam, those men could not receive forgiveness from God unless Aftab first offered hers. Hemani, a Muslim, also wanted Aftab to know that the men who hurt her did not represent all Muslims. The petite brunette whose face is pitted and twisted by the acid thrown at her didn't hesitate to agree to Hemani's request. She granted her attackers forgiveness long ago.
On Tuesday, Aftab and Hemani became U.S. citizens together. Along with 2,191 other immigrants, the Pakistani natives took the oath of citizenship before Judge Kenneth Hoyt, U.S. District Court Southern Texas. Both emigrated from the same region of Pakistan, seeking a new life but ultimately finding acceptance and forgiveness.
In a gymnasium full of people with their own emigration stories, the judge asked Aftab to recount hers. In his introduction of the 26-year-old University of Houston-Clear Lake student, Hoyt said Aftab "came here in a way many of you did not."
In 2002, when she was just 16, Aftab became the sole breadwinner for her parents and five siblings, after her father sustained a debilitating back injury. In the region of Pakistan where she grew up, the most menial jobs were reserved for non-Muslims. Aftab was working in a public call office the day her life and her faith almost came to an end.
The office allowed townspeople without phones to make calls for a fee. Aftab was in the office alone when a man came in, she assumed, to use the service. But the conversation took a bizarre turn when the man, noticing the silver cross dangling from a thin chain around her neck, asked if she was a Christian.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
She was too pretty to be a Christian he told her.
"In their point of view Christians are ugly," Aftab said later.
The man repeatedly questioned her religious loyalty, and Aftab began to get irritated. But she knew better than to retaliate. Other non-Muslims had been put to a similar test. They were goaded and agitated in an effort to evoke a response that could be construed as anti-Muslim.
"They set a trap for Christians to break blasphemy laws," she said.
But she refused to be pressed.
Then the man put money on the counter and promised her that if she converted to Islam she would be showered with gifts and treated like a queen.
"I am a queen already. I have everything," she told him.
Her rebuff angered the man. He told her Christians lived in darkness and would go to hell. She simply replied that was not true. He took her correction as an insult to Islam and stormed out of the office. His last remark chilled her: "I'll see if your Jesus can save you."
Aftab was scared but did not leave. Her desire for acceptance outweighed her fear. As the first born in an extremely patriarchal society, Aftab had fought all her life to prove she could be just as tough and intelligent as a man.
"Men over there don't show fear," she said. "I wanted to show my dad I may be a girl but I could fight for myself."
When the man returned about 30 minutes later, Aftab was still alone, but he had brought an accomplice and a weapon--battery acid. She looked up in time to see the caustic liquid thrown toward her face and threw up her arms in a vain attempt to shield herself from the assault.
She jumped up and ran toward the door but was stopped by the second man who grabbed her by the hair, throwing her head back. The first assailant told her he was going to "destroy the mouth that said, 'No' to Islam."
He poured acid down her throat and left her in the street, her body smoking and skin falling from her face.
A woman heard her cries and rushed to her aid. Unfortunately, the woman's efforts to help by pouring water on the wounds only made them more pronounced.
The two men were apprehended but soon released as their version of the story spread through town. Aftab, they said, had insulted Islam by saying its followers live in darkness and were going to hell.
The town, even the woman who had first helped her, quickly turned on Aftab and her family. Protestors threatened to burn down any hospital that treated her. Her family took the wounded teen to three hospitals before a Muslim doctor in a neighboring city heeded her mother's pleas for help. He would do his duty as a physician but the cause, he pronounced, was hopeless. The injuries were too severe.
Aftab came in and out of consciousness, unable to speak because of the damage to her throat. But in her heart, she cursed God.
She remembered praying, "I did this for you and all you did was take everything."
After weeks of treatment, doctors decided to withhold pain medication, declaring Aftab would not survive the night. The proclamation was the last thing she heard as she labored for breath and slipped into unconsciousness, cursing God for his indifference.
Aftab comes from a mixed religious pedigree. Her father is a third-generation Catholic and her mother a third-generation member of the Church of Pakistan, now a Pentecostal. Her family's religious incongruity and her father's sometimes harsh treatment of her mother left the young girl questioning the benevolence of God. But she consistently saw her mother retreat to prayer in times of trouble. That single act seemed to bring peace.
When she was six or seven years old Aftab followed her mother's example. She wanted to see if praying would "make things normal."
"I felt like this bubble was around me where people couldn't get to me," she said.
