As expected, when I walk out and attempt to pass through the outer periphery of Mumbai International Airport, piercing eyes gaze at me with a particular note of inquiry, “behen ji, kuch de do … bhagwan aap ka bhala karega (Sister, give me something … the Lord will bless you).” IGNORE THEM, I have been told so many times. If you give them something once, they will only come back asking for more. As those intense eyes fade into the crowd, I am whisked off into an air-conditioned car to a comfortable home with maids to attend to my whims.
However, those ardent eyes never fully vanish. They resonate in that woman we just passed at the last traffic light, carrying her child perched on a hip; in that man hauling bricks on his bicycle next to us, trying to keep up with vehicles bigger and faster than his; in that fervent child that just tried to sell me vegetables when I accompanied my aunt to the open market. Ignore them, I have, but, forgotten them, never. Those eyes, that gentle smile, the innocence in that pre-aged face. Those intensely painful gazes have pricked a disconcerting hole in my heart. Through 15 years of living in the U.S., I have gone to India many times, almost every year to visit family, to attend a wedding, to study abroad, to research. However, this is the first time I will be seeing no family, no friends, no childhood maids or servants—just those piercing eyes which have invited me back to heal that hole in my heart.
On a muggy, winter night in January 2002, after a long and exhausting journey, I arrived in India with 40 strangers from around the world. Although, we all have our own personal inspirations for being here, we are united by a common goal—to bring smiles to children. Suitably, we call ourselves, Operation Smile.
Headquartered in Norfolk, Va., Operation Smile is a non-profit volunteer medical services organization that provides reconstructive surgery to children and young adults who suffer from facial deformities internationally and in the U.S. Since 1982, Operation Smile volunteers have cared for tens of thousands of patients in Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Gaza Strip/West Bank, Honduras, India, Jordan, Kenya, Morocco, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Venezuela, Vietnam, and the U.S.
One day later, on a scorching Thursday morning, we are greeted by hundreds of children and their families lined up in front of Kasturba Hospital at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) in Manipal, with one dream in common, to be able to smile.
Among those hundreds is Fathima, certainly not a child, but as anxious as any of the children surrounding her. All I know is that she is 23 years old, only a few months older than I am. As I look at her, she attempts an uncertain smile. I try to return a reassuring smile. A few minutes later, our team photographer comes over and asks me of I would be able to translate for him. He wants to document Fathima’s story. “Of course,” I said, “if she speaks Hindi.” In my somewhat broken Hindi, I ask her if she understood Hindi and she nodded yes and hence Fathima’s story unfolds.
After 23 years of living with a cleft lip, Fathima was determined not only to look and smile like the other young women around, but to confront her fate. With the help of Operation Smile, she did just that. Fathima had heard about the arrival of Operation Smile in Manipal through her sister-in-law who worked at the hospital. Having been married for nine years, part of the dowry agreement was that Fathima’s father would pay for the reconstructive surgery a year after the marriage. However, after one year, her father changed his mind, claiming that Fathima’s cleft lip was her fate and interfering with such matters would bring bad luck to her destiny. Out of respect for her father, she did not seek help. After her father passed away, Fathima realized that her father’s beliefs were old-fashioned and she should seek help for herself. Her financial resources were very limited and when she heard about the cost of repairing her cleft lip, she felt she was doomed to suffer forever.
Fortunately, with the help of Operation Smile, Fathima was given a chance to look normal and fulfill a long-term dream. She was one of the many who were selected for surgery that scorching Thursday morning. On the following Monday, Fathima entered the operating room ready to confront her fate; 45 minutes later she emerged victorious, smiling upon a promising new destiny.
Spending time with Fathima preceding her surgery made me realize that although we lived worlds apart, both physically and socially, we both shared those essential hopes and dreams any 23-year-old does—to look normal, and smile a beautiful smile. A few days after surgery, I accompanied Fathima to her overcrowded, two-room home where her three children saw their mother for the first time after surgery. Fathima’s mother-in-law welcomed us into her home. Upon seeing the new smile, she started to cry. “I am so happy knowing that across cultures and castes we are all humans with the desire to reach out to help one another,” she said to me in Hindi as tears flowed down both our cheeks, tears that inaugurated the reconciliation of that disconcerting hole in my heart.
Fathima’s story represents only one of thousands of miracles Operation Smile has created for children and adults in India and 19 other countries around the world. February 2003 marked Operation Smile’s second international mission to India. A seasoned team of volunteers traveled to Gujarat, and spent 11 days working at the Gandhi-Lincoln Hospital in Deesa, to provide the first free cleft lip and cleft palate medical mission the area has ever seen.
The Deesa Operation Smile mission team was greeted by nearly 1,000 people on the first day of screening and close to 300 patients was considered for the surgical schedule. The team performed health examinations on all patients and was able to refer any individuals that were not candidates for Operation Smile sponsored procedures to local hospitals or clinics. Following the screening process, the medical team worked tirelessly to provide 161 patients a chance at a normal life. While the vast majority were children, the medical team was also able to provide care for a number of adults like Fathima, who had lived their whole lives with correctable deformities.
The international team was composed of 44 volunteers who hailed from five different nations including India, the U.S., Ireland, Canada, and South Africa. Working side-by-side with Indian medical professionals and volunteers, the international team was passionate and efficient as it provided medical care.
This mission to India, along with others, are made possible by the help of a number of individuals and organizations who give selflessly of their time and resources during the mission and in the many months leading up to it. In a world plagued by uncertainty and political turmoil, it is truly promising to see 44 strangers and thousands of children, their families and volunteers, with little in common, come together to alleviate the pain of a suffering individual and through this small effort, they are transformed into ambassadors of goodwill, erecting powerful bridges of peace.
For more information on Operation Smile call (732) 296-1090 or visit www.operationsmile.org.
You may send contributions to: Operation Smile, Attn: India Mission Northeast Regional Development Office, 103 Church Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901