The Will to Smile: international experts help children through surgery

News Stories, 17 July 2013

© UNHCR/G.Beals
This Syrian boy is almost ready to smile again after reconstructive surgery on his face and lip.

ZA'ATRI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan, July 17 (UNHCR) For Syrians struggling to survive the effects of civil war, the need to establish a feeling of normality is understandable. This desire lives everywhere in the experience of those who have transited borders to escape from the obliteration of home and the reality of continuing conflict.

Sometimes, and for various reasons, this will for normality expresses itself as something as simple as having a child who is able to smile.

Even at birth, Nather, 28, was concerned for his five-year-old son Mohammed, who was born with a cleft lip. Nather hoped one day to provide his son with corrective surgery. Then war and its attendant violence asserted itself with remarkable force and frequency. Finding even rudimentary hospital care was a struggle. With the dead and wounded piling up, corrective surgery felt like some distant dream.

It was during those moments that he began to think of his son's facial difference with ever increasing concern. "Everyone was being injured. My home was destroyed, broken," he said softly. "I wanted him to be normal. I wanted him to be like the other human beings. I want him to smile."

Nather and his family fled the violence in their home city of Dara'a and arrived in nearby Jordan's Za'atri refugee camp 10 months ago. Certainly there were pressing concerns. What would happen to his immediate family and to his relatives? Would they ever go home again?

Still, Nather continued to think about how Mohammed's condition would affect the boy's future and that of his siblings, even after the war was over. Would it mean that Mohammed would not grow up to marry? Would Mohammed's flawed face prevent him from getting a job?

Nather worried about how Mohammad's deformity would affect his younger sisters, one aged nine months and the other three years. Nather's oldest daughter already recognized how her brother was different from other children. The father worried that his preoccupation with Mohammed could mean that he would have less time to provide love and attention to his daughters.

But he was not alone in the desire to help treat his child's physical deformity. Adnan, 38, had a son with a cleft lip and palate. The problem was so bad that his four-year-old child had trouble speaking. Twice before the war, Ahmad had two operations and was due to return to hospital for a third when the killing began. The family left Dara'a four months ago to live in Za'atri camp.

Adnan held his child close to him, describing his desire to ensure that the surgery was completed so that his son would "live as a normal child."

On June 28, Nather and Adnan received a gift for their children. It arrived in the form of 60 highly experienced medics from Jordan and other parts of the world, who volunteered their time and expertise to help people like Mohammed. They arrived from the United States, Italy, India and beyond. Working for the international children's medical charity, Operation Smile, they performed reconstructive surgery on several Syrian refugee children literally providing them the opportunity to smile.

Mohamed and Ahmad were taken to a hospital in Amman, where they received surgery. The process was relatively simple and took about an hour. Afterwards the two children stayed a few days in hospital. A week later, Mohammed and Ahmad were taken back to the Operation Smile office in Amman for evaluation.

"The reason why we're here is to help children," said Kathy Magee, who founded Operation Smile with her husband. "We are all here to make a difference in this world and it would start right here in a country that is in war, where there is not enough food, not enough medicine, not enough surgery for these people."

After the surgery, both children are fine. To see the expression on the fathers' faces is to understand the meaning of relief. "He has become a normal boy, not like before," said Mohammed's father, Nather. "I hope that one day he will grow up to become a doctor. Maybe one day he will help another child."

By Greg Beals in Za'atri Refugee Camp, Jordan