x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Surviving cancer and even thriving, thanks to Dubai initiative

The Life: Pure Hearts 4 Cancer, based in Dubai, is an organisation that finds companies willing to add patients who have suffered with cancer to their payrolls.

Leena Maghgobali, at work in Aramex's call centre, is a cancer survivor who secured her job through Pure Hearts 4 Cancer. Antonie Robertson / The National
Leena Maghgobali, at work in Aramex's call centre, is a cancer survivor who secured her job through Pure Hearts 4 Cancer. Antonie Robertson / The National

Leena Mahgobali is used to people staring at her. All her life, the Sudanese has put up with odd looks, people avoiding her, and on occasion, jeers.

Why? Because she has just one eye.

When she was four years old, Ms Mahgobali was diagnosed with cancer of the eye, which led to her whole eye being removed from the socket. She underwent intensive radiation therapy and was later fitted with a glass eye.

But while the scars of her ordeal healed, Ms Mahgobali, 30, was left with the legacy of being a cancer survivor.

"As a little girl, I had to put up with children taunting me," she says of her school days in Khartoum. "I suppose I looked strange to them. Even adults used to stop and stare. You have to have patience with people because their ignorance is based on fear and lack of understanding."

Her troubles also affected her career. After studying geology at university she struggled to secure a job, eventually becoming a volunteer for a water conservation programme in Sudan. But she still needed to make a living. Last year, during a visit to her sister who lives in Dubai, she heard about Pure Hearts 4 Cancer, an initiative that helps cancer survivors return to work.

"My sister was watching TV one night and saw the founder Rania Amer being interviewed," says Ms Mahgobali.

More than a year later and Ms Mahgobali is now living in the UAE and working for Aramex in its customer care call centre. She secured the job directly as a result of a job fair organised by the newly founded Pure Hearts in February of last year.

"I'm indebted to the organisation," she says. "If it were not for them, I would not be working and living in Dubai today."

Ms Amer is a Canadian-Egyptian, 34, who has lived in Dubai for the past five years and works full-time for a media company as a brand management business associate.

As Ms Amer's mother suffered from breast cancer, she wanted to help others affected by the condition. She founded Pure Hearts along with three other women to help cancer survivors find employment following illness.

"We wanted to do something different," Ms Amer says. "We did extensive research on the subject. We found many cancer survivors have difficulty finding a job once they're cured due to prejudice about the illness from employers."

The four women contacted hospitals in Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Health Authority, helping them gain access to a database of cancer survivors in the UAE. Then they asked cancer victims to forward their CVs and approached employers. "Generally the response has been good," says Ms Amer.

"Most companies are aware of the need to give back to the community. Although some would not entertain the idea, or denied us access to the right people.

"In particular we came up against barriers with a number of big pharmaceutical companies.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about cancer out there and particularly in this part of the world," she adds. "I remember one person in a company saying to me: 'Why would I hire someone who is going to die in six months?'" Pure Hearts has so far organised two job fairs in Dubai. Both events led to a number of cancer survivors being hired as a result.

Among the employers attending was Aramex. The company had been invited to participate in the scheme and immediately accepted because managers saw it as part of the company's corporate social responsibility, says the UAE general manager, Hussein Wehbe.

"As a company, we try to leave a positive impact on the community in whatever country we're in," he says. "What's more, we were aware that cancer survivors were suffering in the job market because employers wouldn't give them a chance."

He says Ms Mahgobali has taken to the job like any other employee and is treated as such.

"We do not give cancer survivors preferential treatment," he says. "However, we will be flexible with their working hours from time to time if necessary."

So far, Ms Mahgobali is the only Pure Hearts survivor hired by Aramex but the company is open to hiring others. Mr Wehbe says other firms should also participate.

"We're ready to give any feedback necessary to encourage them," he adds.