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VIOLENCE AND DISFIGURATION TURNED INTO COURAGE, HOPE AND BEAUTY

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

Published on August 11, 2012 with No Comments

What would it be like to suddenly no have face? Not to recognized the person in front of the mirror? Unfortunately that’s the reality that the victims of acid attacks face every day. More than 1,500 people are attacked in this brutal way annually around the world. Pakistan is one of the two countries with highest rate of this kind of crime.

There are non-profit organizations in Pakistan and abroad, helping the burned victims. I flew to Lahore, Pakistan to learn about “Depilex Smile Again,” a NGO with the mission of not only to help women -disfigured by being thrown acid over them or by being set on fire with kerosene oil- get medical and psychological treatment, but also aid them to become productive members of the society which rejects them for their appearance or incapacities.

In Lahore, I was set to meet with these survivors and the woman who has empowered them. Her name was Masarrat Misbah.

Ms. Masarrat Misbah, founder of Depilex

Masarrat is a famous beautician and successful entrepreneur in Pakistan turned philanthropist. She has beauty salons all across the country and has dedicated her life to make women look beautiful.

Despite being part of the beauty business and coming from a privilege family, Masarrat is using her knowledge to help those who have lost their beauty due to the atrocities of deliberate burning.

I arrived in the headquarters of the foundation to find out that it was not just another office. It was actually a beauty salon.

Portraits of gorgeous women -with perfect makeup and shining hair- decorated the place.


“I am beautiful” was written in big letters on the wall.

But this was different from other beauty parlors.

The beauticians were not women with smooth and beautiful faces; many of them were burn victims. They didn’t hide or look shy. Totally the opposite, they smiled and looked confident.

These women couldn’t escape the mirrors or the faces of women around them, but they seem completely comfortable with that and themselves. This salon has become their home, their refugee, a passion and a good way to make a living.

A giant picture of a girl with half of her face destroyed said “Help us bring back the smile to the face of these survivors”

I was eager to meet each of them, but first I needed to meet Masarrat. I was taken downstairs where the offices of the foundation were.

“Welcome to Depilex!” a gorgeous woman dressed in a delicate white tunic approached me and gave me a kiss in each cheek.

Her fair skin was Her white hair held back was covered with a white scarf. She looked like a fairy. That was Ms. Masarrat.

As we walked around the salon, she introduced me to Nasreem, Urooj and Bushra, all of them burn victims, and the last two were beauticians in the salon.

I first talked with Nasreem. She took her dark glasses off. Her face was all scarred. She had lost one during the attack and in the empty eye socket, there was nothing except red flesh. Her nose was noise was reconstructed. She had a beautiful smile and despite the damaged, I could see that she was probably a very attractive woman before the attack.

Attacked for rejecting marriage proposal

“Nashreem, how did this happen to you?” I haven’t heard her story, yet I was already horrified by the fact that one human being could do something like this to another.

“I was very young. Some relatives sent a marriage proposal to my parents. I was only 14 years old. My parents and I refused it because I was still too young. The boy and his family were very upset. One night, around 3am, I was sleeping outside the house, and he threw acid on my face,” she explained.

“Did you know about acid attacks? What did you think that was?” I asked.

“I thought someone has thrown hot water on my fac. I felt it my face was swelling up. I couldn’t open my eyes. And the people who had thrown the acid were running away. My family came to see what has happened to me,” she said.

Nasreem was taken to the hospital at 12pm. The same people who attacked her (the boy and his family) took her to the doctor, pretending that someone else has done it, but her family realized the boy was the aggressor because he accidentally burned his hand when he throw acid on her.

“What happened to the boy and his family? Were they arrested?” I asked.

“They still live in the village. They were charged but they have money so they were bailed out. I am always afraid, but going to the legal department is expensive and tedious. I gave up. They are free,” she said hopeless. “I wished I had my eye or have more brothers so I can take revenge in the same way my life has been destroyed,” she added.

Despite the frustration and anger, Nasreem recovered the hope due to all the help and support she has received from Ms. Masarrat and other people around the world. She was sent to Italy for operations and has gone through over 35 surgeries so far.

