UAE giving: Operation Smile helps children worldwide

The world-wide organisation opened a branch in the UAE in 2011 to help children with cleft lips and palates.

Morag Cromey-Hawke, executive director of Operation Smile UAE, helped start the local branch in 2011. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // Five years ago Morag Cromey-Hawke experienced first hand the impact surgery can have on children born with a cleft palate or harelip.

In July 2010, she went to Morocco to see Operation Smile workers in action. “Going to that mission was incredible,” said Mrs Cromey-Hawke, a Briton who has grown up in the UAE.

“I went to see how Operation Smile works and how it has pulled together – just to see how the children are affected by cleft lip and cleft palate, and how Operation Smile changes their lives.”

The mission, she said, changed her life. “Seeing these children – very young babies and children who are three or four years old – and when you bend down to play with them, they look at you with these eyes, as if to say ‘why are you being nice to me, because nobody else is’.

“That cut my heart in two. And I thought, ‘wow, no child should be feeling like this, at this age’.”

At the time, she was approached by Sheikha Alyazia bint Saif, wife of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to leave her job in education and help the Sheikha set up a charity.

She chose Operation Smile, and the UAE arm was established in January 2011 under the patronage of Sheikha Alyazia.

The Abu Dhabi-based charity recruits medical volunteers to go on missions abroad, and raises funds in the UAE. As executive director, Mrs Cromey-Hawke visited the first mission in Davao, in southern Philippines.

“It takes a little bit of time to get the children’s trust and everything, but once you gain their trust, the difference is incredible,” she said. “You go there, hoping to change their lives, but they just change yours completely.

“Because now you realise that we get hung up over such little things, when they’ve got so much to deal with from the day they were born.”

So far the UAE charity has 46 medical volunteers fully accredited by Operation Smile, which was started in the US in 1982.

The UAE branch has funded missions in the Philippines, India, China and Vietnam, among others. In April, it funded a mission in Morocco for 125 children, and one in Jordan to mark the 10th anniversary of Operation Smile Jordan. “Last year, we had medical volunteers going to Vietnam, China, India, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana and Jordan,” Mrs Cromey-Hawke said.

“They [also] go to other missions funded by the Operation Smile headquarters.”

The average cost of a medical operation is Dh880. “It’s basically the cost of sending our medical volunteers and the medical supplies divided by the number of children that we successfully operate on each year.

“Now we are raising funds for another mission in Egypt in December,” she said.

“Every Monday we have a buy-a-book and cake sale, with volunteers donating home-baked cakes and cupcakes and people donating books.”

Operation Smile UAE is working on a database of children and adults who have a cleft lip or palate, with the help of local health authorities.