On a chilly evening in February, Selamawit Tefera left work and returned to the house she rented in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Selamawit, an Ethiopian immigrant, had arrived in the United States two years earlier. Back home, she spent a decade as a flight attendant with Ethiopian Airlines. But social unrest and conflict pushed her to leave, and she came to the U.S. seeking political asylum.
She lived with four roommates — all from Ethiopia, and all men.
This particular Saturday evening, her housemate Bekre was already home. Selamawit went to her bedroom downstairs, and Bekre went upstairs. Then Selamawit entered the kitchen, and Bekre reappeared.
In his hand, Bekre held a container of sulfuric acid, a powerful chemical used to melt metals. Without speaking, he splashed the acid over Selamawit’s face and body.
“I was trying to defend myself, and I was flailing. And I could feel my flesh from my fingers hanging, and I was feeling like I was swelling all around my neck,” she said.
“I was trying to wipe what was splashed on my eyes with my hands at the moment. I was under tremendous spiritual distress.”
Bekre only nodded and left the kitchen.
Acid attacks are rare in the U.S. Around the world, about 1,500 attacks occur each year, Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), a U.K.-based charity and advocacy group, says.
Acid attacks are a particularly brutal form of gender-based violence designed to isolate victims and strip them of their dignity and power. They are seldom fatal, but can cause lifelong physical, psychological and financial harm.
About 80 percent of victims are women and girls, according to ASTI, and the attacks are more common in countries and communities with traditional gender roles, where women find themselves under the control of men.
After the attack, Selamawit ran from her house, her clothes and skin melting away.
A neighbor heard her screams and called 911. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter, along with Prince George’s County Police. Her assailant, 28-year-old Bekre Abdela, had fled the scene, and first responders rushed Selamawit to the hospital to treat her second- and third-degree burns.
Selamawit was hospitalized for four months and has undergone numerous skin grafts. She has permanently lost sight in her right eye, and her left eye might heal, restoring part of her vision. She is planning to have reconstructive surgery, if she can raise the funds to do so.
It has been a long road to recovery. Her wounds must be cleaned regularly. Three times a day, she takes a half-dozen medications and undergoes daily physical therapy. Once an independent woman, Selamawit now relies on others for even the smallest tasks.
“It is easy to destroy, but it is much harder to build,” her mother, Yewoineshet Mekonnen, told VOA. “This is something God created, and it is being destroyed. And for this to happen to a woman, it is very sad. And for this to happen in America it is so unexpected,” Yewoineshet added.
“I would like to thank God that she is alive. But for what’s to come after this, it is not something we can do on our own. We need help from people who care.”
Selamawit hopes to study information technology and regain at least some vision in her left eye. She’s also grateful for the support of the Ethiopian community after her attack.
Bekre was arrested and charged with attempted murder. A neighbor told local news stations they had questioned his sanity leading up to the unprovoked attack.
Police haven’t identified a motive, but, for Selamawit, the reason for the attack is clear.
“I think this happened to me because I am a woman,” she said.
This story originated in VOA’s Amharic service with Mestawet Aragaw reporting. Salem Solomon translated and wrote the story, and Karina Choudhury contributed visuals.