Extra sweet smiles were written this Eid Al Fitr on the faces of children who previously had cleft lips and cleft palates. Thanks to Operation Smile and ‘Smiley Summer Campaign’ by a UAE mall, dozens of children were given free surgeries and safe cleft care.

One of them was 10-year-old South African student Josiah Pietersen. He was still recovering from a recent bone graft procedure when he spoke over the phone with Khaleej Times and said the surgery was a success and a major milestone in his young life.

“It was weird at first because a bone was taken from my hip and placed in my mouth,” he said, adding: “But I also feel now more comfortable and flexible. After undergoing two surgeries, I feel I can do almost everything."

The bone grafting was the second surgery required to support the teeth and close any remaining gaps in Josiah’s cleft area.

Always with a ready smile, Josiah – whose favourite sport is football – is described by his mother, Leanne, as a trooper. He is “a boy with great energy, curiosity and enthusiasm.”

Leanne also admitted it was traumatic for a parent like her to see her son undergo invasive surgeries. But she’s thankful to the medical team who provided them with utmost care.

“The doctors and staff at Healthpoint Hospital in Abu Dhabi did a beautiful job. Josiah is recovering fast and will be returning to school soon. Eight weeks after the surgery, he will have dental braces,” Leanne, who is based in Al Ain, added.

Common birth defect

Cleft is the third most common birth defect worldwide. Cleft lip and cleft palette, conditions where a baby’s lip or mouth doesn’t fully form during pregnancy, are prevalent congenital deformities affecting as many as one in 500 births in certain ethnic groups.

According to medical reports, every three minutes, a child is born globally with cleft defect, leading to a variety of challenges such as difficulty with speech, hearing impairment, language development, dental health, and social isolation.

Moreover, these individuals may struggle with basic functions like eating and smiling. Operation Smile, however, noted “modern reconstructive surgeries today have made it possible to drastically restore normalcy for cleft lip and cleft palette patients.” Surgery begins at three months old and, in some cases, may continue through the teenage years.

Life-changing surgeries

Dubai-based Palestinian couple, Faten and Ahmed are thankful for the free life-changing surgery done to their five-month old baby, Khalid Ataya.

“Operation was done smoothly – just less than one hour,” said Ahmed, who added the surgery was the best gift they received even before Eid.

Both Faten and Ahmed are worried that children who grew up with cleft lefts are bullied in school. The cost of surgery is quite prohibitive but they are thankful that there are organisations like Operation Smile that help people without asking questions or lengthy procedures.

“Our only wish for our son is to be always healthy and confident in life,” the parents added.

Filipino couple Theriz, 33, and Roland Taruc, 43, wish the same for the their first-born son, Yuri.

Therz said she was terrified at first when she learned during pregnancy ultrasound that her son has unilateral cleft palate. “There was no history of cleft defect in the family and I was crying during my pregnancy when I learned about it,” said Theriz.

Nevertheless, Yuri was born healthy but his cleft lip made it difficult for him to suck milk. Surgery was done after he turned eight months.

The Filipino parents said they are now “mentally and emotionally assured of the future of their son.”

“What’s even better is that we did not spend a single dirham for the operation,” they added.

Successful collaboration

Operation Smile collaborated with City Centre Al Zahia in Sharjah to give life-changing smiles to dozens of children with cleft lips and cleft palates through free surgeries.

Commenting on the campaign, Fuad Mansoor Sharaf, managing director of the UAE Shopping Malls, said: We are immensely proud of the results achieved through our Smiley Summer Campaign, which has significantly impacted the lives of many children in the UAE.”

“We have maintained ongoing communication with Operation Smile to ensure the smooth progress of the patients' processes and journey, from their operation to recovery. After witnessing the profound impact our campaign has had on the lives of so many children, we are eager to continue our partnership with Operation Smile in the future and continue our collective effort to bring about more meaningful change for children,” Sharaf added.

Morag Cromey-Hawke, executive director of Operation Smile UAE, also praised the collaboration, thanking the “generous campaign that helped raised funds for free cleft surgeries and comprehensive care”.

“As we cherish the joy and satisfaction this campaign has brought to children and their families, we look forward to similarly impactful collaborations in the future,” Cromey-Hawke added.​​​​​​

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