Towards the end of a long and arduous photographic journey in Ethiopia in 2000, Jonathan Crown travelled to the ancient town of Harar in the east of the country.  

It was late afternoon on a hot and dusty day in the bustling streets around the market just outside the old town wall. A young street beggar approached him, hand out, asking for money. He wore a veil, not an unusual sight when worn by women; except he was a boy.

As he walked on, out of the corner of his eye, Jonathan noticed the boy lower his veil slightly, and what he witnessed in that instant was to change his life forever.

The youngster had a large hole where his right cheek and nose should have been and he had only part of his lips and mouth. Jonathan was at once horrified by the sight before him, but also profoundly moved. Jonathan only turned away for an instant, but in that moment the boy had vanished back into the crowd. He returned to his hotel in a daze.

The image of the boy’s face would not leave him. Jonathan had travelled extensively in Africa before, but he’d never seen anything like this. He did recall however a young boy with a similar disfigurement from South America who had been brought to the UK for treatment and whose journey had been documented on TV. His transformation had been amazing.

Back at his hotel, a number of search parties organised to find the boy proved fruitless. However another even younger boy was found with terrible facial injuries after suffering a hyena attack. His name was Fhami and he was only nine.

On his return to London, news came through that the first boy, Jemal who was 14-years old, had been found. He suffered from noma a type of facial gangrene that attacks children who are severely malnourished. Most die, but the few who survive are left with gaping holes to the cheek and jaw.

And so it was in April 2001 that Jonathan came to the aid of these two children and Project Harar came into existence. He secured free surgery for the boys aboard a Mercy Ship Hospital, docked 4,000 miles away in West Africa. This was a logistical nightmare, but nevertheless, six months later, having secured all the correct documents and permissions, the extraordinary odyssey to procure the youngsters surgery to treat their faces commenced.

The boys travelled to the Gambia via London, and spent three months on board the hospital ship undergoing three complicated facial rebuilding procedures. Their bravery throughout was fantastic. With their wounds healed and faces transformed, they returned to Harar to lead happier, independent and more dignified lives.

On his return to Harar sometime later, Jonathan was able to see how these once ostracised and desperate youngsters had changed both physically and mentally. It was clear that they could envisage a much brighter future ahead for themselves, making friends, finding a job and even marrying. Project Harar is still in contact with Jemal and Fhami to this day and they are both doing really well.

Jonathan returned to Ethiopia in 2003 to bring two more severely facially disfigured children back to London for treatment. This was once again a great success.

By 2004 Jonathan had realised that by far the largest numbers of patients with facial disfigurements were those born with cleft lip and palate of whom there were many thousands. He realised that the most efficient way to treat as many individuals as possible was to conduct the surgery in Ethiopia partnering with local surgeons, or periodically flying out teams of medical experts from the UK.

Together with Project Harar’s first staff members, Sebsebe Ayele in Ethiopia and Tom Hoyle in the UK, a unique outreach model was developed to find and treat patients from even the most remote rural areas, and to transport them to Addis Ababa for life-changing surgery.

In 2018 Jonathan can reflect with satisfaction that our growing organisation is in robust health and thanks to a team of dedicated staff and volunteers has now treated more than 8,000 people, most of whom have been children. 

Giving children the opportunity to do the very best that they can in life is what really matters most to Jonathan and Project Harar. Transforming their faces is the vital first step in making this a reality.