Project funded mainly by Saudi donors seeks help to save children with heart disease

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Consultant Dr. Abdul Samad Loay with Yusha, 10, in Tanzania. (Supplied)
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Abdullah, 3, rests at home in Bangladesh with his family. (Supplied)
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A mother and daughter wait for care in Tanzania. (Supplied)
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Ahmed, 11, was treated in Morocco. (Supplied)
Updated 25 August 2018
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Project funded mainly by Saudi donors seeks help to save children with heart disease

  • The organization’s core values are faith-inspired by the Islamic tenets of integrity, transparency, the uplifting of the needy, safeguarding the vulnerable and having a sustainable impact on the world
  • The goal over the next three years is to increase the impact of the Little Hearts project by increasing capacity in hospitals and cardiac centers in developing nations

SWITZERLAND: It’s a simple gesture, but it can help to break a world record — and mend hearts. Little Hearts is a project that gives impoverished children with congenital heart disease (CHD) access to life-saving treatment, thanks in large part to philanthropists from Saudi Arabia. To continue doing its good work, it is aiming to gain international recognition by launching a Guinness World Record attempt to create the largest-ever online photo gallery. Little Hearts is asking people across the globe to submit a picture of themselves making a hand-to-heart gesture to raise awareness of CHD — caused by a problem in the structure of the heart — and vital funds toward the projects’ goals.
“The Guinness World record itself is to get 60,000 photos of individuals making the heart gesture, which just fits perfectly with the campaign, as every heart deserves to beat,” said Reza Malik, fund-raising officer for Little Hearts. “We want to set ourselves a target of a year.”
The Little Hearts project provides free life-saving cardiac surgery and interventional cardiac catheterization for children with congenital heart defects from underprivileged families irrespective of gender, race or religion.
Each year more than a million babies worldwide are born with CHD; 100,000 of them will not live to see their first birthday and thousands more will die before they reach adulthood. “The majority of these who do survive beyond the first year of life will live in pain unless they live in the developed world where they have access to health systems,” Malik said. “That is why our ultimate aim is to provide life-saving heart operations to babies born with congenital heart defects in the Third World.
“We have a criteria: Their families are impoverished. There is no chance they can afford the medical operation and treatment required to help these children survive. Congenital heart defects are treatable. We have the solution for it; the issue is that it costs a lot of money.”
A standard CHD operation costs more than SR7,000 ($1,800) per child. “But that is a direct deliverable,” Malik said. “You are instantly saving a life.”
Little Hearts is the flagship project of the global humanitarian charity Muntada Aid, which operates in some of the world’s most vulnerable places, providing assistance to communities affected by disasters, conflicts and poverty.
The organization’s core values are faith-inspired by the Islamic tenets of integrity, transparency, the uplifting of the needy, safeguarding the vulnerable and having a sustainable impact on the world. It was initiated from Saudi Arabia in the form of a trust.
In the past seven years, the Little Hearts project has conducted 27 successful week-long missions, which involve sending an expert team of 30 — including heart surgeons, pediatricians, anesthesiologists and nurses — to developing countries such as Bangladesh, Sudan, Mauritania, Yemen and Tanzania. The teams have performed dozens of free surgeries. At times many of these countries have not had a single heart surgeon who can perform open-heart surgery on babies and small children. The cause of a congenital heart defect — signs and symptoms of which can include rapid breathing, bluish skin, poor weight gain and feeling tired — is often unknown. However, it can be caused by infections during pregnancy such as rubella, the use of certain medications or drugs such as alcohol or tobacco, parents being closely related and poor nutritional status or obesity in the mother. Serious congenital heart defects usually become evident soon after birth or during the first few months of life.
“It (the Little Hearts project) has a 97-per-cent success rate, so it is promising,” Malik explained. “The risk-to-reward ratio is extremely high. But is is not just about saving a life, but about giving the quality of life back to a child that is their basic human right. These babies are often underdeveloped; they cannot run or play like their peers.
