(HOUSTON) — Julie Aftab’s joy masks the scars that cover the right side of her face.
When she was 16, she was attacked in Pakistan by a man who was offended by the silver cross she wore around her neck. He threw acid on her face, and poured it down her throat.
Her injuries were so severe it would take 31 surgeries over 10 years for her to recover once a family in Houston took her into their home.
On Tuesday, Aftab received a precious gift — a piece of paper declaring her a United States citizen.
“This means so much,” she said. “For many people this is just a piece of paper, but this paper means I now have opportunity, it means I am free.”
When Aftab arrived in Texas nearly eight years ago she spoke no English. Lee Ervin remembers the quiet girl who came to his home.
“She was so quiet and shy she didn’t speak any English, and she barely would look at us,” he said.
His wife Gloria said, “We taught her English using a kindergarten book with pictures.”
Aftab’s English is now good enough that she is majoring in accounting at the University of Houston — and she was the keynote speaker at the naturalization ceremony for herself and 2,000 other new citizens.
She wrote a speech, practiced it over and over, then decided to leave it at home.
“I want to speak from the heart, to thank the people and the country that gave me a home and a future,” she said. “I will cry, I know I will cry. This has been an eight-and-a-half-year journey, and now so much is possible. I can serve on a jury now.”
She was near tears as she described her life in Pakistan.
“All my life I wanted to be accepted. In my house I was not accepted, in my society I was less than others,” she said.
The Ervins, who accepted Aftab in the U.S., had smiles to light up the room as they watched her take the oath of allegiance, then bravely walk to the front of the large crowd to tell them what the moment meant to her.
Aftab took a deep breath and looked at the crowd.
“For me taking the oath is not just words, being a citizen is not just a responsibility, it means this country is truly the land of opportunity. I can now live a free life,” she said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jim Acosta and Daniella Diaz, CNN
Rafael Romo and Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Elizabeth Cohen, CNN
Lauren Leslie, CNN