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.

Love at First Sight and Beyond

Sule Alhassan (46) and his wife Lami (36) share their joyful anticipation with Oral Health Advocacy Initiative's chief surgeon, Dr. Ver-or,  before their cleft surgery.

Sule Alhassan (46, middle) and his wife Lami (36) share their joyful anticipation with Oral Health Advocacy Initiative’s chief surgeon, Dr. Ver-or, before their cleft surgery.

Adamawa, Nigeria—Many Smile Train patients are only able to fall in love and marry after they receive surgery. Whether it be the stigma, shame, or any other item on the laundry list of negative feelings associated with cleft, these emotions prevent those with unrepaired clefts from experiencing one of the most universal milestones—marriage.

For Sule Alhassan, 46 years old, and his wife Lami, 36 years old, though, having a cleft is what brought them together. Hailing from Adamawa state in Northeastern Nigeria, the couple was among 30 other cleft patients being treated during Smile Train partner Oral Health Advocacy Initiative’s cleft week last month.

Sule (top) and Lami before and after their surgeries.

Sule (top) and Lami before and after their surgeries.

The two met when Sule saw Lami while working as a gatekeeper for the local hospital—it was his first day on the job. Lami at the time was a beggar, stigmatized because of her cleft. Sule recalls their first meeting with much joy. He said he was instantly attracted to Lami for her beauty and because she shared something in common with him. Not long after their first meeting Sule proposed marriage. The couple have been married for 16 years and have 13 children! Through nine pregnancies Lami has delivered one set of triplets, two sets of twins, and has had six single births. None of the children were born with a cleft.

Living in an area of Nigeria where the average person makes a little less than four dollars a day and raising 13 children, the couple never imagined they would be able to have their clefts repaired because of the cost. Thanks to the generous Smile Train donors and doctors they were able to get the surgery they had waited decades for.

Both Sule and Lami had successful surgeries and are excited about their new look, new smile, and new life.

Smile Train Conference in India Underway

Hyderabad, India – Coming all the way from Nigeria, Nkeiruka Obi (NK for short) our new Program Manager of West Africa, met her counterparts for the first time. Under the guidance of expert Smile Train partner Dr. Subodh (of Smile Pinki fame), NK witnessed a cleft examination at a special conference designed to bring together the international Smile Train team and set forth a structural plan for the coming years.

NK is responsible for bolstering our programs throughout Western Africa, a hard task considering the lack of trained surgeons and deeprooted superstitions in many of the countries she will be working in. NK remains undaunted in her task of growing Smile Train’s programs and is determined to make the most of her time in Hyderabad and learn more about the successful expansion of our Indian programs over the last decade and take their best practices back to Nigeria.

As NK pointed out in an email a few days onto the job, dismissing the myths and stigmas associated with clefts is the first step to making sure every child can smile.

 “I just got back from the South West Region, and to my utmost, shock discovered that children with clefts are still being condemned to a lifetime of isolation and suffering in that part of the country, some even abandoned or killed. In fact, it is incredible.

On my way, the taxi driver was stopped by the local govt. ‘boys’ to produce his state driver’s licence…which of course was not available as we were coming from Lagos. After much pleading, they told the guy to pay N42000 before they can let us go. At that point, I had to step in.  I shared with them the mission of Smile Train  and gave them a copy of our flier. Immediately, one of them confessed that this was news to them as from where they are from the belief is that clefts are monsters or rabbits in human form that shouldn’t be allowed to live….fortunately one of them had a brother that had a cleft. With the revelation that a cleft can be corrected and now at no cost, I gave him the contact details of our partners in the SW.”

Thanks to an attempted bribery, of all things, one more patient whose community thought that he was a monster will be receiving surgery and a new life. You can be sure that he’ll be spreading this great news to everyone he can, helping us dispell the local superstitions and help even more patients. With NK’s help, we plan to greatly expand our programs throughout Africa and reach every child with a cleft.