Every day for a year, from the confines of her tiny hospital room in Bangladesh, Popi Rani Das dreamed of Toronto.
A doctor from this faraway city had promised its surgeons could repair the life-threatening wounds in her throat caused by a horrific acid attack that left her unable to drink or eat.
Das was just 21 when her husband tried to kill her by tricking her into drinking the acid that burned away her entire esophagus and most of her stomach. For the next seven years, she lived in a top-floor room of the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, keeping herself alive by injecting pureed food into the feeding tube threaded into her small intestine.
Then, a chance meeting in February 2016 with Dr. Toni Zhong, a Toronto plastic surgeon on a medical mission to the country, gave Das hope that she would one day escape her bleak surroundings.
“I remember feeling so much sadness for this woman,” recalls Zhong. “I remember thinking: ‘This must be what it is like to be a forgotten person in a small corner of the world.’ ”
Das did come to Toronto in 2017 and, following a trio of risky surgeries at Toronto General Hospital, can once again eat and drink.
Now, two years since she arrived in Toronto, scared, weak and weighing less than 80 pounds, Das, 30, wants to make Canada her permanent home.
It was here, after all, that surgeons gave her another chance at life by building her a new esophagus using skin harvested from her arm.
She has also found friends and a new kind of family in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has rallied around her since the freezing February night she arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport.
And, most importantly, living in Toronto keeps Das safe from her husband, who she says wanted her dead so he could remarry for a bigger dowry. Police charged him for the attack, her lawyer says, but he was released on bail and Das fears he will try to find her should she return to Dhaka.
“I cannot go back … That is where my life is not safe and where my life could be in danger again.”
Though she misses her country, especially its constant warmth and her friends at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital, Das is learning to love Toronto.
She enjoys her ESL classes, riding city buses and eating Oreo cookies, the everyday things that once seemed so impossible from her Dhaka hospital room.
“I am safe here now,” Das says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”
Das filed a refugee protection claim last February and is waiting for her case to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who travelled to Toronto with her daughter in 2017 and who has been by Das’s side since the day she was attacked, has also made a claim. Both women say their lives are at risk in Bangladesh.
Douglas Lehrer, their Toronto-based immigration lawyer, says he has affidavits from Das’s maternal aunt and from a neighbour stating Das’s former husband is “threatening to kill them out of revenge.”
Lehrer says the immigration board, which is currently taking between six and 24 months to hear claims, must believe the women would be in danger in Bangladesh — and that the state would be unable to protect them — to grant them protected person status, thus putting them on the path to Canadian citizenship.
For now, Das is trying to put her immigration status from her mind and focus on her daily life in the city.
These days, she and her mother live in a basement apartment in Scarborough, where they enjoy cooking in their small kitchen, planning trips to the library and going for walks around their Birchmount Park neighbourhood.
Both women adore the big white flowers that bloom on bushes growing near their street and which remind them of their village in Bangladesh.
During her first year in Toronto, Das saw little more than hospital rooms, doctors’ offices and the apartment she shared with her mother near Toronto General. Much of her time was spent recovering from surgery, relearning how to swallow with her new esophagus, and finding strategies to deal with the post-traumatic stress triggered by her husband’s attack.
Zhong, director of the breast reconstruction program at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), says few people would have the strength to endure the hardships Das has faced.
That inner courage was one of the reasons Zhong felt compelled to help Das by raising more than $700,000 to start the UHN Helps Fund to bring international patients to Toronto for life-changing surgery. A portion of that money raised paid for Das’s medical care in Toronto, as well as her travel and living expenses.
Zhong also convinced Toronto General to open its operating rooms after-hours for Das, and the surgeons who performed the complex surgeries waived their fees, so as not to impact Canadian patients.
Though Zhong is happy Das is well and safe in Toronto, a part of her is also disheartened that Das will not return to Bangladesh to advocate for survivors of acid violence, something both women had once badly wanted.
She says she didn’t fully understand the risks Das faced until she was again in Dhaka in January of this year for another medical mission. There, she says, she met people who know Das who believe the young woman’s decision to stay in Canada is the right one.
“They told me: ‘There is no doubt that if she came back she would be a target, for her husband or just in general because (after earlier media stories) she has a celebratory status and she spoke out for herself.’ ”
The renowned doctor has many hopes for Das. Some, including a chance to eat and drink, have already been fulfilled. She also believes Das lived through her ordeals to make a lasting impact on the world.
“She shouldn’t have survived that initial attack,” Zhong says, adding that 75 per cent of people who swallow acid will die. “Popi is an incredibly strong person who can make a difference. I don’t know where or how she can do that. But my hope for her is that she will find a way to tell her story and to live a meaningful life with this gift she has been given.”
Arun Datta is among the dozens of people in Toronto’s Bangladeshi Hindu community who have helped Das since she arrived in the city. He says he didn’t hesitate for a moment after Zhong’s 2017 phone call, during which she asked for their community’s support.
Within days of that call, members of the Bangladesh-Canada Hindu Mandir temple in Scarborough were raising funds and finding a place for Das and her mother to stay.
“We all had a desire to help,” says Datta, who came to Canada 30 years ago and works as a paralegal while advocating for the rights of Hindus, a religious minority, in Bangladesh as the president of the Bangladesh Minority Rights Alliance. “We gave money, and we gave time driving her to the hospital, going to get groceries, anything that was needed.”
He and others in the Toronto community say Das’s Hindu faith is yet another thing that will put her at risk in Bangladesh, where religious minorities face oppression and persecution.
“That is the main reason we are all here,” says Datta, gesturing to Das, her mother and some of their friends gathered around a table on a recent winter evening at the Bangladesh-Canada Hindu Mandir. “We all have been victims as well.”
Bijit Roy, the temple’s president, says the Toronto community has been moved by Das’s story.
“It was a rare type of cruelty,” he says. “She is far better here. Here she can have a new and safe life.”
Looking at those gathered at the table, Das says she is grateful to everybody for their help — the Toronto surgeons, her new community and Canada, the country that made her safe.
While Das can read and write English fairly well, she finds it more difficult to maintain a conversation in English. Datta helps, when needed, to translate her conversation with a Star journalist between English and Bengali.
Das says she is not yet sure what her future holds as a potential Canadian.
In between her trips to the library and her ESL classes, Das continues to embroider, a task that helped pass time in her Dhaka hospital room. As long as she takes small, slow bites, Das can eat anything that she likes. She still loves Kit Kat and chocolate ice cream and most kinds of cookies. And she is practicing English by watching TV.
“I don’t like sad movies,” she says in English. “Only funny.”
While she is now used to Canadian winters, Das says she can’t wait for the warm weather and more trips to Centre Island, one of her favourite places in Toronto. This summer, she wants to go up the CN Tower so she can look out over the city that is now her home.
“The people here are good,” she says in Bengali.
And then, in English: “Here, I am safe.”