Maimed African Teen’s Amazing Journey to America

By Lawrence Dechant

Apr 25, 2013 6:00am

In 2007, Blessing Makwera found a device with wires sticking out of it in his native country of Zimbabwe. Not knowing what the device was, the then-15-year-old placed it in his mouth. It exploded, causing him to lose his jaw, teeth and part of his tongue. The device was a landmine.

Makwera had the majority of his jaw removed and tried to recover in a hospital in Zimbabwe for two months, with only a piece of piano wire holding his jaw in place.   

“Initially I felt like I wasn’t a normal human being in my community after the accident,” Makwera told ABCNews.com. “After the surgery I was in a lot of pain for four months–there was no doctor there, and no one that can do the surgery, and I thought there was no way I am going to be normal again.”

After hearing Makwera’s story, Operation of Hope, a non-profit organization that provides surgical care, healthcare and medical training programs in under-served areas of the world– along with then 12-year-old Portland, Ore., native Hayden Skoch–decided to take action.

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Image credit: KATU/ABC News

“We met Blessing and everyone fell in love with him,” said Jennifer Trubenbach, president of Operation of Hope. “The doctor who operated initially took away probably more than he needed to, and luckily it was able to heal, but it was a miracle he was able to survive. He had a wash cloth on his chest, and he just drooled and drooled, so we worked on getting that corrected first by removing the wire holding his jaw and creating a better structure. Basically we got him out of a bad situation of living, and gave him the opportunity to go to a private school in Habari, Africa, the city we do our operations in.”

Skoch, now 16, who heard about Makwera’s story from a family friend associated with Operation of Hope, also wanted to help. She arranged for the profits made at her middle school dance to be used to create a fund to get Makwera sent to the U.S. for post-operative care. She raised $1,100.

“It was that even though he was far away he was another kid who was my age and I just thought his story was so amazing and I couldn’t relate to any story like that in my life or in the U.S. And the story was so amazing to me that I was compelled to be involved and help out,” Skoch said.

With both Operation of Hope and Skoch’s help, Makwera was able to finish high school in Africa. He then traveled to the U.S. for the first of three surgeries two months ago in San Diego, Calif.

“We were able to find a hospital to donate their hospital and surgeons to help him,” Trubenbach said. “They took a bone out of his leg and rebuilt his jaw, and it ended up being a 13-hour surgery.”

This trip to the U.S. was the first time Skoch and Makwera met. “It was crazy when I helped him four years ago, I didn’t imagine it would be four years until I met him,” Skoch said.

“It was very exciting knowing that someone who has helped me four years ago, was meeting me for the first time,” Makwera said. “I felt she was another member of my family that I had not discovered and not known my whole life, but meeting her made me feel good. I also think knowing Jennifer and Stephen [Clawson] and their organization in my life has been a blessing.”

Makwera is now living in Portland with Clawson, brother to Trubenbach and vice president of Operation of Hope, and volunteering as a teacher’s aide at private school in Oregon. He still has two more surgeries, the second slated for mid-June. He is expected to be about “80 percent back to his original form after the third and final surgery,” Trubenbach said.

“The sensitivity towards an individual with a disability in this country is not very accepting. They assume that because his face was damaged, his brain was too and that is not the case,” she said. “He has been called monster to his face, and I know this surgery will help him with gaining a better sense of normalcy.”  

Trubenbach, who Makwera calls his “American mother,” said her wish for Makwera post-surgery is for him to continue his education.

“You can have a beautiful face but if you don’t have an education life can be very difficult,” she said. “My personal hope and wish is not only would he have an opportunity to have normal speech and face but to get to go to school in the states. And his hope is to return to Zimbabwe someday. But if he could get an education here and apply it there it would be my greatest hope of all. He is so smart, takes the bus to get to work every day, and takes advantage of the gifts he has been given and he is really thankful. That is my wish for him.”

For now, Makwera will stay in the U.S. until his next three surgeries are complete. He said he will always treasure his new American family and will never give up on his dreams.

“My advice to anyone is never give to up on yourself , you should always strive for the best in life. Don’t listen to the negative because they don’t know how you feel,” he said. “You should know that you are great and to never give up on yourself. I feel like my world is coming back to normal, and I feel like a community loves me and still needs me. This experience has made me realize that the world is a great place to live in.”

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