'It was gone — my nose, my mouth, my eye, my teeth, my jaw': New life can't erase old wounds for this refugee

Shakila Zareen's husband shot her in the face in 2012 in Afghanistan for reporting his abuse to the police. She survived. Six years and countless surgeries later, she arrived in Vancouver as a refugee. The story of her arrival in Canada was told for the first time to CBC News and The Current.

Shakila Zareen praises Canada for accepting her as a refugee after the U.S. turned its back

Shakila Zareen was welcomed to Canada after she was shot in the face by her husband in Afghanistan. The United States originally welcomed her but reversed that decision after U.S. President Donald Trump took office, citing 'security-related reasons.' (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Shakila Zareen has a keepsake on the night table beside her bed in her sparse, clean apartment in a suburb of Vancouver.

It is a photograph of a young woman with olive skin and thick, black hair. She is wearing a bright yellow dress, long earrings, a matching necklace and ring. She gazes into the camera with a serious, soulful stare.

This is what Zareen looked like before her husband shot her in the face in 2012 in Afghanistan. She survived.

The story of how she came to Vancouver as a refugee earlier this year is being told for the first time to CBC News and The Current.

Zareen was 17 years old when she said her brother-in-law forced her to marry a man many years older. She said the abuse started on her wedding night and continued for months.

"From right then and there, he began to beat me and rape me. This became my reality," Zareen said through an interpreter.

When she was 17, Zareen was forced into a marriage to a much older man by her brother-in-law. She says she was, beaten, raped and eventually shot in the face. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Eventually, she went to the police for help. She told them about the beatings. She also told them her husband and brother-in-law had links to the Taliban. 

"The police said to me, 'It's your husband and he really hasn't done anything that awful to you. He hasn't cut off your ear, he hasn't cut off your mouth, he hasn't cut off your nose,'" she said.

Zareen left the police feeling no hope. She went to her mother's house.

Hours later, Zareen recalled, her husband arrived and shot her. 

LISTEN to Zareen recount the night her husband shot her:

Shakila Zareen was ignored by the police when she reported domestic abuse, so she left her husband. But then he came to her mother's house one night. 1:27

"The bullet that hit me basically took half of my face off," she said.

"It was gone — my nose, my mouth, my eye, my teeth, my jaw. "

According to a report from 2017 in The Guardian, her husband refused requests to talk about the incident. Zareen's brother-in-law told the Guardian she had shot herself. Her husband spent 10 months in prison and was then released.

Zareen survived a car ride to Kabul to a hospital.

After that, the Indian government became involved and flew her, her mother and younger sister to Delhi. The government paid for Zareen to have a series of surgeries over the next three years.

Zareen moved to Delhi, India, with her mother, Sherman Jan Zareen, left, and Samira Zareen right, where she underwent a series of surgeries over three years. The three now live in the Vancouver area. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also certified the trio as refugees and asked the United States to resettle them.

In June of 2016, the U.S. granted them conditional approval. Zareen began to dream of a new life half a world away from Afghanistan and safe from her husband.

Rejected by the U.S.

But a year later, another letter from U.S. immigration arrived. The letter said they had been rejected for "security-related reasons."

"I cried and cried and cried," Zareen said. "Why would I possibly not be allowed in any country? I fell into a very, very dark, bad depression."

The rejection came six months after U.S. President Donald Trump came to office and introduced new rules suspending the refugee program before it was challenged in the courts. It's not known what the "security-related" issues were in Zareen's case. But she said that ruling also led Sweden to reject her application.

The UNHCR decided to refer the file to Canada. Zareen's case moved at what one supporter called "lightning speed."

Zareen was interviewed by immigration officials at Canada's High Commission in New Delhi in November in 2017, according to a friend. She, her mother and sister received their visas for Canada within weeks.

They arrived in Vancouver on Jan. 30, 2018.

In Canada, 'no one makes fun of me'

When she lived in India, Zareen rarely removed the bandage she wore over her left eye, fearing ridicule.

That changed when she came to live in Canada.

Zareen, who now lives in the Vancouver area, still experiences pain while trying to eat. She is now taking English classes and undergoing counselling. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"I removed it and I walk proudly," she said. No one makes fun of me here and that is the thing that has given me the most security."

The federal government has often boasted of its efforts to help Afghan women and girls both during and after its military involvement ended there.

Zareen wants Canadian politicians to know there is still much left to do.

'We want this hatred of women to stop'

"I want them to know that life for Afghan women is very hard. I also want them to know that Afghan women are very, very strong. But we want this hatred of women to stop."

U.S. lawyer Kimberly Motley, who has worked in Afghanistan representing women since 2008, knows Zareen and her case. She agreed that serious problems still persist there.

"When a woman reports being beaten, often the cop will ask what she did wrong and try and return her to him," Motley said. "If she is lucky enough to get to the court system, then it is the judges who are still trying to get them back with the husband."

LISTEN to Zareen explain how moving to Canada changed her life:

Shakila Zareen, who was shot in the face by the man she was forced to marry, describes how coming to Canada has changed her life. 0:48

Settling into her new home with her mother and sister, Zareen knows she has a long way to go in building her new life. She is undergoing counselling, trying to learn English and adjusting to her new surroundings.

She has lost weight. It still hurts her to eat.

When she was asked about why she keeps an old photo of herself from before the shooting, her composure cracked. But she insisted on answering.

"I look at it and I think to myself about what I was. I want to see what I was and what I am today," she said.  

"And I think what type of man would do this to a woman? What type of man could hurt somebody like me?"

Since moving to Canada, Zareen no longer wears a bandage over one eye. 'No one makes fun of me here and that is the thing that has given me the most security,' she says. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

With files from Samira Mohyeddin