Natural hair wigs give Egypt’s child sufferers new hope on World Cancer Day 2022

Dire need of wigs for children undergoing chemotherapy

Youstina Mounir categorises the donated hair into groups based on hair type. Hasan al-Nade/The National
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Ten year old Mariam Mohamed strides to school warm and proud, her new black, shoulder-length wig swinging with each step.

Her leukemia treatment had left her bald, depressed and cold during Egypt’s harsh winter as her family struggled to finance a natural wig to help her feel more normal.

“It was heart-shattering when she woke up to find lumps of her hair had fallen off on her pillow. It broke her just as much as the 10 doses of chemotherapy she had taken,” her mother Aziza Mohamed told The National.

In a country where a quarter of the population live below the poverty line, and average monthly salaries are around EGP3,660 ($233), many families of children fighting cancer cannot afford wigs made from natural hair, as those cost between 7,000 and 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($445 and $954).

As the numbers of children with cancer rise in the Arab world’s most populous country, and with limited numbers of wigs available, an urgent need for free or affordable wigs of natural hair has emerged. In recent years, several initiatives have taken on the task of filling this gap.

One such charitable initiative has given Mariam, a sociable girl, a much-needed confidence boost.

“This wig … it breathed hope and energy in her again. It looks so much like her hair. She’s dressing it up with bows and clips. And in this weather, it’s a saviour,” her mother said.

Cheaper alternatives to natural wigs

The alternative to natural-hair wigs in local markets are artificial ones that cost between 350 and 500 pounds. But these are synthetic and of poor quality, families say.

Hamdi, from the coastal city of Damietta, said he is reluctant to buy another artificial wig for his daughter, as the one he bought for 350 pounds was difficult to maintain and got ruined quickly.

“Although my daughter’s spirit is beaten because of her hair loss, she hated wearing that wig as it appeared clearly fake and she was mocked by her friends,” said Hamdi, who asked to be referred to by his first name only due to the sensitivity of the issue.

There’s a long waiting list of children dreaming of natural hair
Dina Sami

Having seen the impact a well-fitting natural wig can have on children during a 2015 visit to Egypt’s Children Cancer Hospital, one of the world’s largest paediatric oncology institutes, Youstina Mounir launched Hair Donation for Cancer Kids.

Leading by example, she cut half of the length of her own hair to make the first wig.

Transforming lives

“During my visit, I was moved by how natural wigs transformed children’s moods. I began with my own hair, cut half of it and then created a Facebook page for a campaign to provide free wigs of natural hair to those who can’t afford them,” Youstina said.

Within a year, she had gathered more than 100 donations of hair of varying lengths, types and colours. But donors need to be aware of the requirements.

“Donated hair needs to be clean, no less than 20cm in length, and tied from both ends,” the 31-year-old architect explained.

But as she started putting wigs together, she discovered that the cost of weaving one is about 5,000 pounds — a figure she could not afford. By bringing a wigmaker to join her team of four spanning Cairo, Alexandria and Beni Suef, and at a reduced rate of 500 pounds which is funded by donations, the initiative has been able to provide 150 wigs from about 800 donations of hair since 2015.

Antwan Safwat, another member of the initiative, said that between five and six braids of hair go into making one wig, and can take up to three days to complete. The wigmaker begins by threading the hair on a lace cap which is all kept together by a thread at the front.

More wigs needed

Dina Sami, head of the donations department at Egypt’s Children Cancer Hospital, commonly known as 57357 Hospital, said these good quality wigs “mean the world to recovering children”, but there is a massive dearth of them in comparison to the number of children admitted for treatment every year.

In 2020, 57357 Hospital offered treatment to 16,647 children, and admitted 3,356 new cases — that is 84 more cases than the year before.

The hospital received only 73 wigs last year, which were delivered by Youstina’s initiative in November. The hospital received only 50 wigs in 2020, half the donations of 2018 and 2019. There are other providers, but some have stopped supply due to Covid-19.

“Nowadays, we receive donations of wigs once or twice each year, which is not enough to meet the massive need. There’s a long waiting list of children dreaming of natural hair,” Ms Sami said.

Youstina's fourth call for donations is currently under way, she said, aiming to supply children fighting cancer at a hospital in her home town of Alexandria.

“During the phase of collecting donations, we have volunteer members who join our team temporarily to deliver donated hair from across the country,” she said.

Neveen Mohamed, a mother of two cancer patients including a 13-year-old, has been hunting for a year for a wig that resembles her daughter’s hair, but in vain. “The hair loss is so hard on my daughter to accept. We sought therapy in hopes it’ll restore a bit of herself. I’m praying that a wig that looks as beautiful as her hair once looked would save us,” she said.

This story was produced in collaboration with Egab

Updated: February 04, 2022, 8:23 AM