“They have a right to their childhood and a right to life itself. By saving a single baby’s life, potentially you have saved up to nine other members of the immediate family, from parents to siblings. Why? Because usually the parents, the siblings, they are all working for the survival of this baby or child. Their world revolves around them. Usually the siblings are out of education; they are forced to earn a living. The mother’s care goes into the focus of that child. These operations turn tears of grief to tears of joy.”
Since its launch in 2011, Little Hearts has saved the lives of more than 1,800 children. Generous donors, he said, are the heart of the project and allow the team to continue their lifesaving work.
Philanthropists from Saudi Arabia have been the most prolific donors. “Initially a lot of the funding for the project, when it was first initiated, was from philanthropists from the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia,” Malik said. “Now we want to take this global. We want to take the Little Hearts mission and the cause of children with congenital heart defects and to turn that into a visible, viable issue and concern for the international community — from the UN to governments themselves. “Because it is not a communicable disease like malaria, there is no governmental or UN agenda to resolve the problem itself — to eradicate the disease and reduce the time it takes to provide treatment to these children.
“We know this is a global epidemic; it is one of the most common diseases of the heart in the world. Yet there is no governmental or UN mandate to reduce the rate, whereas we have the treatment — and we have the solutions.”
Malik said that there are two key goals of the Little Hearts project. “The aim is to continue providing the missions to the communities and countries in developing nations where they need that immediate support, because without it the governments are not going to subsidize the costs related to taking these children in these countries to places where they can get access to the treatment they need,” he said.
“The short-term goal is to continue the mission, but with that is the cost of logistics, bringing those facilities to a country on a temporary basis to be able to carry out these operations and then disbanding and moving on.
“This brings us to our second mission, our long-term goal. In the next three years we want to establish five full-time clinics with trained pediatricians and cardiologists who can perform these operations in these countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Mali, Tanzania and Chad.”
Little Hearts already has a dedicated center in Bangladesh, which has been fully operational for a year. A second center is about to be launched in South Africa.
As well as performing life-saving operations, heart surgeons with Little Hearts also run a training program, equipping local doctors with the knowledge to perform the complex procedures.
The goal over the next three years is to increase the impact of the Little Hearts project by increasing capacity in hospitals and cardiac centers in developing nations to be able to provide an international standard of specialist paediatric cardiac intervention, saving the lives of many more babies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Malik hopes the photo campaign will bring the awareness — and encourage the donation of vital funds — to continue and build on the organization’s life-saving work.
“The campaign has two aims; one to raise awareness of the plight of children suffering with congenital heart disease; secondly to give it that platform and visibility on an international stage and among high-level governments and within the United Nations so we can engage and say these are the solutions, now there needs to be action and finances,” he said.
“You can’t expect the general public to be pooling together these resources, because they are not cheap. We know there is funding for public health care infrastructure. Let’s give it its due. Because those 1.4 million children deserve that.”
Dr. Jamal Al-Ata, head surgeon at Little Hearts, said: “Unfortunately, the treatment of heart disease in the developing world is not given proper attention, due to the lack of financial resources and that of trained medical staff. It is important this is overcome.” His words were echoed by Dr. Mansur Al-Mathari, a consultant pediatric cardiologist with the project. “We need your support,” he said. “We need the support of everyone to keep this program running and hopefully we can save a lot of patients’ lives around the world.” The public can upload their entries for the photo campaign at: http://handstohearts.photos/


Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

Jonnah store sells minimal wear made by women and men at Al-Azraq Refugee Camp, and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

  • “Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield”
  • Joined in compassion for the refugees, Al-Bassam and Aburas co-founded the Jonnah store

JEDDAH: “As you return home, to your home, think of others, do not forget the people of the camps,” said Mahmoud Darwish in one of his most well-known poems, “Think of Others.” Darwish was regarded as the Palestinian national poet and lived between 1941 and 2008.
Fatimah Al-Bassam, 26 (@FatimaAlBassam) and Nouf Aburas, 28 (@Noufaburas) are two young Saudi women who were on a voluntary trip to Al-Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan when they decided to start a social business to offer a sustainable solution to help the refugees.
“The idea began in October 2017. We were in the camp on a trip organized by Takatuf volunteering group and Care International,” Al-Bassam told Arab News.
It all began with a question. “The group’s guide from the camp asked us about the most significant problem the people suffered from at the camp. The volunteers gave several answers like hunger, poverty, lack of health care, but the true answer actually was idleness,” she added.
Al-Bassam said the refugees have been living in this situation for years. Their minimum needs, such as shelter, clothes, and food are usually met by relief organizations, but they have nothing to do but wait in their caravans or tents for time to pass.
The refugees are full of energy and enthusiasm but the opportunities are not there. “During the visit, I met a lady who told me that she graduated from a sewing course and has a certificate. She wants to practice her skill but she has nothing to do,” Al-Bassam said.
“I was thinking, they have people who are good at sewing. They have sewing factories, but they do not have the opportunities to work, and that’s what they need, a sustainable solution.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas joined in compassion for the refugees and co-founded the social development enterprise Jonnah store.
In addition to her full-time job, Al-Bassam is a member of a volunteering group that organizes trips, many of which focus on the refugee crisis. Aburas already has experience in a social enterprise to support women in Saudi Arabia.
They collaborated with Care International in Jordan (@CAREJor), one of the main humanitarian agencies in the camp.
Jonnah store (@jonnahstore) creates the right conditions to motivate the Syrian refugees to play an active role in alleviating the suffering of their society members, overcoming economic, social and cultural challenges, and enabling them to meet their primary needs of security, shelter, food, health and education.
This happens by giving refugees the opportunity to practice their skills. It is a store that sells minimal wear made by people at the camp and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia.
“Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield,” because it shields the believer from himself, from his wrongdoings, and from behaving foolishly and impudently.
“We want the Jonnah project to be the tool by which refugees protect themselves from hunger, thirst, and loneliness through the money they are making and the community that is being built,” said Al-Bassam.
“I have a social business in Saudi Arabia. I am interested in social issues, and poverty in particular,” Aburas told Arab News.
She is the founder of Kurt (@kurtstore), a social enterprise she founded in 2013 which supports local, disadvantaged women and teaches them tailoring so they can produce abayas as a sustainable means to fight poverty.
“We did not want to go back home without doing anything. When we returned to Saudi Arabia we recognized that I had experience in a sewing and clothing business and Fatimah had experience in volunteering work and she had the contacts, so we founded Jonnah.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas went to the camp in Jordan again in December 2017 to start the business.
They started with six refugees working in the factory, and the number later increased to eight. And they are willing to increase the number of benefitting refugees as they grow their business.
It took them three months to produce the first collection. They faced some obstacles at the beginning, one being communication with the organization at the camp, which has many other priorities.
“It’s hard sometimes, because they are a relief organization. They are not business oriented, so sending and receiving emails back takes some time,” said Al-Bassam.
Moreover, achieving the desired product quality does not happen immediately. Aburas said that raising a social enterprise has the same challenges as any other enterprise: Following regulations in the country, keeping a consistent production line, and maintaining quality. All of that needs continuous effort and faces some obstacles.
“You want a bigger impact, but to make the impact you have to go through everything,” she said.
However, there is an important difference between a social business and any other business.
“You make more profit, not in order to make more money, but you make more profit to help more people so you have a bigger impact. More money is just the tool,” Aburas said.
Sometimes people do not understand the concept of how social enterprises work. They may think that the refugee or the beneficiary receives 100 percent of the money they pay, but that is not how the business works. Everything has a cost and the company needs the money to keep going and benefit more people.
Jonnah Store goods are sold through Instagram, and they also participate in exhibitions. Al-Bassam and Aburas aspire to expand their project to reach more customers. They hope to launch their website, hire more refugees, collaborate with more designers, and cooperate with more companies in Saudi Arabia and in the world.
Jonnah sells female clothing in the meantime. In addition to Jonnah’s line of designs, it has expanded its business plan; Jonnah can be the interface between the designers and the factory at the camp.
“We would tell them: You are going to produce your collection anyway. Give us a sample and the material, and we will have your collection produced in Al-Azraq camp,” Aburas said.
“What really distinguishes Jonnah is that it has occupied refugees’ time and improved their social life as well. They gather in the factory every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., learn new things and get to know their neighbors. They feel that they have a goal in their lives,” Al-Bassam said.
“I remember when we came back to the camp the second time, I found some seamstresses wearing the clothes they worked on. They actually bought them from Jonnah.”
One of the seamstresses told them: “I have never been so proud of myself as I am now.”
Another one said: “Since I was in Syria I dreamed of sewing clothes for others. Now I see people wearing the clothes I made. I feel that my dream is coming true.”
For Al-Bassam, the issue is not only about having a sustainable income, but also about their psychology, in how what they do is reflected on their self-confidence and sense of hope.
“You only need to be human to have empathy and compassion for the refugees,” she said.
“When we went to the seamstresses and tailors, we thought we were going to help them, but we found that we were the ones who drew strength and energy from them,” said Aburas.
Moreover, Jonnah received good feedback from custumers. “We had custumers who bought the clothes because they liked them, and we had those who bought from us as an act of compassion and benevolence. For example, some men would buy from us for their sisters and mothers,” she said.
Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world, said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Syria crisis has accelerated more dramatically than any crisis on earth. Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, exceeding Afghanistan and Somalia by millions of people.
More than half of the prewar population has been internally displaced or forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. That’s more than 12 million people, including some 6.3 million people who have escaped across the borders.
According to the latest factsheet published in October by the refugee agency UNHCR, the Blue Camp (Azraq) in Jordan is home to 40,712 Syrian refugees, nearly 22 percent of whom are under five years old.
Opened on April 30, 2014, the camp stretches in a 14.7 square-kilometer area; 75 km away from Saudi Arabia’s national borders, and 90 km away from Syria.
The camp is managed in co-coordination with the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and UNHCR.
Al-Bassam said that the refugee crisis is a combination of more than one problem. People in the camps not only lack basic needs of shelter and food, they have also lost their homes and experienced horrific events.
“I believe governments are not doing enough, and we as individuals are not doing enough. We can do a lot more. I always wanted to do something for them,” she said.
“As Jonnah, we go to the camp by ourselves to receive the goods, we meet with the staff and listen to their suggestions and complaints, and we pay them by ourselves,” she added.
“We do not want it to be just a business. Direct communication makes them feel our appreciation and attention, and that in itself makes us want to keep going.”
Mahmoud Darwish ended his poem with the following line: “As you think of others far away, think of yourself, say: ‘If only I were a candle in the dark’.”