The scars and burns on Nurjahan Khatun’s face still remain, but her heart and mind are healing.
At 9 years old, Khatun was the unintended target of an acid attack in Bangladesh. She happened to be sleeping in the same bed as her cousin, Bilkis, who was 13 at the time.
Bilkis spurned a man’s marriage proposal. The acid that flew through her bedroom window was meant for her. Bilkis’ face was burned on one side and she lost an ear.
Khatun’s face was completely marred. Only her mouth and eyes were recognizable. She had a hole in her forehead and lost her left eye.
She was brought to Southwest Florida in 2000 for medical treatment.
The cowardly act left her disfigured, but not destroyed.
“I’m alive,” she said. “I told myself I could have a better life or a worse life. I have to choose. I choose a better life.”
Now 26, Khatun graduates with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Florida Gulf Coast University on Sunday.
She wants to be a doctor. Her dream job is to work for Doctors Without Borders.
“It’s the only way I can repay all the people who have helped me and taken care of me — to give back,” Khatun said.
Khatun first arrived in Southwest Florida in 2000 with the help of Healing the Children, a nonprofit organization that helps children worldwide get medical attention.
In 2004, she returned to Bangladesh after an initial round of surgeries was completed.
During her time back home, Khatun testified against one of the men responsible for the acid attack and he was jailed.
“He was in jail for a little while but the other men got away,” she said.
In this file photo, “When the children saw Nurjahan Khatun for the first time, it was a little shocking,” said Joyce Haynes, Nurjahan’s fourth-grade teacher at Tropic Isles Elementary School in North Fort Myers. Here, Haynes introduces her new student to the lunchroom on her first day of school in January 2000. (Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski/File)
In this file photo, although Nurjahan easily got used to American culture, when she returns to Bangladesh after her surgeries are complete, she will trade her jeans for traditional Islamic clothing. (Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski/File)
There have been more than 3,000 acid attacks in Bangladesh since 1999, according to the Acid Survivors Foundation. The organization raises awareness about acid violence and works to reduce the incidence of acid attacks in countries in South Asia and the Middle East.
While acid attacks are seen mostly in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, they have been reported in South America, North America and Europe.
According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, acid attacks are committed for revenge of rejection of sexual advances or marriage proposals and over dowry and land disputes. Most attacks are against women and are done by people known to the victims. The attacks don’t usually kill. They are meant to maim and humiliate the victim.
Khatun returned to the U.S. in 2006 on a B-2 visa with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The B-2 visa applies to tourists, business travelers and those seeking medical attention.
Delays in the visa renewal process forced her to go back to Bangladesh in 2009. In 2011, Khatun returned to the U.S. for good — she was granted asylum.
Staying in her country could have been a death sentence.
“The trips back to Bangladesh really opened my eyes,” she said. “It wasn’t safe for me. There is no life for me there. I’m a scar-faced girl. If you’re disfigured, you’re not treated well.”
Khatun recalls being threatened by unknown men in the street. Some threatened to kill her. Police officers used to heckle and laugh at her. The family member of one of the men who threw the acid once accosted her at a bus stop.
“If I’d stayed in Bangladesh, my life and the life of my family would have been in danger,” she said. “My sisters would have had a hard time being married. My family would have been ostracized.”
Khatun is 17 years removed from the more than 36 feature-reshaping surgeries, the failed visa applications and the anxiety-provoking trips back to Bangladesh.
She has lived so much, yet her life is just beginning.
Khatun plans to go to medical school. She’s thinking about being a medical scribe for a while — it’s a job that will give her plenty of experience. She has shadowed the doctors who have operated on her but isn’t sure she wants to be a plastic surgeon. Maybe geriatrics or pathology, she said. She likes microbes and the elderly.
“I don’t know exactly where I’m going after this,” she said. “I want to travel. I want to see where I can go.”
Because she was granted asylum, she can’t go back to Bangladesh. Khatun calls her parents and siblings from time to time. She hasn’t spoken to some of her extended family. Her family had a falling out after the acid attack. Her uncle, Bilkis’ father, told Khatun’s family that his daughter was the reason Khatun got the opportunity to have a better life.
“My parents and siblings are happy for me being here, my dad especially,” she said. “He always asks me how I’m doing in school. One of my nieces is 16 now. She has been asked to marry and she tells boys no, that she wants to go to school and be a doctor like her aunt.”
Khatun said she is probably is the most educated woman in her village and the only one with a degree.
None of what she has accomplished would be possible without the families who have taken her in and cared for her as their own, she said. After she graduates and moves out of her dorm, she’ll go back to living with her host parents, Karen and Gary Neis, in Cape Coral.
“They are all so important to me,” she said.
She has good friends and loves the beach. She takes pictures of herself and does her makeup beautifully. She styles and highlights her hair. When she looks at herself in the mirror, she still feels sadness about her scars sometimes, but she carries on.
“In Bangladesh, I’m an ugly face with no brain. Your face matters more than your brain,” she said. “I was reminded of my face all the time. In the U.S., I’m not.
“I have never felt like that here, which is why I’ve been able to move on and carry on with my life. I’m very happy. I like being me, I guess. I want to be me. Sometimes I feel sad and then I get over it because I know that I can’t do anything about certain things.”
The most incredible and Amazing girl Nur is we are honored to have her as our Ambassador and strive to support her through out her empowering journey. – said Mahendra Singh Foundation President, Monica Singh Acid Attack Survivor and International Social Activist.
Article Courtesy: – Naples News
Link to Original Article source: http://longform.naplesnews.com/nurjahankhatun