DAMASCUS, Syria – In the children’s cancer ward of a hospital in the Syrian capital, Damascus, children walk through brightly painted hallways hooked up to intravenous needles delivering critical treatment to their bloodstream.
Nurses tend to seat babies and teenagers receiving chemotherapy in reclining chairs. Other children, in a nearby playroom, draw and color to pass the time.
Beds fill up quickly in the ward run by BASMA, a private charity that supports children with cancer. Today, it is the largest charity across the war-torn country offering comprehensive cancer diagnosis and treatment free of charge – and for many among Syria’s impoverished population, it comes down to this or no treatment at all.
More than a decade of war has brought Syria’s health sector to its knees. With an ongoing economic crisis exacerbated by Western sanctions and a devastating currency crash, most families are struggling to survive.
Few can afford expensive cancer treatment. Hospitals, including Al-Bairouni Hospital on the Harasta Highway, just northeast of the Syrian capital, and the Children’s Hospital in Damascus, face severe shortages of medicine and medical equipment.
Before the war, the Syrian government provided cancer drugs free of charge at its public oncology facilities. But since the conflict broke out in 2011, these services have been interrupted. About half of the country’s health clinics were destroyed or closed during the war, which killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population. Oncology care has declined rapidly.
“The doctor told us that medicine was scarce and we had to get it ourselves,” said a woman from the coastal province of Latakia who identified herself by her nickname, Umm Hamzeh, which means mother. of Hamzeh.
Her 14-year-old son was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer in children.
“Life is very difficult,” she added.
For her and many others, the cancer units operated by BASMA in Al-Bairouni and the children’s hospital have been a rare sanctuary in a country exhausted by war and poverty.
“They welcomed us immediately, from day one, and took care of everything,” Umm Hamzeh said. In addition to care, the pediatric services of Al-Bairouni Hospital offer accommodation to parents of children from distant provinces, as well as psychological care for parents and children.
“The ongoing conflict and economic downturn has had a devastating impact on children’s access to health services in Syria for more than a decade, putting the lives of thousands of people with potentially treatable conditions at risk,” said said UNICEF Representative for Syria, Bo Viktor Nylund.
“Fighting and surviving cancer is no small feat in any country, but a conflict zone is truly the worst environment for children with cancer,” Nylund added. He spoke last month after receiving cancer medicine for more than 4,000 Syrian children, donated by the Kuwait Fund.
BASMA opened the first specialized unit to diagnose and treat children with cancer in 2008, working with only 20 inpatient beds and able to offer services to eight outpatients in Al-Bairouni. At the height of the war, the hospital dominated a frontline between government-controlled Damascus and rebel-held suburbs. Most beds were empty as cancer care dwindled.
Today there are 38 beds available and the charity hopes to expand to 72 beds by the end of the year, according to Suhair Boulad, chairman of BASMA, which provides free treatment to around 650 children diagnosed with cancer each year.
“We fight a lot to get these drugs, but thank God, at BASMA, we haven’t missed a single day of them,” Boulad said.
“Syrian children are like all other children. They have the right to receive comprehensive treatment according to their needs,” she added.