Vernel’s story begins in a fishing village eight hours from Congo’s port city of Pointe Noire. The cleft on the right side of his upper lip revealed his pink gums and front teeth as it stretched toward his nostril. His father told us that Vernel was being bullied for looking different.

Vernel’s father brought him to the Africa Mercy, and into an environment where people with cleft lips are embraced. He never had to worry about being teased; the crew loved Vernel from the moment he stepped aboard. They made him balloons, let him play with drums, and Vernel quickly came out of his shell. By the time surgeons repaired Vernel’s cleft lip, he’d forgotten he had it.