Seven-month old Dorah was abandoned by her mother in a South African hospital. Painful burns left her with a severely injured face, no eyelids, and no fingers. But underneath her impaired face and dismembered hands was Dorah’s inner-charm, character, and personality. She touched Bronwen Jones, a British journalist living in South Africa, who visited Dorah at the hospital after reading an article about her case in a local paper.
South African doctors, with a lack of expertise and facilities, felt they were left with no other choice but to cut Dorah’s eyes out. This ignited a deep urge within Jones to do something to help Dorah so she could retain her eyes, so she could still sense light and dark.
Soon, her and Dorah’s lives took a turn that they didn’t expect. Jones’ plea for help was published in The Times in 1997 and got an overwhelming response. “It was not the typical Times story,” she recalled, but around 2,000 people wrote in and she answered every one of them.
Suddenly Jones had “responsibility for a very complicated little girl”. She quickly set up the charity Children of Fire. Her new responsibilities brought pressure to her marriage and her life took a new turn.
Almost 20 years on and around 450 children who have been hurt by flames or acid have gone to Jones, who splits her time between Johannesburg and London. “I could adopt all of them,” she said. And she did adopt the little girl, Dorah who is now 22 and has had over 30 treatments for her 4th degree burns. She is thought to be the survivor of the worst burns in the world.
With many still using paraffin stoves in South Africa, some people turn to these when they get angry, throwing stoves, or they set homes alight with liquid fuel, said Jones. She added that 4 million people still live in shantytowns and squatter camps.
“People are distressed and take their anger out on weaker ones, that’s true across the world, but you don’t get away with it as much in a country like Britain,” she said.
Jones explained that her adopted son, Sizwe, now 15 years old was intentionally set on fire by his mother as a baby. He was then dumped in an aids hospice although he didn’t have aids, it was just the nearest place. He was too young to remember what happened, but once Sizwe said to her: “One day my brown mummy must say sorry to me.”
Sizwe is a typical teenager and has career ambitions to be a vet, although is still undecided. Over the years, Jones has seen the children she has helped become lawyers, study medicine, get married and have kids.
“If you draw a line down the middle of your body and if you’ve got everything one side working, and if you’re lucky, looking half-normal then you’re really fine. You’re so ahead of everyone else,” she said. “You’ve got to love yourself for who you are.”
In a journey of self-reflection and moving forwards, several children who have been hurt by flames will walk 13 miles across London on September 2nd to raise awareness about Children of Fire, starting at 9 a.m. from Elephant and Castle and ending after dark at Oxford Street. The date marks the 350-year anniversary of the Great Fire of London.