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Volley for a Cause aims to raise awareness Feel proud to be a cancer survivor

 “If I can make one person change, I can change a lot of people. If one person sees me now and says ‘okay, she did it, I can do it too’ that’s just enough for me. I’m sick of being a person that’s inside this box and doesn’t want to talk about this. No, I want to talk. I want people to support this cause because otherwise it can’t grow. Even if I have the passion to push for it, this will never grow without people’s support.”

The immeasurable passion Shoug Al Othman conveys when she talks about raising awareness about all types of cancer in Kuwait is clear every time she talks about Volley for a Cause, her campaign to educate and collect donations for cancer research. At 19, she was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an illness that has a 65 percent rate of surviving past 5 years. A survivor, Al Othman has taken her experiences with battling lymphoma and invested them in campaigning for awareness around Kuwait to prevent the same happening to others.

Question: What is Volley for a Cause?
Answer: I started Volley for a Cause for a lot of reasons but one of them was I wanted to increase the awareness in Kuwait regarding cancer. I felt that the country lacked such awareness since we only know of one cancer, which is breast cancer that we associate with the pink ribbon. Unfortunately, although we have different types of cancers, many of which life threatening, the only one with such extreme coverage so far has been breast cancer. So, it just became a thought that I had in mind for a long time. I was waiting for the right opportunity to start it and since it’s Ramadan and the spirit of charity is part of that, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to start Volley for a Cause. I started it just four weeks ago. I got it together very quickly thanks to my cousin, Munirah. She helped me a lot with the Instagram account. She was basically my design coordinator in everything, so without her I couldn’t have done it.

Q: Why volleyball?
A: The reason why I decided on volleyball is because I like the sport and the sport consists of six players; I felt that I had six important people in my life to help me survive and without the support of these people I wouldn’t have done it. I think the cause required a team sport because it’s where you feel connected. With cancer especially, you can’t do it by yourself. You have to do it with a group of people, so it’s quite symbolic.

Q: How did you get people talking about it?
A: I first asked a couple of people that I know that are interested in volleyball through direct messages and I asked them that if there was a volleyball tournament, you know ‘would  you be interested?’ and when I found they are interested I started it just like that. At first I thought it would be very easy because I thought ‘okay, I will just going to do a tournament, I’ll gather people, that’s it.’ I didn’t know that it required a lot of things since it is a nonprofit event. I had to do everything for charity, so I needed sponsors. This was the tricky part but I actually went to GUST (Gulf University for Science and Technology) one day and they approved my request to rent a court out for the volleyball tournament immediately. I didn’t even require a meeting with anyone, I just had my proposal and that’s it. I don’t know how this came to me, but I thank God first because I know that for a lot of people this would have been a hassle. Then I gathered my friends to volunteer; we have already a group of people, we’re called Al Ihsan, and as a group we are called Ihsani. We distribute food for Muslims in the airport. They’re donations from a lot of people in Kuwait but it’s us that distributes them. We usually do it during Ramadan, so I took the same group and asked them to be volunteers.

Q: How did you get sponsors?
A: I got sponsorship from my cousins here from Urban Café. They sponsored me with the chocolates I gave to the teams; once a team registered, they were given a box of chocolates. They also gave me a spot [in the café] for me to use when waiting for the teams to come and register. There was also poffertjies. They sponsored the event and brought to the actual event their mini pancakes. The other sponsorship was from GUST of course. This whole thing came together in less than a month. It was in my mind but I never planned it and it just happened like that. I just opened the instagram account literally one week before the tournament.

Q: You’ve just done your first tournament. How did it go?
A: I think it went well. As a start I really liked it, I liked the energy, the people that joined, the feedback that I got from the audience, and the feedback I got from the teams that joined. I did the women’s tournament first and  I set the men’s  up because the minute that I posted everything on Instagram I had people asking ‘why don’t you do a male tournament?’ but I was waiting to see the impact of the women’s tournament and the feedback I would get before I started anything.

