Mohamed’s story

Mohamed’s mum Benjebi never imagined she would have a child with a cleft lip. Unaware that this condition affected so many people, Benjebi felt scared and isolated seeing her baby for the first time.

Benjebi watched anxiously as her husband Hamid stared at their new baby boy. She worried he wouldn’t accept their son because of his cleft condition. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. Hamid loved his son, but he was confused by his son’s condition. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. He reassured his wife that he loved Mohamed and would always love him despite his cleft lip.

When Mohamed was three weeks old, the family travelled 370 miles to an Operation Smile surgical programme in Oudja, Morocco. But, they learned on arrival that Mohamed was too young for surgery. Benjebi was devastated by the news that her son would return home without a new smile. Luckily medical volunteers assured her another surgical programme was scheduled for six months’ time in Dakhla, so she left with renewed hope.

In the months that followed their first attempt at getting Mohamed surgery in Oujda, Benjebi worked tirelessly to ensure that he would be healthy enough for surgery when the time came to travel to Dakhla.

As she boarded the Operation Smile bus provided to transport families on the 32-hour journey to Dakhla, Benjebi finally felt like she wasn’t alone.

And after surgery, when Benjebi saw Mohamed’s new smile for the first time, she was overjoyed. She said she felt he had been ‘reborn’.

Healthcare for all: closer to home

The Global Essential Surgery project

Operation Smile takes a holistic approach to meeting the needs of the people who depend on us. More than just surgery, we provide a complex mix of comprehensive care so that patients who need treatment can get the specific care they need and a fair chance at life.

At the same time, we are also looking to the future, and to the generations of children who will be born with cleft conditions and need our care. One of the main aims of our work is to ensure that while we are providing surgery and care in the here and now, we are also investing in the education and training of medical professionals in the countries where we work, and creating long-term improvements to health systems. Through investment in existing infrastructure, we play our part in creating strong health systems, capable of treating their own populations.

General Surgeon Dr. Silva providing a medical evaluation at the Siuna Hospital Carols Centeno, Nicaragua. Photo: Jorgen Hildebrandt.

In the UK we are fortunate to have the NHS, but in many countries where we work there aren’t enough local surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and other specialists to deliver care. Often, local teams don’t have access to the equipment or space they need to operate safely. And even when health services have capacity to handle patients, most families cannot afford the costs of treatment, or may not even be aware it exists. Many people also have a distrust of the health system, or fears about surgery which prevents them from seeking help.

At Operation Smile we are incredibly proud to partner with the UBS Optimus Foundation to deliver ‘Global Essential Surgery’ a project spanning three diverse geographic locations: Nicaragua, Madagascar, and Vietnam. The project aims to address the root causes of why people have a lack of access to surgery and has advanced our understanding of how to bring about impactful change in health systems. The ultimate goal is to create conditions where anyone in need of surgery, including children born with cleft conditions, will receive surgery as a matter of course. As a right, not a privilege.

Nurse Jacquinot Setralazaniaina with a patient at the CHRR in Antsirabe. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Focus on Madagascar

Imagine going to a hospital with a loved one who needed urgent care, to find out that there is no ventilator or defibrillator. Imagine that all your hopes to save the person you love rely on the strength and the commitment of nurses, doctors and other medical professionals.

This was the reality for people of the Vakinankaratra region in Madagascar, where their local referral hospital in Antsirabe, the Centre Hospitalier Régional de Référence (CHRR), didn’t have even basic life-saving medical equipment.

Thanks to the partnership with the UBS Optimus Foundation, the hospital underwent significant renovations in the pre-operative, post-operative, maternity, and operating spaces to improve surgical care. The ward and theatres were re-roofed to stop leaks that were a safety hazard for patients during surgery and recovery periods.

Five operating rooms were renovated and updates were made to electrics, plumbing, septic and oxygen systems. We also added new equipment to patient care areas. These upgrades will give doctors and nurses the latest tools they need to perform safe surgeries.

The OR renovated at part of the Global Essential Surgery project. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli,

Due to these improvements, the hospital is now performing more surgeries than ever before and providing more types of surgery than were previously available. For example, prostate and other urinary system surgeries, treatment for certain injuries, and dental surgery are all now options for patients in need.

Recurring training for medical staff is also allowing them to provide better care to the people of the Vakinankaratra region. The training includes treating life-threatening injuries and emergencies, basic life support and other skill-based training for anaesthesia and surgery. The training programme is open to workers from different hospitals and primary care facilities across Vakinankaratra, improving skills and knowledge of surgical care throughout the region, so more people can access safe healthcare closer to where they live.

From the field

Scenes of hope and healing in Antsirabe, Madagascar

Eight-month-old Ethan gets his medical evaluation before surgery. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Medical volunteers from 13 countries, including South Africa, Malawi, Kenya and Madagascar, recently came together to provide care to children and young adults in Antsirabe, Madagascar.

