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Helping Lebanon's very sick kids get an education

By Rima Maktabi, CNN
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Schooling Lebanon's cancer kids
  • Mireille Nassif started an NGO after her son died from cancer in 2009
  • myschoolpulse helps children in Lebanon continue their studies while fighting cancer
  • Mireille learned from her son that sick kids love schooling
  • NGO can only help 20 percent of kids because private tutors are expensive

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- On Christmas Eve 2008 12-year-old Paul Yared started counting his days. Medical tests had revealed a vicious form of bone cancer that transformed the Lebanese boy's life in London from going to school and playing to dealing with chemotherapy and pain.

A few months later, Paul gave up his fight with the disease and died, leaving behind his mother, Mireille Nassif, who was determined to continue fighting the disease her own way.

In memory of her son, Mireille founded myschoolpulse, a non-governmental organization that gives children in Lebanon with life-threatening diseases the chance to continue studying during their treatment.

"My son's absence is very difficult," Mireille told CNN with a sad smile. "So, I had this need [to do] something for my boy."

Mireille took it upon herself to bring the classroom to hospitals, helping every child with cancer being treated continue their education even if they cannot afford it financially.

One thing my boy was telling me was 'Mom, you know I will be very happy on my first day of school.'
--Mireille Nassif, founder of myschoolpulse
  • Cancer
  • Chemotherapy
  • Children's Health
  • Education
  • Lebanon
  • Middle East
  • London

Her experiences in hospital while Paul was being treated made Mireille realize that kids love going to school: "One thing my boy was telling me was, 'Mom, you know I will be very happy on my first day of school. My other classmates will not understand how happy I will be to go back to school,'" she said.

So, Mireille put her heart and mind into raising funds for myschoolpulse. She launched a website, and organized a 5k race in Lebanon's mountains to commemorate her son's death. At the same time, friends in the U.S. organized a similar 5k race in New York to raise money.

They made $150,000, but this money can only help 20 percent of children with cancer in Lebanon because private tutoring is expensive.

There are between 280 and 300 people under-19 who get cancer each year, according to the Lebanese National Cancer registry.

Survival rates for pediatric cancer in developed countries are around 80 percent and initial data points to similar success rates in Lebanon, which has not had specialized cancer centers for as long, Dr. Miguel Abboud of the Cancer Center for Children told CNN.

"Most of these kids are going to make it," said Abboud. "Many cancer victims can have problems later on in life, going on to university and other things ... having risk-taking behaviors.

"It is important to keep them grounded in a well-structured environment and education is a huge part of that. It is also meaningful to them as people because it gives them a sense of achievement."

Although there are teachers who volunteer scholastic assistance to kids with cancer at the Cancer Center, a lot more effort is needed for other hospitals and sick children in Lebanon, said Abboud.

The financial crisis has made donations scarce in the past years and more funds are needed to heal the children as well as maintain their education, he added.

One child battling cancer at the center who is being helped by myschoolpulse is 10-year-old Kholoud. She is receiving chemotherapy through an IV in her hand. She told CNN she gets very tired for two days after she has treatment, but as soon as she recovers she goes back to school and catches up on the the studies she has missed.

"I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I want to help other people," she said.

It is kids like Kholoud that myschoolpulse hopes to help achieve their educational dreams and plans, although it is too soon to talk about success stories from this program as it has just started in Lebanon.

Schooling will not stop the disease but the positive effect will help these children by giving them something to look forward to, Mireille said. It's "important not only to cure their disease, but also cure their soul," added Abboud.