Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Meeting with peace icon turns despair to hope

NEW START A fight with a boyfriend left Lee Li-chun with a ruined face and in a pit of sorrow -- until earlier this year, when a chance encounter had a magical outcome

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Gazing at the girl in the soap factory who presented her with a bouquet of flowers, Nobel peace prize laureate Betty Williams realized why God wanted her to come to Taiwan.

Williams, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland, was visiting the country in March at the invitation of Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮). One of her stops was at the soap factory in Kaohsiung, which is dedicated to helping disabled people acquire vocational skills.

To welcome Williams, the factory designed a set of soaps with the theme of "love and peace." The peacemaker signed her name on the sets, which have been sold in supermarket chains around the world.

Lee Li-chun (李麗君), 26, was a worker at the factory, and she presented Williams with a bunch of white lilies. She hardly suspected that this encounter would change her life forever.

Lee's face was covered with severe burns. Four years ago, she had had a bitter fight with her boyfriend after she told him that she did not want to continue with their relationship.

Refusing to break up with her, Lee's boyfriend splashed a can of flammable liquid across her body and set her aflame. Her face was seriously burned.

Her family filed a lawsuit against the boyfriend, but he was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. He claimed that Lee lit the fire herself.

"Before my face got burned, I was a very rebellious girl ... After the accident, I was overwhelmed by sorrow and low self-esteem," Lee said.

Then, about a year ago, she found a job in the soap factory.

Lee had endured surgery a number of times to restore some normalcy to her face -- but all efforts failed.

"The results were unsatisfactory. And anyway, my family couldn't afford it anymore, so we just gave up," she said.

deeply moved

Williams was deeply moved by Lee's story. She said that she knew God wanted her to do something to help the burned girl.

Williams called her friend Nina Kostina, president of the Frank Foundation, an international child assistance group, to see whether there might be a way to help Lee.

Williams was familiar with the humanitarian work of the Frank Foundation and knew it was the best organization to ask for help because of its longstanding commitment to helping those in need and providing medical care to people who would otherwise not receive it.

After talking with Williams, Kostina phoned her friend Vladimir Vissarionov, a famed Russian plastic surgeon and head of the Institute of Plastic Surgery and Cosmetology in Moscow.

Vissarionov agreed to perform surgery on Lee and promised his institute would cover all expenses related to the surgery and follow-up treatment.

So last month, accompanied by a translator, Lee flew to Moscow to receive treatment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid for Lee and the translator's air tickets and instructed the Taipei-Moscow Economic and Cultural Coordination Commission to provide assistance.

On June 21, Vissarionov performed a first round of surgery on Lee, with follow-up treatment lasting about a month. Lee returned home on Wednesday.

While undergoing treatment, Lee received a bouquet of flowers and a letter from Williams.

"In her letter, Betty told me she would always keep me in her heart," Lee said.

The medical and nursing staff in Vissarionov's institute were very nice to her, Lee said. And although she did not speak Russian, Lee built a strong emotional bond with them.

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