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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Byline: Amy Driscoll

MIAMI _ To trace her remarkable journey, Bilkis Khatun has only to look in the mirror.

The skin grafts and cartilage and fading scars on her face tell the story of a life rebuilt, from "honor crime" victim in Bangladesh to outspoken survivor in a land halfway around the world.

In the last four years, she has been lasered and stitched, transplanted and tucked. Doctors custom-made a prosthetic ear, surgically implanted a brow, re-created a nose with the last nub of cartilage from her destroyed ear.

But works on the outside. Medical records don't chart the changes within. For Bilkis, now 17 and headed back to her country, the strength and bravery she discovered after enduring an act of unspeakable cruelty may be the greatest makeover of all.

"Oh, my god!"

She cups a hand over her mouth, half laughing, half dismayed. She's watching videotaped news footage of herself when she arrived at Miami International Airport in May 2001. This girl is fresh from Dhaka, in an Indian-style tunic and dark sunglasses so enormous they almost swallow her face. She looks petrified.

The newscasters describe her in grave tones: a disfigured Bangladeshi girl who traveled to Florida for reconstructive surgery after thugs threw acid on her face.

The image shifts to a news conference. Her new plastic surgeon discusses her case and so does her foster mother. On television, Bilkis sits small and silent as a voice-over warns of "graphic pictures" to come: close-ups of Bilkis' ravaged face.

She shakes her head at the big screen. "I've changed a lot."

She is not talking about the .

The Bilkis of today doesn't much resemble her black-and-white schoolgirl picture taken before the attack. She looks like a new self, with scars and uneven skin pigment still evident.

"I worked really hard to have this new face," she says. "But the face, it's not that important. I think what's inside, that's important."

She was 13 at the time of the acid attack. In Bangladesh, such assaults are known as "honor crimes," often committed by spurned boyfriends or angry husbands to avenge themselves, using the most available weapon: battery acid. The Acid Survivors Foundation, started in 1999, reports that there were 283 acid-throwing assaults between January and October last year.

In Bilkis' case, the details are murky. Two men, hired by a would-be suitor she says she never met, broke into her home at night to pour acid on her face. One was later caught, though the specifics of his punishment are unclear. Bilkis spent months in a Dhaka hospital before the Florida/Georgia chapter of Healing the Children stepped in.

Oprah Winfrey had aired a show that spring on international violence against women, including acid attacks in Bangladesh. In Weston, Fla., a single mother with two daughters watched from her sickbed and took action. Within minutes, Heidi Marer was on the Internet offering to help.

"I was saving the world," she jokes.

A few miles away in Fort Lauderdale, someone else was prepared to help, too. Dr. Russell Sassani, who would become Bilkis' chief plastic surgeon and perform 14 surgeries on her, had heard about Healing the Children from his partner, Michael Schneider. Schneider was involved in an airline program that provided adult escorts for children traveling solo, some as part of the charity's campaign.

"As horrific a crime as this was, Mike made me realize it would be a greater crime if we did nothing to help," Sassani said.

Less than two months later, Bilkis stepped off a plane in Miami, armed with a month's worth of English lessons.

___

It was a cool night in Khalishpur. She was sound asleep in bed next to her younger cousin, Nurjahan.

Without warning, sleep turned to roaring pain. Hot, then cold on her face. She found herself running outside, hearing cries _ her voice, her cousin's.

Someone called an ambulance. Bilkis saw her father, crying. She had never seen him cry before. Her mother's face, stunned. Neighbors, too, the whole village, crowded around.

She looked for Nurjahan, spotting a small figure, curled up with arms around her knees. Her face was oddly white and puffed out. She was weeping, almost soundlessly.

Bilkis wondered if Nur was going to die.

They sat together, waiting for the ambulance. Bilkis, not crying, kept her eyes on her cousin. She reached up and touched her own face, very gently. It felt hard, more like wood than skin. She dropped her hand.

It would be three months before she would look into a mirror.

___

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

"When I found out what happened to Bilkis, I was like, damn, that is messed up," says Jessica Stallard, a friend at the Whiddon-Rogers Education Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The two girls are the same age, 17. They share a computer class and a curiosity about each other's worlds.

"When people see her for the first time, they ask what happened _ I did," Jessica says. "But I don't really look at it anymore, and from what I've seen, neither does anyone else. It's just her."

Bilkis, a junior, has taught Jessica about the Bangladeshi culture and loaned her Bollywood DVDs, Indian musicals filled with unrequited love. Jessica has taught Bilkis a few things, too, like what a hickey is.

"I think she was raised a lot more strict and more respectful in her culture," Jessica says. "I mean, she's never even kissed anyone."

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

After 3-{ years in South Florida, Bilkis is Americanized, for better and maybe worse. The girl who once jumped into a pool fully clothed because she didn't want anyone to see her scars is long gone. She no longer needs the signs that her foster mother initially posted in her room _ common phrases written in both English and Bangla _ to help them communicate. She's not even that crazy about her own country's food anymore.

