HOUSTON — Among the new U.S. citizens sworn in at a ceremony in Houston Tuesday was a 26-year-old woman from Pakistan who came to the United States after she had acid thrown in her face 10 years ago. Doctors in Houston performed more than a score of surgeries to restore her face and, although still scarred, she is moving on with her life and trying to help other victims of violence back in her homeland.
After taking the oath of citizenship, Julie Aftab celebrated.
“I have waited eight-and-a-half years to hear those words, and those words mean so much to me,” she said.
Ten years ago, when she was 16, two men in Pakistan threw acid in Julie Aftab's face because, she says, she is a Christian.
She says her attackers then spread a false rumor that she had insulted Islam, and mobs threatened her and her family.
“All my friends turned against me, and they set my house on fire,” Aftab explained.
She has lived for the past eight years with Lee and Gloria Erwin, whom she calls her uncle and aunt.
“We have been blessed having her in our home," Erwin said. "We really have been blessed.”
“My parents gave me birth, but both of them brought me to this world. He spent many nights sitting with me and teaching me English," explained Aftab. "People say they do not see angels, but I see angels around me every day.”
She still misses her homeland and her family, but Julie Aftab feels estranged from Pakistan. “I am not ashamed of being Pakistani, but Pakistan is ashamed of me. They did not want me, I think,” she said.
Although she is now safe, Aftab aids efforts in Pakistan to help abused women.
“They are women. That does not mean they are not human beings," Aftab explained. "They are somebody's daughter, somebody's sister.”
One man, a Pakistani Muslim who also became a U.S. citizen at the ceremony, apologized for what happened to her.
But she says she does not blame all Muslims, and, as a Christian, believes she must forgive the men who attacked her.
“If I hate them, then I will create more hate, and I do not want to do that,” she said.
Another new citizen from Pakistan, Nawaid Isa, says he hopes fanatics in his birth country will stop misusing Islam as a pretext for violence against people of other faiths.
“People do not understand what our religion teaches, they do not know about the Quran. They do not know that the Quran teaches respect for everybody, respect for other religions,” Isa added.
Pakistani lawmakers have tried to curb acid attacks with tougher sentences, but they continue, with Muslim women being the most frequent victims.
Aftab attends a local college, while working full time and taking part in church activities.
As is no doubt true for other people who were sworn in as citizens Tuesday, Julie Aftab is not thinking so much about the past, she is focused on the future.