Turning on a light switch may not be remarkable for most kids. But, for 8-year-old Dunia Sibomana, it’s like magic.
“There’s no TV where Dunia comes from,” said Jennifer Crean, Dunia’s host mother. “So, when Dunia came into a room when he first got here and we flipped on a light switch, it was like, ‘What is this magical thing’?”
Dunia arrived from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November 2015 to receive facial reconstructive surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital. Dunia survived a vicious chimpanzee attack two years ago that took both of his lips, scarred his face and killed his younger brother.
Now, he’s adjusting to life in America, a country completely different from his homeland. A local family is hosting Dunia, introducing him to American culture and comforts he never had, such as electricity. In return, Dunia’s struggles remind the family of how fortunate they are.
“I think the biggest struggle for him is the word, ‘No,’” said Crean, 41, sitting in a chair in the living room of her Hauppauge home. Nearby, Dunia ran around, bursting out laughter as he played with two of Crean’s three children, Eian, 12, and Grace, 10. “I think based on what I see in his behavior, I have a feeling that he didn’t have a very structured environment where he lived,” Crean said.
Virunga National Park, a section of the Congo rainforest, is located near Dunia's hometown in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dunia lived in Rutshuru, a rural town in east Congo. The town is roughly four miles from Virunga National Park, part of the Congo rainforest and home to wild chimps. Dunia said his town had about 30 homes. He grew up in a small house that had metal sheets for a roof.
"Life was very hard,” said Dunia, whose Swahili was translated by Lawrence Nzuve, a Kenyan journalism graduate student at Stony Brook University. “The most difficult part I remember was waking in the morning to cut the grass to feed my father’s two donkeys.” Dunia also carried containers of water from the river and cut firewood for fuel.
Dunia’s mother and older sister died when he was very young. Malaria killed his mother. Dunia grew up with two brothers and his father, a farm owner. “His father was probably just trying to make ends meet and having a hard time doing so that Dunia was kind of left to his own devices,” said Crean.
The lack of supervision may have been why Dunia and his four-year-old brother were near Virunga National Park during the chimp attack. When the two encountered the chimps, they hid in a makeshift home they built near the forest. The chimps found them inside.
After killing Dunia’s brother, the chimps attacked Dunia. They tore off his lips, damaged his cheeks and removed his left middle finger and a piece of his right ear. After the attack, Dunia was taken to a medical center for treatment.
The Virunga park rangers referred Dunia to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital through anthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey, professor and chair of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University. Leakey contacted the head plastic surgeon at Stony Brook University Hospital who spoke with the founder of a local charity called the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids. The nonprofit pledged to help Dunia.
Dr. Leon Klempner, the Smile Rescue Fund’s founder and an orthodontist, said volunteers, such as Crean, are vital to the nonprofit's mission. For 14 years, Crean was a business manager for Klempner’s orthodontic offices in Medford and Port Jefferson in New York.
Klempner has traveled the world, helping thousands of children with cleft palates. He said Dunia is unique. “It’s a problem when you have a child who has a severe disfigurement because it’s not a simple, quick fix,” Klempner said. “It’s not just a simple 20-minute or half-hour surgery as you could do with a cleft lip.”
Dunia will receive multiple surgeries to reconstruct his lips. The surgeons at Stony Brook University Hospital are performing the operations for free. During Dunia’s first operation in January, the surgeons took a skin graft, the length and width of a bar of soap, from the boy’s left forearm and stitched it to his face where his lips once were, connecting the nerves. The graft is about three times the size of normal lips, resembling a small donut. The graft serves as Dunia’s temporary lips and it’s the foundation for what will become his new lips.
“It is a rare procedure,” said Klempner. “It’s unusual to have a patient who has lost both upper and lower lips.”
Dunia has possibly four or five more surgeries ahead to shape the skin graft on his lips to look more like regular lips. If Dunia recovers well, he will return to Africa in December. The Smile Rescue Fund will pay for Dunia’s education in a boarding school and also for college if he chooses to enroll. The boarding school tuition could cost about $750 a year.
Klempner said most charities don’t have the capacity to undertake what his charity has done for Dunia. “When we began growing the Smile Rescue Fund it was never our intention to get this involved,” said Klempner.
The surgeons took a skin graft from Dunia's left forearm and used it to help reconstruct his lips. Photo by Jimin Kim.
But that quickly changed in 2013 when the foundation helped its first child, Saline Atieno. Atieno came from a desolate Kenyan village to live with the Creans after a flesh-eating bacteria destroyed her lips and nose. Crean volunteered for the Smile Rescue Fund and hosted Atieno. Klempner’s charity funded Atieno's $10,000 operation in Kenya, but the hospitals didn’t properly execute the advanced surgery. So Stony Brook University Hospital’s surgeons volunteered to perform the operations.
The Smile Rescue Fund
Now, the Creans host their second child, Dunia. Crean said she personally pays the funds needed to take care of Dunia. Although she could receive money from the Smile Rescue Fund to host Dunia, she said supporting children like him is rewarding enough. Crean’s hospitality comes from her upbringing.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I watched my parents and other people help others and it’s just something I’ve always known I was meant to do,” she said.
