“I met Asma Mansuree Asfi at a metro station in Delhi, India. Her face was tightly wrapped with a scarf and her eyes were covered with sunglasses. I noticed the scars on her arms and knew that it was the woman I had arranged to meet – an acid attack survivor. She looked down at my scarred hands and smiled. Asma knew that she could trust me, as I was a survivor like herself. We went to a local cafe where she told me her story.
It was my journalism lecturer Clare, who gave me the idea to focus my applied project on burn survivors. I was unsure at first as I didn’t want to constantly broadcast my traumatic experience and I certainly wasn’t one for being in the limelight. She said that this was an opportunity to help others and I guess she was right. So with the help of Clare, I combined my passion for travel and journalism and started to broadcast stories from around the world.
I was burnt a day before my first birthday back in 1995. The bathwater left me with 34% burns to my body, causing amputations to my fingers and toes. It hasn’t been an easy ride being a burnt survivor – the constant operations, the gasps from others and the whispers. It’s only been recently that I have felt confident within my own burnt skin. I eventually decided to tell people my story, join charities and help advocate for others. This was around the time I came up with a plan to tell other burn survivor’s stories. I was going to travel to India, Nepal, and make contact with others worldwide. I had a goal, a mission to connect us globally together.
It was my first time meeting a burn survivor in a foreign country. As a solo female traveler, I had my wits about me, I was already volunteering in Delhi for two weeks with an NGO for empowering women, but luckily, I found a charity in India that focused on burns. I asked if they had anyone who would be keen to meet me.
I made the bumpy trek via tuk-tuk to meet Asma. We met at a nearby metro station – convenient for me as it was in public but convenient for her as she didn’t feel safe alone. I waited in anticipation until I saw a person carefully wrapped from head to neck with a scarf. I knew straight away that it was the 25-year-old survivor. I knew because I know how it feels to want to hide from the world. There have been many days where I’ve wanted to cover, to avoid any unwanted attention. Her sunglasses prevented our eye contact but I saw her scarf crease as she smiled. Asma looked down at my hands and it seemed as though my burns confirmed that it was not some spoof. She took my hand and in broken English, she asked if I wanted coffee.
I don’t know what excited her more – the fact that she’d never met a British person before, or the fact that I was too, a burn survivor. Nevertheless, she seemed to be comfortable in my presence, enough so, she eventually took off her scarf. I had only known her for ten minutes, but I got the sense that she only did this due to my own situation.
Asma was burnt in a family feud with a jealous neighbor. Not only was Asma injured in the attack, but nine other family members. “Why me?” She said, looking into my eyes. “Why did they do this to me?” I couldn’t answer her question. As a burn survivor, the same question often popped into my own head – “Why me?”
Seeing her face pleased me, but the fact that she didn’t leave until she covered up, left me feeling upset. I found it hard to accept that a disfigurement wasn’t accepted here and that different societal behaviors apply.
I came away from the experience feeling emotional and eager to find out more. Why did Asma feel the need to cover up so greatly? It was clear to see that Asma hadn’t received the same support, culturally, emotionally and socially. The experience made me realise that globally, burn survivors weren’t treated the same. In fact, India has one of the highest rates of acid attacks in the world. One of the main causes of acid attacks in India and across other countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal were because of honor or wrongdoing.
To be burned in a bath scalding accident is one thing, but to be burnt on purpose is something else. I’d met other burn survivors in my life – one being my best friend, Raiche who was burnt in a fire at 18 months. We always went through the same emotions. I remember being on the London tube one time and a man was gawping at her face – which had been scarred by the blaze. It’s human nature to look at things that are considered to be ‘different.’ But who can define ‘normal?’
Later, I traveled to Nepal where I also met burn survivors who were trying to crush the stigma burn survivors carried within the country. I remember one woman said, “When I walk down the street, people crossed over because I am seen as ‘bad luck.’” I’m sure she saw my face drop with distraught.
Dana from Syria explained to me how she had to wait for three-days for medical treatment after being burnt in a bomb explosion. She said, “because of the war in Syria, there were no spaces in the hospitals and no Burns Units would accept us.” I remember reading on Aljazeera that burn survivors in the Middle East were, in fact, being treated with mud to treat burns due to the lack of resources.
In aims of raising awareness of burns and survivors, I have shared my experiences through television and print. I’m now an ambassador for two charities and I continue to discover people’s stories daily.
During my adventures and intense research, I realised how simply lucky I am. Being a burn survivor can be tough and daunting, but I can reflect on the people I have met – their harrowing stories and resilience. Our scars, regardless of where in the world we are, religion or culture, connect us. The stares and whispers may haunt us, but nothing will conquer our bravery.
Lucy’s Solo travels:
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Jordan, Italy, Nepal & India