At the children’s cancer ward in a hospital in the Syrian capital of Damascus, children walk down brightly painted corridors, hooked up to IV needles delivering critical treatment into their bloodstream.
Nurses tend to babies and teenagers getting chemotherapy sit in reclining chairs. Other children, in a nearby playroom, draw and color to pass the time.
The beds fill up fast at the ward operated by BASMA, a private charity that supports children with cancer. Today, it is the biggest association across the war-shattered nation to offer full cancer diagnoses and treatment without charge — and for many among Syria’s impoverished population, it comes down to either that or no treatment at all.
More than a decade of war has brought Syria’s health care 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 medicines and medical equipment.
Before the war, the Syrian government provided anticancer medication free of charge in its public oncology facilities. But since the conflict broke out in 2011, these services have been disrupted. Around half of the country’s health care clinics have been destroyed or closed during the war, which has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population. Oncology care saw a rapid decline.
“The doctor told us medicine is in short supply and we would have to secure most of it ourselves,” said a woman from the coastal province of Latakia who identified herself by her nickname, Umm Hamzeh, meaning the 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 BASMA-operated cancer units at 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 the first day, and took care of everything,” Umm Hamzeh said. In addition to treatment, the children’s wards at the Al-Bairouni hospital offer accommodation for parents of children from far away provinces, as well as psychological care for both parents and children.
“The ongoing conflict and economic downturn have taken a devastating toll on children’s access to health services in Syria for more than a decade, jeopardizing the lives of thousands with potentially treatable illnesses,” said UNICEF’s 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 drugs for more than 4,000 Syrian children, a donation from 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 at Al-Bairouni. At the height of the war, the hospital overlooked a front line between government-controlled Damascus and rebel-held suburbs. Most beds were empty as cancer care declined.
Now, there are 38 beds available and the charity hopes to expand to 72 beds by the end of the year, according to Suhair Boulad, chairperson of BASMA, which provides free treatment to about 650 children with cancer every year.
“We are struggling a lot to get these medications but thank God at BASMA, we didn’t run out even one day,” Boulad said.
“Syrian children are like any other children. They have the right to receive full treatment as needed,” she added.