Parallel Journeys

Patient Stories
Fifteen-month Ashraf poses with his mother, Shamiem, on patient announcement day during the 2018 Operation Smile medical mission to Blantyre, Malawi. Photo: Jasmin Shah.
Fifteen-month Ashraf poses with his mother, Shamiem, on patient announcement day during the 2018 Operation Smile medical mission to Blantyre, Malawi. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

After two years of marriage, Shamiem and her husband, Stephen, were thrilled to be starting a family of their own.

Yet mere moments after welcoming their first child, Ashraf, into their lives, the couple was faced with the unexpected.

Ashraf was born with a cleft lip.

While many parents can be shocked and frightened when their child is born with a cleft condition due to deep-rooted social stigma, lack of access to prenatal care and lack of education about cleft being a surgically treatable condition, Shamiem was filled with joy and love when she looked at her baby.

Just like Ashraf, Shamiem was born with a cleft lip.

“I wasn’t surprised. I was very happy because I was born like that,” Shamiem said.

Due to the harmful stigmatization surrounding cleft conditions, children often endure severe bullying from their peers and members of their family. They’re sometimes prevented from going to school – or even from leaving their homes – because their parents fear for their safety.

Fortunately, this was not the same treatment Shamiem received. 

Although she lived with an unrepaired cleft condition for more than a decade, Shamiem said that many people in her community were kind and friendly toward her.

Shamiem was 13 years old when she received the surgery that she needed to repair her cleft lip. It wasn’t until years later that Shamiem and Stephen met, fell in love and began their journey together.

For Stephen, nothing could diminish the love he had for Shamiem.

“I love her the way she is and did not take notice of the cleft,” Stephen said. “She is made in the image of God.”

With the knowledge that surgical solutions existed and with the devotion that they shared for one another, Shamiem and Stephen never lost hope that Ashraf would one day also receive the care that he needed to live a happy and dignified life.  

The hope they had for their son’s future continued to deepen even further after receiving a phone number to contact Operation Smile Malawi.

By reaching out and speaking to a volunteer from the organization, Stephen and Shamiem not only learned that the organization provides free, safe surgical care for children just like their son, but also that it was holding an upcoming medical mission in Blantyre.

After traveling from their home in Lilongwe, Shamiem, Stephen and Ashraf arrived at the medical mission site to see hundreds of other families with the same goal: to get their child the care that they deserve. Shamiem was very happy to see that her son and her family weren’t alone.

During the mission, Ashraf received his comprehensive health evaluation and was placed on the surgical schedule. Later that same week, he received his life-changing surgery from Operation Smile Malawi medical volunteers.

Ashraf smiles wide with his mother months after receiving surgery. Photo: Jasmin Shah.
Ashraf smiles wide with his mother months after receiving surgery. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Neither Stephen nor Shamiem ever gave up on Ashraf. And because of that bravery and conviction, their son now has a beautiful new smile. Today, they hope to inspire other parents to do the same.

By spreading awareness about the work that Operation Smile Malawi is accomplishing in the country, Shamiem and Stephen wish to encourage other families who have children with cleft conditions to never give up hope.

Ashraf’s life is now full of new possibilities, and his future is brighter.   

“I am very grateful for everything Operation Smile has done for me and my child,” Shamiem said.

Photo: Jasmin Shah.
Photo: Jasmin Shah.