Ten-month-old Souad and her mom, Zeina. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Four years ago, Zeina and her husband, Lahcen, endured a 19-hour journey to Dakhla, carrying with them the hope that their 11-month-old son, Samir, would receive safe cleft surgery during the Operation Smile Morocco medical mission.
Lacking proper knowledge on the real causes of cleft, which can be hereditary or environmental, Lahcen believed Zeina was responsible for Samir’s cleft lip.
But after arriving to the mission and seeing hundreds of other families with their own children living with the same condition, Lahcen soon realised that no parent deserves to be blamed for their child’s cleft.
While Samir returned home from the mission with a new smile, Zeina and Lahcen returned with a newfound passion to advocate for those living with cleft and an awareness of the life-saving solutions provided by Operation Smile Morocco.
A few years later, that experience proved invaluable after the birth of their daughter Souad.
When people saw Souad’s cleft lip, some would ask Zeina what she’d done wrong to have given birth to two children with cleft conditions.
Rather than placing responsibility on herself or getting angry, Zeina calmly explained that she’d done nothing wrong during her pregnancy to cause it and that any mother in the world could have a baby with a cleft.
Seeing another child of theirs be born with a cleft saddened both Lahcen and Zeina. But as they held their new baby girl, Zeina and Lahcen were comforted by the fact that they knew where to go for help.
Earlier this year, when Souad was a few months old, Zeina brought her to an Operation Smile Morocco medical mission in El Jadida. But after performing a comprehensive health evaluation, medical volunteers determined that Souad had developed a severe cough and couldn’t be scheduled for surgery.
But Zeina didn’t lose hope because volunteers informed her that Souad would be given a second chance during the upcoming mission in Agadir.
Souad’s time came a few months later after medical volunteers told Zeina and Lahcen that her cough had cleared and she was healthy enough to undergo life-changing surgery.
Zeina, Lahcen and Souad plan to make the journey to Oujda next year in March, hopeful that Souad will receive cleft palate surgery.
With two of her children having received high-quality care from Operation Smile Morocco, Zeina had a message for the team:
“Thank you for helping so many people.”
Four-year-old Mohammed and his father, Nabil. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Four-year-old Mohammed often asked his father, Nabil, why his lip looked different than the other kids’ in their community.
Trying to protect his son, Nabil told Mohammed that he’d fallen and opened his lip when he was younger.
Before arriving to the medical mission in Agadir, Nabil attempted to keep Mohammed fairly isolated, hoping to shield him from enduring the harmful teasing and stigmatisation that many people with clefts can face.
Mohammed loves to go on walks with his father. And while some children would ask about his lip, Mohammed largely avoided the name-calling and other unfair treatment.
After Mohammed’s birth, Nabil learned that his cleft lip could be repaired with surgery. But working as a tailor in the town of Ouezzane, Nabil knew that he didn’t have the means to afford the operation.
But not once did Nabil ever give up hope that Mohammed would one day receive a new smile.
Two months ago, Nabil’s hope for his son’s future grew even further after a secretary at his local hospital told him about an organisation that provides free surgical cleft care to children just like Mohammed.
Without hesitation, Nabil made the decision to travel nine hours to Operation Smile Morocco’s care centre in Casablanca to register Mohammed for the next upcoming medical mission in Agadir.
Completing the 13-hour journey by bus, Nabil and Mohammed arrived at the mission site.
Nabil couldn’t contain his surprise at seeing so many other families with children who had the same condition as Mohammed. Until that day, Nabil believed that he was the only father who had a child with a cleft.
Medical volunteers completed a comprehensive health evaluation and gladly told Nabil that Mohammed was cleared for surgery on the first surgical day.
Today, Nabil no longer wants to withhold the truth and says that he’ll tell Mohammed about his cleft lip when he’s older.
Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Out of her four other siblings, Ghita is the only one who was born with a cleft lip.
And before Ghita’s birth, no one in her family had ever seen another person with a cleft condition.
While her parents, Hafida and Lahcen, were happy to hear that surgery to repair Ghita’s cleft was possible, their relief was fleeting because no matter how much they wanted their daughter to have a better life, they knew that private surgery would be too much for them to afford.
As the years passed by and access to affordable and safe surgical care continued to remain out of reach, Ghita began to face first-hand the harmful consequences that can come with living with an unrepaired cleft lip.
Not even 4 years old yet and Ghita has already endured verbal abuse from people in her community; some of her peers often approached her and said, “You are not like us.”
But after Lahcen and Hafida saw a commercial for Operation Smile Morocco a few weeks before its 2019 medical mission to Agadir, they immediately called the care centre in Casablanca to learn more information.
Relieved to learn that their daughter would have an opportunity to receive surgery at no cost to them, Hafida and Lahcen hoped that the harmful treatment would soon come to an end.
Like so many families around the world who lack access to knowledge of cleft, Ghita’s parents believed that they were the only ones who had a child with the condition. But after arriving to the mission site and seeing hundreds of other families with children like Ghita, Lahcen and Hafida finally knew that they weren’t alone.
With all comprehensive health evaluations completed, Hafida and Lahcen returned to hear which patients were selected for surgery. As they waited, Hafida said that she was shaking with nerves.
Then Ghita’s name was called.
The fear and worry Hafida had held on to since Ghita’s birth were washed away once her daughter was back in her loving arms with a new smile.