*Amy is one of those people it is impossible not to like. She has a shy and quiet personality but she smiles with her eyes. There is a beauty and warmth that shines from her.
But life has not been easy for her. From a rebel controlled area of Burma (also known as Myanmar) she was born with a bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate. She was orphaned and, as many people with deformities, struggled with being shunned socially.
Though recent changes in the government seem to be looking good for the country, there are still several areas that are rebel controlled and completely closed to the outside. In these areas there is intense poverty, as well as high incidences of drug addiction, trafficking, and violence. With the tribal warfare there is a 50% conscription rate into the army and many children are forced to be soldiers. Orphans are often picked up by the army because they have no where else to go.
Burma has had one of the longest running modern civil wars lasting for over 60 years. Because of this there is very little access to infrastructure that could provide medical help, especially with surgeries.
But *Amy’s story is still just beginning.
Several months ago *Amy met *Don, a local believer in Burma.
Over the last 7 years *Don has been working with Alex, an Applied Primary Healthcare Worker from Australia and coordinator of the Mekong Hope Surgical Project. The project was created specifically to help people with surgically correctable needs in the Mekong region of southwest China, northern Laos and northeast Burma.
Alex has been in China for over 20 years and lives near the Burma boarder with her husband who has a coffee business in the area.
Last week *Amy came up to China with a group of five cleft patients from Burma and traveled to the city of Kunming for surgery. This surgery was able to repair her lip and she will come back in a few months to get the surgery needed to repair her palate.
Working with Alex on this photo project we wanted to help *Amy and the other patients see how they are beautiful and valuable because of who they are. Yes, their story includes cleft and we want them to be able to get the surgeries to repair these conditions, but they don’t need these surgeries to be accepted or to be beautiful.
Because of this we did our best to take great before photos that were given to them as a memory.
*Ruby (3 or 4 years old) wasn’t sure about everything that was going on. For an adult to travel to another country where they don’t speak the language for a medical procedure is scary enough but I can’t image as a child taking it all in.
Ruby was born with a cleft lip. Often genetically passed on, her father had the same condition. He traveled up to Kunming with her because he wanted his daughter taken care of but didn’t want to get the surgery himself.
In the end, the day before the surgeries were scheduled, he decided to have the surgery himself as well.
Both surgeries were successful. It is easy to see the bond between dad and daughter and now they have this part of their stories to share as well.
*Lee has the walk and body language of teenage boys everywhere but has eyes that show he had to grow up too quick.
Though *Lee is also originally from Burma, and from the same area as the other patients, Alex found him in China drying coffee. Now 13 years old, *Lee has never been to school.
Back in Burma his dad has drug induced mental illness and his mother is illiterate and very poor. *Lee is their oldest son and was born with a unilateral cleft lip and palate. Though he doesn’t have a lot of contact with them, his mom was able to come up to the Chinese boarder and give consent for his surgery with her thumb print.
To get a photo of Sam was a feat by itself, the boy never stopped moving and giggling.
*Sam is 2 years old, the first child in the family, and is really loved. Both of his parents traveled with him to Kunming. They are just a wonderful family to watch. His parents also were helping *Lee as they speak the same tribal dialect from Burma.
*Sam’s mother was also the only one in the group that spoke some Chinese and was able to translate for the group while they were in China and at the hospital in Kunming.
Born with a cleft lip and palate *Sam had his first surgery (funded by Operation Smile) last November to repair his lip. The surgery last week repaired his palate.
Over the years Alex and *Don have been able to work together to get several groups of patients into China for surgery.
Though these surgeries are quite routine in many areas of the world it is much harder for these patients. Work needs to be done to get proper paperwork to cross the international boarder between Burma and China. Then the process and travel needs to be cleared through the Chinese police.
After surgery both Alex and the others involved with the project work to help patients with additional dental work and speech therapy. On top of the physical needs they also provide emotional and spiritual support. Living with a deformity and being shunned by society can be very damaging to a persons self-esteem and the value they see in themselves. The goal is not just to fix the outside of people but to provide holistic therapy and walk beside them.
For these patients, as well as the many groups who have come already and more groups to come, there is hope.
Special thanks to the Mekong Hope Surgical Project, Hani Coffee, friends in Coggin Texas, Red Cross Hospital Kunming and other donors.
If you are interested supporting Mekong Hope Surgical Project please visit their website Mekong Hope.