A journey of hope that Canada sent around the world

Terry Fox's dream gets a second wind in Syria

Taim Laham remembers her first Terry Fox Run, she was only two years old and it was on her father's shoulders.

Today, the 16-year-old brunette is a true veteran of the Marathon of Hope and she is already looking forward to her 14th participation come September.

Just over 2,000 Syrians took part in the annual Terry Fox Marathon of Hope in Damascus last year. Another 1,000 or so participated in other Syrian cities. (Photo courtesy Syrian Medical Research Society)

Last year, Laham even tried to get a sense of what Terry's marathon would have felt like with an artificial leg. She tried to walk for 5 minutes on one foot.

"It was difficult, so I switched back to two feet" Laham says, "but I wanted to feel what he felt, I also wanted to revive what he was doing and repeat his actions."

Most Canadians are well aware of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope, that annual testament to the courage of the 22-year-old cancer patient who, in 1980, attempted to run across Canada as an inspiration to others.

What they may not realize is that Fox's legacy has now spread around the world, to 29 different nations at last count, including such unlikely places as here in Syria, a country we tend to hear about only when news from the Middle East is at its darkest.

Taim Laham is one of the approximately 3,200 Syrians who, last year, put on their running shoes and their T-shirts with the image of the Canadian hero on the front and take to the streets of Damascus.

For an entire morning, they would run the seven-kilometre distance on one of Damascus' busiest highways — set aside for the event — to raise money for cancer research.

Oussayma Canbarieh (Courtesy Oussayma Canbarieh)

Oussayma Canbarieh is a Canadian journalist born in Syria and raised in Montreal. She has worked for Radio Canada International and was recently in the Middle East covering stories about its culture and people.

Growing popularity

When the Canadian Embassy in Damascus started this initiative in 1992 — 11 years after the first Terry Fox run in Canada — only 35 people took part.

But as the years passed by, the event grew in popularity and became one of the most important fund raising events in Syria, a country where cancer has only recently come out into the open.

The run itself grew to the point that it became logistically overwhelming for the embassy to manage.

So, in 2000, the torch was passed to the Syrian Medical Research Society, a local non-governmental organisation that raises funds for cancer research.

Last year, the Terry Fox Run here raised around $25,000, which is a significant amount for Syria.

Until fairly recently, Syrians with handicaps did not appear much in public. But medical officials credit the Terry Fox run with opening the doors to more people. (Courtesy Syrian Medical Research Society)

With that money, the Syrian Medical Research Society is putting together a cancer registry to keep track of cancer cases in the country so it can better address the issue.  

It is also starting a support group for breast cancer victims and survivors to provide them with moral and emotional assistance, and to create awareness about the disease so more women will come forward earlier for treatment.

"Twenty years ago, the word cancer was taboo in Syria and people didn't like to mention it," says Marwan Midani, the president of the Syrian Medical Research Society.

"But today, we are OK to write it on our billboards and we are hoping this will change even more with the new generation."

A lack of awareness

Lung cancer is the most common form of the disease in Syria today, a result of the pollution that engulfs many cities and the fact that so many Syrians smoke, starting at an early age.

There are no rules preventing people from smoking indoors, so second hand smoke is a problem. So is the hookah. The water pipe is "deeply rooted in the Syrian culture and many people think of it as harmless because it has a sweet smell and a good taste," says Midani.

The Terry Fox Run

Terry Fox's goal was to raise $1 for cancer research for every person in Canada, which in 1981, the year he passed away, would have meant $24 million.

The first Terry Fox Run in 1981 attracted 300,000 participants across Canada and raised $3.5 million.

As of 2008, more than $400 million has been raised in Terry's name.

Last year, 2.6 million people in 29 countries outside Canada participated in Terry Fox runs, raising $2.3 million.

The runs are usually held in September, commemorating the September day in 1980 when Terry was forced to stop running near Thunder Bay, Ont., after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres, because of a recurrence of cancer in his lungs. He passed away the following June at age 22.

Source: Terry Fox Foundation  

But this and other lifestyle issues, like the fact that Syria has adopted a more fatty, Western diet is just underlining the need to raise awareness about disease and what can be done to help.

Breast cancer is a case in point.   According to the Medical Research Society, one woman in three will be diagnosed with breast cancer, a number that doesn't include the many cases that go undiagnosed.

"There is a big resistance for women to talk about having cancer," Midani says. "Many fear for their daughters not getting married. They think if the man who is marrying their daughter finds out that the mother has cancer, the daughter may have it as well, which may represent a burden."

As a result, many women suffer in silence and those who do seek treatment tend to only do so when their cancer is at an advanced stage.

Anissa Halabi, a woman in her 40s who lives in a suburb of Damascus, remembers her mother who passed away from breast cancer 10 years ago. Halabi only found out about her mother's state a month before she died.

"She didn't want people to know she was ill," Halabi says. "She went to Paris for treatments without telling the family and everyone was shocked to find out that she had cancer."

Terry's legacy

The vast majority of Syrians didn't know who Terry Fox was when this event was first run.

But as they learned his story through the pre-marathon TV ads and by watching movies that depicted his life, they quickly became excited to join in and help the cause Terry fought for.

A section of Damascus's main highway is closed off for the annual Terry Fox Run. (Courtesy Syrian Medical Research Society)

"Families come with strollers, kids on their bikes, and dozens of buses filled with students come from different parts of the city," Midani says. "Even physically disabled people and those with visual impairments participate."  

Indeed, the Terry Fox Run has become so popular in Damascus that there is now a second run in Aleppo, another large Syrian city.

Many Syrians take pride in participating in this marathon. Taim Laham, for example, has great admiration for Terry Fox. "I consider him a hero," she says, "and having this run in Syria tells the world that we care and that his message is still alive."