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Blinded by attack, UBC student triumphs in grad school

Rumana Monzur, a UBC grad student who was blinded in front of her daughter by her husband in Bangladesh in 2011, is photographed at UBC's Faculty of Law building in Vancouver, British Columbia, July 10, 2013. She completed her grad thesis on the impact of climate change in Bangladesh and now plans to go to law school.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

On June 28, Rumana Monzur stood before a small crowd at the University of British Columbia and defended her master's thesis on the potential impact of climate change on her native country, low-lying Bangladesh.

When she finished, the room – professors, friends, family and fellow students – erupted in applause.

For Ms. Monzur, blinded and maimed in a vicious assault two years ago, the thunderous applause was a final step out of a dark depression, a remarkable journey that began in January, when she decided that her injuries would no longer define her.

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"I told myself: 'Nothing changed, crying didn't change anything – so the only way you can move forward is to try to get yourself back.' So that is what I started to do," she said. "I tried to get my smile back. I had always been a smiling person … from January, I just told myself I won't let anyone control whether I will be sad or happy in my life in the future."

That determination comes despite the assault that seemed designed to break her body and spirit.

In June, 2011, when Ms. Monzur was a graduate student in international relations at UBC, she was attacked and maimed by her former husband in Bangladesh when she returned to visit her family, including her daughter. Both of her eyes were gouged, leaving her blind, and her nose partly bitten off.

In interviews arranged by UBC Wednesday, the 35-year-old Ms. Monzur spoke of adjustments she has had to make in the past two years and repeatedly expressed her gratitude for the support she has received.

"I never thought this day would come, where I can tell myself: 'Okay, I'm a UBC graduate now,'" Ms. Monzur said, speaking in a meeting room of UBC's law school, where she will begin studies in September.

When friends at UBC learned of the assault, they contacted university administration, which helped co-ordinate fundraising, sought medical advice and arranged flights and housing for Ms. Monzur's parents and daughter to join her in Vancouver. A total of $95,000 was raised for housing and medical expenses.

In July of that year, she returned to Vancouver, where a series of last-ditch operations failed to restore her sight.

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For Ms. Monzur, the darkness was overwhelming. She struggled with depression. She wept over her daughter, Anusheh, who had witnessed her mother being attacked.

But in January, after another procedure to fit her with artificial eyes that – although they didn't allow her to see – improved her appearance and boosted her confidence, Ms. Monzur decided it was time to move on.

With help from the CNIB, Ms. Monzur had learned how to organize and navigate her home. Anusheh, now 6, developed a knack for vivid descriptions, especially of colours. Ms. Monzur recently took up acrobatic yoga – which is done in pairs and gives her a feeling of flying that, at least momentarily, lets her forget that she can't see.

On the academic front, Ms. Monzur learned how to use software for the visually impaired. She is studying Braille. Fellow students read and recorded textbooks and helped type and edit sections of material she dictated.

With her master's degree behind her, Ms. Monzur is focused on a law degree, which she considers a tool that can help her support others at risk of violence or oppression.

Ms. Monzur says she would like to return to Bangladesh some day, but likely not in the immediate future. Her former husband, who had been charged and jailed in connection with the assault, died while in custody in December, 2011.

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She, her daughter and her parents are now permanent Canadian residents.

"When I first arrived here, it was just another country, where I had come to pursue my studies. But in the most difficult period of my life – how Canada as a country, people from all different communities, how they supported me – it's just amazing," said Ms. Monzur, who was wearing a gold-trimmed scarf and stylish jewellery including, she said shyly, a talking watch that allowed her to tell the time.

"I don't feel it is a different country. It feels like home. The amount of love and support that I received here – I still draw strength. I don't even know how to thank these amazing people who I don't even know, who helped me morally and financially and understood my pain."

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