In Sulaymaniyah, a former cigarette factory in the centre of the northern Iraqi Kurdish city, Sulaymaniyah, has been – somewhat ironically – transformed into a weekly market where volunteers raise funds for the treatment of local cancer patients.
The market, which opens daily from the early evening until about 2am and which is supported by over 35 local businesses and cultural organizations, has been created to raise funds for Hiwa Hospital, where they specialize in cancer treatment. It is one of largest specialist facilities in Iraq.
“I was always trying to think of ways of helping the hospital,” says Rizan Nadir, the prime mover behind the charity market, who also worked at Hiwa Hospital for two years. “It needs US$80 million every year to provide good services.”
There is funding allocated to the hospital by the Iraqi Kurdish government. However, due to the financial and security crises, and the budget disagreements, between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad, the hospital is dealing with a shortfall.
“Treating cancer is one of the most expensive types of medicine,” says Sarmand Khalil, the hospital’s spokesperson. “In the past the region’s government used to provide the hospital with supplies. But there’s a lack of liquidity and a financial crisis, so government donations are no longer enough. We won’t be able to provide the same level of services if this continues.”
The cost of treating one patient can be anything between US$60,000 and US$20,000, depending on the type of cancer. There is some good news though, Khalil says: In terms of cancer sufferers in Iraqi Kurdistan, the numbers are actually low by international standards.
Over the past three years the hospital has been supported by a variety of locals, including celebrities, businesspeople and civil society organizations. Nadir says her volunteer group, which includes many students, is simply the latest effort.
“Activities like this play a big role in bringing people closer,” says Khabat Marouf, another of the organisers behind the new cultural centre in the cigarette factory. “It’s vital that everyone supports this kind of activity.”
Some of the fund raising stories have certainly caught the public’s interest. In April 2015, one university student organized to spend his graduation day with cancer patients at the hospital. One young couple, the children of two well-off Iraqi Kurdish businesspeople, donated what would have been the cost of their wedding – US$200,000 - to the cancer patients’ fund
“As journalists, we’re supporting this project because you never know, one day we might need a hospital like this,” says Shalaw Qaradaghi, the marketing manager at local youth-oriented radio station, XFM. The radio station has also supported the charity market’s campaign by running advertising and donating funds.
Donations to cancer patients are nothing novel in Iraqi Kurdistan. But this year this type of campaign seemed to get a lot more attention, most likely because local clerics and religious scholars got involved, issuing an edict that believers should contribute to a fund for cancer patients during the month of Ramadan.
“When we visited Hiwa Hospital we realised that many of the patients there were on low incomes. They can’t get to hospitals outside the Kurdish area for treatment,” Mohammed Abdullah Panjwani, one of the local clerics responsible for issuing the edict, says. “Saving lives is both a religious and a humanitarian responsibility – which is why we asked people to donate.”