Within a few days of the catastrophic explosion in Beirut last August, Wassim "Sal" Slaiby, CEO of XO Records and his wife Rima Fakih, Ambassador of the Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL), launched the fundraising campaign Global Aid to Lebanon together with Global Citizen, Red Cross Lebanon and the UN World Food Programme. Mr Slaiby personally donated USD 250,000 to the campaign.
Hundreds of donations amounting to more than USD 1.2 million have been received. UICC reached out to Mrs Rima Fakih and Mrs Hana Chaar Choueib, General Manager of CCCL, to learn more about the situation in Lebanon and how CCCL has managed to support cancer patients thanks to the donations raised by the campaign.
UICC also spoke with Ishtar Espejo, Director of Fundación Aladina in Spain, a UICC member organisation that contributed USD 500,000 for bone marrow transplants for children in Lebanon.
Mrs Fakih, as Ambassador for the Children’s Cancer Centre of Lebanon, what drives your support for cancer control?
It is the simple fact that cancer “sucks”. I’m not saying this to sound vulgar, but cancer in children is very difficult to detect early enough to provide cure and most types of cancer in children are not responsive to surgery or chemotherapy. Children with cancer are not getting the opportunity to truly live out their youth because of the disease; so I feel compelled to support where I can and, through the years, I have discovered and genuinely experienced how much the CCCL is making a difference in the lives of youth battling cancer.
Mrs Choueib, what has the situation been for CCCL, cancer care in Lebanon and children with cancer in particular, before the explosion and since?
Due to the aggravated economic, financial and political situation and COVID-19 health crisis, cancer care in Lebanon was already in a critical situation before the blast. At CCCL, we had to postpone or cancel many events, leading to considerable difficulties in raising needed funds. As a result, and similarly to elsewhere in the world, prevention programmes, diagnostics and screenings have decreased significantly in scope and efficiency.
The blast added another layer of difficulty to this situation and almost four months after the Beirut explosion, the country still faces an aggravated economic and financial collapse, as well as political instability. Access to essential medicines, in particular, with shortages and difficulties in restocking supplies. The ability to treat patients is also challenging, as many hospitals and other care centres were damaged in the explosion.
The fact is that the “last man standing” supporting patients are NGOs; and at CCCL, for example, we have mobilised all our resources to ensure access to adequate treatment and care, and are committed to supporting all kids with cancer in need, all across Lebanon. Donations from the Global Aid for Lebanon campaign have been crucial in allowing us to provide this relief response to the crisis.
Mrs Fakih, how did you lead the creation of the Global Aid for Lebanon campaign and reach out to the Global Citizen, Red Cross Lebanon, and the United Nations World Food Programme?
Once we heard of the horrifying news of the recent Beirut explosion, my husband and I spent the first few days unable to sleep, thinking of how we could help. I grew up underprivileged in the crisis of war and know first-hand what it feels like to have nothing. After being crowned Miss USA in 2010, many doors opened for me on a global level, providing the opportunity to give back. Sal and I wanted to help the people and only the people. We therefore chose three organisations that we felt very strongly about and that we knew were on the front lines in providing aid, food, shelter and treatment to those most in need. The Global Aid for Lebanon campaign was born and we were proud that it brought on board people from all over the world to help. It also attracted the support of many celebrities, which led to raising awareness about the crisis in Lebanon.
Mrs Choueib, what has been the response to the Global Aid for Lebanon campaign and of the cancer community globally? How have the funds been allocated and what has been the impact on caregivers, patients and organisations?
The world really came together for Beirut, for Lebanon and for kids with cancer – it was truly heart-warming and humbling to witness. The total funds received by CCCL out of the donations to the Global Aid for Lebanon amount to USD 285,000 and we are so grateful to Mrs Rima Fakih and Mr Wassim Slaiby for launching this initiative so quickly to support our children. The funds helped us cover in part the treatment for 60 patients – children with cancer – for chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and psychosocial support. We were also able to secure a stock of cancer medication.
We were also fortunate to receive generous support from the King Hussein Cancer Foundation (KHCF) in Jordan and US$500,000 from the Fundación Aladina in Spain, which cover bone marrow transplants for 15 children and adolescents.
Mrs Espejo, in a context where many cancer organisations are suffering from lack of funds due to the consequences of the pandemic, what allowed Fundación Aladina to make such a generous contribution to CCCL and what compelled you do to so?
Like many organisations, there are activities that we were unable to execute as planned in the 2020 budget. This year has been about being quick on our feet and shifting priorities. At the same time, Aladina has been active at the international level to a limited degree for a few years now, and as we had made a connection with CCCL at UICC’s World Cancer Leaders’ Summit in Kazakhstan, I contacted them after the explosion to ask how we could help.
I was told that so much was needed to help all children, but in particular they weren’t sure how they would fund the bone marrow transplant programme. This matched what we had done in the past in Spain. Our founder and president, Paco Arango, is a film director and does philanthropic work. His first film was inspired by a meeting with a teenage cancer patient and the proceeds helped fund the construction of a bone marrow centre, called MAKTUB after the title of the film, in the biggest hospital in Madrid.
Due to the urgency of the situation in Lebanon and to preserve Aladina’s core funding, Paco personally donated the half a million dollars to CCCL on behalf of the organization.
Mrs Chouheib, what may be the long-term consequences of the blast and COVID-19 not only for cancer care and Lebanon’s health system but for the country as a whole?
Lebanon is undergoing a major change in all aspects and it will take us a long time to thrive again. Due to decreased screening this year, we might see an increase in cancer cases in the short-term, as well as late detection, and we hope our healthcare system will be able to cope with this situation. However, we may see long-term positive consequences for the healthcare system and cancer in terms of greater national collaboration, and a strengthening of digital and virtual solutions.
To counter anticipated surges in the number of cases and to ensure continued access to treatment and care for childhood cancer, CCCL is expanding support to patients, increasing collaborations with medical centres, and developing and expanding its fundraising reach to be able to cope with the growing needs. I also seize this opportunity to thank the international community for supporting CCCL through this tough year, and restate our need for the New Year.
The Golden Ribbon Chain campaign initiated by CCCL aims to fill a virtual Lebanese map with 10,452 golden ribbons – one ribbon for every square kilometre in Lebanon.
Each ribbon represents a donation of LBP 50,000 (USD 33) to CCCL, for a total objective of LBP 574,860,000 (USD 380,000). This covers the cost of treatment for seven children.
The number of ribbons that have been added on the map and the total amount of donations received so far can be viewed on the platform.
Do not hesitate to donate and help CCCL achieve its goal of filling the map of Lebanon with golden ribbons for childhood cancer.