I was accustomed to wearing a face mask long before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic as I grew up wearing it regularly to school till my 10th standard. I might have looked odd but it was my only shield from unwanted attention and bullying for the way I looked.
My name is Bilques and I’m 18 years old, hailing from the Warwan Valley in Jammu and Kashmir; the land of perfect beauty. But life was never perfect for me! I was born with a cleft lip that remained untreated for eighteen years. I had often heard my parents blaming themselves for my condition as they were made to believe it was because my mother had used an axe to cut down a tree during an Eclipse, resulting in me being born with this cleft.
As a child, I grew up isolated. Other children in the community refused to be friends with me because of the deeply rooted stigma surrounding clefts in my society. As a teenager, I felt rejected, heartbroken, and alone.
My only window to happiness was my family. My parents, grandparents and six siblings have always showered me with unconditional love and prayed that my life would become better someday. A teacher mentioned that my problem could be fixed with surgery and I nudged my parents many times to get it done for me but my family’s income was hardly sufficient to maintain the basic needs of the family, so affording a costly cleft surgery was a far-fetched dream.
The hope of finding a solution for my cleft had almost faded away and then it happened! Hearing an announcement about Smile Train on the radio, I quickly noted the toll-free number and handed it over to my father. He called on that number and was informed that Khyber Hospital, Srinagar is one of their partners and provides cleft treatment. Most importantly, he learned that the medical investigations, surgery charges, medicine, hospital stay etc. would all be completely free of cost for us!
Within a week’s time, my father and I reached Srinagar and my treatment started. I’ll never forget the day when after the surgery, once I regained consciousness, I saw myself in the mirror and realised that a new life had just begun for me. I was full of joy and tears of gratitude kept rolling down my cheeks.
On coming back to my home town, for the first time in my life, I felt accepted by everyone in my community. People no longer stared at me, nor did I hear any hushed comments as I walk by them. It’s been more than a month since the surgery and I’ve already gained a group of supportive friends.
My life has taught me that it’s never too late to dream; I’m starting my studies again after taking a gap of more than a year. There are no words that express my thanks and gratitude to Smile Train India, their partner doctors, and the kind donors who have gifted me a beautiful ‘SMILE’ like no other.
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