December 8, 2009, Updated September 14, 2012

Cancer survivor and hairstylist Eli Ben Zikri started a non-profit wig service that allows people to feel attractive even when they lose their hair during chemotherapy.



Photo courtesy of Kaplan Medical Center
Since 2002, Eli Ben Zikri has fitted wigs free of charge for almost 4,000 cancer patients.

Sitting in the hospital waiting for a round of chemotherapy, women’s hairstylist Eli Ben Zikri had a chance encounter with a fellow patient that would change his life. She told him she’d rather die than lose her hair. Shocked at her declaration, he gave her a solution she could live with. Since then, Ben Zikri has fitted wigs, free of charge, for almost 4,000 women, men and children who are undergoing cancer treatments.

On that fateful day he had recently returned from a wig-making seminar in Paris, just before he was diagnosed with lymphoma: “I promised her then and there in the waiting room that I would make her a wig that would look exactly like her own hair, and it turned out even better,” says Ben Zikri. “Then I thought, if I can help one woman, I could help many.”

That was in 2002. Ever since that chance meeting Ben Zikri, a married father of four who lives in Petah Tikva in central Israel, has had a new calling. Through Amuta Pele (Pele is a Hebrew acronym for a Wig for Every Woman), the non-profit organization he runs, he provides wigs for men, women and children who lose their hair during chemotherapy. “It’s easier for a woman to see herself beautiful than to see herself with a buzz cut,” he says.

Wigs under veils

Since 2002, Ben Zikri’s wig project has taken on a life of its own, and become a national endeavor, with women from all walks of life turning to him for wigs before they lose their hair to chemotherapy. He’s seen all kinds of people, rich and poor, religious and secular, Jewish and Muslim. In mid-November, an Israeli Arab woman in the traditional Muslim hijab came to him for a wig.

“I worked with a cutie today, an Israeli Arab. She came to me with a hair covering, and I told her she wouldn’t need a wig,” he recounts. But the woman had her own reasons for booking an appointment with Ben Zikri: “It wasn’t about what her husband would think when he saw her with no hair. She was concerned about what her small child would feel in the morning when he saw his mom after chemotherapy.”

Ben Zikri’s compassionate project outfits about 10 women a day with wigs, and all come free of charge. Using high-quality materials and natural hair when possible, Ben Zikri can help a person to look good when he or she is undergoing one of the most difficult periods that can occur.

Man of the year

Donations for wigs come from far and wide. Ultra-orthodox women who cover their hair with wigs often send Ben Zikri their old wigs to repurpose. Others send money or save their own hair so that Ben Zikri can make new wigs with it. With foresight, a woman who has at least 12 inches of healthy hair can have a wig made from her own hair before she starts chemotherapy.

Prior to being diagnosed with lymphoma, Ben Zikri ran a successful hair salon in the Tel Aviv suburb where he lives. Shortly afterward, he set up a salon at Beilinson Hospital and then at the Kaplan Medical Center so that people could go straight to their fittings after their cancer treatment. “The wigs give many of them a feeling of vitality despite the disease,” he says.

Voted Man of the Year by the Lions Clubs International, Morocco-born Ben Zikri also makes sure to provide a styling service for wig wearers, since wigs require maintenance and washing over time.

At the moment he has no set location, and offers services from home to anyone who needs him. Ben Zikri prefers not to discuss his own health, opting to empathize with and help others instead, but he will say that today he’s doing just fine.

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