Dubai residents Basma Al Masri and Tarik Batal help young children fight cancer through Super Hope– a creative new initiative that awakens kids’ inner super heroes. By Shreeja Ravindranathan
Dressed as a wrestler complete with shiny red T-shirt and a flowing cape, six-year-old Abdullah strode to the front of a small crowd. “Grrr,” he roared at the crew at the photo studio in Dubai where a special shoot was happening. The group of people played along, pretending to be scared, and smiling at the little boy’s antics. Apart from the costume he also had an intravenous drip in his right arm. Abdullah has to wear it so it’s easier to administer medication to fight his cancer. He has been battling the disease for some time now. But right then the little boy from Al Ain didn’t care – he was too busy pretending to be a superhero out to ‘kapow’ his nemesis: cancer. His photographs would later be put on display at SuperHope’s kiosk at Dubai’sWorld Trade Centre during the recent cultural festival, Middle East Film and Comic Con.
“He wanted to squirt banana splits so that the “dirty villains” would slip and fall,” says Basma Al Masri, co-founder – along with Tarik Batal – of SuperHope, a charity that helps children forget cancer for a day by dressing up as their own superheroes. “He looked so happy and cheerful not having to worry about going to the hospital for check-ups and chemo treatments. His parents were saying how happy they were to see him laugh and play like any other fouryear-old.”
Abdullah is one of seven children under 14 who SuperHope is currently helping. “The best thing we can give young cancer survivors is hope – it’s the superhero of all times,” says Basma, a Saudi-born make-up artist. “We wanted to put a smile on children’s faces and make them
forget about the pain of their condition even if only for a day.” It was Tarik who came up with the idea of SuperHope with Basma, 30. The latter had spent her spare time working with charities to raise funds for cancer patients’ treatment in Saudi Arabia. Canadian expat Tarik, 28, who runs Atum, a content creation company based in Dubai, met her some years ago and during the course of a conversation mentioned that he was looking at ways to give back to community, especially to help children.
“I was looking for an initiative that’d be novel and something that would excite children and help them forget about their pain, at least for a day,” he says.
The quest for originality led the friends to come up with a question: “If kids are given the chance to become superheroes how would they imagine themselves to be?” They posed it to the seven child cancer patients who they had contacted through Al Ain’s Tawam Hospital. The answers stunned Basma and Tarik. Snubbing superhero staples Batman, Spider-man and Superman, the sky appeared to be the limit when it came to the children’s vivid imaginations. “One wanted to be a fighter, another a magician, another a fairy,” says Basma.
The duo felt that, psychologically, creating a figure who was strong and who could fight anything, including cancer, would make the children have a positive frame of mind and be more predisposed to battling their condition and overcoming it. “We wanted their imaginations and talents rather than their disease to define them,” says Tarik.
Children who were suffering from cancer were invited to take part, creating their own superhero and taking part in a professional photo shoot. That’s why they set up the SuperHope kiosk at Comic Con, “because the event is a celebration of comic, art and films and we felt it was the best medium to tell people about our idea,” says Basma.
The initiative is largely selffunded but the duo also managed to rope in sponsors and volunteers with one goal in mind: to make the experience fun for the children. While there are few scientific studies that objectively measure the impact of happiness on cancer patients, many experts believe that optimists tend to experience better health than pessimists.
“A positive attitude can improve the quality of [a patient’s] life during cancer treatment and beyond. You may be more likely to stay active,
‘A positive attitude can improve the quality of a patient’s life during treatment and beyond’
maintain ties to family and friends, and continue social activities. In turn, this may enhance your feeling of well-being and help you find the strength to deal with your cancer,” according to Timothy J Moynihan, a cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic in the US’s Minnesota.
Realising this, Basma and Tarik contacted several hospitals and spoke to several experts about their initiative. “We received a very positive response from all the people we spoke to,” says Tarik.
Several phone calls and visits to hospitals later, they went to Tawam Hospital for an important meeting. Tarik explains: “Tawam went out of its way to help us by putting us in touch with parents and, within a month, seven of them confirmed that they would like to be part of our initiative.
“It’s funny – a lot of people asked us how many people were on our team and who’s funding us, only to be flabbergasted when we’d say it was just the two of us and the 16 partners,” says Tarik.
Companies from Organic Press to Make-Up Forever contributed their services free of charge, but it was the friends’ positivity and drive that won the confidence and faith of the seven participating families who, despite being based in Al Ain, gladly drove down to Dubai for the photo shoots and the launch with their children – many still in treatment.
The SuperHope team – which included a comic illustrator, fashion designers and a photographer – then talked to the children, who ranged in age from four to 14, to find out who their superheroes were. “Seeing them give vent to their imagination and come up with amazing superhero ideas was an entirely new and heartwarming experience for all of us,” says Basma.
