The photograph below should have never been taken.
On the surface, this image depicts a surreal moment: my mother and I pose on the shore of Zuma Beach in Southern California with Christine, a woman we last saw over two months ago during our final visit to her one-room home in Ndejje, Uganda. Christine was the victim of an acid attack in 2011 and had been receiving assistance from Hope of Children and Women Victims of Violence (HOCW), the NGO in Uganda where my mom and I recently volunteered. Through the dedication of an amazing team of people affiliated with HOCW, Christine was chosen as a candidate to receive free reconstructive surgery through the Grossman Burn Foundation, which happens to be based in Calabasas, CA, about forty miles from my hometown.
I arrived in Uganda last October, a few days before Christine’s medical visa interview at the US embassy in Kampala. HOCW’s founder asked if I would accompany her to the meeting at the embassy in case she needed additional translation or assistance. Although I can’t take credit for the work that led up to this moment, Christine’s smile when she walked out of the embassy with the news that she would definitely receive a visa will forever live in my memory. She had achieved what was considered nearly impossible among so many Africans: Christine was going to the United States of America.
Christine and former HOCW staff member, Vicky, moments after Christine found out that she would receive a medical visa to travel to the United States.
My mom arrived in Uganda two months later and we continued to help Christine prepare for her journey to the US, from conducting a psychological evaluation to ensure that she was ready for the experience to serving as the de facto film crew for Christine’s Indiegogo fundraising video. When our time in Uganda came to an end in January, we exchanged tearful goodbyes with Christine and assured her that we would see her soon, this time on our “home turf.”
Fast forward to the sunny California coastline on March 28th, 2015. As Christine and I walked along a beach that is 40 miles from my hometown and 10,000 miles from hers, I was struck by the tragic irony of the situation. It had taken something as horrifying as an acid attack for this young woman to have the opportunity to travel to the United States, a dream for so many people across the developing world. Christine’s immense suffering had ultimately served as her ticket to the US.
Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) estimates that around 1,500 acid attacks occur every year and that 80% of the victims are women. Although the majority of these attacks happen in South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), about 25 to 30 attacks happen every year in Uganda. The attacker’s motivation is often rooted in jealousy: a woman is irreversibly scarred by her husband because he worries that her beauty is drawing too much admiration from other men; a young woman throws acid in the face of her ex-boyfriend’s current lover; a husband hires a teenager to throw acid on his wife during her walk to work so that she will have to quit and wait on him at home.
Although I will not reveal the exact story here, Christine was the victim of an attack that was fueled by such jealousy. In an instant, at the age of 18, she was transformed from a celebrated beauty to an ostracized shut-in, barely able to leave her home out of fear of what villagers would say or do when they saw her disfigured appearance.
While Christine’s suffering is acutely visible on the outside, the emotional toll of her attack is far more profound. “Here, carrying out such an attack is equal to taking someone’s life,” an acquaintance from Tanzania told me when I recounted Christine’s story to him. “You cannot imagine the judgment that these victims face everyday, even though the attack was often caused by something completely out of their control, like the way they look.”
Christine is incredibly lucky; she will receive world-class surgery through the Grossman Burn Foundation. Her first surgery is scheduled to take place in California this month, and she is staying with a gracious host family that has taken her in with open arms. But as I strolled beside her quietly on the California shore, stealing glances at her as she stared out at the horizon, I couldn’t help but think how much better her life would have been if I had never HAD to meet her – or at least not in these dark circumstances.
What if she had never needed to leave her child and partner to come all the way to California so she could try to live a happy, healthy life? How free would she feel if she didn’t have the urge to check that her face and chest were covered before posing for a photograph with me?
The circumstances that made our walk on the beach possible are so heartbreaking, I can’t help but question: wouldn’t Christine’s life have been better if we had never been able to take that photograph together at all?