Disappeared From the Face of the Earth

Goizom's story

Goizom Danza Maleguidjeo’s name translates to “disappeared from the face of the Earth” in her native language in Cameroon. Unfortunately for Goizom, this is not far off from how she spent her childhood. She could not attend school or play with other children her age because of the fear from local parents in her village that she would bewitch their children.

It is a tradition in Goizom’s Mafa tribe for families to send their first daughter into marriage when they turn 16, but this was not the case for Goizom. At age 18, she still lived at home with no suitor, or any friends to talk to. The men in her village believed that since Goizom was born with a cleft, all of her future children would have clefts as well.

Goizom’s life changed one day when a Smile Train community worker came to her village. When the community worker announced that Smile Train helps provide free surgery for children with clefts, Goizom couldn’t believe the news. She knew her parents could not afford the financial cost of a surgery to fix her cleft and she had given up on her dream of having her cleft repaired a long time ago.

When Goizom arrived at Smile Train’s local partner, Maroua Regional hospital, she was surprised to see so many people who had similar cleft conditions as her own. She watched as patients would go in and out of surgery and was amazed by the great new smiles on their faces. When her turn finally arrived, she was ready. 18 long years of waiting for a new smile were finally over.

Today Goizom has returned to her village a completely changed person, proud of herself and full of self-confidence. No longer “disappeared from the face of the Earth,” she is looking forward to her bright future that is now full of endless possibilities.

Goizom After

Two Generations of Uncertainty

When Lackson Koliesa was born, his mother Joyce was devastated when she saw that he had a cleft lip. Joyce learned from an early age how kids and adults treated people who look differently and she knew the suffering that lay ahead for her sweet boy.

Joyce was from a large family, including an uncle with a cleft lip. “My uncle had a cleft lip and was called an “ogre” by people in the village. When we walked down the streets kids used to scatter whenever they saw him, they all had their harrowing theories on why he had a cleft lip,” Joyce recalls.Luckson Koliesa Joyce tried as best as she could to get her son’s cleft lip fixed. But her hopes dwindled as time went on. She couldn’t afford paying for a reparative surgery for her son and she thought Lackson was in store for the same future as her uncle.

When she learned of Smile Train and the free surgeries local Smile Train surgeons help provide, she finally found her answer. She embarked on a four hour long journey from her town in Solwezi to Ndola. Joyce was filled with uncertainty the entire trip, wondering if her son would receive the free surgery. When Joyce and Lackson arrived in Ndola little Lackson was screened and cleared for surgery.

It frightened Joyce to send her baby into surgery, but when he emerged from the operating room less than an hour later, she knew she’d made the right decision. Lackson will never have to suffer the way her uncle did.

“You are my heroes” she says, “Smile Train gave my son a bright future.”

Luckson Koliesa (4)

Welcome Home Zachary: An Adoption Story

Zach dolphin

Allison, mother of Zachary, a Smile Train cleft patient, tells us in her own words how much his surgery has impacted both of their lives.

This month, Zachary is turning FIVE! As it was certainly a miracle for him to make it to five days, much less five weeks, this is a momentous occasion.

Zachary is from the foothills of the Amhara highlands and was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As with so many children born with clefts around the world, his family’s reaction was to consider him as part of a curse, particularly as his was a severe, bilateral cleft lip and palate. Between such cultural views, a lack of medical care, and wide-scale poverty in Ethiopia, it is estimated that over 90% of babies with cleft lip and palate in that country do not survive.

Luckily, after a rough first week of life, some neighbors told Zachary’s birth mother about a non-profit hospital across the city that could help kids like him. Soon after, he was enrolled with Smile Train. The hospital cleft program set him up with squeeze-bottles for feeding, and with a formula program, so he could catch up on some much-needed nutrition. These measures saved his life.

While every effort is made to keep cleft children with their families, in Zachary’s case that was not an option. I had been living in Addis Ababa for several years, and was teaching at the American school there, when I first heard about Zachary. His doctors knew that I had completed a local adoption the previous year, and I was asked to share some information on the process.  Long story short, after all other doors closed, I happily agreed to adopt him. I brought him home just after his first lip repair surgery, and stayed with him in the Ethiopian hospital for his next two surgeries, as well.Tekola 13_5_10 #2

Now, Zachary is a happy, healthy, creative, energetic, and curious five-year-old. He and his older brother are the best of friends, and together we have all had some great adventures. He loves to hike, swim, sing, and entertain those around him…..he definitely makes full use of his great smile!

We have spent the past two years on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, where I am attending medical school. I am looking forward to being able to help kids like Zachary in the future.

As we celebrate Zachary this month, truly a “one in a million” kind of kid, we are grateful for Smile Train and all of those who have made his health and surgeries possible. As we say in Ethiopia, “Betam Amesegenalehu!”