But a recent visit to the Creans’ home showed how hosting Dunia can be daunting. His footsteps echoed through the living room as he chased the family dog, Ziggy. One of the few tranquil moments was when Dunia sat down with Crean's children to play video games.
Dunia sat by Eian, Crean’s youngest son. “He’s really nice and he plays around a lot with us and just shows a lot of respect,” said Eian about Dunia. “He kind of acts like a little brother to me.”
Eian said Dunia tends to be very physical when he plays sports. He added that Dunia can suddenly get loud when he can’t have what he wants. Crean agreed. “Dunia, if he’s not happy, instead of being able to vocalize that, a lot of times he’ll act out or he may kind of just retreat and be very silent.”
One of the cultural challenges for Dunia is controlling his rowdy behavior. “He’s so smart, very, very intelligent little boy,” Crean said. “But, behavior-wise, he’s more on the younger side. He hasn’t had that socialization that a child his age would have [during] a few years in school already.”
Dunia's second grade class greets Dunia with a message written in Swahili. Photo credit: The Smile Rescue Fund.
Dunia is currently in a second grade class at Pines Elementary School in Smithtown. He learns English and takes various classes, such as math. Crean said Dunia’s English has dramatically improved. She said he is also gradually learning American social norms. “He’s very physical with the kids,” Crean said. “He’ll pinch to get your attention or he’ll kick out or punch. That’s the way he interacts with them. So, we have to tone that down.”
At his school in Africa, Dunia’s classmates bullied him for his appearance after the chimp attack. So Dunia stopped going to school. But he isn’t bullied anymore. This could be due to Grace Crean, Crean's youngest child and only daughter. Before Dunia’s first day at school, Grace made a video that introduced other students to Dunia.
"I wanted the kids to understand more about him so they don’t get a little freaked out,” Grace said.
She recalled seeing Dunia for the first time at John F. Kennedy airport. After meeting Dunia, she said she became grateful for everything she has. “His face was a little destroyed,” Grace said. “He has a bunch of scars. But, that’s when I realized we’re lucky and he’s not as lucky as we are.”
Dunia’s life in Africa was less than fortunate. His town is at the intersection of several armed rival groups, including the government military, rebels and militias from bordering countries, such as Uganda and Rwanda. Dunia said he grew up seeing soldiers.
“This region in African history, we call this region one of the most violent,” said Dr. Shimelis Gulema, assistant professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University. “The border area sometimes becomes an area which is uncontrolled, sometimes completely uncontrolled by the state…to live in this environment at that very young age would be tremendous.”
Although such conflicts are thousands of miles from where Dunia is today, his past is hard to shake off. According to Kevin Galvin, Crean’s fiancé, Dunia avoids playing video games that have gun violence.
“One thing he does not like is videos of war,” said Galvin. “So a lot of the commercials that we have on T.V. today for some of the war games, air strike games and stuff like that, he’ll mute it, change it or put the picture down so he doesn’t have to see it.”
Galvin said Dunia showed discomfort after seeing a picture of a chimp in the chorus room of his elementary school. To help Dunia, Galvin and Crean bring Dunia to ride the couple’s three horses at Indian Head Ranch, a private horse stable in Huntington. The chief horse instructor at the ranch, Mickie Fanelli, said riding and grooming horses can be therapeutic and empowering for Dunia.
“You want to build up his confidence again, that he could be around animals and he could be around people,” Fanelli said.
In addition to the host family, nearly 30 local Smile Rescue Fund volunteers help Dunia. They donate clothing and take him sightseeing in Manhattan. They also spent time with him at the hospital after his first surgery.
“Once they [the volunteers] heard about the story, they were more than willing to do whatever they can,” said Klempner.
Dunia’s next surgery is planned for May. But even after he returns home, his journey won't be over.
“They’re young and they get used to being here [America], get used to things we have here,” said Klempner about the children his foundation helps. “Now, we have to take that away and they go back home again. So there’s got to be some psychological impact. We’re just hoping that it’s transient and not anything that is long lasting.”
He said the foundation is currently searching for a boarding school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Dunia to attend. Crean and Galvin plan to accompany Dunia when he returns to the Congo. The couple intends to spend about a week in the country and see Dunia before returning to America.
Dunia said he doesn’t know what difficulties he may face when he returns to Africa or even if he wants to go back. “I’m not sure if the boarding school may be a good place for me to go,” he said, slumping his head. When asked how his father may feel if he stayed in the U.S., Dunia said he misses his father.
Crean said helping Dunia is a blessing, even if it’s temporary.
“Yes, they go back maybe wanting the things that they had here [America],” she said, about the children the Smile Rescue Fund has brought to America. “But they also go back knowing that somebody cares for them enough to bring them here and take care of them when nobody else really could in their own country because of the circumstances. So I guess you have to weigh what’s more important.”
Galvin said he will never forget about Dunia.
“You never let him go,” said Galvin. “They’re always there with you…with technology today you can Skype, you can do everything. They’re always in your heart.”