San Jacinto College student overcomes tragedy to pursue her dream of college education
PASADENA, Texas – Sitting in a college classroom was a childhood dream for Julie Aftab, one almost shattered by a violent acid throwing attack as a young teenager in Pakistan. Her determination to survive the incident would bring her to Houston and turn that dream into reality.
"When I was a little girl, I always wanted to go to college," said a tearful Aftab, a 23-year-old business management student at San Jacinto College. " Walking into college for the first time felt like heaven. This is my biggest dream."
Attending college was the farthest thought from Aftab's mind the years following the day a man walked into her work place and threw acid on her. Aftab was only 16 years old at the time and working a full-time job, a role she began after leaving school at the age of 12 to help support the education of her brothers and sisters.
The attack left most of Aftab's skin tissue damaged, blind in one eye, inability to hear out of her right ear and a burned esophagus. After a passing stranger helped her to a medical facility, she found that many area hospitals refused to treat her in fear of retaliation. The ones that agreed to admit her administered oxygen, gave her an IV drip and a tracheotomy, and began one of many skin graphs, some of which were performed without anesthesia.
"Life before the attack was hard, but it was a lot of fun," remembers Aftab. "I liked colorful clothes, makeup and being around people. After my attack, I lost all hope. I just wanted to stay inside, away from everyone and everything."
Acid throwing is a common crime in the Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam and are often committed against young women for reasons like family or land disputes, dowry demands, religion or the refusal of a relationship. For Aftab, it was her religion and refusing a relationship that made her a target. Aftab's attacker and his friends went unprosecuted and continued to try on numerous occasions to end her life, which also later resulted in a gunshot wound to her head and stomach.
In 2004, a local Pakistani bishop donated money to send Aftab to the United States to live with a host family in the Houston area and undergo reconstructive surgery at Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, that would also close her tracheotomy and reconstruct her throat. In 2006, Aftab entered high school for the first time at Deer Park High School and began working at a grocery story. Within two and a half years, she graduated with her diploma and was able to reach another milestone - purchasing her first car, a 1998 Chrysler Sebring.
"I went to high school not knowing English," Aftab said. "I was confused about everything. But one piece of advice my English teacher gave me was that the only time I can't do something is when I don't try. And she was right."
Aftab decided to try the next chapter in her life, pursue a college degree. She said she chose San Jacinto College because of the Pasadena location, cost of tuition and the small classroom environment.
"My family cannot believe I am going to college," she said, adding that she continues to work at the grocery store to pay for college and help her family. "Five years ago, I was completely dependent on other people. Now, I have hope and a new beginning in life."
Sherry Mays, division operations manager at San Jacinto College, was introduced to Aftab through a mutual friend and said knowing such a strong individual is inspiring to anyone who perseveres through personal tragedy and to one day attend college.
"Although her journey has been a most challenging and a difficult one fraught with personal pain that most could never fathom, it is extremely rewarding to know and experience just a small part of who Julie Aftab is and to see her accomplish her dream of an education," said Mays, who recently helped her friend receive a scholarship from the College’s Association of Educational Office Personnel.
After receiving more treatment from The Methodist Hospital in Houston, Aftab said she plans to make more dreams come true after moving on from San Jacinto College. She hopes to attend either Rice University, the University of Houston or the Southern Methodist University. She dreams of one day opening a home as a safe haven for young women like herself in Pakistan, so they may live, work and attend school without the fear of retribution.
"Now, I go home and think about my classes instead of my fears," Aftab said. "Now, I wear clothes with color."
San Jacinto College serves more than 24,500 students in over 140 degrees and certificates in university transfer and technical programs. The College also serves the community through workforce training. Students come with various goals and aspirations and we are committed to their success. San Jacinto College. Your Goals. Your College.
For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150 or visit www.sanjac.edu.