Someone threw acid in her face. Her family doesn't know why.

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Around 8pm on a cool, cloudy March evening, Nafiah Ikram returned to her home on New York’s Long Island after a 10-hour shift at a nearby CVS, where she worked as a pharmacy technician.

Ikram, 21, parked outside, and her mother, who had been in the passenger seat, rushed inside to use the restroom. Ikram lingered to retrieve some food from the back of the car.

Then her attacker struck.

Bursting out of the darkness, a man in a hood ran up to Ikram and threw a large cup filled with battery acid in her face before sprinting off. The acid seared one of Ikram’s contact lenses to her eye. It ran down her throat as she screamed, singeing her lungs.

Her family thinks her injuries would have killed her had her mother, a nurse practitioner, not moved her daughter quickly into the bathroom and doused her with water.

More than a month later, after several weeks in the hospital, Ikram still has painful burns and trouble eating. Doctors have warned that her eyesight may be compromised forever by the March 17 attack.

No arrests have been made.

And her family lives in fear, wondering who would have attacked Ikram, a Hofstra University student, in what appeared to be an intentionally savage, calculated act that came out of nowhere.

“I am lucky to be alive,” Ikram said in an interview on Thursday (April 22).

“I think that the whole ‘making sense of it’ will come when hopefully the person that did this or the people that were behind this get caught. But right now, I am trying to just be OK.”

Sheikh Ikram, Ikram’s father, said he believed authorities needed to put more resources into investigating the case.

“We cannot relax,” he said. “We cannot even sit outside. We are mentally so disturbed.”

More on this topic

Commissioner Patrick J. Ryder of the Nassau County Police Department said in a statement that the attack at the home in Elmont, New York, a diverse suburb of about 36,000 people some 24km east of Manhattan, was a “vicious and heinous crime.”

Part of the encounter was captured on a surveillance video, and police are offering a US$10,000 (S$13,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of the attacker or anyone else involved.

But in response to questions about the investigation, police did not provide further information beyond a weeks-old statement describing the attack and the suspect, who they said was wearing gloves and a black sweatshirt.

Asian American hate attacks

The brutal and seemingly unprovoked attack on Ikram, who was born in the Bronx and is of Pakistani descent, came as Asian Americans have in recent months been the victims of hate-fuelled attacks in New York and across the nation.

A mass shooting last month in the Atlanta area, which killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, and another mass shooting this month in Indianapolis, where four of the eight victims were Sikh, have only stoked widespread fear of the deadly consequences of xenophobia.

This week, the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading civil rights group, called for the attack on Ikram to be investigated as a hate crime.

But Ikram and her father, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan 30 years ago, said they did not believe it was racially motivated, in part because it seemed like the attacker waited specifically to target his daughter and not his wife.

A police spokesperson said any decisions about whether the attack would be investigated as a hate crime would be made after an arrest took place.

Acid attacks occur worldwide but are especially common in a few countries, including Pakistan, India, the United Kingdom and Uganda, according to the London-based Acid Survivors Trust International. The victims are disproportionately women, according to the group, and acid, which can disfigure someone for life, has traditionally been seen as a preferred weapon of vindictive men who accuse women of disloyalty or disobedience.

“The fact that they went for my face is definitely personal,” Ikram said.

Appeal for help

The attack on Ikram began receiving more attention after television host and author Padma Lakshmi posted about it on her Instagram page this week, asking people to donate to help pay for Ikram’s medical bills and provide any information that could help the police find the attacker. Sheikh Ikram, 50, works as a driver for Lakshmi, he said.

“This is the nightmare of any parent, for this to happen to your child, to this innocent, young, promising girl, who has her whole life ahead of her,” Lakshmi said in the Instagram post. “I don’t know who in the world would do this, with acid like this. I don’t even know where you can get acid. I can’t stop thinking about her.”

A post shared by Padma Lakshmi (@padmalakshmi)

Ikram said her health had started to improve over the last few weeks. She is able to eat some soft food but still struggles to keep it down.

She said doctors expected her skin to heal but that her eyesight may not, leaving the family, which has lived in Elmont for 15 years, trying to speak with specialists who can help outline a path to recovery. Ikram is traumatised, her father said, and is scared to go anywhere by herself.

Sheikh Ikram said a neighbour saw a red car parked near the home, possibly with three people inside, before the attack. He said his wife noticed the car parked there earlier that evening but did not think anything of it.

He said he wondered why police had not been able to identify anyone associated with the car or find more information about where the attackers might have fled, based on surveillance videos or traffic cameras.

“I’m having a nightmare,” Sheikh Ikram said. “I cannot focus on anything myself.”

His wife is not going to work because she has to take care of their daughter, he said.

For now, Ikram is not able to continue her studies at Hofstra. She said she hopes to become a doctor and work with children.

“I feel like I’m not myself,” she said. “Everything I do, there’s a tiny reminder of this incident. And I’m trying, instead of being sad about it and wishing it didn’t happen, I’m trying to look at the positives that come out of it, even though right now there are not that many.”

She added, “Right now I say it could have been worse.”

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