From the hospital where Zachary received his Smile Train surgery;

“CURE International’s partnership with Smile Train has allowed CURE hospitals to have an even greater impact on children in the countries we serve. In Ethiopia alone, we have performed over 1,100 cleft surgeries, restoring the smiles of children and families that were once considered outcasts in their own families and communities. Stories of restoration and healing, like Zachary’s, drive home the need to make our organizations’ mutual focus on surgery a global health priority.”

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The Story of Happiness

Dr. Meschack Ong’uti (left), with Happiness and her mother, Emina after Happiness' Smile Train surgery.

Dr. Meschack Ong’uti (left), with Happiness and her mother, Emina after Happiness’ Smile Train surgery.

Garoua, CameroonPaul Kimani from Smile Train partner Help a Child Face Tomorrow shares his introduction to Happiness—a nine-year-old girl from Cameroon.

As I was walking around the ward filled with pre-op patients with cleft lips, my eyes was drawn to two, a mother, Emina, seated while sleeping, with her daughter lying on her lap, both looking physically exhausted. I later came to know that the girl was the woman’s nine-year-old daughter, Happiness Betah.

When Emina married all she wanted was a family of her own. “I come from a huge family, seven sisters and four brothers,” she said. All of her siblings were married with kids. But her wish did not come as soon as she had expected, as it took her almost five years to conceive. At one point almost being divorced by her husband.

Hapinness Betah, 9yrs (1)

When she became pregnant it was the happiest moment of her life, not only was her wishes of having a child coming true, but her treasured marriage was not going to crumble. Her happiness was short lived though when she gave birth to her daughter, who had cleft lip and cleft palate, a condition which she had never seen before in her life.

Emina’s life went on a downward spiral when rumors started spreading that she cheated on her husband and that is why she gave birth to a child with cleft. Her marriage on the rocks, she felt as if the whole world was against her.

“We don’t always get what we want in life,” she said tickling her daughter. Emina decided to be strong for her daughter, finally naming her after one month—Happiness. Her fragile marriage could not hold the strain any more though and her husband left her. He could not bear being around a child who he believed was not his as no one had a cleft lip or palate in his family.

Despite all the hurdles, Emina didn’t give up on her daughter. She sold vegetables so that she could afford to feed her. Emina’s and her daughter’s fate changed for the better when she saw a poster at her church indicating a free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries being offered by Smile Train. This news could not have come at a better time. Although Betah was nine years old, she had never been to school because of her cleft lip and palate which impaired her speech.

“I didn’t want my child to undergo more torture in school, kids in the village had already done enough damage, they used to call her names and laugh at her, it made me sad whenever I saw my child playing alone. I just wanted to protect her.” Emina said as she wiped her tears. She could never have afforded cleft surgery for her daughter.

Without wasting time, she borrowed bus fare from her relatives, adding to what she had already saved. The two then set off on a 950km journey from their village in Kumba to Garoua. Happiness was lucky to be among the patients who underwent the free surgery, successfully repairing her cleft lip and palate.

“How can I every repay you? Thank you for giving me and my daughter a new chapter in life.” Emina told the team as she shook hands with Dr. Ong’uti, the maxillofacial surgeon who repaired her daughter’s cleft. “I want to get home as quickly as possible and enroll my child to school.”

A Change of Heart

Six-year-old Harouna from Niger, before and after his Smile Train surgery that not only transformed his life, but his father's as well.

Six-year-old Harouna from Niger, before and after his Smile Train surgery that not only transformed his life, but his father’s as well.

Bouza, Niger—Harouna Mahamadou is a beautiful six-year-old boy from Niger who is a patient at Smile Train’s partner hospital, CURE Children’s Hospital of Niger.

When Harouna was born his father, Mahamadou Abdoul-Rahim, was disappointed with both his wife and son as Harouna was the only child out of nine to be born with a cleft. Mahamadou was so upset he left his family for another woman. Unfortunately soon after, Mahamadou was in a terrible accident and was bedridden for eight months. During this time his new wife left him claiming she would rather be a divorcee than a widow.

Feeling rejected, Mahamadou Abdoul-Rahim began to realize how his son must have felt for being ostracized for something he could not control. After apologizing to his wife and son, Mahamadou Abdoul-Rahim slowly regained his strength and soon after, learned about Smile Train. Harouna soon underwent a cleft operation with the love and support from his entire family.

The Mahamadou family has undergone a transformation in spirit. Now grateful for his family and son, Mahamadou Abdoul-Rahim told Smile Train, “What you are doing is the work of God, because you are taking care of people who really need help and who have no one else to help them.”

Lau Jean’s Story

Lau Jean, 54, before and after his Smile Train surgery.