“I have recovered my confidence. For three years I was hidden in the house. I didn’t want to meet people. But now I can face the world again. I have faith and hope,” she smiled.

I was very moved by her. Nasreem had a doctor’s appointment and she wanted to get dolled up, so she went upstairs to get her hair done.

I stayed alone with Masarrat to talk about the salon, the girls and the NGO. She came across with this reality when one of the victims once came to the salon covered with a veil and then reveal her disfigured face, asking Masarrat to make her look beautiful again. Masarrat was horrified and deeply moved. She wanted to do something about it and “Depilex Smile Again” was born.

“In front of you, there is a woman without a face. Acid is such a strong chemical that if you throw it on someone’s face, it melts and not only melts but it take out all the organs under,” she said with horror.

The motives vary from case to case, but it could be revenge, jealousy, suspicion of infidelity, sexual non-cooperation, enmity and the list goes on- in other countries –such Afghanistan and Palestinian Territories- women have been attacked because of the way how they dress and even for going to school. Mortality rate is low. The goal is not to kill the woman, but to destroy her life. Make survival a living hell.

“The man always throw the acid on the woman in their faces and in the front of their bodies. Faces because they don’t want them to be beautiful again, and the rest of the body so she cannot perform as a woman,” she said.

Most of the girls that come to her have lost their identity and their desire to live.

“They are suicidal. They don’t want to live so they are weak. They are shy. They are frightened and threatened by the same people who threw acid on them. Their families just want to take them home and hide them to avoid the community, asking question because usually the girls are blamed for it. But once they recovered from that first shock. There is anger in them, it is so strong that they want the same punishment to the person who has done it to them,” said Masarrat.

Besides the medical support and psychological treatment, “Depilex Smile Again” gives these women the opportunity to learn a skill so they can be active members of the society, productive, self-reliant and be financially independent.

“It is heartbreaking when you asked them and what they want to do is to become beauticians. When we think of beauty and beauticians, you think of beautiful faces, and the acceptance of the public for these girls to be beauticians is hard. We also have girls who we have helped to complete their studies. One is a nurse and one is studying to become a nurse.”

They have lost their faces and natural beauty, but they haven’t lost their femininity.

“You won’t believe that the first thing that they do when they arrived in the salon is brush their hairs, put lipstick, do their eyebrows. They are like any other girl. They are beautiful and talented,” Masarrat is very proud of the women she had helped.

The Pakistani government approved a law that makes these brutal attacks illegal, with penalties of a minimum of 14 years in jail and US$11,000 fine. However, victims assured that rarely the perpetrators are convicted.

“Even if the laws is there, the implementation has to come from the people who know about the law, which is the law enforcement agencies, and often they don’t even know the law. They immediately blame the attack on the woman and asked them “what has you don’t deserve this,” said Masarrat upset.

There may be a law to punish the attacks, but no much has been done to prevent them. Both acid and kerosene are easily available in Pakistan.

“How can someone for 35 rupees or less than a dollar buy a liter of sulfuric acid and destroyed someone’s life!” Masarrat wishes that the sell of acid is tightly controlled.

Masarrat and I went upstairs to the salon, to look for Bushra. Her face was severely scared. Her noise was completely disfigured. Her sight wasn’t affected by the attacked fortunately. For years, not only her husband but also her in-laws physically and physiologically abused her. They were greedy and demanded money from her family.

Bushra, acid victim

http://www.depilexsmileagain.com

One day, her husband and her in-laws, tied Bushra up, hanged her and threw acid on her before creating a fire in the house where she was. The people outside- who saw the house in flames- rescued her.

“When I was taken to the hospital, my face has blown up. I had no nose. My eyes were shut down. My neck melted with my chin. I was a piece of burned meat and my in-laws didn’t inform my parents. Fortunately, the doctors contacted my parents and they came for me, ” Bushra said. “But they couldn’t recognized me.”

Her own parents couldn’t recognize her, and neither could she.

“I was no able to see myself. When I touched my face, I knew something was very wrong. The first time I saw myself in the mirror. I fainted and recovered consciousness two days later. I was the most beautiful person in my family, now she was the ugliest.”

