Belfast Telegraph

How Melanie Grimsley, who rebuilt her life after surviving a car fire, is travelling to India to help women terribly scarred by acid attacks

The inspiring Fermanagh mum-of-two tells Ivan Little about learning to live with her injuries and her message for others struggling to find their smiles after suffering the same turmoil

The newspaper interview with a plastic surgeon thousands of miles away in Asia struck an emotional chord with Fermanagh burns victim Melanie Grimsley as she researched the scourge of the ever-increasing number of acid attacks in India.

"He said that no matter how many procedures they perform on people they never get their smiles back," says Melanie, who is travelling to New Delhi soon to meet people who are victims of the shocking attacks. "His words hit me like a ton of bricks because, while it took a long time, my smile did come back."

Melanie, who will also be visiting a charity who look after and campaign on behalf of survivors, was just two years old in 1988 when she was severely burned in a car fire which ravaged the vehicle minutes after her mother had popped into an Enniskillen shop to buy milk.

An older sister, Amanda, couldn't be saved by a rescuer and Melanie required years of surgery on her injuries. But with the help of doctors, family, friends and her faith she managed to re-build her life and, along with this writer, co-authored a book about her experiences.

Her trip to India was inspired by hearing about the work of a charity in New Delhi who call themselves Make Love Not Scars (MLNS)

They're a non-government organisation who offer medical, legal, practical and employment support to survivors of the acid attacks.

In one recent 12-month period, 309 acid attacks were reported in India and, though the statistics didn't break down that number by gender, it's accepted that women suffer most.

Many of the victims are targeted by ex-husbands or spurned lovers.

The psychological damage has in some instances been even worse than the physical wounds, with reports that a number of victims of the attacks have taken their own lives.

"It's a problem that seems to be getting worse all the time," says Melanie. "It's horrible. Acid dissolves the skin and the photographs of the survivors in India show exactly how terrible the consequences can be."

Melanie's injuries were caused by a freak accident. "But it's awful to think that what is happening in India is deliberate. And many of the attacks are clearly premeditated with the acid being thrown at people's faces to take away their identity and their beauty.

"It also appears that some of the men who target the women in their lives are attacking them after the breakdown in relationships. And it's clear the intention is to ensure that no-one else will want their former partners.

"I also read how one man whose proposal of marriage was turned down responded by throwing acid in the woman's face," says Melanie, who was uplifted last year by seeing model Reshma Qureshi, who has been scarred for life by an acid attack, on the catwalk during New York Fashion Week and raising the profile of MLNS in the process.

Reshma is also the face of the charity's #EndAcidSale campaign which is aimed at tackling the easy availability of acid in India, where it can be bought over the counter for as little as the equivalent of 30p for a small bottle.

Reading about the work of MLNS online had a major impact on Melanie and she resolved to go to India to meet the charity's officials and victims of the acid attacks.

She says: "It would be arrogant of me to say that I have more to offer them than they have to offer me. But initially I just want to go there to show my support and share encouragement with them. I hope that by seeing first-hand what they do I can come home able to continue gathering support for their cause."

She believes she and the Indian victims have a lot in common and says: "I have found that all of the burns survivors I have encountered feel an affinity with each other on the journey of restoration.

"There's a group of us who are connected through Facebook. We went to what were known as burned children's club camps and we still keep in touch and encourage each other. Indeed it was through my connections with other burns survivors that I came across Make Love Not Scars."

Melanie says that burns survivors in her network of friends are also linked by a passion "to help other people in our situations, to reach out and tell them that they're not alone".

Melanie recalls how her recovery, especially in her teens, was buoyed by the simple act of meeting other burns victims.

"It was really useful for me to come into contact with other people who looked the same way that I did. That's why the burns camps were so important because I met people who were walking the same road as me and for the first time ever I felt normal.

"Like me, the other people in the camps were used to being stared at and being made to feel that we didn't fit in. But instead of being negative we were able to build each other up.

"And I thought it might be good if I went to India to meet survivors of the acid attacks so they could see how things can progress and realise that all is not lost and that they can recover.

"There is a certain sense of hopelessness that people feel whenever something of that magnitude happens to them. They feel that their lives are over but it's important that they know it isn't the end."

On a practical level, the resources for reconstructive surgery in India are limited. And Melanie says that looking at photographs of people who've been helped by the charity made her even more grateful for what her surgeon Roy Miller had able to do for her appearance down the years.

"It also made me thankful for our health service," adds Melanie, who has established ties with the Katie Piper Foundation in England.

Katie, a former model, had sulphuric acid thrown in her face in March 2008 and her ex-boyfriend and an accomplice were jailed.

In India, mother-of-two Melanie, who is now divorced, hopes to offer more than just moral support to MLNS.

She has learnt the hard way just what is - and isn't - available to burns survivors here and plans to share her knowledge with the Indian charity.

Melanie, who was left with little hair after the car fire, says it's vitally important for burns survivors to pass on information about new advances.

She only found out about the possibility of getting a new form of hair replacement after hearing about it from a friend in London.

Melanie says: "I then discovered I could have my own hair replacement in Belfast and I am delighted with it. So when you share information like that everybody benefits."

The law graduate says she also hopes to utilise her legal training to help the charity with issues like redress and compensation for survivors, money which would be crucial in paying for treatment for them.

"I have a deep interest in human rights," says Melanie. "I'm keen to see how the system in India works. There is room for research and development to improve the criminal law to hold perpetrators to account.

"And there's also scope for the compensation system to be more forthcoming in providing tangible assistance.

"The issues are so complex and so vast that there is patently a need for them to be addressed at the highest level of government to curb the number of attacks and to look after the survivors."

Melanie says that her conversations with officials from the Indian charity have made her even more determined to help them.

"These people are strong, brave and shining examples and they embody everything I have wanted to support my whole life."

And even though she hasn't even left Northern Ireland yet, Melanie is already thinking about return trips to India in the future.

"I know I will come home again with a little bit of India in my heart. I have a feeling that this will be the first of many visits in support of the work they do to make India a safer place and to seek restoration, support and justice for people affected by burns," says Melanie, who has set up a Just Giving page in a bid to raise money for the charity.

On it she urges people to help her 'bring hope to the victims in India'. She says: "I want to spread the message that having scars is a symbol that you are stronger than whatever tried to beat you. Together we can ensure no-one will rob these burns survivors of their spirit, their strength or their dignity."

Melanie will be spending most of her week in India in a rehabilitation centre that MLNS have established and she plans to give talks to church and community groups here before and after her visit in a bid to raise awareness.

More details of Melanie Grimsley's trip and fund raising campaign can be found on www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/melanie-grimsley

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