During the week-long programme the team of 86 volunteers gave life-changing surgery and cleft care to 117 children and young adults and provided 55 patients with dental care.

Madagascan nutritionist Niry, examines a malnourished baby. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.
Local nurse Joelson plays with patients. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

At the patient village, volunteers and staff also provided training and nutrition support to mothers and guardians of babies with cleft lip and cleft palate. The presentations included sessions on breastfeeding; how to wash newborns and babies; how to cook nourishing food and how to prevent burns. The team of nutritionists assessed the babies to ensure they were growing strong. They also provided nutritional supplements, including formula and supplements, to any child in need.

13-year-old Celvinah walks to the OR with Dr Joelle Horace. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Volunteer focus

Helping others is key to happiness – meet volunteer nutritionist Georgina

Malnutrition contributes to the deaths of 3.1m children under five each year. For children with cleft conditions, it’s a very real threat, because of problems they face with feeding. That’s why nutritional support is an essential (and life-saving) part of the comprehensive care we provide, and why volunteer nutritionists like Georgina Ntem play such an important role.

Georgina has been volunteering for Operation Smile for three years. She’s a dietician, beauty queen and runs her own online consultancy. We caught up with her recently to find out more about her inspiring career to date and her life-saving work with the nutrition team in Ghana.

Georgina checks on a young patient during a nutrition clinic.

Growing up, I was always moved about how diet and the body works.” She says, “There were times I saw people sick and I asked myself, ‘God created food and God created humans, so I bet he created food to help humans, so what can I also do to help people?’ I decided to study, do more research, and I realised that, wow, I could be a dietician to help people.

Georgina Ntem

Helping people is Georgina’s passion, so giving her time to volunteer for Operation Smile comes naturally, she tells us: “I’ve always wanted to help people in different ways and I realised that Operation Smile is an organisation that also helps people. It helps to put smiles on the faces of people, and I just realised that I have the same values as Operation Smile, putting smiles on the faces of people. The only thing I could do is to bring my skills on board to make this a reality.”

A life dedicated to helping – meet volunteer nurse Naggie

Naggie Tsang is no stranger to helping others. From a long career in paediatric nursing, to working with refugees and providing mental health support. Naggie also heads up a charity for disabled people in the Middle East.

With credentials like these, it’s easy to see how volunteering for Operation Smile comes so naturally. In fact, volunteering for various organisations has taken Naggie all over the world, from jungles, slums and orphanages, to supporting patients through drug rehabilitation. She has also worked in refugee camps, providing ‘holistic care’, making use of her clinical skills as a nurse and the deep emotional intelligence that comes from years of helping others.

Naggie works as a bank nurse for the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, which gives her the flexibility she needs to attend to her volunteering and charitable work.

‘Privileged’ is the word she uses to describe her involvement in the Operation Smile programmes she’s since attended across the world. She tells us about the impact of seeing the reaction from patients and their families post-surgery:

Naggie comforts a young patient before surgery.

As soon as they come through the door with their little plasters and little babies crying. Mothers are crying. Sometimes fathers are crying. They’re not the same [after surgery]. It’s a new life. We have been part of their journey and it’s just so amazing…Seeing happy smiles, going back to a different life, no longer being ostracised by the community. No longer being looked at and labelled ‘ugly’ or ‘monster’. These things I find most precious.

Naggie Tsang

Smile Heroes in action

An unforgettable evening with MiSmile

In May, the MiSmile community came together in London for a much-anticipated conference and gala dinner. With the lively atmosphere of singing waiters and drum performances, the Operation Smile team had the opportunity to network, sell raffle tickets and share insights on our work and partnership with the MiSmile Network. Attendees also bought raffle tickets for the chance to win a coveted ‘Smile Hamper’.

The evening celebrated a shared commitment to changing lives and MiSmile Network’s founder, Sandeep Kumar, took to the stage to talk about his passion for the work of Operation Smile. He presented our partnerships team with a cheque for almost £280,000. This incredible contribution mirrors the continued support we’ve received from Dr Kumar and the MiSmile Network since our partnership began in 2017.

By the end of the evening, as the casino tables were folded away, we were pleased toannounce that thanks to the generosity of attendees a further £3,220 was raised on the night for Operation Smile.

Looking ahead, we’re very pleased to continue our partnership with the fantastic MiSmile Network team and look forward to seeing the results of their dedication in future fundraising efforts.

A moment from the MiSmile Gala in London

London Marathon runners do us proud

In April our nine dedicated marathon runners took to the streets of London for the TCS London Marathon 2024.