With the help of Masarrat, she was able to go through several surgical procedures and looks today much better, helping her to regain her confidence. She was also trained as a beautician and now she can earn money so she can get her children back, which to this date are under the custody of the man who abused her and once tried to kill her.

“They were too young when it happened. I have two sons and one daughter. They never brought my kids to the hospital. My children don’t know if I exist or not! I tried to get in touch with them, but I couldn’t. I dream that my kids look for me. My daughter is 20 years old now,” sobbed Bushra while she washed the tears.

Seeing Bushra cried shrank my heart. I couldn’t continue with the interview and push her pain. I just held her hand and gave her a hug.

While Masarrat took some calls, I roamed around the salon, watching the girls work. And that’s when I met Urooj. Her case showed what a human being is capable of doing under extreme abusive conditions. She set herself in fire as revenge after another abusive incident with her husband. The blaze burned about 70 percent of her body.

“I couldn’t do it anymore. I was so desperate. I didn’t know what else to do. I could not live my life like that,” she said.

Her face was all burned, but it wasn’t as disfigured as the victims of acid attacks. She had her two eyes. Her lips and nose were reconstructed.

Seeing these women work with such confidence and enthusiasm was inspiring. Urooj, Nashreem, Bushra and the other burn victims at the salon were a reminder not to take life for granted. Most women come to the salon or do plastic surgery to look better or to fit the standard of beauty established by our society. These victims do it as a necessity.

Masarrat is, in the eyes and hearts of many of these girls, a big sister. And called her like that.

Not only she received the burn victims at the salon, but also welcomed them into her home. Some of the victims are accommodated in Masarrat’s home while receiving treatment in Lahore.

Masarrat comes from a privilege Pakistani family, and is a successful businesswoman with a prosperous beauty salon chain across the country. So why would she take such responsibility of having a NGO and even bringing that part of her life into her own home?

She didn’t only face the challenges of finding the doctors (in Pakistan and abroad) and the funds to help these girls recover physically and psychologically, but she also had to deal with the emotional part of seeing the suffering of so many women that came daily to her in search of hope.

“I couldn’t just turn back and don’t do anything about it,” said Masarrat at her home, where I had the opportunity to meet more victims.

With Mamoona

One of the girls was Mamoona. Her brother had a fight with boys of the community. One day, while shopping with his brother in the market, one of those boys took a bottle of acid and threw the liquid on her face. She was only 11-years-old.

Her face, neck and arms were affected. She lost one of her eyes. The doctors were able to put glass eye in the eyehole. Now she was in town to see a doctor who may be able to create an eyelid so it looked more natural.

“You look at me now and I am much better,” she said confidently.

Mamoona has gone through over 30 surgeries. Skin was taken from her tights and back to help reconstruct the face and neck. Mamoona even received treatment in Texas, reason why her English was so good and why she loved USA so much.

“Americans were very nice and supportive to me. I loved it there and the people,” she smiled.

More than a decade later, and the surgeries are not over.

“My first surgery lasted 10 hours, they make one eye but it wasn’t successful. And at that time I was in shock. I said it is not possible. It was hard for me. I was suffering,” she explained.

As many acid burn victims, she first thought it was hot water.

“I didn’t have any idea about the acid. When I saw my face in the mirror, I didn’t recognize my face. It was so difficult to see myself. Then, I met Ms. Masarrat and she has provided me everything. She knows a lot of surgeons and you see me good thanks to Mrs. Masarrat,” she smiled. “For all of us, burn victims, she is like a big sister.”

Although she learned how to live with her reality, feeling confident and happy nowadays, she is still frustrated with the authorities for not doing enough to prevent these attacks.

“In Pakistan, you can buy for 10 rupees acid and throw it to a person and that person’s life is destroyed,” Mamoona was infuriated.

She also is frustrated with her own society.

“In Pakistan, if this tragedy happens, your parents don’t want you to go outside because everyone will pass and make a comment about you. They will ask questions and doubt you. They always think it is the girl’s fault!”

Although her aggressor is still free and she fears another attack, she refuses to hide at home. Despite what happened to her, she has dreams and believes in living her life the fullest.

“I am becoming a nurse. I need to live my life. Ms. Masarrat pays fees in hospital and my school. She has supported me. She is supportive to everyone,” she said.

