Too often, we Americans take things for granted. Like the future and the hope that opportunity affords. Like the blessings of cultural diversity. Like the freedom we have to believe. And like the power of forgiveness. Julie Aftab has given us a reminder.
Ms. Aftab, 26, became a U.S. citizen last month in Houston, where she was invited to speak at the naturalization service that welcomed 2,192 new Americans to our ranks. Her journey to citizenship has been difficult–and she has the scars to prove it.
Ten years ago she was living in her native Pakistan. Because of her father’s incapacitation, by age 16 she had become the sole breadwinner for her parents and five siblings. Alone in the shop where she worked, a male customer, a Muslim, confronted her about the silver cross necklace she was wearing. She admitted that she was a Christian. The man became angry, but she refused to renounce her faith.
Eventually, the man left, but returned later with another. When Ms. Aftab looked up from her work, they threw battery acid in her face. She tried to run, but they caught her by the hair, yanked her head back, and poured the acid down her throat, bent on “destroying the mouth that said ‘no’ to Islam.”
The traumatized young woman raced into the street, skin falling from her face. Other women rushed to help but unintentionally exacerbated her injuries by pouring water on her burning flesh.
Ms. Aftab was transported to a hospital, where doctors gave no hope she would live. Still, her mother stayed at her bedside, praying and advocating for her. Against all odds, the young woman survived, although she lost an eye and was deeply scarred. She was at first angry with God, but eventually came to believe that God had a purpose in her wounding. She was grateful for another chance at life.
But the trials weren’t over: Although Ms. Aftab’s attackers were caught, they claimed she had denounced Islam. So the entire community turned on the family, part of the Pakistan’s despised Christian minority. After a second attack, this time with a gun, the young woman was granted asylum in the United States.
A Shriners Hospitals for Children in Houston offered Ms. Aftab care. An older couple, responding to their church’s call for a host family, took her in. At the time, the young woman spoke no English and was painfully shy. But “people I thought were strangers became my family,” she told World. “For this, all credit goes to God and his people.”
Ten years and 31 operations later, Ms. Aftab is well on her way to achieving both a college degree and a life of purpose. She’s becoming an accountant and is looking forward to exercising her rights as a U.S. citizen–including the oft-avoided jury duty.
At the naturalization service, however, some unfinished business emerged: Also becoming a citizen that day was Nadir Hemani, a Muslim from Pakistan. His parents, still in his home country, had read about Ms. Aftab. They asked their son to look her up, and apologize, on behalf of Muslims, for the attack that nearly cost her her life. He did, taking Ms. Aftab’s hands in a moving gesture. “I forgive them,” she responded. “I ask God to change their hearts.”
And so in America, two Pakistanis of different faiths found common ground–a place of acceptance, a shared humanity, a future and a hope. That’s the promise of America, if we can keep it by remembering our founding principles.