Aftab's experiences in prayer made her "fall in love" with God. She found comfort when she took her anger and questions before God. But after her attack, she realized she didn't know anything until she was put to the test.
Barely conscious the next morning, Aftab heard the doctors pronounce her dead. Her mother later related what transpired. Following the pronouncement, Aftab's father left to make funeral arrangements, but her mother stayed behind, refusing to believe her daughter was gone.
As she sat by the bed, she saw Aftab's toe move. She called the doctor to return and give her daughter oxygen. She refused to let him tell her no.
Aftab said the doctor probably acquiesced just to get her mother to leave him alone. But after about 15 minutes of treatment, the teenager gasped for breath on her own. She said the Muslim doctor was impressed with her tenacity in clinging to life and the degree of faith her mother demonstrated. He agreed to continue treating her.
It took more than three months for Aftab to recover from her injuries enough to leave the hospital. And in that time, she found peace with God. Her bubble did not burst. She realized it had been the arms of God around her the whole time.
Those arms have held Aftab for 31 surgeries, to date. Future procedures will continue to reconstruct the scarred skin and routinely replace her prosthetic eye.
"He told me he didn't do this to me and that he had a purpose," she said of her conversations with God during her recovery. "I promised God I would never hate my life. I'm grateful God gave me a second chance to live."
Aftab now sees her scars as jewels and an ever present reminder of Providence.
But embracing her injuries took time, and her second chance at life was fraught with violence and continued threats against her and her family. Their home was burned and, after moving to another town, Aftab was shot, the bullets grazing her arm and head. Aftab's mother pushed her into a shop doorway where the girl hid under a display table. The gunman entered the store but did not find her, even though at one point, he stood in the blood from her wounds, only inches from where she hid. Aftab believes her attacker was blinded by God.
Ultimately, the need for additional medical treatment and freedom from persecution lead Aftab to Texas and Shriners Hospitals for Children, in Galveston. In 2004, she left her family and moved to Deer Park, a suburb of Houston about 45 minutes from the hospital, to live with retirees Lee and Gloria Ervin. The couple had four grown children but responded to their church's call for a host family. They felt lead by God to take in the teenager for what was to be a six-month stay for treatment.
But Aftab's stay in the United States became permanent in 2005 when she applied for asylum. She knew she could not return to Pakistan for fear of retribution.
"She was unbearably quiet and shy," Gloria Ervin said. "She didn't lift her head. She didn't speak."
The couple are members of Deer Park United Methodist Church. The congregation embraced Aftab and provided her and the Ervins with financial, emotional and spiritual support. Church members joined the friends and family members of other immigrants at Tuesday's ceremony to witness her swearing in.
"People I thought were strangers became my family," Aftab told the audience. "For this day, all credit goes to God and his people."
When she arrived in the U.S., she spoke no English. Aftab told the audience Lee Ervin put up with her teenage antics and attitude and worked with her late into the night, teaching her English. He scoured the public and church libraries for kindergarten books to use as tutorials. She quickly became proficient enough to take an educational competency test and scored on a first grade level.
But Aftab thrives on challenge and relished the chance to learn. By 2006, with additional aid from the Deer Park Independent School District, Aftab scored on a ninth grade level and entered the district's accelerated academics program. She graduated in two years and enrolled in the local San Jacinto Community College. She paid her tuition in part with a $5,000 Rotary Club scholarship. She now studies accounting at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and plans to attend seminary after graduation.
And as a new citizen, Aftab looks forward to taking part in American duties, such as voting and serving on juries. She also can help look after her family by beginning the application process that would bring them to the U.S. She fears they still live under threat of violence and she wants to secure their safety.
Her life is blessed, Aftab admitted, in spite of--or because of--her scars. She knows they make her unique.
When Nadir Hemani asked if she would forgive her assailants, Aftab unequivocally and without hesitation replied, "I forgive them. Whatever happened, happened. I don't ask for them to be punished. I ask God to change their hearts."
That was a blessing to Hemani, who appeared genuinely distraught over the actions of people who claim to represent his faith. His request for forgiveness was prompted not solely by his own desire to set things right but by his father's. Hemani's parents still live in Pakistan and his father had read about Aftab's plight from recent online news accounts. It made him heart sick.
Knowing his son would be at the same naturalization ceremony, the father asked him to seek out Aftab, ask her forgiveness, and convey to her that the men who hurt her do not represent all Muslims. Aftab now prays for the men who hurt her. She knew if she held a grudge, they would have succeeded in making her life miserable.
"I ask God, 'I'm a piece of clay. You make me today what you want me to be,'" she said.