When Tulsi Vagjiani was just 10 years old, a family holiday to India turned to tragedy.
Her parents and younger brother were killed in a plane crash – and while Tulsi escaped with her life, she was left with second and third degree burns to much of her face and body.
New research has found that more than a quarter of people with a disfigurement have experienced a hate crime, and seven in ten have experienced negative behaviour such as stares, abuse and bullying.
Tulsi was bullied for years because of how she looked, leaving her questioning her self-worth, but almost 30 years on she is drawing on her experiences to help others whose disfigurements have led to bullying and abuse.
She told Sky News her story.
The last thing I remember from that flight is fighting with my brother to sit next to the window.
The next thing I hear is my grandmother’s voice. She’s telling me I’m in hospital, she’s crying, telling me I was in an accident and my parents and brother had passed away, that I looked different.
Going from fighting with my brother to being told I looked different was weird. I had been flown back to the UK, had met with other family members – cousins, aunts, uncles.
Their voices were very clear and yet again the same information: “You’re in hospital, you look different, this is what’s happened to you.”
None of it made sense. Because I had bandages on my eyes, I couldn’t visualise anything. It was weeks after the crash and still a blur, I was going in and out of a theatre, taking constant painkillers.
There came a moment when they said they were going to take my bandages off and I was so excited, and the nurses and consultant were a bit concerned because they knew I looked different.
But I didn’t see it as a big deal at the time, because I thought, ‘oh, it’ll be a scratch or something if anything’.
When they removed the bandages, I had a mirror up to me and I thought someone had drawn the face on me because the person I was seeing wasn’t me. I remember thinking it was a joke or something.
But when the person in the mirror was blinking and moving their mouth I thought, ‘oh, that is me’.
Something had obviously happened, but I thought it was OK because whether I was optimistic or naive, I thought in a year or so it would all go away and be fine.
Everyone in hospital treated me as me, my family had got used to seeing me like this, and I was quite humorous and cheeky so nothing had changed on that side of things.
But obviously physically lots had changed. And when I was discharged, that’s when the bullying started.
There was name calling, people crossing the road in case they caught something from me, and some children throwing things to see if I would react. I endured bullying and staring.
When I went back to school, no child had seen someone look that way. The scars were quite shocking and I wasn’t the same Tulsi that had left four or five months ago – I was a different Tulsi.
They did try to reintegrate me back into the class, but it didn’t feel familiar anymore.
That September I started secondary school and they made me feel welcome. When I started everyone was generally really nice and I made friends straight away.
But it was still hard for me and as I got older, looking for a job was really difficult.
Because of the way I looked nobody was giving me opportunities, and so I had no experience. When I was working in the tourism industry, one company told me that my face didn’t fit their company. It made me feel useless.
One of the most awful experiences came when I was waiting at a bus stop to go to an appointment at the job centre.
This car came along with four guys in the car, they looked at me and caught my eye and started laughing. They opened the window and shouted: “You deserve to f***ing die because you’re so ugly.”
We need to spread that message that anyone can report a hate crime and we don’t have to sit there and accept this bullying and name calling
Still, every day people stare at me. People need to be aware of how that makes someone with a disfigurement feel.
Having a disfigurement means never having a day off. I don’t get to take my scars off and forget about them.
Growing up I didn’t even know I could report things that happened to me, you just got on with it and think its normal.
But it’s not normal and not acceptable, and people should know that these types of things can be reported as a hate crime because it’s not right – not just for the person going through it, but for friends or family who might be with you.
We need to spread that message that anyone can report a hate crime and we don’t have to sit there and accept this bullying and name calling.
If more people know they can, it can make a big difference.
Tulsi is now a successful influential speaker and pilates instructor and is supporting a campaign to raise awareness of how people with disfigurements are targeted by hate crimes.
Changing Faces is the UK’s leading charity for anyone with a scar, mark of condition that makes them look different. If you need advice or support, visit www.changingfaces.org.uk or call 0300 012 0275