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Two Of The 700 Patients Deah Barakat's Dental Clinic Helped On The Turkey-Syria Border

Jorge Valencia
Dr. Mohammed Al-Nahhas, a Syrian-American dentist from Florida, heads dental relief for the Syrian American Medical Society. Al-Nahhas was helping Deah Barakat organize the Project Refugee Smiles relief trip to help displaced Syrians in Reyhanli, Turkey.

Last month, volunteers from North Carolina and across the country gave free dental treatment to refugees near Turkey’s border with Syria. The trip had been organized by Deah Barakat, one of the three young Muslim Americans killed in Chapel Hill February of this year. After Deah and Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha were fatally shot, Project Refugee Smiles received more than half a million dollars in donations. The group of volunteers treated more than 700 people.

I’m sitting in the line at the Refugee Smiles clinic. I’ve just handed my microphone to an 8-year-old named Hassein. His smile is almost as big as his face

“Hello?” Hassein asks into the microphone. “I’m Hassein.”

I am ask him how he is doing. He says he is doing well, thank you, but…

“I came here for my teeth,” he says.

I ask him what is wrong with his teeth. He responds with one word: “Chocolate!”

He tells my interpreter that he’s been eating too much chocolate. He’s a sweet kid, but his aunt Amal tells us a dark story. 

Amal says Hassein’s father, Ahmad, was a taxi driver in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city. Ahmad would move freely between areas controlled by the government and areas controlled by rebels.

Three years ago, someone pulled Ahmad out of his cab, and shot him in the head. Now, Hassein, his brother, his mom and his aunt live together in Turkey.

Most patients Deah Barakat would have helped are like Hassein: Syrian children who have witnessed or been impacted by violence. There are many of them here in Reyhanli, which like many Turkish cities along the border, has more than doubled in population. More than two million Syrians have entered Turkey since the war started in 2011.

Here on the second floor of the Al-Salaam School, dentists set up eight dental chairs. They bought the chairs with proceeds from the fundraiser that Deah Barakat started.

A poster with silhouette drawings of Deah, Yusor and Razan overlooks the room. Mohammad Al-Nahhas, a Syrian-American dentist from Florida, runs this clinic and 23 other ones that help displaced Syrians.

“I mean, sometimes, when you go on a trip, you forget to brush your teeth yourself,” Al-Nahhas says. “They are under so much stress, the last thing they think about is their teeth. They think about it only when they hurt.”

Back in line, I meet another patient. His name is Mohammad Omar. He’s an English teacher who used to teach at a K-12 school in Aleppo. He was still in university himself when his first class graduated.

"I was studying master, they are studying first year English department at the same time, so I was very proud of them. I told my friends, 'Look, they are my students. I made them,'” Omar says with a proud laugh.

Omar was one of the school’s main administrators when bombs started blowing up across the city in 2012. There was fighting between the military and at least a half dozen groups, including Democratic fighters, political opponents and religious extremists. One estimate says more than 22,000 people have been killed in the province.

In 2013, Omar decided to leave after his school was bombed. He still has a video of it on his cell phone. He shows it to me and narrates what is happening on the screen.

“The people are saying that ‘This is a girl, we want blankets in order to cover her body. And just hurry up, hurry up because another warplane is in the sky,’” he says.

The body of the girl in the video is entirely blackened and charred body, burned beyond recognition.

“The first time, I didn't know her, and even her family didn't know her,” Omar says.

He says the girl was Wissam. She was 19 years old and she was an International Baccalaureate student. Omar says Wissam and 11 of her classmates were killed with napalm. Many more suffered severe burns.

Now, Omar is trying to move on. He says he is engaged, and wants to get married and leave Turkey with his wife.

"I want to speak English like native speakers also. I want to visit native speakers, and live with them, and start a new life just to forget the sad memories."

Omar is doing better than most refugees. He has a job teaching, a place to live, and at least today, he’ll get to see a dentist.

This report was possible with support from the International Center for Journalists sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
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