‘That is a brilliant idea’: Faculty and students are creating dental supply kits for Afghan refugees
A group at the VCU School of Dentistry has put together over 100 bags of toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and mouthwash that will be distributed to refugees at Fort Lee.
After the August withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Omar Abubaker wanted to find out how one of his students, Nadia Abdul-Ghafoor, a native of Afghanistan, was feeling about the situation.
“He asked me how my family was doing, but I was with a patient and couldn’t talk,” said Abdul-Ghafoor, who is in her third year at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry. “When I went back to talk to him, he mentioned how sad the situation was and instead of just talking about it, [how] we should try to do something for the refugees.”
Abubaker, D.M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the School of Dentistry, has been an activist and advocate ever since he lost his son, Adam, to an opioid overdose in 2014.
“It seems like my story and the story of the refugees are unrelated but when you have experienced any form of trauma, or loss of any kind, observing others go through a similar event triggers sympathy and compassion,” he said. “I looked at the withdrawal from the human suffering standpoint.”
He expressed his feelings of frustration to Abdul-Ghafoor and the two began brainstorming ways to provide refugees with at least one of their basic needs and also raise awareness of their situation.
“To her credit, Nadia said, ‘what if we think of oral care,’” Abubaker said.
The last thing people think about when they are fleeing from a country is a toothbrush or toothpaste, Abdul-Ghafoor said. She was only 1 in 1996 when her family fled from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, to Turkmenistan during the Afghan civil war that brought the Taliban to power. The family lived in Turkmenistan for seven years before coming to the U.S. to live in Virginia.
Afghanistan was a very different place when Abdul-Ghafoor’s family lived there, she said.
“My mom was a teacher and my dad was a commercial pilot. There were women’s rights, there was women’s education. My mom was able to have a basic freedom that any woman in the west has,” she said. “People didn’t have to worry about oppression. It was very similar to Western society in every aspect. It was a peaceful society.”
She told Abubaker that it is unlikely that the refugees fleeing Afghanistan today would have access to toothpaste, a toothbrush or dental floss, which are a necessity when they arrive at their destination outside the country.
“I said that is a brilliant idea,” Abubaker said.
Gradually, the idea of putting together dental kits for refugees crystalized. By October, what began as a conversation between Abdul-Ghafoor and Abubaker had grown into a small group of five: three students from Afghanistan, one resident in the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Residency Program and the 17-year-old son of one of Abubaker’s faculty. They put together over 100 kits for at least 500 people on Oct. 20 and 21 in Abubaker’s conference room. Each kit has six to nine toothbrushes, six tubes of toothpaste, dental floss and three small bottles of mouthwash. At a fundraising event on Oct. 28, they raised enough money to buy possibly an additional 50 or more kits.
“Nadia [Abdul-Ghafoor] called Johnson & Johnson and got donations of mouthwash, floss and toothbrushes,” Abubaker said, noting that others in the group also got donations of toothbrushes and toothpaste. The VCU group, he said, will take the bags to the Islamic Center of Virginia. From there, the kits will be taken to refugees at Fort Lee.
Clara Spatafore, D.D.S., interim dean and chair of the Departments of Endodontics and Oral Health Sciences at the VCU School of Dentistry, said she is “very proud of our students and faculty for coming together to support these families.”
“We are committed to improving the oral and general health of all Virginians,” Spatafore said, “and it is inspiring to see this sense of service instilled in our students.”
Abubaker said the students deserve the credit.
“They did all of the work,” he said. “I am so proud of them. I hope it’s the beginning of them doing something beyond themselves, something beyond dentistry.”
Written by: Joan Tupponce, VCU University Relations