When she arrived at her new home in Vancouver, Shakila Zareen placed a photo of herself – dressed in yellow with dangling earrings and a matching necklace – next to her bed.
The image reminded her of life before she was forced into marriage, before she had to flee fearing for her life. Most importantly, it captured her as she was before her husband aimed a hunting gun at her face and pulled the trigger.
'I can have you killed': Afghan woman fears husband after US denies asylum
“The photo is a nostalgic memory of who I was,” said the 23-year-old. “Now I look at myself, my eye is not there, my cheek is not there, my lips are not there, but I have this picture.”
After , she is now starting a new life in Canada. But her ordeal began years earlier; she was 17 years old when her brother-in-law – a strongman with links to the Taliban in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province – descended on her family home with a 20-man entourage, intent on marrying her off to a cousin 14 years her senior.
Zareen protested. But her family, already reeling from an illness that had left her father bedridden, was powerless to stop the marriage.
The abuse began on her wedding night, Zareen said through a translator, and rarely let up. “He began to beat me and rape me.”
Desperate for help, she turned to the police. “They just said, ‘he hasn’t cut your nose or your lips or your ears or anything like that, so there’s nothing we can do,’” she said. “I felt completely hopeless. They took away any hope that something could be done.”
Defeated, Zareen went to her mother’s house. Her husband – tipped off about her visit to police earlier in the day – arrived that night, scaling the walls of her family’s compound with two other men. In the darkness Zareen glimpsed a rifle in his hand. “As soon as we came face to face, he shot me.”
She woke up the next morning in a Kabul hospital, having miraculously survived the shooting as well as a gruelling 260-mile journey along mountainous roads. Pain coursed through her body and she initially thought it was a bad dream. Then she slowly traced her fingers over her bandaged face, realising that half of it was missing. “I wondered what I had done to deserve such inhumane treatment,” she said.
The Indian government flew her to Delhi and paid for nine reconstructive surgeries over three years. The surgeries took a toll, and at one point, doctors warned her mother that she would not survive.
Despite being more than 600 miles away, her brother-in-law continued to harass her. “He was saying, ‘We’re going to come after you, we’re going to kill you, your mom and sister.’”
Zareen’s brother-in-law claimed she had shot herself. Her husband, who was held in jail for 10 months following the shooting, ignored multiple interview requests from the Guardian.
Terrified at the prospect of returning to Afghanistan, she applied for asylum through the UN. In 2016, she was conditionally accepted for resettlement in the US and began dreaming of a new life far from her abusive husband.
The plans she conjured in her head were short-lived; one year later she was told the US had rescinded its offer due to “security-related” reasons. “I couldn’t believe it. I cried all the way home,” she said. “The message made me so sick I had to go to the hospital.”
Some speculated, paradoxically, that the US may have retracted her acceptance over her brother-in-law and husband’s connections to the Taliban. The idea incensed Zareen.
“These are the same bad people that hurt me. The same people that hurt me and shot me and took away so much of my life. It’s because of them that I’m here, so why I am I being singled out?” The same concerns might have prompted Sweden’s rejection of her application, she added.
It took months before Zareen’s hopes would again be lifted, this time after agreed to accept her as a refugee. In January, she arrived in the Vancouver area with her mother and one of her sisters.
Soon after, she put her new home to the test, peeling off the bandage she had publicly worn over her left eye since the shooting. “I thought people would harass me or stop me or stare at me,” she said. “But nobody even bothered me.” After years of trying to hide her injury, she felt as though she had finally found a place where she could focus on rebuilding her life.
Her new life is still laced with fear; while she feels safe, she worries that her brother-in-law and husband will one day find her in Canada.
But she refuses to lie low, drawing inspiration from the photo of herself on her nightstand and the tumultuous journey she has been on since it was taken. “I was strong then because I always fought back and I always stood up for myself. But I’m stronger now,” she said. “So I’m not going to be silent.”