Tea with FT Middle East
On June 11, 2012, Ms. Monavar Khalaj from Financial Times had an interview with Mrs. Saideh ghods, MAHAK founder. Mrs. Saideh Ghods whose experience of having a child with cancer led to creation of MAHAK ‘ The society to support children suffering from cancer’ in 1991, explains in detail that how MAHAK as one of the successful Iranian charities began its life in a basement, with a handful of volunteers twenty years ago. In this interview, She explains the pain and experience that went through in order to establish MAHAK as a non-governmental and nonprofit organization.
Here you can read more about this interview.
Tea with FT Middle East: Saideh Ghods
By Monavar Khalaj in Tehran
Twenty years ago, Iran’s most successful charity began its life in a basement, with a handful of volunteers and a budget that would barely cover a single expensive meal in the Tehran of 2012.
Today, with about $50m in turnover and a team of thousands, its founder, Saideh Ghods, can still remember the pain and heartbreak that led to its creation. It was an experience, she says, that “changed the path of my life for ever.”
Mrs Ghods, 60, has a gentle look and soft-spoken manner but such impressions belie the strength of character that led her to achieve something remarkable. Mahak, the charity she founded to support children suffering from cancer, has been instrumental in defining Iranian civil society over the past two decades and in setting an example for citizenship, particularly among the country’s ambitious and educated women.
The foundation’s beginnings came in a “devastating flood” of emotion. On a wintry day in 1988, her daughter Kiana was diagnosed with cancer. She was just two years old.
“It was the first time in my life I could not do anything but accept my fate,” Mrs Ghods recalls, from her book-lined home in a well-to-do suburb of Tehran. “When I took my daughter for treatment I saw how simple-minded I was, that I didn’t see so many things that were going on around me. A new window opened in my life,” she says.
“As a girl I had passed that hospital every single day of my life but I had never thought what was happening behind the walls,” she says. “I felt ashamed of my ignorance.”
While taking her daughter for treatment, she would come into contact with rural mothers from the poorest corners of Iran. As a well-educated urban woman from a well-to-do family, it was a revelatory experience, opening her eyes to the lives of the less fortunate, who were struggling to afford to live with the burden of a sick child.
As her daughter’s treatment proved successful, Mrs Ghods began to look for ways to help the mothers coming to Tehran from across the country. They needed treatment for their children but often had no place to live, no medical insurance, and little money.
“I felt like now that I knew the pain, I couldn’t pass by it indifferently,” she says. The idea gradually emerged to set up a group of volunteers who would support the families who were facing the nightmare she had faced but without the resources she was lucky enough to have.
Less than 10 legalised charities existed in Iran at the time and the concept of a non-governmental organisation was almost unheard of.
Mrs Ghods and her team of 20 volunteers, including paediatric oncologists, their wives, and her close relatives, started their work in 1989. From informal beginnings, she always wanted to build a formal institute, whose work was legal and transparent, supported entirely by the generosity of Iranians.
In 1991, Mahak was officially opened, from a rented office in a 90 square metre basement in a suburb north of the capital. The budget in that first year was 1m Iranian rials, or about $82. In 1992, the organisation had its first charity market, which was welcomed enthusiastically, and 1,000 new members joined. Today, it has a staff of 400 and more than 2,300 active volunteers.
When [Iranians] trust you, the biggest miracles are possible
- Saideh Ghods, founder of Mahak-
Its social workers and support staff are now based in Tehran’s 10 major hospitals, helping families in need of financial assistance, advice and treatment. Its work has remained limited to the capital but the organisation encourages similar charities to be set up in cities across the country. And its role in society, Mrs Ghods says, goes beyond its work with the sick and their families.
“What we have done is to give hope to people who want to assist their fellow human beings,” she says. “When they see a bunch of regular people, who started from a basement and now have an entity with $50m in turnover, they believe that they can do it too.”
While it has become one of the country’s best-known charities, Mahak has insisted on remaining completely reliant on donations from the public. Although thankful for official co-operation, Mrs Ghods says she does not want to see the charity “cling” to the government.
The success of its fundraising ability was marked most notably in 2007, when Mahak opened its own 120-bed paediatric hospital. Today, in addition to free treatment and social support, it covers transport and education expenses for families and their children, and operates two boarding houses to accommodate families heading into Tehran from remote areas.
For Mrs Ghods, the flourishing of the foundation has accompanied good fortune closer to home. Her daughter Kiana made a full recovery from her brush with childhood cancer and will soon commence studies for an MBA at Stanford University in the United States. Outside her work with Mahak, Mrs Ghods’ novel, Kimia Khatoun, set in the world of Rumi, the Persian poet , has been republished 24 times since its release in 2004.
More than 17,500 children have been cared for by the society, including 10,000 who are still having treatment. Mrs Ghods believes that is a reflection of her country and people, who remain generous despite growing hardships.
“Iranians are one of the most generous people,” she says. “When they trust you, the biggest miracles are possible.”