She was a victim, but didn’t behave like one. She was so confident, so driven, so positive.

More burn victims started arriving in the house to share their stories. Their tunic and veils of bright colors hide the severe scars left by the brutal violence they had been target of.

http://www.depilexsmileagain.com

“Depilex Smile Again” has successfully helped over 400 victims. According to local NGOs, about 150 acid attack cases are reported in Pakistan annually and this doesn’t count the women who stayed home hiding from society.

Most of the victims are young girls and women under 25.

We all sat in the porch of the house to chat.

Fatima was burned with Kerosene. Her face was not so disfigured, but her neck was scarred and so was her body. She had lost mobility. She hasn’t been able to flex one of her legs for years. She said it was very painful, especially at night. Despite her suffering, she was very sweet and all smiles. Besides a housewife and a mother, she teaches kids.

Rabia had come with her mother. She wore a beautiful mustard tunic and veil. She carefully covered one part of her face, which was severely damaged with acid, losing one eye. Her neck and arm were also very affected. Her cousin attacked her after her mother rejected his marriage proposal and she refused to elope with him.

Annum was accompanied with her mother. She was attacked after rejecting sex from the employer at the factory she worked at. Her damage wasn’t as severe as the other girls. She didn’t lose her eyes, nose or mouth. She was a very pretty girl actually. She has a huge bump in her forehead. Her skin had been intentionally stretched out so the extra skin could be used for the reconstruction surgery.

Shamin had probably the most horrendous story, and yet the most beautiful of all. She was ganged raped and right after, those same boys threw acid on her just outside her house. She carried a baby girl in her arms. After what happened to her, she was able to have a family and a happy life. She didn’t like to talk about the incident in front of others, so I waited until the end of the group conversation to talk to her alone.

Many of the victims didn’t know about the acid attacks until it happened to them. And those who knew, they never imagined they could be target of one.

“I heard that girls are thrown acid and burnt but never thought that that this could even happen to me. The culprits who threw acid on me are punished with the help of “Depilex Smile Again,” but for a heinous crime like this, the punishment is not justified. They should be hanged to death. I have suffered a lot as other girls have suffered a lot too,” said Shameen.

All of them were frustrated and infuriated with the impunity. Most of their aggressors are free, making them live in constant fear.

“The culprits are sentenced for maximum one to two years of imprisonment and then they are free. This is like a joy ride for them as they are receiving all their meals in the jail, while our lives are destroyed forever,” said Annum.

The deeper scars are not those in their skin, but the ones inside of them.

“I had lost hope after this incident. People saw me differently. I was afraid to face the society. Ms. Masarrat helped me tremendously. She has showed me that there is hope,” explained Rabia, holding the hand of her mother who couldn’t control the tears.

Shamin

While the women chat with Masarrat, I went to the patio in the back of the house to talk to Shameem. Alone with her, she explained that when she was 17-years-old, she was harassed by a group of boys around her house. She told them to stay away several times, but she never imagined what they would do later. One day, they kidnapped and raped her.

“After that, I was unconscious. I couldn’t move, but I will never forget the way that boy looked at me when he threw acid on my body. It was as if he was satisfied, as if he was trying to tell me that he has got what he wanted,” she said.

That day she lost half of her body organs and one eye. A decade later and after countless surgeries, her face is severely scarred, yet much better than what used to be.

“I feel I have been reborn. The attacked destroyed my body and soul, but thanks to Allah I married. I have a loving husband and two beautiful daughters. I have nothing much to ask really,” she smiled.

We went back to the house, where she took her baby girl back into her arms. She glowed while looking at the little baby.

I looked at all the women around me, and tried to put myself in their shoes… I didn’t know if I would have the courage and strength these survivors had. They were certainly extraordinary women. Their bodies have been disfigured. Their souls have been inflicted with indescribable pain. But they have not only survived, they have become a fighters! All of them are moving forward with their lives, proving all obstacles and suffering can be overcome when there is hope, and someone like Masarrat gives you a hand in the process to recover…

To help the burn victims of Pakistan, please go to www.depilexsmileagain.com and see the different ways you can help

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