ABU DHABI // An international charity that helps children with facial clefts plans to offer free surgery in the UAE this year.
The charity's UAE branch has helped more than 700 children receive treatment on eight missions to China, India, Jordan, Morocco, the Philippines and Vietnam. Its volunteers in the UAE have worked with other missions in the Congo, China, Jordan, Morocco and the Philippines.
Its services will now be offered closer to home.
"We're negotiating at the moment about working with hospitals and bringing in some expert plastic surgeries and paediatricians," said Morag Cromey-Hawke, executive director of Operation Smile UAE. "Obviously we want to help children here as well."
Services are open to all nationalities. Cleft lips and cleft palates are congenital deformities that can usually be treated with surgery. If untreated, it can cause speech impediments, eating problems, ear infections and hearing loss.
Many expatriates have insurance policies that do not cover cleft conditions because it is classed as a congenital birth defect or a cosmetic procedure.
"If they go back to their own countries then they're not covered either so, you know, they're caught between a rock and a hard place," said Ms Cromey-Hawke. "Who is going to cover the operation for their child?"
Operation Smile will work with the Ministry of Health to build a database on the frequency of cleft conditions in the UAE.
The charity began in the United States in 1982 and opened its UAE branch last year under the patronage of Sheikha Alyazia bint Saif, the wife of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The charity is always in need of medical volunteers for missions across the region.
"You know in some of the countries there's maybe only two or three plastic surgeons that are fully qualified to work on clefts," said Ms Cromey-Hawke.
A postponed mission to Egypt will go ahead at a later date, said Ms Cromey-Hawke. "That mission has had to be postponed at the moment because of a political situation," said Ms Cromey-Hawke. "It will come back again. The mission is organised, we just need to wait."
Community volunteers are always needed at fund-raising events, such as yesterday's afternoon funfair at the Abu Dhabi City Golf Club. Activities included face painting, craft tables, free health check-ups and a market that offered books, toys and 33 rabbits donated by a nine-year-old sheikha. "The bunnies are for sale. They come from a palace. The sheikha raised them," said Leonora Bularzik, an American educational consultant.
Ms Bularzik was one of about 130 volunteers at yesterday's event and had previously taught children who had facial clefts in the US.
"The whole emotional aspect behind it is really important," said Ms Bularzik. "It's hard on the families, knowing their child's different. A lot of times families are embarrassed."
The average global cost of each operation costs the organisation Dh880. Private treatment costs thousands. Children may require several operations depending on the severity of the cleft.
"Sometimes there can be one operation and that's all that's needed to change the child's life forever," said Ms Cromey-Hawke.
Just ask Gia Navas. The Year 4 Al Dhafra School pupil moved to Abu Dhabi a year ago from Venezuela. She has had three operations since she was six months old.
Gia, now 11, will have a fourth, and hopefully final, operation this summer.
It is hoped that the charity's surgeons will be able to perform the operation in the UAE.
Her grandmother, on holiday in the UAE, helped make dozens of bracelets that were for sale at the fair.
"If you have a child who has the same problems as me, don't make him feel shy or afraid," said Gia.
"I think for the parents, the parents have to be the same," said her father Luis. "Don't be afraid or shy to show your child."
People who want to volunteer can visit www.operationsmile.org.ae