Past crumbling stone walls and houses constructed of clay and wood hardened together from years in the Moroccan sun, Siham enjoys the 20-minute walk she takes every day to school.
While having transformed into a safe space where she laughs freely with her best friends and eagerly studies her favorite subjects, school was once a place where Siham felt like a stranger.
Siham was born with a cleft lip.
But she was also born with an inner strength and courage that would guide her as she fought to overcome unforeseen obstacles along her cleft care journey.
Having never met another person with a cleft condition before, Siham’s parents, Samira and Youssef, felt devastated and scared after seeing their baby girl for the first time.
But their sadness could not outweigh the love they felt for their daughter. And when asked if she wanted to abandon Siham at a local orphanage, Samira refused to give the idea a second thought and said:
“I want her. She’s my baby, and I’m happy to have her.”
Supporting a family of six and living in a remote village near the coast – with the closest hospital hours away – Youssef and Samira feared that accessing affordable, high-quality medical care for Siham would forever remain out of their reach.
But regardless of what challenges they knew lied ahead, Samira and Youssef cherished Siham and vowed to do everything that they could to give her a happy and fulfilling life.
However, with every passing day, Youssef and Samira’s commitment was tested.
As Siham grew older, the intense social stigma surrounding cleft in the community caused her to endure painful bullying and mistreatment from people in her village. Children from school refused to let Siham sit next to them during class.
Her parents often witnessed her come home crying and angry.
Siham loves to learn, but the torment and name calling at school became too much for her to bear.
“Students used to see me as a stranger and say, ‘Look at that girl. Look at that girl’s mouth. She’s not like us,’” Siham said. “Then, I didn’t want to go to school at all.”
Deciding to not return to school, Siham rarely ventured outside the safety of her home.
“I always wondered why I was born like this and if anyone would ever come to save me,” she said. “I never thought there was a future for me."
Samira learned about Operation Smile Morocco and the free cleft care its team of medical volunteers provide after a friend informed her of another parent whose child received surgery from the organization.
A few months after contacting the organization’s office in Casablanca for more information, Samira and Siham departed from their home and made the 36-hour journey – by bus – to the upcoming surgical program site in Dakhla.
For the first 12 years of her life, Siham lived each day believing that she was the only person in the world who was born with a cleft condition.
But after arriving at screening day, Siham witnessed something she never imagined was possible.
“It was a strange feeling; I thought I was the only one to suffer from that problem,” she said. “But I saw others who were suffering like me, and that I wasn’t alone.
“I became one of them, and they were like my brothers and sisters.”
After receiving her comprehensive health evaluation, Siham was deemed healthy enough to receive safe surgery and placed on the surgical schedule of Dr. Wafaa Mradmi, Operation Smile Morocco volunteer plastic surgeon.
While waiting for her own surgery, Siham kept many of the younger patients relaxed in the child life area by passing them toys and helping them practice putting on anesthesia masks.
When Siham's name was called, she got up, said goodbye to her mom and walked confidently toward the operating room.
With her arms wrapped around her patient in a tight embrace, Wafaa walked beside Siham, who's eyes pooled with tears of joy as she anticipated what her new smile would look like after her life-changing surgery.
Wafaa has made this walk many times before with hundreds of patients. But the weight of responsibility she feels in that moment is the same every time.
"These parents have confidence in us,” Wafaa said. “They have sometimes traveled for two days, three days, and come with blind faith and place what they cherish most in the world in our hands.
“We do not have the right to let them down."
In the eyes of Samira, her daughter has always been beautiful. What she hoped for most after surgery was the return of education into Siham’s life.
After anxiously waiting for more than an hour, Samira entered the recovery room and saw Siham’s new smile for the first time.
“I was very happy because the smile came back to her,” Samira said. “Now, she goes outside of the house, and she didn’t do that before. She laughs now. She is happy.”
Siham’s cleft care journey didn’t end after one surgery.
Operation Smile Morocco has revolutionized cleft care throughout the Middle East and North Africa region after recognizing a patient’s need for ongoing, comprehensive care after surgery.
The establishment of its first care center in Casablanca in 2008 supplied the organization with the infrastructure and innovative equipment needed to provide patients with year-round multidisciplinary care services including orthodontics, speech therapy, dentistry, psychosocial care, orthognathic evaluations and more.
After receiving surgery in 2015, Siham received ongoing orthodontic treatment at Operation Smile Morocco’s Casablanca care center.
“I was very happy – an unimaginable joy – when I knew that they would continue caring for her condition,” Samira said.
Siham, now 17 years old, walks to school free from fear.
When she arrives to class, Siham is met with big smiles and hugs from her closest friends who invite her to sit with them. She loves to draw and enjoys studying French.
For most of her life, Siham believed that looking forward to the future was something only possible for the other kids around her – children who weren’t born with a cleft lip.
But today, with a new smile and newfound confidence, Siham refuses to let anything or anyone stand in the way of her dreams.
“My life changed after the surgery,” Siham said. “I hope to become a teacher because the professor is the foundation in all science. The doctor would not have become a doctor if he had not studied. The teacher is key.”
“I want to say to the doctors, ‘Thanks so much. You saved my life.’” she said. “If I hadn’t have come to you then, I wouldn’t be living life like the rest of the people.”