Charity Appears to Benefit From Improved US Ties

US Treasury allows transfer of funds raised by Syrian ex-pats for Damascus-based organisation helping child cancer sufferers.

Charity Appears to Benefit From Improved US Ties

US Treasury allows transfer of funds raised by Syrian ex-pats for Damascus-based organisation helping child cancer sufferers.

Tuesday, 17 March, 2009
In a sign that Washington may be easing its economic embargo on Syria, the Treasury Department last month authorised the transfer of 500,000 US dollars to a popular Syrian charity that supports children with cancer.

This is the first time a transfer of charitable funds has gone through from the United States to Syria since sanctions took effect in 2004. It follows a recent series of visits by high-level Washington officials to the country.

Syrians living in the US raised the money for the charity – called BASMA, which means smile in Arabic – at a fundraising dinner in Washington last April, according to Imad Mustafa, Syria’s ambassador to the US.

BASMA executive director Rania Khaddour said that before the US transferred the money, it wanted to find out more about the organisation and its activities.

Established three years ago by 12 volunteers in Damascus, BASMA provides psychiatric, moral and financial support for Syrian children with cancer and their families.

It also spreads awareness of the illness, according to the organisation’s chairwoman Mayya Assaad.

With 12 full-time staff members and 80 volunteers, she said the association tries to focus on child sufferers and their families at a psychological and financial level. “We provide services to more than 1,200 children with cancer all over Syria,” said Assaad.

“Without individual and group donations, we could not maintain or improve the quality of the services we offer to so many.”

In June 2007, Mustafa’s wife, Rafif, visited the BASMA headquarters in Damascus and promised to provide support from the Syrian community in the US, said Assaad.

“So many Syrian-American associations responded to this initiative, including the Syrian-American Cultural Council and the Syrian-American Doctors’ Association, which agreed to provide technical support and training for workers in the children’s cancer field,” she said.

“The money raised that night will go toward establishing a 30 million dollar centre in Damascus that will specialise in treating children with cancer.”

At the moment, the majority of volunteers spend their time trying to boost the morale of cancer-stricken children and their families.

“Unfortunately, most people in our country have not yet realised the importance of psychological support,” said Damascus-based BASMA volunteer Basim Farhoud.

“There is so much potential to help a child learn ways to stay mentally and emotionally strong and fight this disease.”

The association’s volunteers help parents find ways of keeping their children upbeat, said Chadan Naji, the vice chairperson of BASMA, by for instance getting them to play musical instruments or draw.

The mother of five-year old Mustafa, who has leukaemia, said that her son’s outlook has improved a great deal thanks to BASMA volunteers.

“Mustafa was so depressed when he first entered the hospital,” she said.

“Now he sometimes even looks forward to coming in for treatment because he knows he will get to play. They have helped reduce his pain and forget his sickness through the activities and entertainment they provide.”

For all of the association’s hard work, many practical problems still remain for Syrian children fighting cancer.

“At the moment, there are no specialised centres to treat children with the disease,” said Assaad.

“In the Damascus children’s hospital, there are only 34 beds for children with cancer and only two or three doctors who are trained to treat them. The specialist doctors are only two or three.”

While there are no official statistics on the number of children suffering from cancer in Syria, Assaad said that international organisations have estimated between 1,200 and 1,500 new cases arise every year.

“These children need the support of everyone around them,” she said. “They have a right to study and play like other children even when faced with this horrible illness.”
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