“Many forgot about hospitals and treatment rooms and were excited while telling us about the powers each of their imaginary superheroes possessed.”
Based on the children’s wishes, comic illustrator Rahul Sarkara then sketched costumes of their idols.
“Comics were a source of joy to me as a kid,” says Rahul. “That I could do the same for these kids was magical.
“I had a straight-eight-hour session brainstorming with the kids in Al Ain. They all had out-of-thebox ideas – from Abdullah’s wrestler with a tiger face and super strength, to 14-year-old cancer patient Jubilee Faith Ado’s wish to be a magician.”
The sketches were then sent to Dubai-based Quiceno Art with the children’s measurements, to turn them into costumes.
The children’s creativity didn’t make the jobs of costume designers Djordje Lazovic and Jose Luis Quinceno’s – owners of Quinceno Art – any easier.
The kids’ ideas had them rethink the whole ‘blue suits and capes’ concept of superheroes, says Djordje. They sourced matching fabrics, colour swatches and spent nights turning the children’s imaginary characters into reality. But they didn’t mind the long hours and the effort they put in. “The smiles on the children’s faces when they wore their costumes were worth a million dollars. We’d definitely do it again,” he says.
Once ready, the children dressed up for a photo shoot with commercial photographer Tina Patni. Then, the following day, they went to the Comic Con event, where Jubilee donned her magician costume while her family – parents Siena, 53, and Rico Ado, 48, and brother Micah, 19 – stood proudly by. “It was the first time in months that I forgot Jubilee was battling acute leukaemia,” says Siena, a homemaker from Al Ain.
“Week after week, during her intense chemo sessions, she would work wake up early to get everything done in time [for her costume] so she could attend the launch at Comic Con,” Siena adds. Jubilee, a Fortune
Academy Al Ain student who loves manga and anime characters, says, “I insisted on sketching my costume’s design, only seeking Rahul’s guidance when I felt stuck. I was overjoyed to see the way the costume developed and acting as my superhero, a powerful magician who could make all problems vanish, was just splendid.” She hopes she will be able to do just such things in real life and make people’s problems disappear.
For young Jubilee, SuperHope gave her the dose of positivity she needed. “It really boosted my hope of becoming better because when I was at the hospital all I did was sleep all day.”
While Jubilee wants to be a magician, little Abdullah’s aspiration is to become a doctor, “so I can help people”. His ambition of helping others has been partly fulfilled unknown to him, as Basma and Tarik intend to auction the children’s illustrations and their photographs, with the proceeds going towards funding more superhero experiences for other kids with cancer.
The SuperHope booth also had on sale various SuperHope merchandise – proceeds from the sale of which would raise funds for cancer treatment. “The kiosk at the Comic Con helped us greatly because it raised awareness about our initiative and the kind of work we are doing,” says Basma.
“Several people came up and offered their services. For instance, we had a fashion designer offer to help us create a fashion line, while a doctor from Abu Dhabi came up offering help and advice to spruce up paediatric wards so they don’t remind children of their illness.”
Tarik is sure the experience helped cheer up the seven children and wants to help hundreds more.
“Among other things, with SuperHope we’re trying to promote an overall better lifestyle and a positive mentality for the kids,” he says.
And the ideas still keep coming. The duo plan to have a team of volunteers who will be raising funds for and creating awareness about paediatric cancer by creating comic books based on the children’s stories of their superhero characters. “It’s the next sensible step and Comic Con has extended a pool of comic book writers for us. We want to constantly remind people that SuperHope is not a one-time thing,” says Basma.
Redesigning children’s wards in hospitals and spreading this initiative to other hospitals in the UAE and abroad are also on the agenda, as is following up on the kids’ progress and taking photographs of the three children who couldn’t make it to the photo shoot due to their treatments.
But there’s clearly a difference in the children who did take part. Jubilee’s superpower of choice was the ‘power of will – the mental strength to carry out one’s wishes or desires to completion.’
The excitement and positivity seems to have paid off. “Doctors told us her leukaemia has stopped spreading as of now,” says mum Siena. “Of course we cannot be 100 per cent sure that the initiative is the reason, but I’m sure it helped.”
The belief that a positive attitude can see superheroes created is further underlined by the work of Basma and Tarik. As Jubilee says, “Look at them - the fact that they hardly know us but still worked so hard to make us happy is incredible. If you ask me those two are the real heroes.”
Basma and Tarik, the duo behind SuperHope
Tarik and Abdullah strike a deal… Abdullah had no doubts about the costume he wanted
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The SuperHope team includes a comic illustrator They’ve got the power! Dania, above, couldn’t wait to get into her costume
MAKING A DIFFERENCE Jubilee sketched her own design and asked for Rahul’s help only when she got stuck Jubilee fits right in with the other Comi Con visitors