A Centre of Hope: Operation Smile Morocco

Operation Smile Morocco Co-Founder and Vice President, Fouzia Mahmoudi. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

As an organisation forged from the passion of its volunteers and staff, Operation Smile Morocco revolutionises patient care with its work throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. 

But 20 years ago, the opportunity to establish a foundation in the country was nearly lost.

Before becoming Operation Smile Morocco’s compassionate and dedicated leader, Fouzia Mahmoudi was approached by Operation Smile Co-Founder and President Kathy Magee in 1998 with the idea to expand the global non-profit into Morocco.

The photos of children before and after receiving surgery brought Fouzia to tears.

“I told her, ‘I’m so motivated to work with you, but believe me, we don’t have those kids in Morocco. I have never seen them,’” said Fouzia, the current Co-Founder and Vice President of Operation Smile Morocco.

In that moment, after brushing the tears from Fouzia’s face, Kathy felt confident that Fouzia had the strength and heart to lead an Operation Smile foundation in the country.

Joining forces with a small team of volunteers, Kathy and Fouzia orchestrated a medical mission in the capital city of Rabat, determined to learn if there were children living in Morocco with unrepaired cleft conditions.

More than 700 people arrived during the first three days of the mission.

As hundreds of families came to Rabat seeking help for their children’s cleft conditions, Fouzia witnessed first-hand the devastating need in her country – a need she once believed didn’t exist.

“I went back to Kathy, and I told her, ‘There’s really a need for Operation Smile here, and I’m ready to do whatever I can to put a foundation here in Morocco,’” Fouzia said.

Collaborating with Kathy and other executive leaders of the organisation, Fouzia helped officially establish Operation Smile Morocco in 1999.

Launching into its 20th year, Operation Smile Morocco continues to be one of the most active and respected non-profits in the country through its work of delivering safe surgery to patients with a team of more than 400 volunteers.

“I’m so happy that, in such a short time, we’ve helped over 11,500 kids who I thought weren’t there just because they were hidden,” said Fouzia, her voice a mix of emotion and pride. “They were hidden in their own homes. They were prisoners. And we’ve been able to dig further, find them and help them.”

In the years following its inception, Operation Smile Morocco discovered that cleft surgery acts as only a single step along the path of a patient’s journey toward healing.

“Twenty years have shown us that cleft surgery is not only one short mission or one surgery. It’s a long process,” Fouzia said. “The centre is very, very important in the circle of Operation Smile.”

Operation Smile Morocco's care centre in Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Operation Smile Morocco established its first care centre in 2008 in Casablanca, which supplied the organisation 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.

Operation Smile Morocco volunteer plastic surgeon Dr. Wafaa Mradmi during a medical mission in Dakhla, Morocco. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

“These parents have confidence in us. These parents have put their hope in our hands, and we don’t have the right to let them down,” volunteer surgeon Dr. Wafaa Mradmi said. “From our point of view, we aren’t doing anything particularly special, but they look at us as if we have truly saved their lives.”

But volunteers like Wafaa noticed that many of the patients arriving in Casablanca seeking follow-up care had travelled hours – or even days – to reach the centre.

With this, the organisation recognised that in order to uphold its commitment of providing access to ongoing care at every step of recovery, it must expand its reach even farther.

Operation Smile Morocco's third care centre in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

In 2014, Operation Smile Morocco opened its second centre in El Jadida, followed closely by the third in 2019 located in Oujda.

“Centres help a lot. People won’t have to go six or seven hours to be checked,” said Nour Mahmoudi, programme manager for the organisation. “They’ll have a centre here locally where they can come and have those treatments.”

Dr. Lahcen Oussehal, Operation Smile Morocco volunteer orthodontist, examines a patient at the care centre in Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

“Orthodontic treatment is one of the most important treatments for patients after the first surgery,” volunteer orthodontist Dr. Lachen Oussehal said. “It’s very important for these patients because they have a lot of dental discrepancies.”

With 12 years of volunteer experience with Operation Smile Morocco, Lachen sees many of his patients grow up and achieve their dreams with a newfound confidence.

“It’s indescribable. I can say that those patients are happy with themselves, they are happy with their appearance. We give them a very good quality of life,” he said.

Along with orthodontics and dentistry, speech therapy remains one of the most essential and prominent disciplines of care provided by Operation Smile Morocco due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the impact of cleft conditions on a patient’s speech.

Volunteer speech therapist Othman El Hammouni during a therapy session with patient at the care centre in Casablanca. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Many patients, especially those born with cleft palate, experience problems with speaking clearly, which makes it difficult for their speech to be understood. This means that many patients continue to endure severe bullying or ostracisation even after returning home with a repaired cleft condition.

For volunteer speech therapist Othman El Hammouni, he measures success by what happens after his patients leave the centre.

“The goal for us is, when they go out, they can order whatever food they want or go to the grocery and be understood by colleagues, by other kids without being marginalised,” Othman said. “So, if we reach that level, my job is completed.”

Volunteer surgeons Drs. Handouf Abdellah, left, and Kharbouch Abdelhouahab, right. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

As two of the first volunteer surgeons to join the organisation in 1999, Drs. Handouf Abdellah and Kharbouch Abdelhouahab witnessed its evolution and advancement throughout the last two decades.

“It’s an honour to serve for 20 years here in Morocco,” Handouf said. “What drives me to stay is my love of kids and my love of helping the ones in need.

“(Operation Smile Morocco) has changed a lot in growth, in all ways. Especially the community of education in all specialties. This allowed us to increase the healthcare in our hospitals.”

Kharbouch believes it’s the meaning behind being an Operation Smile Morocco volunteer that inspires him.

“Operation Smile Morocco isn’t only an organisation, it’s a family.”

Regardless of how long they’d been with the organisation, volunteers and staff of Operation Smile Morocco shared a united answer when asked what motivates them to continue changing lives for another 20 years.

“The smiles. The smiles of the babies, being able to see them and just imagining them going through life with the change,” Nour said. “You’re giving them a chance to live, a chance to grow, the power to study and go further and be something in society.

“We are giving them hope.”

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.