OPERATION SMILE: Solace After a Rigorous Journey
After a Rigorous Journey, This Venezuelan Family Finds Solace in Brazil
Venezuela’s economic and political chaos has not only deterred tourists from the visiting the region, but has led to more than 4.5 million residents seek out refuge in neighboring nations as of February 2020.
Yoel, his wife, Yelisbeth, and their four daughters are one of the families who left their home, friends and jobs behind in search of a better life.
While Yelisbeth and Yoel’s decision to leave Venezuela was promoted by their desire to find a safe place to raise their children, they were also looking for something they struggled to find in their home country – surgery for their 3-month-old daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was born with a cleft condition and a limb difference affecting her left hand.
It was only after arriving in Iquitos, Peru, that the family connected with a man who informed them about Operation Smile and the free surgeries it provides for children like Elizabeth.
Grasping on to the opportunity to help his daughter, Yoel contacted the organization’s team based in Peru, only to learn that the solution would remain out of reach: The next medical mission was scheduled to take place in Lima, which was very far from where his family had settled.
In an attempt to prevent his family from enduring the harsh travel distance, Yoel reached out to Operation Smile Brazil. After being informed that the family was Venezuelan, the organization encouraged them to seek safe surgery from the foundation in his native country. But with such tumultuous times impacting the country and foundation, there weren’t missions scheduled for any upcoming dates. Despite the continuous challenges preventing him and his family from settling peacefully in the new country, Yoel found strength to persevere for the people he loves and cherishes most in this world.
While unsure of what the outcome would be, Yoel reached out to Operation Smile Brazil once again. He ended the call feeling more hopeful than ever. The team told Yoel that, in a month and a half, a medical mission was taking place in Porto Velho, which was more than 650 miles away. Over the radio, Yoel broadcasted Elizabeth’s story and his plans to travel to Brazil in order to find her the care she needs. Moved by the family’s story and resilience, an owner of a boat company offered them tickets to board his boat and travel down the Amazon River to Santa Rosa de Yavarí, the last city before the Brazilian border. This initiated the first step of the long and challenging journey that stood between Elizabeth and the care that could change her life forever.
It took the family nearly three days to reach Brazil. Traveling to Tabatinga, an Amazonian city located on the other side of the border, the family was once again surprised and touched by the compassion shown to them along the way. “We had the help of a lot of people,” Yoel recalled. “People we had never seen gave us food and lodging.”
Landing next in Tabatinga, the family crossed paths with a woman named Cristiana, who generously offered them lodging and food. Yelisbeth and Yoel depended on the meager income they made from selling chocolates and some of their last possessions they still had with them. More than 550 miles away from the medical mission, the family estimated that the next stretch of their trip would cost almost three times the amount of money they had at the time.
But knowing that their dream of finding Elizabeth surgery was continuously moving closer within their reach, the entire family once again made incredible sacrifices to earn money: They left the dog that had accompanied them at Cristiana's house, sold their fridge and deserted one of their tuk tuks, a motorized tricycle, leaving the six of them to share one together.
After almost four days of travel, everyone arrived safely in the Amazonian capital. It was after talking to truckers and learning more about road conditions that Yoel set their departure date. “We said, ‘Let's go tomorrow!’ We set the alarm for three in the morning and left,” he said.
Over the course of the day, the smooth paved road that the family had become accustomed to gave way to dirt and loose gravel. “It was an infinite line to the horizon. And on the side of the road, we only saw forest," Yoel said. "We traveled for miles without going through any communities." But soon, the seemingly endless dusty roads transitioned into water after they arrived at the Igapó-Açu River located in northwestern Brazil. While receiving passage across the river on a ferry brought temporary relief to the family, Yoel knew that they still had a long way to go before reaching the mission site in Porto Velho, which was nearly 350 miles away.
After departing from the ferry, Yelisbeth, Yoel and their children were met with more sun, heat and dust as they continued on their journey. With exhaustion weighing on the entire family, they stopped and took a break on the side of the road. They were once again met with kindness. Witnessing Yoel signal from the road, a truck driver slowed to a halt and offered to take the family to Porto Velho in exchange for a small price.
Yelisbeth said that she still remembers the heady smell of gasoline from the cart. And at night, when the driver would stop to rest after long hours of traveling, the family was reminded that they weren’t out of danger with being in such proximity of the Amazon Rainforest. “We heard loud noises from the woods, and, suddenly, I saw pairs of bright eyes come out of the plants. They were jaguars,” Yoel said. “I could only think about the girls. They were my only concern." Conjuring up the last remaining strength they had, the family prevailed and traveled the final distance to the hospital, arriving the day before the mission was scheduled to start.
Elizabeth and her family were met with compassion from the Operation Smile Brazil medical team. And after Elizabeth passed her comprehensive health evaluation, the volunteers and staff struggled to hold back tears of joy when they informed Yoel and Yelisbeth that she was selected for surgery. “It was a lot of sacrifice, but when we arrived here, we didn’t imagine that we would be received with such affection and love,” Yoel said. He even said that the family hopes to make Brazil their forever home after the treatment they received from the people dedicated to the organization. Seeing Elizabeth’s beautiful new smile, Yelisbeth and Yoel knew that every sacrifice they made and every mile they traveled to get to this moment had been worth it.