KAPOW­ING CANCER

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

Friday - - MAKING A DIFFERENCE -

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

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