HOUSTON -- When Julie Aftab stood in front of a crowd of several thousand at the M.O. Campbell Center in Houston Tuesday morning she was just one of 2,193 new Americans taking their official oath as new U.S. citizens. But Aftab’s American journey stood out because it began with the cross necklace, and the scars, she carries around her neck.
“For me this is the promised land. That is how I define the United States,” she said.
Aftab was 16 years old and working in her native Pakistan when two men took exception to the Christian cross she wore around her neck. She refused to renounce her faith and convert to Islam. They responded by pouring acid on her face and down her throat. The acid melted the silver cross and her skin. The injuries were devastating. To date she has had 31 reconstructive surgeries to her face, neck, back, chest and both arms.
“Once there was nothing but death. And today I have a whole world opened up to me,” she said.
That new world began in 2004 when she was granted asylum in the United States. The majority of her medical care came in Texas. Catholic Charities and the St. Francis Cabrini Immigration and Refugee program of the Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston provided legal, spiritual, and financial help. Foster families took her in as one of their own. She learned English, graduated from high school in less than two-and-a-half years, attended college, and is now on her way to becoming an accountant.
All this from a young girl brutalized because of her faith and even doubted by her own father whose cultural beliefs considered a daughter worthless.
“All my life my father said you’re a girl, you’re nothing. But I’m the person who changed my history. And I think I am a perfect fit for Texas because the girls here, they can stand up for themselves,” she said.
Aftab, now 26, was asked to address the crowd of fellow new Americans at the official swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday.
“Oh my gosh, these words,” she said. “You know it’s the sweetest sound of anybody’s --words that say you’re an American citizen. I waited eight-and-a-half years to hear this word,” she told the assembled crowd. “And these words mean so much to me.”’
As for the men who attacked her, and the father still in Pakistan who doubted his daughter’s worth, she says her Christian faith as taught her to forgive.
The scars are still painful and will always be a constant reminder. But the lesson of her American experience, she says, is bigger than all her dark days.
“This is one chapter,” she said she’s been taught. “You’re going to close that chapter and start the new one. One bad thing does not mean life has ended. There is a new beginning.”
“And I believe that after every dark night there will be day,” she said with a shiny new cross proudly displayed in front of her scars.
For Aftab beauty is much more than just skin deep. And courage is perhaps even deeper still.
And among the other 2,192 stories we hope to tell next: ovations and applause were also offered for a half-dozen Marines, soldiers, and sailors who proudly became official citizens of the country they’ve already proudly served.