At 4 years old, Nazifa hadn’t spent much time outside of the clay and straw hut where she lived.
Her family shared the house with their livestock — a cow and some sheep — and they had no electricity or running water. The stamped clay floor was cold and dusty. A fire on a stone stove on the floor lit up the hut as her mother roasted corn in a pan.
Here, Nazifa spent her time while her siblings and the other children were out playing in the village on a hill in southwestern Ethiopia.
Nazifa was born with a cleft lip, and no one in the village had ever seen anything like it before. They were scared and thought it could be the work of an evil spirit. Some people in the village thought it could even be contagious.
“Not even Nazifa’s siblings want to use the same cup as her. When they are out playing, there is a game where you throw stones into a hole in the ground. They say they can use the hole in her lip instead,” said Sherab, Nazifa’s father. “She is not the only one who suffers. My wife and I cry when we hear what they say to her.”
However, a local health clinic informed the family about Operation Smile, which forever altered the course of their lives.
Soon after, Nazifa and her father were among the hundreds of children and parents who traveled to the capital city of Addis Ababa with the hopes of receiving free cleft surgeries performed at an Operation Smile medical program.
Taking his daughter to the distant hospital was a huge challenge and commitment for Sherab. Being a subsistence farmer, living off what they could harvest from the fields, he had never been outside of his region before nor had he visited a big city. The family had to borrow money from their neighbors to afford bus fare, so only Sherab and Nazifa could make the trip while his wife stayed home with Nazifa’s siblings and their newborn baby.
When they reached Addis Ababa, Nazifa caught a cold in the cool, high-altitude air. She coughed as medical volunteers performed her comprehensive health care assessment, an important step in determining if patients are healthy enough to receive surgery.
Sherab was not only anxious about his daughter’s health, but also because her cold could potentially postpone surgery and they would have to make the resource-draining trip again.
Finally, after some days of medication, Nazifa’s cold subsided and she was cleared for surgery.
“I think everything went well. Nazifa is doing fine even though there were some problems to start with. Everything has turned out really well. Her muscle is fine and everything is working. The lip will be perfect,” said Dr. Malin Hakelius, a volunteer plastic surgeon from Sweden.
In the recovery room, Sherab cried when his daughter finally woke up after surgery. He had been so worried, but now he could relax.
At home, his family and neighbors were waiting to celebrate Nazifa’s surgery with a big homecoming meal.
The day after surgery, Nazifa looked in a mirror for the first time in her life. Never having seen her reflection before, she tried to see if there was someone behind the mirror.
Sherab just smiled and shook the hands of as many team members as he could. “Thank you,” he said in English, bowing respectfully as is customary in Ethiopia. “Thank you!”
On the last day of the medical program, Nazifa and her father prepared to leave the hospital and take the long bus ride home. Nazifa was playing with some new friends, forming her lips to a perfect round shape to blow soap bubbles, laughing and enjoying herself.
That day, the Operation Smile team left the hospital after five days of surgery and final post-operation check-ups.
All the equipment had been packed and stowed, and the team-members were on the way to the airport, when they got a message: Nazifa had fallen from a stone wall, and the stitches on her lip had ripped open.
Sherab was devastated.
Operation Smile Ethiopia volunteer Ruth Emmanuel helped Sherab get Nazifa first aid care for the wound at the hospital and found them a place to stay for the night.
Although the volunteer medical team was still in the country, Malin said that an immediate repair on the wound wouldn't be possible due to the trauma caused by the fall. Their best treatment plan was to clean the wound, let it heal and repair it during the next medical program to Ethiopia.
After four years of hoping for a better life for his daughter, Sherab left the program with Nazifa wondering if there would be a second chance for her to get surgery again.
Six months later, Operation Smile returned to Jimma, which was even closer to Nazifa’s home in southwestern Ethiopia.
Sherab traveled with Nazifa to the program site, holding her hand tightly and not letting go of her, even for a second.
This time, everything went smoothly for Nazifa. Passing her comprehensive health evaluation once again, she underwent her reparative surgery and not only left the program with her father but a brighter future and a life free from bullying and social isolation.
Today, Nazifa spends most of her time playing with friends from her community. The bullying and teasing she once endured has come to an end, and she's enrolled in school, learning how to read and write for the first time.
“I like to learn things,” Nazifa said.
Nazifa must cross a river every day to go to school — a minor obstacle compared to the social barriers her surgery has helped her overcome.
Now 12 years old, Nazifa hopes to one day become a doctor so she can care for others like the medical volunteers who cared for her.
Her parents are thankful that surgery through Operation Smile has opened the door for Nazifa to pursue her dreams.
“She can read and write now, something we never learned ourselves,” Sherab said. “When it is time to go, she stops with everything she’s doing and runs to school. She runs because education is the foundation of life.”