Matilda Gustavsson
Last updated: 9 January, 2013

A refuge for children with cancer in Egypt

Health and Hope Oasis in Egypt is a twenty-year-old dream that recently became reality. In the oasis, poor children with cancer get care, nutritious food and a lot of play.

When Kamar had just turned seven she began having headaches. Her mother, Fatima Wael Fathy Hedeya, tells how her daughter cried when her hair was brushed.

“When I understood why I felt very guilty,” she says.

Now, they are sitting together in an air-conditioned and bright room at Health and Hope Oasis, near the dusty desert road between Cairo and Alexandria. Just an hour or so earlier Kamar and Fatima jumped out of a minibus together with 20 other parents and children with cancer. The families come from different parts of Egypt, but all have received care at the country’s largest state hospital in Cairo.

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The contrast to the metropolis is stark. The small buildings in the oasis, which houses up to 50 families, forms own blocks where the walls are covered with colourful paintings. The oasis has a trial day, and those who want to stay come back after a week with properly packed bags. You can live here for as long as you like; from a day of relief to several months.

While the other children have occupied the large play hall, filled with teddy bears and train sets, Kamar and Fatima have retreated to tell their story.

It was when Fatima’s headache escalated and her sight suddenly deteriorated that her mother took her to the hospital.

“My sister has had a brain tumour, so I knew that the disease existed and required a brain scan. It was a trauma, of course, to get the answer. But I am positive and want to believe that something good comes out of everything. Because my sister has survived I feel hope,” she says.

Four years have passed. Kamar’s life has been characterised by many painful treatments. The operation that removed parts of the tumour also took her sight. Since then, she has been unable to go to school, which is only adapted for seeing children.

Health and Hope Oasis is run by the organisation Friends of Children With Cancer, which was started by the teacher Faiza Abdel Khalick. She got an insight into the government’s limited resources, and how this hits the poor population, during her treatment for breast cancer.

“If you haven’t got money and become sick you get no extra service, while the rich check into private clinics. I wanted to change that.”

Friends of Children with Cancer is run with the support from companies and private individuals. From the start, Faiza Abdel Khalick had dreamed about helping children and one year ago the oasis became possible.

An architect drew the small village, artists decorated and companies donated toys. A doctor and a car is always on the premise if something serious were to happen. The next step is to hire a dietician. Large emphasis is put on the food, with a typical meal consisting of chicken, potatoes, fruit and own-grown vegetable.

The oasis should be a place for play and rest between treatments in Cairo. It cooperates with the capital’s state-run, and poor, hospitals. So far, everyone who applies has been given a place, but sometimes there is a wait.

Friends of Children With Cancer also wants to improve public knowledge and awareness. Cancer is discovered late in Egypt. Few Egyptians know about the diagnoses and their symptoms, and routine checks cost money.

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“The medical solution may not be here yet, but at least we want to start a cultural revolution. There are many misconceptions based on ignorance. For example, that cancer is contagious or that a children to a mother with cancer wont get married. I have met women who does not dare to tell the husband about their cancer,” says Faiza.

But she sees the signs of changed attitudes on all levels in society:

“Cancer has been brought up in talk shows on TV and the government has finally invested in a van with breast-cancer screening. That saves lives in the long run.”

In the playground outside, all the sandpits and climbing frames are full with children. Four-year-old Ahmed has leukaemia and tired eyes, but they lit up when he sees a large, red car. Fatima carefully pushes Kamar in a swing. It is the first time they leave the hospital. There, only one family member is allowed to sleep with the child. At the oasis, both parents and siblings are welcome.

“I really hope that my husband agrees to meet us here. We need that,” says Fatima.

At the moment, Kamar’s father is unemployed, but if he comes to the oasis there is an opportunity to work and earn money. One of the village’s bearing concepts is to introduce the parents – both mothers and fathers – to various professions. They learn how to make jam or repair cars.

Kamar also wants the whole family to live at the Health and Hope Oasis.

“I wish that my little brother comes here, because then we can play with all the music instruments,” she says.

It is difficult to hold back the tears when Fatima tells about her daughter’s long struggle. Faiza Abdel Khalick translates, and adds that a well-off family had demanded better care.

“For me it is important to face the truth: many of the children who play here today wont survive.”

This article is a translation from Swedish and was originally published in BARN&CANCER. Translated by David Hedengren. Photos by David Polberger.