A: We picked eight teams because of the time constrain. I wanted 16 teams initially, and I wanted to do it based on groups. Basically I wanted to follow the format of the World Cup where the groups play off against each other to get to the second stage and then if they win they move on, if they lose they’re out. I couldn’t do that because it’s Ramadan and at night I only have about 3-4 hours and that’s it, and of course we have a lot of prayers in Ramadan, so I was also constrained by that. The 8 teams worked fine; if you lose you’re out, if you win you go through to the semi finals. If you win again, you go through to the finals; if you lose you fight for third place, simple as that. We did it for the female tournament based on 25 points, but for the male tournament we decided to leave it to 15 points because it’s the last few days of Ramadan and we usually have the prayers at night so that’s why I had to limit the sets, though the sets are still best of 3. I had pictures of all the cancer ribbons to indicate the team’s place and the cause they are fighting for. It’s good because I want them to know they’re not only representing this colour, but the colour itself corresponds to a cause. For the girls, the team that actually won was the colon cancer team, so the majority of the donations went to colon cancer. In the male tournament the lymphoma team won so the majority of the donations will go to that cause. It’s basically you’re fighting for the cause you’re wearing. In the female tournament it was actually easier because the females read up on the whole subject more. They were looking at the ribbons and they were searching, and actually chose the ribbon that was closest to them in some way or another. Not all the teams, but some of them. For the males, they were generally choosing the colours, so I had to push it and I had to be specific and say ‘you are fighting for the cause you’re wearing.’ I have a lot of girls that were participating that said to me ‘once you posted that video on Instagram showing the possible available teams, we automatically went online and searched what the colours are.’ This is the kind of awareness that I want. That’s why in the tournaments, when I was calling the teams, I wasn’t calling them by their colours, I was calling them based on the cause they were representing because I want them to be aware of that.

Q: What’s the general reaction of people so far?
A: They’re nice, they’re very supportive and that’s the best thing. I got people that are calling me, wanting to come with me when I give the donations. I have a lot of people that want to join to become volunteers, I have people calling me to sponsor the event; I already had sponsors for the male tournament before I even considered setting one up. It’s fast but it’s not only me actually, it’s my volunteers. I owe everything to them. They’re the ones calling people, they’re the ones that go out and ask people to join so it’s all on them in the end.

Q: Where do the donations go from the tournament?
A: There’s the US society for cancer. When you access their account there’s a donation link. Once you get to it you would donate to any of the causes. You can pick which one you want and donate as much as you like. I’m going to donate portions of the proceeds to each one of the cancers corresponding to the teams that played and their final ranking. Why did I choose this society specifically? We don’t have a society in Kuwait. We would have to distribute the donations between only three societies in Kuwait because that’s all there is; two for kids and one for breast. I’ve searched for other societies but found nothing. Yes, I could donate specifically to the hospital but I don’t want to give a hospital a donation where it might not all go towards the cause I want.

A lot of people told me ‘but you’re giving it to non-Muslim people’ but in the end we’re all human. I want to call for humanitarian acts; I’m not calling for only Islamic acts. I know I’m going to start in the Muslim world, but for me to grow, I have to go abroad because there’s so many things we lack right now. I haven’t yet counted how much I raised from the boys tournament but for the girls tournament over just 2 days I raised KD 700. The majority was not from the teams but actually from the people.

Q: What do you hope this will achieve in the long run?
A: My first priority is Kuwait. I want them to be educated about the causes of cancer, how to prevent it. I know that for the majority of cancer you can’t really prevent it but there’s a chance when it comes to for example lung cancer; smoking is a cause, because some of the lung cancer patients are second hand smokers and it’s devastating because people are not aware of that but once you know it, you wouldn’t do it to your loved ones. This is my aim in Kuwait. Worldwide, I want to push sports into it, and I want to do a marathon worldwide for that, I might join other societies in the world; I want them to be conscious that in the Arab world we’re not lazy, that we are fighting for this cause as well. Unfortunately this is how they portray us nowadays. When I talk about this thing they’re like ‘oh you have this thing in your country?’ yes we do but we have to push for it to become international. It’s not easy; we have veiled ladies- we’re so proud of them they won a lot of things- still no one knows about them. There are a lot of people who fought cancer not once, twice, or three times, they fought it many times but people are still not aware. Why are we aware of lance Armstrong? Because he was a cyclist that had cancer? Okay, so what? We have a lot of sportsman and sportswomen that had cancer but we are never made aware of them because they don’t talk about it.

