You might think life couldn’t get any harder for children in Aleppo, Syria. But it can and it does.

Mouhammed is a young boy with cancer. He and his family pass their precious time together on the oncology ward of the University Hospital, the only hospital with a pediatric cancer ward in western Aleppo city. Mouhammed doesn’t know if the sporadic treatment he receives will ever work.

The ward is more than a place he comes to for care: the ward is what he, his mother and his little sister Azizah call home. Here in the hospital they sleep and eat together in one bed, side by side with other patients. Five-year-old Azizah spends her time wandering the corridors singing to anyone wishing to hear.
Eight-year-old Mouhammed was displaced from eastern Aleppo and now lives with his mother, father and three brothers in a collective shelter in the university camp of the city. ©UNICEF/Syria/2016/Al-Issa
Mouhammed has had cancer for five years and has only recently begun attending school. His mother has educated him at home and he excels in reading and writing. ©UNICEF/Syria/2016/Al-Issa

Their real home is in the northern town of Atareb, a 13-hour bus journey from the city. But that’s now gone. Four brothers left behind under the care of neighbours have lived in a tent since the family home was damaged beyond repair in an attack. They have no other relatives. The children’s father left home three years ago and never came back.

During Mouhammed’s first stay in hospital, escalating violence in and around Aleppo meant his mother could neither return to Atareb, nor bring her other children to the city. With nowhere to go, between treatments Mouhammed and his mother lived in a tent. Dire living conditions and poor hygiene caused his health to decline rapidly.
Five-year-old Leen is living with cancer in Aleppo. She finished her treatment last year and now comes to the hospital for checkups every month. ©UNICEF/Syria/2016/Al-Issa
After being displaced from his village in the southern part of rural Aleppo, 11-year-old Sultan now lives with his family in an open area near Hama. His mother accompanies him on the 13-hour trip to the hospital in Aleppo city while his eldest sister takes care of six other siblings back home. ©UNICEF/Syria/2016/Al-Issa

‘Endless challenges’

According to Dr. Hiba, head of oncology in Aleppo Hospital, Mouhammed’s situation is far from unusual. The choices for families facing cancer are stark.

Complications such as deteriorating healthcare, the unavailability of certain types of cancer treatments, shortages of money to pay for accommodation and other costs for parents narrow their options even further.“The challenges are endless. Families need a place to stay during treatment. Children need medicine and proper food. The hospital doesn’t provide them with enough food and their families can’t afford the medicines or a place to stay,” said the doctor.

Treatments that usually take two to three years are repeatedly interrupted by conflict. Sudden surges in violence, displacement and roadblocks all hamper access to the area’s only children’s hospital. For some children this means reaching the hospital too late.

Travelling to and from hospital presents huge risks for many families bringing children to be treated. Huda, the head nurse on the oncology ward, tells the story of one father who, faced with the prospect of taking his sick daughter on a dangerous journey back to his village, opted to live with her in a car for more than ten days for fear of  being unable to return for her next appointment.
The choices for families battling cancer in Syria are often stark. Challenges include deteriorating healthcare, damaged infrastructure, and a shortage of money to pay for expensive cancer drugs unavailable in public hospitals. University Hospital is one of only two hospitals operating in western Aleppo city treating patients from the city and its rural areas free of charge. It is the only hospital with a paediatric cancer ward. ©UNICEF/Syria/2016

Healing emotional pain

Psychosocial support has been critical for children living with cancer and their families.

Volunteers of the Syrian Red Arab Crescent (SARC) in partnership with UNICEF, make daily visits to the hospital. Children look forward to seeing the young people in red vests come into the ward and break the tedium of their stay. Nagham, a volunteer, says of her experience: “We come here every day in three shifts, we read stories for the children and we perform plays to amuse them.”

When a child dies, everyone on the ward shares their loss.

“The most difficult thing we face is when another child’s health starts to deteriorate because they have lost a friend,” adds Yasmin, another volunteer. “We have to work very hard to help get them out of this depression.”

Families are also given help. “Sometimes we see mothers collapsing in front of their children in despair. Support groups for mothers can help a lot in improving their awareness of how to treat their sick child and provide some comfort,” explains Fida Obaid, a Child Protection Officer with UNICEF.

Back on the ward, Dr. Hiba is clear where the problem lies. “As a result of sanctions we are not able to bring in drugs for children with cancer. We used to provide them for free but now there is only one children’s hospital in the Aleppo Governorate that can provide treatment without charge,” he explains.

“The only other place to get hold of medication is the black market, and most families can’t afford the high prices. Children are left as a result without treatment and are unlikely to recover.”
Between treatments, children have to make way for others. With nowhere to go, families live wherever they can. Some live in tents, others in cars. Dire living conditions and poor hygiene present grave risks to their health. ©UNICEF/Syria/2016

Help UNICEF reach children in crisis

The war in Syria has dealt a brutal blow to children already facing a profound struggle with cancer and it continues to impact millions more. Relentless attacks have destroyed children's homes, their schools and their very childhoods. Can you make an urgent donation to keep our teams on the ground providing life-saving support to children? 90 cents from every dollar donated to the emergency appeal will go directly to UNICEF's response for children.  

UNICEF is delivering emergency aid on massive scale. In 2016, we've worked with partners across the region to:

  • Deliver up to 1.5 billion litres of water and more than 4 million litres of fuel to children and families in Aleppo alone
  • Vaccinate over 21 million children against polio
  • Reach 1.3 million people with hygiene supplies and resources
  • Enrol 680,732 children in formal education and another 365,167 in informal learning programmes
  • Keep 822,793 children safe in child-friendly spaces where they can access the psychosocial support they need to cope and recover from the profound stress of violence

We're delivering to millions of children across the Syria but our teams and supplies are at breaking point. For too many children, time is simply running out. Please make an emergency donation today.

UNICEF relies on donations from individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. We don't receive any funding from the UN. 90 cents from every dollar donated with our emergency appeal will go directly to our work for children impacted by the Syrian crisis.


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