Christian doctors with Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse are travelling again this year to South Sudan, where they will perform over 80 cleft lip and palate surgeries on children and adults that are often ostracized by society and accused of having demonic spirits.
"Awareness is key to us as Christians to realize the plight of the world around us. Christ called us to be aware of those who are suffering and those who are dealing with these things. Supporting an organization that is willing or has the capability to make a difference in these things is as good as being there doing it yourself," said Dr. Tom Boeve, an otolaryngologist from Wisconsin, in a phone interview with The Christian Post on Friday.
Dr. Boeve is travelling with a team of other Christian doctors to South Sudan's capital, Juba, in November to perform surgery on approximately 80 people in a mission organized by World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Franklin Graham's international relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
"Samaritan's Purse was intimately involved in running the refugee camp named Yida and they were just seeing a tremendous amount of people in this newly formed country that had cleft lips and palates that needed surgery, and really no one had ever journeyed into Sudan to do that," the otolaryngologist told CP.
The birth defect develops during gestation – all people have clefts very early in their development in the womb, as faces are divided into equal halves, and as the body forms, these two parts become fused. However, if anything interrupts that process, such as the baby's hand positioned in the wrong way, or if the mother eats or does something wrong, the cleft remains. One in 700 babies are born with cleft lips, but as Dr. Boeve pointed out, in America one rarely sees children or adults with open clefts because doctors repair these deformities very early.
The problem is much larger in impoverished countries like South Sudan, which gained its independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011, where there are practically no such doctors in the region.
Due to tribal beliefs, many people with open clefts in South Sudan are faced with a life of shame and loneliness, the organization states. They are shunned both by their families and their communities, which gets in the way of their education and search for a job.
"People are so tribal and community driven that in their villages and in their homes, having a birth defect of any sort, let alone something as obvious as a cleft, brings shame and loneliness, and they are considered cursed. Most of the time, because the local witch-doctor can't fix the problem, they tell the family and all the people living around them that this child has a demon," Dr. Boeve explained.
In such a scenario, the children are sent out to live alone and are abandoned by their parents, who are left with little choice as they don't want what they believe to be a demon in their community.
Although over 60 percent of the South Sudan population are said to be Christians, often times far-reaching communities are still influenced by tribal customs, and so local witch-doctors have a great deal of power.
"If (the witch-doctor) is not able to help with herbs and spices and prayer, then you must have a demon that must be cast out," Dr. Boeve noted.
The cleft lip and palate surgeries offer a truly life-changing experience for the patients, however, which helps them not only reconnect to their communities, but because of the Christian doctors and the work of Samaritan's Purse, they also get to hear about Christ.
"The amazing thing to me at the end of the day, when I go over to see these families that had kind of been tribalistic and have cuts and tribalisitc marking all over their faces, is that these people are raising their hands, praising this God that brought people in America to help their child to fit back into the community and have a normal life again. The spiritual impact is probably the most impressive to me," the otolaryngologist concluded.
Dr. Boeve and Samaritan's Purse have made such trips to South Sudan before, in 2011 and 2012, and to date the Christian doctors have performed cleft palate and lip surgery on 119 patients.
"Christian doctors and surgeons from the U.S. are taking time away from their medical practices to travel to the other side of the world and give people in South Sudan the ability – and more importantly a reason – to smile for the first time in their lives," a press release noted.
A number of "Before and After" photos from the surgeries are available on the Samaritan's Purse website, as well information on how people can fundraise for the mission and other ways to get involved.