In Palestine, cancer is the second most prevalent cause of death, claiming the lives of nearly 14 percent of the country’s population. Further, 59.1 percent of cancer cases are common amongst individuals between 15 to 64 years of age, 35.7 percent of cases are amongst those over 65 years. And finally 5.2 percent for children under 15 years old.
While for many of us, these statistics are just numbers, for mother of three, Bayan Shraiteh, it became a reality when her son was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two and a half. To help raise awareness, Shraiteh decided to humanize the struggles thousands of children face with her new book Zezo and the Super Heroes. MENACatalyst reached out to Shraiteh to learn more about her inspiring new book and growing publishing company.
What is the story Zezo and the Super Heroes about?
The book takes us through the daily life of the title character Zezo. Zezo, a child battling cancer, doesn’t let his life-threatening illness get the best of him. Instead, with the support of his family, friends, and community, he finds the strength to stay positive, embrace life, and become a hero in his own right as he fights against cancer. And to keep children engaged, I wrote the book in free verse, using simple words that convey the emotional depth of the subject.
I wrote the story with the support of specialists in childhood care and trauma, art therapists, and editors. And we were lucky enough to have award-winning artist, Ali Zeini, work on our illustrations. The story is available in both English and Arabic.
What motivated you to write this story?
My son, Yazen, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just two-and-a-half years old. And it just shook my world. I have three kids and work part-time on my publishing project, Toota, Toota, Tell Me a Story, so I live a pretty hectic life. But when that diagnosis came through, I knew everything would change. From that point on, I prioritized my son’s treatment while caring for my other children and balancing everything else. But we were lucky enough to have the support of family and friends to see us through this tough time.
My son would become very anxious before going to the hospital because he was still too young to understand why.
Based on this experience, as well as my time volunteering at our city’s hospital cancer unit with the local organization, Nabd Al Haya, in East Jerusalem, I noticed how both the doctors and nurses would always try to connect with the kids to ease their anxiety, so they would read the children books, or tell them stories.
However, it wasn’t in Arabic, and the children were not connecting or engaged. The stories were also not very child-friendly and just focused on everything that scared them the most about being in the hospital, like medicine, shots, treatments.
At this point, I knew I needed to do something, so I decided to write a book that would help my son, as well as the other kids, see themselves in a positive light, as heroes, not just patients. The book focuses on their state of mind because sometimes we can forget that our emotional state and spirit also needs to be uplifted.
What is the main take away from your experience?
Many, if not most families, have someone suffering from cancer. And unfortunately, because of a lack of awareness and understanding, our communities typically feel pity for cancer patients and their families. As a mother with a child battling cancer, I can say with experience that this is one thing that we don’t need. Cancer patients and their families don’t want people feeling sorry for them, and they don’t want people treating them differently or isolating them.
With Zezo and the Super Heroes, I want to help raise awareness and change these outdated attitudes so that we can become a stronger, more united community, rather than singling each other out because of an illness.
The story allowed me to share my journey, finding compassion, strength, and hope even in the most difficult of times. And I hope the children and families reading this story will carry this message with them as well.
What is the impact that you are working to achieve with this story?
I hope that people learn the importance of approaching things with strength, positivity, and compassion. And above all, I also think it is important that we learn to accept each other and recognize the humanity in one another.
It isn't easy for a child who's diagnosed with cancer. It is a scary and painful experience. They have to go through a lot of changes that can be difficult for a grown adult, let alone a child, and we have to help them find the tools to express themselves. So we need to show them all the support, compassion, and love that we can.
How are you getting this story out there?
I am self-publishing this story through my small company, Totah Totah Tell Me a Story, which was established in 2018. We produce educational and interactive media for children ages four to twelve. Through the company, we are building partnerships with schools and local organizations that are working within the field of childhood education and development.
To learn more about Shraiteh's publishing company, visit: https://www.facebook.com/توتة-توتة-احكيلي-الحدوتة-173974880131643/
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