Attend to the Orphans: Smiles and Suffering in War-Torn Iraq

Ola Hassan is a dentist living and working in London, England. In March 2013, she traveled for the first time to Iraq, her parents’ native land, on a dental mission with Global Kindness Foundation. 

Ola and Fatima

My first patient: My little friend Fatima

We all get them, even dentists; you know those forwarded e-mails of no value.  The ones which we just skim through or hit the delete button before we even read them. Well, my journey to Iraq began because one day I opened one of those e-mails.

The email came all the way from Australia. It had an attachment about a dental mission and contained these simple words:  ‘Ola, I think you might be interested in this…’

It wasn’t wrong; in fact, I was immediately interested.  A few months later I found myself at London’s Heathrow airport, where I met a bunch of strangers who were soon to be friends.

The destination: Iraq – a very war-torn Iraq.

The mission: to bring healthy smiles to the faces of orphaned Iraqi children.

Let me give you a little bit of a background about myself.  Both my parents were born and brought up in Iraq, but I was raised in Britain and had never set foot there myself. They both fled the country and Saddam’s atrocities during the war in the 1980’s.  For years I had thought of visiting Iraq, and finally, in March 2013, I traveled there with the wonderful people of ‘Global Kindness Foundation’, a Canadian-based charity which provides dental healthcare to underprivileged people worldwide.

We flew into Najaf, a city about 100 miles south of the capital, Baghdad.  After being questioned for hours at the airport and after having lost half of our medical and dental supplies (a whole other story!), we set off to get some rest for what would be a very busy first day of work.

As our coach pulled up to our accommodations, I looked out of the window and was overwhelmed by what I saw  – a golden dome in the distance.  For those who do not know the history of Najaf, it is the resting place of a man known as Imam Ali, the son of Abi Talib.  History tells us of his nobleness, his ability to provide a voice for the voiceless, and his awe-inspiring courage. He was martyred at the age of 63 in the year 661 CE and was buried in Najaf. The golden dome is his shrine, and today millions of people far and wide visit this shrine to pay their respects.

The Shrine of Imam Ali, Najaf, Iraq

The Shrine of Imam Ali, Najaf, Iraq

The reason I mention Imam Ali is because I sensed an overpowering connection between the personality of Imam Ali and my mission in Iraq. He stressed to those around him to be kind to orphans. In his last will, he stated:  ‘Attend to their (orphans) nutrition and do not forget their interests in the middle of yours’.   Imam Ali was known as ‘the father of the orphans’.

For me personally, I felt extremely privileged to stand before his shrine and felt thankful for the opportunity to do what I could for the orphans who were living in the very same city of his resting place.

And so it all began. Early the following morning, we went to set up our dental clinic in the place where the orphans go to school. I had no idea what to expect, but the warm welcome from the children, who rushed to huddle around us, instantly told me that the next few weeks would be one of the most amazing and humbling experiences of my life.

Courtyard Dental ClinicWe were given a large dusty courtyard for our make-shift dental clinic (photo: left), and I quickly said goodbye to the idea of a shiny, squeaky-clean surgery like the ones back home in England, and I said hello to the challenging conditions of Iraq! I had never appreciated the humble light bulb until we were forced to work in a room without one!

As I visited each class, I could not help but make a comparison with the bright, child-friendly and airy classrooms I had when I was little. But to these kids, their classrooms were a haven. We screened each child and made a note of what treatment they would need. Fortunately, some only needed preventative care. The majority of children, however, needed comprehensive dental work, from simple fillings to multiple extractions.

Iraqi classroom

Screening kids in classroomIf it wasn’t for the positive attitude and the humorous nature of my dental team, I’m not sure I would have survived after treating my first patient, a young girl named Fatima. She was very shy and very nervous. Luckily, I could speak Arabic with her, but this was still not enough to put her at ease. She didn’t have a mum or dad to turn to for comfort, just a whole load of Canadians and a Brit! We were all strangers to her.  That moment hit me hard, and I found myself fighting back the tears.

When she eventually agreed to lie on the chair, I began her treatment. She had a lot of cavities for a little girl and had clearly put up with a fair amount of dental pain. Halfway through her treatment, I noticed a silent tear run down her cheek. We had been debriefed by our team leader the night before.  He warned us this would be one of the most emotional challenges we had ever faced as dentists. We didn’t have the luxury of providing sedation to the more nervous patient; we just had to accept using what we had. ‘Just keep reminding yourself what our mission here is’, he said. We were the children’s only access to oral healthcare and even though it was hard putting the kids through such a difficult experience, ultimately they would be free of pain and would lead healthier lives.

As if I had not already been close to tears, little Fatima came up to me after I had completed her treatment and gave me a heartfelt hug. In her own way, she was saying thank you. Little did she know that it was she who actually deserved to be thanked.   My contribution to this cause was so insignificant to what I gained through meeting her and all the other brave boys and girls – a deep sense of gratitude for what I have and an overall more positive approach to life.

Dentist with patientAs a group of six dentists and more than twenty amazing volunteers from non-dental backgrounds, we managed to treat almost 300 children and some of their teachers. Each child had their own story, but all of them had one thing in common – hardship, real hardship. They have suffered in ways that are very difficult for us in Britain or in other developed countries to comprehend. I wish I could say that I did something to truly change their lives.  I have, in fact, done no such thing. It would take a lot more than a mere filling or an extraction of a tooth to do that.

Mother Theresa once said, ‘Peace begins with a smile…’ and ‘Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing’. I hope that our efforts have bought some healthier smiles to these beautiful children who may not always have much to smile about.

Iraqi soldierStepping outside the confines of the school, you can see that hardship extends throughout the country. For each city we traveled to in Iraq – Kerbala, Samarra, Baghdad – there was a checkpoint every few miles. There is no sense of security there, no sense of inner peace, but somehow these people keep trying  – and I hope, with the children, they will keep smiling.

People of Iraq – thank you – lessons learned!

Would I put myself through this physical and emotional roller coaster ride again?  Absolutely, I would be stupid not to.

Dentists with patient

                                                                                                                                             

About Rodney Aist

Rodney Aist, Ph.D. is the course director at St George's College, Jerusalem. Visit him at www.rodneyaist.com.
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6 Responses to Attend to the Orphans: Smiles and Suffering in War-Torn Iraq

  1. Greg Barker says:

    inspiring!

  2. aisha q says:

    Well done to all the people behind this initiative.

  3. tina millar says:

    not surprised you volunteered to do this ola and very happy as you were very caring and showed empathy towards your patients as a dental student. I am thinking of doing something like this over the next couple of years and reading your of your experience has inspired me to make look into it. tina

  4. Jaffer says:

    Great commentary Ola. I often think about this trip and the great memories. Hopefully again next year.

  5. esen says:

    Well done Ola, truly inspirational. An amazing thing you have done for these children.

  6. Matthew1471 says:

    Really impressive and admirable. It sounds like a really difficult but worthwhile trip. Is there a way that others can also help be involved (even if it’s just financially)?

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