Skip to main content

Saving the World’s Most Vulnerable Children

St. Jude helps mobilize resources for young Syrian refugees with cancer.


By Keith Crabtree, PhD; Photos by Jere Parobek

In satellite images, the Middle East can look serene—fertile green vegetation along the coastlines; white, snow-capped peaks in the mountains; orange desert sand; the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. But natural beauty cannot hide the humanitarian crisis that besets this region.

Since 2011, images taken on the ground in Syria have been tragic—bombs exploding, smoke billowing, and the wrenching and all-too-familiar photographs of children suffering the consequences of those atrocities.

Millions of Syrians have fled their embattled homeland.

Soon after the war began, refugees started pouring across the border into Lebanon. Today, Lebanon has, per capita, more refugees than any other country in the world. With the war entering its eighth year, this migration continues to tax Lebanon’s strained resources.

“The number of refugees in Lebanon rapidly grew from 300,000 to over 1.5 million,” says Sima Jeha, MD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “That’s one-third of the population in Lebanon. “It would be like 100 million refugees coming to the U.S. over two years,” Jeha continues. “You can imagine how straining that would be to our infrastructure.”

Jeha, a leukemia expert who earned her medical degree at the American University of Beirut, works in the Oncology and Global Pediatric Medicine departments at St. Jude and directs St. Jude Global efforts in the region.

Sima Jeha, MD with patient

Offering hope and help

Sima Jeha, MD, of the St. Jude Oncology and Global Pediatric Medicine departments, directs St. Jude Global efforts in the East and Mediterranean Region.

Joining forces to save lives

Among the refugees entering Lebanon are children with cancer.

St. Jude founder Danny Thomas—the son of Lebanese immigrants—once said that “No child should die in the dawn of life.” That belief sustains the hospital’s mission today.

For the past 16 years, St. Jude has been helping improve cancer care for children in Lebanon through a partnership with the Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL) at the American University Beirut Medical Center. This partnership grew stronger in response to the humanitarian crisis.

Between 2011 and 2017, CCCL staff evaluated 575 displaced children for cancer. Of that number, 311 received treatment through the CCCL network. The remaining 264 patients received medical consultations, which included accurate diagnoses, treatment recommendations and referral details.

 A total of 159 patients have completed their treatment and remain in remission. The likelihood of treatment complications, premature treatment termination or missed appointments for follow-up care was comparable to patients who were not refugees.

We were able to save the lives of children who would have otherwise died just because they happen to have cancer when their families were displaced.

Sima Jeha, MD

A blueprint for success

When refugees began arriving in Lebanon, St. Jude and its fundraising and awareness organization, ALSAC, shared knowledge, resources and best practices in a coordinated approach. The CCCL and the medical center provided staff, medical infrastructure, funds and other support.

This international team demonstrated how treatment for childhood cancer can be delivered effectively in a crisis.

“If you have a network that includes everyone—from dedicated people on the ground to international oversight supporting the people on the ground—then you can effectively mobilize a network when there’s a disaster,” Jeha says.

She and her colleagues point to three lessons for the rest of the world about providing treatment for refugees with chronic medical conditions: establish networks before a crisis, re-examine priorities as needed, and mobilize advocates at the regional and international level. Results of the efforts were recently published in the journal Cancer.

“We were able to save the lives of children who would have otherwise died just because they happen to have cancer when their families were displaced,” Jeha says.

Raya Saab, MD examines a child

Peaceful haven in a world of strife

Raya Saab, MD, acting director of the Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon, examines a Syrian refugee who is undergoing cancer treatment at the center.

Reaching out to others

St. Jude and ALSAC are now working to develop a strategy to treat displaced children with cancer in Jordan. That country is second only to Lebanon in its per capita population of refugees.

Jeha plans to propose a wider network of care that includes not only Lebanon and Jordan, but also Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. The project involves public and private entities, including health care workers, social scientists, advocacy groups and international agencies, who work together and maximize the impact of ongoing efforts.

At times of crisis, Danny Thomas turned to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. With his prayers answered, Thomas kept his vow to build a shrine to St. Jude.

Today, that hospital continues to seek cures for life-threatening diseases in the U.S., the Middle East and around the world.


Donate Now Subscribe to Promise

More articles from this issue