JEDDAH: Nabila Samir Ben Slimane learned how to knit when she was a young child and now her passion for crocheting is helping children across the Arab world.
Ben Slimane launched New Smile, a Saudi-based project that provides handmade hats for children suffering from cancer. She leads a group of more than 40 volunteers that designs, manufactures, and delivers hats and beanies to patients who have lost their hair while battling the disease.
“I met with many children in the hospital who suffered hair loss due to chemotherapy,” said Ben Slimane, a mother of four, who works at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Jeddah.
“Sometimes they wear normal hats to hide their head and sometimes they wear nothing at all. I see them so embarrassed that they try to hide behind their parents.”
Ben Slimane’s work at a tertiary hospital specializing in cancer studies and treatment, coupled with a video she saw on social media, inspired her to launch New Smile.
In the video, a group of US women started “The Magic Yarn,” a project designed to help cancer patients by making them hats from threads.
Ben Slimane’s first hat featured threads that looked like real hair and it went to a 3-year-old girl named Rafif, who had lost her hair due to cancer treatment.
“The child’s reaction was amazing and shocking to all,” she said. “As soon as I put the beanie on her head, she started running around the corridors of the hospital, dancing with happiness and going to the nurses to show off her new beanie.”
It was not long before Ben Slimane started to recruit other Saudi seamstresses on WhatsApp to join her in the new nonprofit venture.
The hats are handmade using organic cotton threads and high-quality raw materials. Ben Slimane says the seamstresses pay careful attention to the people they are trying to help.
“The skin of cancer patients is very sensitive and some patients suffer sores in the scalp,” she said. “That is why we use no allergenic threads that can be easily washed. The hats last for a long time and can sustain weather changes.”
In the first year of its launch, New Smile partnered with several hospitals in Riyadh, including the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center and the King Khalid University Hospital. The project also distributed beanies and hats to some patients of private hospitals upon the request of their parents, doctors and nurses.
In the second year of the project, Ben Slimane discovered beautiful silk threads in Tunisia, that she used to make soft hats that offered the feeling of real hair to children.
“In the third year, the kids’ reaction to the simplest things inspired me to add a new collection,” she said. “So we began to make dolls with the help of my friend Dina Jamjoom.”
The hats and dolls are designed for children starting at 6 months old to teenagers. The group’s popularity started to climb within the Kingdom so Ben Slimane started to think bigger.
“The project began to expand and we started distributing our products to a number of Arab countries,” she said.
Hats and dolls were sent to the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Egypt, the Queen Rania Al-Abdullah Hospital for Children in Jordan, and the Sultan Qaboos Comprehensive Cancer Center in Oman. Some products also found their way to hospitals in Tunisia and Sudan.
The group faced some difficulties in 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as distribution of the hats and dolls was suspended. But production continued and now the group has a stockpile ready to send out.
“Volunteers did not stop for a second making the beanies and dolls,” Ben Slimane said.
“They are making them with love. I continue to bring them the tools needed to make more, so once the situation returns to normal, we can resume the distribution of our products.”
Before the advent of the holy month of Ramadan last year, New Smile distributed Qur’an covers to mothers to lift their spirits. The group also distributed occasion-related dolls such as the Eid lamb in addition to creating favorite cartoon characters for children.
It was also during the pandemic when the Wareef Charitable Foundation of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital offered financial support for New Smile.
“The charity has provided us with all the project’s needs,” Ben Slimane said. “During the previous two years there had been no funder or financier, but only personal efforts and cooperation between the members.”
The volunteers of the project are from different cities and countries and meet virtually on social media platforms. But the Jeddah volunteers meet for an informal ceremony every year where symbolic gifts are offered to members in recognition of their support.
“My dream is that the project can be based in an official location or a unified known center,” Ben Slimane said. “That would make it easier for people who want to get a gift for their children, friends or neighbors to come and get whatever they need with ease.”
Ben Slimane is hoping the project will continue to expand in the future.
“I want this project to reach every child who is suffering from cancer and lost their hair,” she said. “Our doors are open to everyone, inside and outside of Saudi Arabia.”