She wears low-slung jeans, wedge shoes, a T-shirt that says "custom built," and rides up to show her belly-button ring. She likes dollar stores and reading, everything from the Helen Keller story to "The House on Mango Street."

When she meets people who speak Bangla, she fumbles to respond in her own language.

"It just comes out English," she says.

Healing the Children has made changes in its program based in part on Bilkis' experiences. Children flown in for surgeries now generally stay no longer than six months.

"I think we were a little naive about how long it would take for this kind of massive reconstruction," said Tina Heydorn, executive director of the Florida/Georgia chapter. "Now we send them home between surgeries and bring them back. We do that to preserve the integrity of the family and their culture."

During her stay, Bilkis has seen the generous side of Americans. Her surgeries would easily cost several hundred thousand dollars. She's had her own room in her foster mother's home for three years and in her plastic surgeon's house for the final eight months. She's been to Walt Disney World and Wal-Mart and Virginia to see snow _ all gifts given freely to a Muslim girl living in a post-Sept. 11 United States.

Bilkis has ambitions and plans now. She wants to become a doctor, or perhaps a nurse.

"I don't know how I'll do it, but I'll do it," she says, gazing out a car window at the suburbs of Broward County. "I want to help people the way people have helped me. I'll try when I go back, I'll really try to do it.

The odds are against her, and she knows it. She is returning to a tiny village in a third-world country where her parents don't have a phone or running water and rickshaws are common. Customarily, acid survivors have been ignored or shunned in a society reluctant to acknowledge that the problem exists.

Today, "no one will judge whether she did anything wrong _ which of course she didn't _ but they'll all still know when she walks down the street in her village," explained Nasreen Pervin Huq, a women's activist with the group Nari Pokkho in Dhaka. "In the past, girls like Bilkis lived out their lives in anonymity in their villages. Not seen and not heard."

But one thing Bilkis has learned in the United States is the power of self-determination.

"I don't care what people think or if they look at me," she says with a shrug. "I just don't care. That's not going to stop me."

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

___

At the hospital, the doctor asked if anyone had thought to wash the girls' faces. No one had. He shook his head. Skin touched by acid should be flushed with water. It helps keep the acid from reaching the bone. That was the first time Bilkis realized she had been attacked with acid.

From then on, she averted her eyes from every surface that might show her reflection. One day in a hospital bathroom, she caught a glimpse of a disfigured face in the mirror. She didn't recognize it. It was hers.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

___

Bilkis is crying.

She didn't cry when she left Bangladesh. She didn't even cry _ much _ when she had to wear bandages covering her whole head for weeks.

But here, among dozens of friends at an Indian restaurant in Dania Beach at her going-away party, she's clutching a napkin to her eyes. She's sad to leave, but joyful at the thought of seeing her family. It is, she says, "a happy kind of cry."

The banquet room is filled with Bilkis supporters. The Chodhry family, from Pakistan, who invited her to their home and took her to the mosque. Doctors and nurses who worked for free. Brandon Cox, the vet who lives around the corner, with her children. Laura Van Epps and her toddler daughter, Caroline, who took Bilkis to dollar stores and the park.

And of course, her three "parents," Sassani, Schneider and Marer. Shepherding a teenager through three years of grueling operations _ and feeding and schooling and housing her _ has taken their combined efforts. Strangers at the beginning of this odyssey, they are good friends now.

In a few days, they'll put Bilkis on a plane, her three suitcases crammed with books and clothes and a laptop. The goodbyes are beginning.

"I'm just so proud to sit and talk with her and hear her English and see her demeanor and her laughter," Marer says. "It was all worth it."

Then her doctor, Sassani: "We hope you shine when you go back, Bilkis."

Schneider tries not to choke up, then does, as he reflects on the ways Bilkis has grown, in empathy and strength and bravery, "because she had to."

Now it is Bilkis' turn. In a red sari for the occasion, hair pulled up and new ear fastened, she strikes a pose and cues the music.

With a flourish, she's off _ swirling, twisting, leaping around the room. She's been practicing this dance for weeks, copying it from a favorite Bollywood movie, and she is giving it everything she has. Hair in her eyes, bare feet alive to the music, it is a dance of complete abandon.

As the final note sounds, she is grinning like she can't stop. And the applause begins.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

___

For years afterward, she dreamed about the attack, reliving the moment destruction rained down on her head.

She doesn't dream about it anymore. In her new dreams, she is not a victim. In her new dreams, she is defending her cousin.

Nur, who also had years of surgeries in Florida, e-mailed Bilkis in July from Bangladesh. Someone had told her she didn't look any different now, which made her angry. It made Bilkis even angrier.

"That was so mean," Bilkis says. "And it's not true!"

In her dream, Bilkis is confronting the person who said these things about Nur, and she is cursing him. In English.

___

(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

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