Along a dusty roadside in the state of Ceará in northern Brazil, Antonia Samia sips a cold drink on a hot day at the local coconut stand with her father and sister.
The area has been stricken by a drought spanning more than five years and the scorching wind whips around the dust, which covers everything and everyone in a fine layer.
Life is hard for many in this desolate, arid region of a nation better known for lush rainforests, the mighty Amazon River and the sprawling cityscapes of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Like the other farmers in the area, Antonia’s father, Iranildo, has had to cope with the effects of the lengthy drought. In times like these, he can only grow enough food to feed his large family. Even when more favourable conditions prevailed, Iranildo earned a low and inconsistent income selling surplus corn, beans and cassava.
On this day, the family trio laugh and enjoy the time with one another as they reminisce about the past. Antonia’s newlywed husband, Alan, works at the coconut stand and the upbeat 19-year-old beams with a wide, loving smile when their eyes meet. In precious moments like these, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when there wasn’t much that made Antonia smile.
That time was 11 years ago, before her cleft lip was repaired by Operation Smile Brazil.
Cleft conditions have long haunted Antonia’s family. She represents the fifth straight generation afflicted with the deformity. Iranildo and Antonia’s mother, also named Antonia, were devastated to see their fifth daughter born with a cleft lip, but that paled in comparison to the love they felt for their newborn baby. Unlike so many children born with cleft conditions, Antonia was also very fortunate to be able to breastfeed without difficulty.
However, with a family of nine to support, there was no way Iranildo could afford surgery for Antonia. Even when he caught word of Operation Smile Brazil’s inaugural mission to Fortaleza shortly after Antonia was born, Iranildo couldn’t afford the bus fare nor the time away from the farm. All he could do was offer Antonia a promise that he hoped he could one day fulfil: “I promise I will get it fixed.”
So while she was fortunate enough to grow up physically healthy, the emotional distress Antonia would experience was inevitable. Once in school, she was relentlessly bullied and tormented by her classmates because of her cleft lip. Often, Antonia would come home from school in tears, telling her mother that she no longer wanted to study. The terrible names she was called were just too painful and persistent to endure.
When Antonia was 8 years old, her aunt, Leidinha, intervened and finally persuaded Iranildo to take Antonia to Fortaleza for a chance to receive free surgery at an Operation Smile Brazil medical mission. To this day, Antonia calls Leidinha “an angel.”
Iranildo, Antonia and Leidinha made the more than 3-hour bus ride to arrive at the medical mission site. Antonia was frightened to travel without her mother, who had to stay behind to care for her young children.
At the hospital, Antonia remembers playing with the other children as she awaited her comprehensive medical evaluation, which determined that she was healthy enough to go under anaesthesia for her procedure. Finally, Iranildo could make good on the promise he made to his daughter.
Still too young to understand the life-changing effects of the surgery she would soon receive, Antonia cried as the doctors took her into the operating room despite the best efforts of the medical volunteers to calm her worries. She didn’t understand that her father couldn’t come with her. Iranildo soothed his daughter’s fears by explaining that he would be there waiting for her after her procedure.
After a successful surgery, Iranildo couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw his daughter for the first time.
“Antonia was the most beautiful child in the world,” Iranildo said. “The other children (who had surgery) were pretty, but she was the most beautiful.”
Antonia remembers waking up from anaesthesia – her face felt strangely different and her lip was sore. All she wanted was to return home to the loving embrace of her mother. Once reunited, Antonia’s mother cried tears of joy when she saw her daughter’s new smile.
Antonia’s parents decided to keep her away from school as her lip healed fully. Once it was time to return, her teacher gathered her classmates – her former tormentors – together and asked them: “Have you seen Antonia? Look at her now – she has had surgery and see how beautiful she is.”
The teacher went on to explain that she had always been beautiful and that she had always been just like them – that any of them could have been born with a cleft and that Antonia never chose to be born with her condition.
From that moment on, the bullying ceased and Antonia made many friends and enjoyed social life as she continued her studies.
Meanwhile, her outstanding surgical result and photogenic nature grabbed the attention of a well-known toothpaste brand. Incredibly, the girl who was once so relentlessly tormented would become the face of a nationwide advertising campaign in Brazil.
Last October, Antonia visited the Operation Smile medical mission to Fortaleza. There, she helped nurture children and their parents by talking to them to ease their fears about surgery. She showed them a photo of her face before her procedure as she stood before them as living proof of Operation Smile’s life-changing work. Antonia said the experience brought back powerful memories and that helping the parents and children brought her so much joy.
“If it was not for Operation Smile, I would not be here telling my story,” said Antonia, who hopes to become a doctor or nurse to one day help children like her. “Thank you for bringing back my happiness.”