This year’s crew included a mix of community members and employees from some of our corporate partners. All were united by the goal of raising funds and awareness for Operation Smile.

In the months leading up to the marathon, our runners displayed amazing dedication in their training and unwavering commitment to the cause. Their hard work culminated in a spectacular day filled with positive energy and support from the crowd.

The Operation Smile cheering squad were delighted to encourage our runners as they passed by and handed out much-needed sweets for energy. Thanks to our runners’ efforts and matched donations from some of our corporate partners, the team raised more than £29,000!

We are immensely grateful to everyone who took part and to those who supported them in making the day a resounding success.

Team Operation Smile at the London Marathon cheer point.

Smile heroes like you

Remembering Uncle Ant and his legacy

When a loved one dies, dealing with their will can be a heavy burden for relatives. But, it can also be a gracious way to honour their life by making a gift to charity in their name.

When Anthony Aldwinckle, died, he left a ‘discretionary legacy’ in his will, which means he wanted a chosen amount of be left to a cleft charity, but hadn’t named one specifically. His niece and nephew made the kind decision to choose Operation Smile.

Cherished photos of Uncle Ant over the years.

Anthony was born in South Africa, one of the countries where Operation Smile works, so it was a perfect fit to remember their Uncle Ant and his generosity to the cause in a country which held a special place in his heart.

The kindness of people like Anthony and his family help make our life-changing work possible. We’re incredibly touched and grateful for Uncle Ant’s legacy and send our sincere thanks to his family for choosing Operation Smile.

Students changing lives

This academic year, Operation Smile UK concluded its inaugural year of the Student Programme, with pilot Ipswich School. The students took part in workshops and fundraisers and raised an impressive £3,000.

Our student programme is designed to give passionate young people an avenue to express themselves, and really make a difference in the lives of our patients. The Student Programme provides a unique opportunity to engage not only with the patients and families of children with cleft, but also the organisations and institutions that will care for them.

As academic year 24/25 approaches, we’re excited to develop and grow our Student Programme. The students will participate in a number of fun and challenging workshops and fundraisers, that can culminate in a trip to the Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference and potentially being a part of a surgical programme.

The programme has introduced us to some very impressive young people with an early passion for philanthropy. With their help, we aim to drastically grow the reach of Operation Smile in the UK.

Ipswich students Rohan, Sam, Anya, Daisy and Alice
Ipswich students Rohan, Sam, Anya, Daisy and Alice.

Updates from around the world

Dental programme marks 25 years in Vietnam

Operation Smile recently organised an educational exchange dental programme in Hanoi, Vietnam, marking our 35th anniversary of service in the country. Hosted at Vietnam National University, Hanoi’s University of Medicine and Pharmacy, the programme welcomed more than 230 delegates. The aim was to enhance patient care through activities including a dental symposium, consultations, treatments, and student exchange sessions focused on oral hygiene, promotion, and prevention.

Workshop for teenagers with cleft

In Honduras, Operation Smile hosted a workshop tailored exclusively for teenagers with cleft conditions. Led by psychology intern, Stefany Peralta, the event was designed to support the emotional well-being of the young participants and also build confidence and resilience. With a series of engaging activities, the workshop focused on teamwork, problem-solving, effective communication, emotional intelligence, and motivation among teenagers.

Teenagers enjoying one of the group exercises.

Life-saving skills in Morocco

To enhance community health and safety, Operation Smile Morocco ran a Basic Life Support (BLS) training programme. The training, held in Casablanca’s Comprehensive Care Centre, brought together a diverse group of participants (surgeons, anaesthetists, dentists, and nurses) all eager to learn fundamental techniques in emergency medical care. Led by local instructors, the programme included theory and practical hands-on exercises, designed to enable delegates to respond more effectively to medical emergencies in their communities.

Hands-on training for delegates.

Hospital partnership brings new smiles

In March, a team of local and international volunteers from Operation Smile Paraguay came together to transform the lives of more than 70 patients with cleft conditions. 223 patients were also screened during the programme, which was held at the Central Military Hospital. The use of this facility is thanks to a partnership with the Armed Forces in Paraguay. As a thank you, the team donated supplies to the military hospital’s senior team.

Local and international volunteers in Paraguay.

First spoke hospital opens in Rwanda

In Rwanda, Operation Smile has finished renovations of the Ruhengeri Level Two Teaching Hospital in Musanze. This is the first spoke hospital to be renovated and opened as part of Operation Smile Rwanda’s five-year strategic plan, in a move to make long-term improvements to health services for local people. The new hospital provides a venue for training and strengthens our presence in Rwanda, bringing safe, comprehensive cleft care closer to where our patients live.

Local team gathers to celebrate hospital opening.

How you can help change lives

A donation of any amount can make such a difference to children and adults living with untreated cleft conditions.