Life hasn’t been the easiest for 23-year-old Nazri Arshad.

During the circuit breaker, both his parents lost their jobs as cleaners in a condominium. So the Pastry & Baking student at ITE College took on part-time jobs during the circuit breaker – a food delivery rider by day and packer by night – to help his family make ends meet.

Despite his hardships, Nazri still found time to give back during the recent Hari Raya festivities. With what little he had, he baked and sent Raya cookies to families like his who were going through a tough time during the pandemic. He even got his delivery rider friends whom he knew had lost their jobs during the circuit breaker to deliver the cookies so they could earn the extra income.

But his generosity isn’t the only thing that makes Nazri special.

The reason Nazri is still in school now is that in 2013, when he was 16, he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

A relentless high fever had sent him to hospital for a month before the doctors finally diagnosed him with a rare condition called acute undifferentiated leukaemia and moved him from the neurology ward to the paediatric oncology ward.

Back then, his parents struggled to be the beacon of strength and courage for him, Nazri says. He recounts how he saw his mother in tears, grappling with the reality that was in front of her. That scene gave him the resolution to endure his condition, and he ended up comforting his parents instead.

Nazri tells The Pride: “To be honest, some people would be crying and upset about this, but for me, I didn’t feel anything. I just feel that this is just a test from God, and that I just need to respect what He is asking me to go through. I believe that if God wants to take you through this experience, He will guide you. It’s important to think positive!”

What worried Nazri the most then, was having to miss out on his studies. So, that was the very thing his mother used to motivate him with throughout his one-year stay at the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and seven surgeries – to recover as fast as he could so that he could return to school.

Both mother and son share an exceptional bond. One year into treatment, Nazri received a bone marrow donation from his mother. But the post-surgery period proved to be the toughest time of his healing journey. Stuck in an isolation ward for a month, he was kept away from people, and worst of all, could not see his mum.

Nazri shares: “When my mother was not around and at another hospital after giving me her bone marrow, I felt very lonely. I cried a lot. But after crying, I felt better and reminded myself to think positively.”

His optimism has played a big part in helping him beat the illness. Despite hurtful comments from a fair share of his friends, Nazri’s indomitability has allowed him to look past their ignorance.

“I had a friend tell me, ‘Go away, I’m scared you’ll pass your virus to me’. And another said, ‘Oh, I thought you died already’. But I ignored them. I refuse to allow their words to get into my head.”

While caring for him, both of Nazri’s parents lost their cleaning jobs. Although they received support from Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF) and other sources of financial assistance, life was still hard for the family.

According to a CCF spokesman, many people still don’t know much about cancer and as a result, do not give patients or survivors the kindness and fair treatment they deserve. For example, it is crucial to understand that cancer, unlike a virus, is not infectious.

Another common misconception is why children undergoing cancer treatment wear masks.

We wear masks in public now in the new Covid-19 normal not only to protect ourselves from catching the virus, but also to stop ourselves from infecting others if we do have the disease.

The reason why children undergoing cancer treatments wear masks is to protect themselves from viruses and infections as they have a lowered immune system, and not because they have something contagious.

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Presently, Nazri has been in remission for the past five years. In 2015, he finished treatment and was declared cancer-free. He went back to school and he is looking forward to graduating next year with a certification in Pastry & Baking.

A Giving Heart

Covid-19 and the circuit breaker have made life tougher for Nazri and his parents but he remains positive despite having to work from morning to night, while making time for his studies.

Instead of fixating on his own problems, he prefers to focus on helping other people in need. During Ramadan this year, Nazri started a charity project where he baked Raya cookies for families who had lost income. Knowing that people’s spirits were dampened due to the circuit breaker and the Hari Raya Bazaar being called off, Nazri wanted to bring cheer to those who could not even afford Raya cookies for their families at home.

He tells The Pride: “I put on social media that I was doing a baking donation and I ended up giving cookies to 30 families all over Singapore. I got my food delivery friends to help deliver to the farther parts of Singapore and I paid them. Some families wondered why I didn’t deliver all the cookies by myself, because they wanted to thank me personally, but I couldn’t reach 30 homes myself in just one or two days!”

Working 2 jobs during Covid-19
Nazri delivering some of the Raya cookies that he baked. Image source: Nazri Arshad.

Nazri paid for the ingredients and the cookie deliveries himself, and he would have it no other way. He explains: “A few families asked if they could pay me, but I told them to donate directly to CCF or Ain Society instead. I refused their money because my aim is to help people. Many of my friends said I was wasting my money, but I told them that I didn’t think of it that way.”

And his charity isn’t a one-off either. Right now, Nazri is saving to buy groceries for those who can’t afford them. He explains that when he was younger, his mother told him that although some people are smiling on the surface, they may still be going through a lot and may not even have food to eat. So, whenever he can, Nazri approaches his local community centre for the contacts of needy families, then visits them with a bag of groceries.

His heart of gold does not come from a wallet of plenty. In fact, quite the opposite. It was Nazri’s tough childhood that inspired him to extend a helping hand to those going through hardship.

“When I was in Primary 1, we lost our HDB flat because we couldn’t afford to pay for it. So, my family lived on the beach. My parents had to send me to school every day and I could see how difficult it was for them. There were other families living at the beach too, some even with small children and babies. Life was very tough, but my experience growing up made me who I am and made me more mature. I always think that if life became easier for me, I still need to remember my past and where I came from.”

A community to be grateful for

Another part of Nazri’s past that has helped him become the young man he is today, is the staff at Children’s Cancer Foundation (CCF) and nurses at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH). Till today, he still calls them his “second family”. Throughout the two years that Nazri spent in and out of hospital, they were with him every step of the way.

The Family Resource Centre at KKH is a playroom with games and books where Nazri would visit if he felt well enough. Each time, CCF volunteers would be there if he needed someone to talk to or play with, something he is incredibly grateful for.

Aside from emotional support, CCF has also helped Nazri financially in his medical, transport, school, food and maintenance needs. It was especially supportive in back-to-school support, organising sessions with his school to discuss Nazri’s learning and schooling needs in view of his medical condition. CCF also gave him bursary awards for three years.

Typical of Nazri, he didn’t want to just be a beneficiary. In 2018, he volunteered to help out at CCF’s Survivor’s Day and End of Treatment Party celebrations, and also took part in both local and overseas volunteering projects organised by the foundation.

He explains: “When I volunteer, I can meet new people and hear their own stories. I feel encouraged hearing their stories, especially since we’ve all been through similar things. Every word and encouragement from them, no matter how small, was meaningful to me and I am very grateful.”

“But my favourite part is visiting cancer patients at the hospital – sharing my story with them and reassuring them, and also encouraging the parents and giving them hope.”

CCF - Child Painting
Image source: Children’s Cancer Foundation / The Hope Train

Right now, Nazri works as a food delivery rider and intends to continue doing so even after school starts while his parents look for jobs. In view of declining donations faced by CCF, he has also volunteered to be part of its online fundraising campaign, The Hope Train, to help raise more funds and childhood cancer awareness.

Nazri’s hope is that his story can encourage other people going through what he did, and help them feel that they are not alone.

“Face your problem, don’t run away from it. Because that is the only way you can conquer it.”

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Top Image: Nazri Arshad