Saving young children’s sight has a huge impact on their immediate lives and their future prospects, but you don’t often get to follow the reality of that impact over a 15-year period.
Meet Arif, now 20, from Bangladesh. As a young child, Arif had a low-cost cataract operation through the international nongovernmental organisation, Sightsavers. It changed his life, enabling him to study and thrive at school, and later to leave home in a rural community and find a job in the capital Dhaka.
Five-year-old Arif’s days are spent sitting inactive in front of the house, unable to run around and play games with his friends.
Arif’s mother, Shumeza, first noticed white spots appearing in both his eyes when he was a few months old.
“He couldn’t find anything when he used to play with balls or other toys. He used to put his hands up to protect his eyes from light,” she explains. “I really felt how Arif was suffering.”
Two days later, Arif and his mother are taken to hospital, where Arif is diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes and referred for surgery.
“There was a young woman called Lucky travelling in my village looking for patients with eye problems,” Shumeza explains. “Lucky told us she would take us to Narsingdi hospital where Arif’s eyes would be examined so the three of us went to the hospital.”
After being diagnosed with cataracts, Arif and his mother are taken to a hospital in the capital Dhaka, where he has a cataract operation.
The day after Arif’s operation, Arif’s bandages are removed. Although his eye is slightly bloodshot, for the first time ever he begins perceiving not just light but people, faces and objects.
At the hospital, Arif is given a toy truck to play with. He is mesmerised by it, his eye exploring it in the way once only his fingers could. And for the first time, Arif sees that it is blue.
Two years after his operation, Arif is now seven years old and attending his local school.
Sightsavers revisits Arif, who can now identify his relatives and neighbours, and no longer needs their help to move around the house and village. He can dress and wash himself, play with friends, go to the market and even ride a bike.
Few village schools in Bangladesh have teachers who are skilled in supporting students with disabilities. So before his operation, Arif would have struggled to attend school or keep up with his peers. Without an education or the skills to earn an income, he would have been dependent on his family for the rest of his life.
Arif is 13 years old and attending high school. “My life has fully totally changed. Now I can see everything. I can play, run and study,” he explains. “My favourite subjects at school are agriculture and social science.”
Remembering his operation eight years ago, Arif says: “I got my life back again. I’ll never forget that day.”
“If I didn’t have the operation, I could never have a job.” Now 20 years old, Arif has left home and works as a driver.
“Before the operation, I couldn’t even see a book,” he recalls, “but after, I can see words in books and learn my lessons. After the operation, I was able to read and write; but before, I couldn’t.
“My life has changed because of the cataract operation. Now I live in the city, in Dhaka. I have a job there, I can see clearly and I can work.”
The impact continues…
15 years since Arif’s sight was saved, his successful operation continues to make waves, raising awareness of the importance of eye care and encouraging others to trust health services. Thanks to Arif’s experience, other members of his family have felt confident to seek support when they’ve needed it.
“One year after my operation, my auntie saw that it went well so she had a cataract operation too.” Arif explains. “Before that, she’d been unable to see. Even if people came very close she couldn’t identify them and she couldn’t walk alone, so she faced lots of problems. But after the operation, she could do those things again.”
Arif’s young nephew has also benefited from Arif’s experience. Shahina, Arif’s elder sister, explains that she noticed her son needed to shield his eyes from light: “Because of my brother’s experience I knew I could take my son to the hospital to get his eyes checked.
They prescribed him with glasses. He seems to be better. If other people in the community have problems with their children’s eyes I would definitely talk to their parents.”
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