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UB dentist helps fellow Syrians who fled; Amherst man spearheads opening of two clinics for refugees in Turkey

As he walked among Syrian refugees living in tents this summer in Turkey, Othman Shibly couldn't help but picture himself and his family.

Having grown up in Syria, Shibly identified with the pain and suffering of tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes and find safety in a foreign country.

Shibly knew he had to do something. So the Amherst resident and University at Buffalo faculty member decided to focus on what he knows best – dental care.

He helped spearhead the opening of two full-service dental clinics serving Syrian refugees in Turkey, and he returned to the region for 10 days last month to provide dental care and train other dentists.

One of the clinics, in Reyhanli, near the Syrian border, already has served 1,056 patients since it opened Oct. 9. More than 500 patients have been treated at the other clinic in Kilis, said Shibly, a periodontist and associate director of the Center for Dental Studies at UB.

Why shouldn't Syrian refugees have healthy teeth and gums, and live without pain in their mouth? he figured.

"Those are people like us. They should not be deprived of regular treatment like I and my children get," said Shibly, who saw the need for full-service dental care during a visit to Turkish refugees camps in July.

More than 120,000 Syrians have registered with the Turkish government as refugees – part of the 440,000 registered refugees who have fled to countries that are Syria's neighbors.

Shibly originally envisioned organizing a dental mission team from the United States and Canada, but he quickly realized such an endeavor wouldn't reach enough people.

"I was thinking about a mission, but the need was beyond what a mission can do," he said. "We really wanted to establish a dental clinic."

The clinics are staffed by six dentists and two dental assistants, all Syrian refugees, Shibly said. He returned to Turkey on Oct. 18-28, along with a Syrian-Canadian dentist, to check on the sites, provide dental care and train the dentists in newer technologies.

"The main problem is people have a lot of cavities, very deep cavities, because they have been away from dental care for a long time," he said. "We are doing fillings, root canal treatment, periodontal treatment."

Crowns and bridgework were not yet available, he said.

The free clinics are also open to Syrians who live in apartments, outside camps, he said.

"I thought at first maybe it's a luxury thing [to provide dental services] because they need food, they need shelter, they need blankets, they need lots of things," said the Syrian-Canadian dentist, who asked that his name be withheld because his mother and sisters still live in Syria, and he feared for their safety.

But before the clinics were set up, dental care was limited to emergency tooth extractions paid for by the Turkish government, even though in many instances teeth could have been saved, the dentist said.

After returning to Buffalo from his trip in July, Shibly was able to raise about $11,000 from the local Muslim community toward the clinics.

Through his Syrian-Canadian colleague, Shibly connected with a Canadian charitable organization, Human Concern International, which provided about $57,000 toward the effort.

"We directly purchased all of the equipment from the medical companies there," said Heidi Vallinga, project development officer for Human Concern International.

That equipment includes two dental chairs and lights, digital radiology units, amalgamators and sterilizers, Shibly said.

Human Concern International has worked closely with the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations on emergency medical response, Vallinga said. The organization recommended funding the dental clinics.

UB's dental school donated materials such as fillings and anesthesia.

Now Shibly is working on getting area dentists to travel overseas and assist at the clinics. "We have a plan to sustain it for one year," he said.

Syria quickly is becoming the site of the world's latest ethnic slaughter, in the same vein as the Holocaust and mass killings in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia, said Shibly, who wants to see the United Nations step in more firmly to prevent further bloodshed. More than 40,000 Syrians have died since March 2011, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops began a crackdown on protesters seeking al-Assad's ouster and a democratic government.

"Civilians should be protected," Shibly said. "It's the world's responsibility to protect civilians."