Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the last 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
The day the doctor told Saeedeh Qods that her two-year-old daughter Kiana had kidney cancer, her world was turned upside down.
But somehow, out of the ashes of one of the bitterest days of her life in the late 1980s, Qods found the strength to become one of the most important women social entrepreneurs in the world today. She established Makak, a Tehran-based NGO supporting youngsters sick with cancer which in the 30 years since its foundation has reached tens of thousands of children across the globe. It also runs the Mahak Hospital and Rehabilitation Complex: the biggest and best-equipped pediatric cancer hospital in Iran and the Middle East.
The Day a Mother's World Stood Still
Born in 1951 in Golabdareh, Tehran, Saeedeh Qods was the eldest of five children. Her father was a school headmaster of a school and died when she was just 19 years old. Following the tragedy, the young Saeedeh took care of her family in his stead alongside her mother. She would later study geography at university and on graduating, became an expert in budget and planning in the tobacco industry, and later worked in international relations at Iran’s Ministry of Industry.
Qods was 23 when she met her husband, who worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After their marriage they traveled to Pakistan and then moved to Germany, where Qods began to study sociology. Their son, Mahyad, was born in 1978.
On her return to Iran in 1981, Qods began to work again. But after her daughter Kiana was born in 1985, she resigned and devoted her life to bringing up her children.
Kiana was two years old when in the course of a routine medical examination, a pediatrician discovered a tumor in her kidney. For any parent the news would have been horrifying – to say nothing of one already deeply preoccupied by her children’s nutrition and health. Her daughter’s fraught and painful journey to recovery would prove to be a turning point in Qods’s life.
Noticing the Gaps in Iran's Hospital Provision for Sick Children
Kiana’s treatment began in Iran. According to Qods, because of the nature and spread of the disease, they could not afford to wait for travel documents to seek medical help overseas. Kiana’s stay in an Iranian children’s hospital led Qods to realise the suffering of other children with cancer and their families, many of whom – namely those who could not afford the medical care costs – were left out in the cold by the hospital. She heard the sobs of sick youngsters in need of treatment, and witnessed the tears of their desperate parents.
Qods began to contemplate ways to change this. “In the beginning,” she has since recalled, “I tried to help in any way I could: I’d give them money or anything else they needed. Many families came from other towns to hospitalize their child, without anywhere to stay, so I found them a place... until Kiana’s chemotherapy was over and we took her abroad for a checkup.”
In Germany, Qods noticed something that sparked the eventual idea of founding the Mahak institute: there, treatment of children with cancer was almost completely free at the point of care, and paid for by various social institutions. There were special hospitals which provided such services to these children. They had playrooms, friendly staff and social workers who could support the children’s mental wellbeing.
Qods also realized that parents were being supported through the process, especially those who had become very vulnerable themselves as the result of their child’s condition. She became acquainted with the House of Mothers Association, where the families of children with cancer could learn how to cope with problems they faced while they children were being treated.
Eventually in 1989, Qods returned to Iran with a healthy girl and a different outlook. Around the time the doctors told her that Kiana’s cancer had been eradicated and was in remission, she had made up her mind to create a charity to support children with cancer.
Mahak: Changing the Landscape of Children's Cancer Care
Qods spoke to Kiana’s doctors and those she knew had the financial resources. She began the preliminary preparations for registering the first Iranian support centre of its kind. The project was initiated with the support of 20 volunteer families, working together under the name “Mahak”.
In the beginning the group met up at each other’s homes but finally in 2000, Mahak was born in one of the doctors’ rooms at Tehran Clinic Hospital. Its logo bore a leaf, symbolizing life, and the silhouette of a family. Qods became the CEO and worked hard to publicize its work and attract donations.
Mahak’s early fundraising activities included concerts, exhibitions, money box distributions and membership sign-ups. The membership fee was initially just 200 tomans a month. Nevertheless, it proved a struggle to recruit people as many people were not familiar with the complexities of childhood cancer. Informing society about this disease and its social and individual consequences therefore became one of the first core activities of Mahak.
The first of Mahak’s charity markets was held at Eskan Towers in Tehran with the help of one of its members who lived in the residential complex. At the second of these events, Qods recalls, Mahak raised 30 million tomans. These markets also brought in hundreds of new members and supporters.
Saeedeh Qods and her companions at Mahak were well-acquainted with the needs of families of children with cancer. The most important were the provision of medicine, having a place to live, being treated with respect by medical staff and having enough information about the disease and the side-effects of treatment.
Mahak also positioned itself as a center for social workers within state university hospitals. Finding affected families a place to live was one of its most important concerns and eventually, through the efforts and persistence of its members, this need was finally, permanently fulfilled. After sustained meetings with the group, Tehran Municipality provided a four-storey building in Tehran Vila Street to accommodate the families of children receiving treatment.
Qods later bought a 4,400 square meter plot of land in Darabad, north-eastern Tehran, from the income generated by the charity markets. The initial plan was to build another accommodation site. But with the assistance of hospital chiefs, Mahak was able to realize a much more ambitious plan: an 18,000 sq m, 120-bed specialized hospital, which opened in 2009 and soon became the region’s premier center for the treatment of under-16s with cancer.
Most importantly, if a child came from a low-income family, the services provided by the Mahak Hospital and Rehabilitation Complex were free of charge.
To date the institution has treated more than 22,000 children with cancer and supported their families, saving the lives of many children. Qods herself has also gone on to write a book and won dozens of awards for her own efforts and those of the charity. In 2008, Qods was ranked 45th in the tThis was achieved with the efforts of a woman who apart from writing a few books, including Kimia Khatun and winning dozens awards for her own efforts and her charity institute, was ranked 45th in Wall Street Journal’s 2008 Women to Watch ranking.
The charity has gone on to become a household name overseas. However, neither the pre-eminence Mahak has gained, nor the numerous awards, make Qods as happy as seeing a child become cancer-free under the care of her institution. In one of her interviews, she has also said: “I still have a few other wishes.”
One of these is to write her second book, which she has not yet completed due to her time-consuming work at Mahak. The other is to build a special hospital for breast cancer patients. The third is to launch a new initiative to educate people about the plastic waste that destroys the world’s forests, mountains and seas.
The story of Saeedeh Qods is the story of a woman who turned one of the darkest hours of her life into a shining source of goodness – one that has brought comfort to tens of thousands of sick children and their families, in Iran and the world over.
Read other articles in this series: