The Way Home: Enok’s Story

We all know how cleft lip and palate surgery can change the lives of children, they will not only have a brighter future, but also they will no longer face discrimination caused by their appearance. Enok’s story illustrates how the life of an adult is literally transformed after surgery.


After 25 years suffering from a severe bilateral cleft lip, Enok finally found the courage to look for help after being convinced by Operation Smile volunteers when they came to his village in Rwanda during a medical mission in 2013. Enok recalled being mocked, jeered and chased by a bunch of children, and how people would stare at him with disgust on the street.

He said “if Operation Smile volunteers were not here to convince me, I wouldn’t be able to temper going into a bar and sitting with other people and sharing a cup. But now I can enter into any place and people even come to share the cup with me.”
While walking through lush green vistas, he explained to us that before surgery, he had to take all sorts of detours and creep through people’s gardens and farms to avoid being seen. Otherwise, children would either run away or follow behind insulting him when they saw him.
It was hard for us to believe that Enok once experienced this sort of pain, as we saw him now walking in the street, stopping to greet friends and even gossiping about the latest news with a neighbour. People called him affectionately by his nickname, smiled with him and when they yelled “Bibi”, it wasn’t hard to point out the emotion and honour in the tone.

“Before the surgery, everyone was scared of me. I couldn’t stand and talk to a girl, but now I can easily find a girl on the roadside and stand for a while and talk to her,” Enok explained as he grinned. “Even young kids would get frightened when they saw me, but nowadays I am a normal person in the community. I meet people and they talk to me like they would someone who has been there the whole time.
When he says “there the whole time”, it means that he was cruelly discriminated and made to feel like he didn’t even exist before the surgery. His mother told us that “whenever I was going somewhere with Enok, young kids would run away because they thought he would bite them,” she said. “I kept hoping and praying that God would help him. When it happened, I praised God for it because it was an answer to my dreams. It was done perfectly and he is really new as he says.”

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The surgery, that was performed three years ago, has also positively impacted his working life as a baker. He proudly explained to us that he has regained respect from the community, including his employer and work mates, as before he was less considered and isolated.

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Our baker is now confident, and together with his mother he has become an advocate for Operation Smile’s work in Rwanda. They’ve even made it so far as to pursue a neighbour, Veronica, who has cleft lip and motivate her to have operation.

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“She is afraid for now, but we are trying to convince her,” Enok said. “As for the good things that have happened to me and changed me to a new person, if I meet someone with the same problem, I would advise him or her to go to see the doctor and find out if there is any opportunity for surgery

Although Enok’s emotional scar is still healing after the period living in social isolation, his negative attitude about the future has disappeared with his surgery scar. Leaving the past behind, Enok now keeps moving forward and is trying every day to help more people who are in the same situation.

(Information and photos from Sean Robson and Margherita Mirabella)

"We strive for a world where no child suffers the risks and uncertainties of a facial deformity."

- Richard Lewandowski, Plastic Surgeon, Co-Founder Operation Smile Australia