Lau Jean, 54, before and after his Smile Train surgery.

Tokombéré, Cameroon—Rejected, insulted, despised, alienated, and thought of as a witch. Such was the fate of Mr. Lau Jean. Smile Train met Jean, a 54-year-old man, in Cameroon at Hôpital Privé Catholique de Tokombere.

Jean was born in a remote village in northern Cameroon called Glonhobe and from infancy his life was marked by rejection. He received no schooling and as a child lived in a world of ignorance, poverty, and fear of death. Because of his cleft, he was not allowed to partake in traditional ceremonies or village and family gatherings. Jean was unable to even sit with friends and family during meals.

As was the custom in his region, Jean’s marriage was arranged for him when he was a young adult. Jean’s brother represented him during the marriage ceremony though as he was unable to participate in this custom—his own wedding—because of his cleft. When Jean’s wife met him for the first time after the wedding, she was shocked, frightened, confused, and wanted out immediately. Her family could not allow her leave the marriage as the traditional rites had already been finalized. The couple went on to have five children.

Trying to provide for his family was impossible as no one wanted to do business with Jean. He barely had enough money to live, let alone receive surgery to repair his cleft. He was also very afraid he would die during the procedure. Luckily a social worker sponsored by Smile Train from Hôpital Privé Catholique de Tokombere arrived at his village and showed him pictures of patients whose clefts were repaired. They told him stories of how each patient, from infants to adults like himself, now had better lives. He then decided to go ahead with the surgery. After a short, but life-transforming surgical procedure, Jean’s whole world changed.

News about Jean’s new life had gotten to his village even before his arrival three days later. When Jean arrived home a celebration in his honor was waiting for him. His wife was once again confused, only this time, she was staring at her husband with eyes of joy and new love. For the children, it was the first time they saw their papa be like any other father in their community.

Jean is now accepted in all the ranks of his society as a man of honor, having now been given all the traditional rights and privileges. Although adjusting to his new life has at times been difficult, like trying to use his identification papers as his photo has completely changed, he is beyond happy and proud. He is very grateful to Smile Train and its worldwide partners for giving him, and so many other patients like him, a new life. Jean has now become a social recruiter visiting nearby villages as an ambassador for Smile Train educating communities about cleft and finding others in need of surgery.

Cleft Surgery’s Role in Nutrition

Three-month-old Alham (left) shortly before her Smile Train surgery and five-month-old Alham two months after. Alham's story highlights the need for cleft surgery in order to obtain proper nutrition.

Three-month-old Alham (left) shortly before her Smile Train surgery and five-month-old Alham two months after. Alham’s story highlights the need for cleft surgery in order to obtain proper nutrition.

Tanga, TanzaniaIn honor of National Nutrition Month, Smile Train shares a story from Tanzania highlighting the role that timely cleft surgery plays in preventing malnutrition.

When Ahlam was born in rural Tanzania with a cleft lip and palate, her mother Salha, like so many mothers of Smile Train patients, did not know about the common birth defect. Salha’s first two children had been born without incident and perfectly healthy.

Salha and her five-month-old daughter Ahlam pose three months after Ahlam's cleft surgery. Ahlam's health and appearance have vastly improved thanks to her cleft surgery that has allowed her to eat properly.

Salha and her five-month-old daughter Ahlam pose three months after Ahlam’s cleft surgery. Ahlam’s health and appearance have vastly improved thanks to her cleft surgery that has allowed her to eat properly.

Luckily, shortly after Ahlam’s birth, the family was told about Smile Train and that the organization provided free care for thousands of children like Ahlam. The newborn girl would have to wait until she was three months old for surgery though.

During that time life for Salha was difficult. She had no problem feeding her other children, but Ahlam was different because of her cleft. Milk came out of Ahlam’s mouth and nose because she could not suck like a normal infant. With a large gap in her lip and at the roof of her mouth, feeding Ahlam was almost impossible.

Although surgery was a short time away, Salha worried her daughter would not make it. She was not steadily gaining weight and was becoming sick. Despite this, Ahlam’s surgery day came and weighed just enough to go through with surgery.Now at five months old, only two months after her cleft lip surgery, Ahlam’s appearance and health bear no resemblance to the baby girl who entered the hospital for cleft surgery. Not only does she have a new smile, but she has the chubby cheeks of other children her age. The difference is remarkable.

In four months Ahlam will undergo another surgery to correct her cleft palate, which should help her nutrition further as food can still escape through the roof of her mouth. Salha is also looking forward to her daughter’s next surgery and feels this will improve her health even more.

Salha is very grateful for the Smile Train surgery and is happy that her child will have a normal and healthy life.

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To help mothers like Salha, Smile Train developed the following resource video demonstrating the best feeding methods for a child with cleft.