Zindia, 22, lives outside Lima, Peru, with her three-year-old son, Joseyur, who was born with a cleft. Below, she shares an honest account of her family’s long and fraught journey to the care, dignity, and safety all people deserve. Smile Train and our local partner Asociación Civil Mision Caritas Felices are proud to have been there to help them both along the way.
NOTE: This story contains instances of psychological abuse and may not be suitable for all readers.
I first met Joseyur’s father, Juan*, when I was 17 and in school. I quickly got pregnant but lost the baby after I lifted something too heavy for me. While I recovered, I decided to quit school so my family could spend the money on my younger siblings instead. I moved out of my parents’ house to rent a room with Juan in another village when I became pregnant with Joseyur the next year.
Where we lived outside Lima, we had very little. There are no laws about how you must build your houses here and most of us live in fragile shacks on dusty hillsides made of whatever scraps we can find or afford. There is no running water; we must buy it from a man in a truck who comes once a week. If we have no money for water that week, we must either fetch it ourselves or go thirsty.
So when Juan and I moved in together, he worked the fields all day while I sold clothes. It wasn’t much, but we got by. We always had enough water, at least, to get me through my pregnancy, but we definitely couldn’t afford anything like an ultrasound. I only saw that my baby had a cleft when he was born, and it upset me so much that I fainted. I had never seen anyone like that before.
Thankfully, the doctors were there for me. They said not to despair because his cleft could be healed, but Juan blamed our baby’s cleft and my previous miscarriage entirely on me. I felt so guilty.
When we took Joseyur home, I couldn’t feed him because his cleft made him choke on my breast milk; I think more of it might have dripped out of his nose than went down his throat. He screamed all day and all night with hunger, but I felt powerless to nourish him. One of my doctors suggested I save up and take him to Lima where we would have so many more opportunities for help and treatment, but I couldn’t even afford to save at that point. Thankfully, my aunt started a collection among my family and, when Joseyur was three months old, we were able to move in with my sister Yuli in the city.
That’s where we learnt about Asociación Civil Mision Caritas Felices (MCF). From the first time we entered, the staff greeted us warmly and had nothing but smiles for Joseyur. Then they sat us down and explained how they were going to provide every bit of cleft care my baby would ever need for free, thanks to an organisation called Smile Train and its generous donors around the world. I thought there must be a catch, but then they invited me to a free workshop on feeding my baby and preparing him for his operation. They also told me the truth — clefts are a common birth difference affecting one out of every 700 babies and are never the mother’s fault.
That helped me feel better, but Juan didn’t approve of us living with Yuli or going to MCF because he had a job three hours away; he wanted me to live with him so I could take care of the house and his meals. So I moved out of my sister’s house and started commuting three hours each way every time Joseyur had an appointment — I never missed one.
At that time, I also started selling snacks on the street because Juan told me he wasn’t making enough money to support the family. But when I spoke to his boss, I discovered he was actually earning far more than he said and was spending it on another girl. When I confronted him and said I should’ve stayed with Yuli, he threatened to stop supporting me and our son and disappear altogether. Then he left anyway. Thankfully, Yuli took me in again and I was able work in a sweatshop, until I had to quit because all the lint on my clothes was making Joseyur sick.
So Yuli, Joseyur, and I moved in with our oldest sister and her family. She agreed to look after the baby while I worked in another sweatshop, but that didn’t work out, so we moved again to live for free in my uncle’s small wooden house. That was hard, too, because, first of all, it is so remote that the water truck driver refused even to come near to us unless we paid him extra. Secondly, it has no lock, so I had to latch the gate with a plastic bag each time we left. That’s not enough to keep the thieves out, so we sometimes got robbed while away.
Yet, it all felt worth it when, thanks to the constant support of our heroes at MCF — particularly our nutritionist, Adriana Zavalaga — Joseyur had gained enough weight to have his first free cleft surgery when he turned six months old.
Yuli came with us to the hospital to support me the day of his surgery because I was so nervous and crying so much. But when he came out and I saw him smile for the first time, I was so happy! “You see!” Yuli told me, “There’s no need to cry because there are solutions. Now you need to keep going for the rest of his treatments because everything will be fine.”
She was right. In that moment, my ability to keep going was all we had.
I sued Juan for child support and, though he signed papers saying he would pay it, it has been many years and we have yet to receive anything but continued abuse from him every time he calls.
So I just kept going for us, as did Smile Train and the whole MCF staff. I am happy to say that in 2020 I met a man who treats Joseyur and me with the love we deserve, and we have since had Joshua, a healthy, wonderful baby boy.
The pandemic has been hard on my family, especially after my husband lost his job and we nearly ran out of money. But here, too, I followed my sister’s advice and persevered. Now, thanks to Smile Train, Joseyur is once again receiving the free nutritional and other support he needs from MCF to grow up big, strong, and healthy. He received another surgery from them, too, just before the pandemic and is already scheduled for another one as soon as conditions in Lima allow.
From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank Smile Train and its donors for all you have done for us. I pray that you will please keep fighting for my child, and that, in exchange, God will bless you.
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*His name has been changed to protect the family.