Q: Why is the subject of cancer such a taboo one within the region?
A: I would say, though many might disagree with this, it’s due to the culture; sometimes people will tell you ‘don’t talk about your disease, don’t tell anyone. They might give you ‘the eye’ so be careful’ you know? I disagree with that because I think if I talk about it, I increase awareness. If I talk about it, I am a strong person that is fighting. If others suffering from cancer see me like that maybe it’ll make them think ‘one day I will become like that’ instead of hiding. My culture is asking them to hide. I don’t want them to hide. I don’t mind people knowing that I fought cancer, knowing the disease that I had, knowing that I once walked with no hair. I don’t mind! Instead of ‘don’t go to parties because we don’t want people to point fingers at you saying you just had cancer and mashllah you’re walking.’ I should be proud of that. I should show that I’m strong and not weak. I understand my culture; people just collapse from cancer due to ‘bad eye’ or due to people not saying mashallah. These things, I totally understand, I know this is written in the Qur’an, but I can take this and still work on it but still at the same time increase awareness. I can work on both. They’re not mutually exclusive.

Q: What can Kuwait do to help improve the situation of cancer patients?
A: People hate being treated in Kuwait. I hate being treated in Kuwait; we feel like it’s not a competent service, even though I would have to fly abroad and live somewhere else for treatment I could get in Kuwait for free. I think the ministry of health should push for some things. They should be more aware of the hospitals, the people that are there. One single mistake would cause them a lot of failings. The mistake that caused me a lot of suffering was the doctor did not ask me to go and do a blood test; as simple as that. We don’t lack anything; we have the money, the facilities and the doctors but we’re not linking them properly.

Q: Where do you see volley for a cause going?
A: My five year plan…I would want volley for a cause to become a yearly event and I want to do it in Ramadan. I want it to grow with a lot of sponsors, and do it in a way that it similar to Dawrat Al Roudhan- a football tournament where they get guests from- it started like us, as a small tournament but then it expanded. I don’t want to be like that because my cause in the end is for charity and for donations; it’s a nonprofit, it all goes to cancer patients, but it’s that kind of image I want to portray. Hopefully then I might be able to open it worldwide. That’s one of the things that I want. I also want to start my own cancer society and this cause would be part of the society. I want to do the first cancer society in the Middle East because I want to have all cancer ribbons there with all the cancer patients going there. I want to have psychaiatrists, I want it to be a place where cancer patients would feel comfortable going in.

It’s one of the things I felt going in as a patient myself; I got treated in Paris in an oncology specialist facility called Gustave Roussy Institute of Oncology. It’s a hospital, but I didn’t feel alone because I saw all the cancer patients holding their trays with medicine like me, going through the same thing. There’s a salon, there is one place that’s lime green, another place that is pink, and one for red, for blue, whatever the corresponding colour is to the type of cancer for when you go see a doctor. I was never ashamed to be seen without having hair because everyone was like that. I want to create this environment here, I don’t want people to feel ashamed walking without hair, and I don’t want them to feel ashamed because they’re survivors or they don’t have eyebrows, or they don’t have eye lashes. I saw the US cancer society and I want to mimic this idea and bring it to the Middle East. It might take me years because it requires a lot; it requires a budget and a lot of signatures. I know it might take me a lot of years but I would say that Volley for a Cause is the first step but the years might open another door for me. I might open my own place just with one floor with just psychiatrists and this would grow to a society.

I might do other tournaments and hopefully soon we will have a beach volleyball tournament, but those plans are just up in the air for now, but we regularly update our Instagram, so be on the lookout.


Shoug Al Othman, 26, is the founder of the Volley for a Cause cancer awareness tournament. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in finance from the American University of Kuwait and is now working at the university as a teacher’s aide in statistics. She intends to continue her studies in London in late August where she will be attending Kings College to pursue a Master’s Degree in economics.

By: Shoug Al Othman

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