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‘Miracles Happen’: Binti Jeylani’s Odyssey to Regaining Her Smile

By Abdi Aynte and Sahra Gane


For four years, Binti Jeylani didn’t smile—at least in public. A big tumor covered the 17-year-old’s mouth and chin. Kids teased her and people in her small village of Awdhiigle gazed her unstoppably.


“She had to deal with physical pain and the emotional pain,” said her father, Jeylani Mohamed Abdi-Garad. “That’s too much for a young girl like her.”


Binti was 13 when she tumbled in a dirt road near her family’s farm. She hit the ground face down. By the time she collected herself, she noticed a gush in her chin. A small amount of blood trickled out, but it didn’t seem like a big problem.


Binti Jeylani

Binti Jeylani

In farming communities like Awdhiigle, small injuries like that go untreated, in part because there’s no medical facility (the nearest one is in Mogadishu, some 40 miles to the north), or people can’t afford medical care. For the Jeylani family, it was a combination of the two.


The ‘weird thing’


Young Binti went about business as usual. A few months into the injury, “a weird thing emerged out of her chin,” said her father.


Less than a year, that “weird thing” morphed into a full-fledged tumor, the size of two tennis balls. Binti was in constant pain and no one seemed to know what it was. Her father, a corn and sesame farmer, took her to a hospital in Mogadishu. Doctors there told him that Binti needs an urgent attention, but that they don’t have the necessary equipment to undertake the massive surgery she desperately needs.


“It dawned on me,” said Jeylani, a father of eight. “The doctors said you’ve to take her abroad.” Before hid daughter’s condition took a turn to the worst, Jeylani never left his native Awdhiigle.


Thus began an odyssey that would take him and his daughter all the way to a hospital in Minneapolis. Nonprofit organizations in Mogadishu posted Binti’s attention-grabbing photo on Somali websites, known as a hotbed of Somali Diaspora philanthropists.


Binti and Abdi MuuseNeither Jeylani nor Binti had  ever heard of the Internet. In fact, Jeylani admitted of having doubts about the potential success of the Internet appeal. But as a father, whose child is in dire need of medical attention, he said he had to take whatever offer that came through.


Offer of help


Just weeks after Binti’s photo appeared on Dayniile.com and Somalitalk.com, two popular Somali websites, the first call of help came through. Abdi Muse Mahaay and his wife Zahra called the nonprofit organization in Mogadishu to inform them that they will do everything they can to bring Binti to Minnesota for treatment.


“My heart jolted and I felt an urge to do something for Binti,” said Mahaay.


He’s hardly a stranger to humanitarian work. In February, he successfully brought Murayo Nur Ali, an 11-year-old rape victim, to Mayo Clinic, a world class medical facility in Rochester, Minnesota, where he works.


Like that case, Mahaay and his wife mobilized their connections for Binti’s sake. He solicited hospitals across Minnesota and got a response from the University of Minnesota Medical Center (UMMC) in Minneapolis. The hospital offered a free treatment for Binti, if she can be brought there.


Community collaboration


Mahaay then enlisted the help of Aabiyo Ali, a community maverick with a knack for fundraising, to collect funds for Binti and her father’s airfare. In few weeks, Ali and two young women, Zamzam and Aisha, successfully collected $5,000 to cover the cost of the trip.


Meanwhile, Mahaay was lobbying the State Department to hasten the visa for Binti and her father. The two were flown from Mogadishu to Nairobi on a ticket paid by Tabouk Shipping Company, a Dubai-based Somali trading corporation that agreed to exchange that for one year free advertisement on Somalitalk.com


“The amount of cooperation is just unbelievable,” said Mahaay.


Binti and her father reached Minneapolis in October. Dozens of volunteers and community activist greeted them at the airport with flowers. As she stepped out of the plane, Binti was still hiding her mouth.


After a close inspection and pre-surgery examination, doctors at the UMMC embarked on one of their hardest surgeries: It took them 19 grueling  hours to remove Binti’s big tumor and reconstruct her chin.


Regaining smile


Binti can now talk and she can smile. She still has to go through few more surgeries for corrective and cosmetic procedures, but her father said: “the hard part is over. I never thought this day will come. Miracles do happen!”


To help with translation and facilitation, Zamzam and Aisha, the two young women who also helped raise the funds for Binti, take turns to help Binti. Meanwhile, Jeylani, her father, says he is “deeply touched by the remarkable sympathy shown to him by strangers.”


The farmer from a village in the middle of nowhere in southern Somalia is now taking care of his recovering daughter at a start-of-the-art medical facility in snowy Minneapolis, thanks to an unprecedented collective work by members of the Somali community and institutions like UMMC.

 Sahra Gane is a high school student a fellow at the Minnesota-based African Journalism Program (AJP) during the fall 2007. Abdi Aynte taught that program. This article was originally written for Haboon Magazine, which administers the AJP.