Guwahati, Sept 21 (IANS): Hassem Ali, a small-time shoe vendor in an Assam village, thinks Allah has not been kind to his family. His son Nur was born with cleft deformities and was the butt of all jokes in the village.
But the eight-year-old boy from South Salmara, a sandbar in Assam's Dhubri district, about 300 km north of here, may soon get his smile back! Next week he is being flown to Norfolk, US, to get his cleft lip and palate repaired by a team of surgeons under the Operation Smile India project.
"I always thought I had committed some big crime or sin that my son was born with such cleft deformities because of which he was unable to speak properly and had faced social discrimination...he did not have any friends in school and was always the subject of mockery," Haseem told IANS.
Little Nur also cursed himself at times, especially when he felt like smiling but could not. "I hate myself for my disorder," Nur said in a muffled voice.
But now there is hope for Nur.
"On Sep 26, I will take Nur and one of his relatives to the Operation Smile headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, where he would undergo at least eight major reconstruction surgeries spanning over a period of one year free of cost," Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told IANS.
The entire operation, including travel and accommodation in the US, would cost around Rs 5 million ($108,000) and would be borne by the Operation Smile India.
Operation Smile is a not-for-profit medical service organisation based in Norfolk. Founded in 1982, it provides cleft lip and palate repair surgeries to children worldwide, assists countries in reaching self-sufficiency in these surgeries and works to reduce the occurrence of cleft lips and palates.
"Doctors here told us that such an operation was not possible in India and could be done only in the US. But frankly speaking, we didn't have the means to even think of such a proposition and hence gave up hope of seeing my son's smile ever in his life," Haseem said.
But a few days ago, Haseem got a phone call from the Assam health department saying Nur would have to fly down to the US for getting his facial deformities repaired.
"I am convinced there is god in this world...our prayers were answered and maybe the life of my son would be changed for the better," Haseem said.
Already more than 2,500 children with cleft deformities have been treated in Assam under Operation Smile India and the target is to treat more than 5,000 such cases in the next couple of years.
"We want to make Assam a state free from cleft deformities," the minister said.
Assam is the only Indian state that has been aggressively undertaking a campaign under Operation Smile - an initiative that has already been acknowledged by the US.
The Assam health minister would leave for Norfolk Sep 26 to receive an award being conferred by the governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonell, for his initiative on this front.
"I am honoured and feel privileged, but would like to give credit to the team of doctors and other staff involved in the project," the minister said.