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Japan NPO helping kids in Iraq, Syria fight cancer, seeking donations

Abdulazis Jamil Khader, 29, holds his 4-year-old daughter Fatima, who is receiving aid from a Japanese nonprofit organization to go to the hospital to treat her leukemia, on the outskirts of Erbil in northern Iraq, on Aug. 3, 2018. The family fled from fighting in IS-controlled Mosul in 2016. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan -- On the outskirts of this city in a country ravaged by the "Islamic State" (IS) extremist group, there is a 4-year-old girl who is locked in a battle of her own against leukemia.

    Fatima is the youngest daughter of 29-year-old Abdulazis Jamil Khader, and she lives with her family in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. Of her 13-member family, 10 are minors. Conditions are tough where they have evacuated due to the IS conflict, and they cannot quite cover their rent because Khader's employment is unstable.

    Fatima is small, and her hair has fallen out in patches due to her chemotherapy treatments. Her condition is unstable, and she is often hospitalized for high fevers. "I don't know what to do from here," her father sighed. Fatima's treatment is being paid for by a Japanese nonprofit organization, and that backstop is keeping the little girl alive. "I have one wish. I want her to overcome her illness somehow," said Khader.

    The family is from the city of Mosul, once IS's largest power center. Khader's father and other family members were caught in the fighting and killed. "We didn't have food or water, so we had no choice but to flee," he recalled. In October 2016, several dozen residents planned their escape from the IS-controlled city, but some were found and killed. When the Khader family finally arrived in Erbil, some 80 kilometers east of Mosul, Fatima was diagnosed with leukemia in 2017.

    "The five-year survival rate for children with leukemia in Japan is over 80 percent, but is drastically lower in Iraq. The situation remains unstable, so treatment hasn't been set up," explained a member of Japanese nonprofit Japan-Iraq Medical Network (JIM-NET)'s Erbil office who has been in charge of Fatima's case since January.

    On the days that Fatima goes to the hospital for chemotherapy, she resists the visit in tears, as nausea and other side effects are taking a toll on her. As the facility is public, the fees for the treatment and the medicine are in principle free of charge. However, as there is a chronic lack of the drugs in the country, her family often must pay to have them brought in out of their own pocket, and there is also the cost of the taxi to take the family to the hospital. The Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo-based JIM-NET has so far paid 50,000 yen of the family's bills.

    Khader has moved from one day labor job to the next, working in factories and other businesses. He had a job as a nighttime street cleaner, but that was only for two nights a week and paid a little over 1,000 yen per day. The work also dried up after only six months. At the time he talked with the Mainichi Shimbun in August 2018, Khader was unemployed and unable to cover either his children's school fees or his monthly rent of some 20,000 yen.

    While he is thankful for JIM-NET's financial support, he said, "I can't think about anything else but what we'll do in the future. I can't even sleep at night." Soon after, he did find work washing cars, but that did not change the fact that if he was not receiving aid from the nonprofit group, then Fatima would not be able to make it to the hospital.

    "Long-term treatment of child cancer is dependent on donations," explained JIM-NET executive director Maki Sato. "These people are refugees or have been displaced within their own countries. On top of that, they have to deal with the painful burden of battling cancer. I would like people to be aware of their circumstances."

    JIM-NET has held a "chocolate donations" event every winter since 2006. This year's tins filled with chocolate start from 2,200 yen for a set of four tins, which are decorated with dandelion designs drawn by children in Iraq and Syria. The proceeds from the chocolate will go to support efforts in Iraq, Syria and Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan.

    The tins can be ordered through the following online form in Japanese: Shipping is limited to domestic purchases.

    (Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Osaka City News Department)

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