Compassion is this dentist’s calling

Othman Shibly, cllinical professor in the School of Dental Medicine.

Othman Shibly
Photo by Douglas Levre

Othman Shibly, periodontist and clinical professor in the School of Dental Medicine, has journeyed to the Middle East 16 times, providing basic health education and dental care to thousands of refugees.

In many ways, a toothache was the least of their worries. But it was a problem that Othman Shibly (DDS ’99, MS ’95) could actually do something about.

Shibly, a periodontist and clinical professor in the School of Dental Medicine, came to this realization during a professional conference in Istanbul in 2011. While in Turkey, he took a short side trip to observe a Syrian refugee camp, and noticed that while basic medical care was being provided to the residents, dental care was not. Those who had dental issues—a common occurrence within the grim conditions of the camps—had only two options: have their teeth pulled or suffer.

“When they heard that I’m a dentist, they started asking me, can you help us?” Shibly says. “In my heart came this feeling—that these are people like you and me who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they deserve more than extraction.”

Since 2012, Shibly has helped open or support more than 20 dental clinics in Syrian refugee camps while establishing more than a dozen schools within Syria.

Fueling an ongoing journey

That feeling stayed with him upon his return to Buffalo, where he immediately got to work on what would become for him an ongoing project, making humanitarian missions to run pop-up dental clinics at refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Supported by a team of partners, from corporations to colleagues, Shibly has now journeyed to the region 16 times over the past eight years. Since 2012, he has helped open or support more than 20 clinics. Over the same period, he also has worked to establish more than a dozen schools within Syria for the thousands of children still living in the war-torn country. And recently, he led a dental mission to Iraqi Kurdistan to help the displaced Yazidi community there.

Journeys are nothing new for Shibly, who was born in Lebanon but escaped with his family to Syria as a youth when war broke out. “My grandfather was from Syria originally, but because of World War I, he ran to Lebanon, where both my father and I were born,” Shibly explains. “When civil war happened in Lebanon, we went to Syria to the house my grandfather had built there.” (With the current war in Syria, Shibly’s relatives are now back in Lebanon.)

Shibly studied dentistry in Syria before coming to UB in the early 1990s. “I did not have the money to study in America, so I was advised to come as a visiting doctor because it was free to observe,” he says. He was soon offered a position as a clinical research assistant and then a teaching position, which covered his tuition as he studied. Now he directs the postgraduate program specialty in periodontics, conducts research on advanced periodontal surgery and maintains a small private practice—all while planning, fundraising for and implementing his biannual missions to the Middle East.

Miles for Smiles

Miles for Smiles | Dental Mission for Syrian Refugees

The University at Buffalo collaborates with St. Joseph's University in Lebanon, Henry Schein corporation and the Syrian American Medical Society to treat Syrian Refugees.

Learn more about Shibly's continuing work in Syria through this program, and hear his story in his own words.

A commitment to compassionate care

Recently, this work has gone in a new direction. With every mission, Shibly has been able to serve about 1,000 people—and each one is a small victory. “But then I started thinking,” he says. “There are hundreds of thousands more people who need help. It would be impossible for me to help them all.”

So, with the assistance of Saint Joseph University in Beirut and other partners, Shibly has begun training a cohort of refugees within camps in Lebanon to work as community health care workers, delivering preventive dental care and basic health education on an ongoing basis. The goal is twofold: to have greater overall impact while also giving the refugees a sense of self-sufficiency.

The only downside of the new approach is less opportunity for UB students to participate. In the past, they helped raise funds and gather supplies, and sometimes even accompanied Shibly on missions. So Shibly has found another way to ensure that his students learn the value of helping others: making charitable service work a requirement of the periodontal program he directs. “It doesn’t matter where—here in Buffalo, or someplace else, for children, veterans, anyone,” he says. “You won’t graduate until I see this.”

For while dentistry is Shibly’s chosen field, compassionate care—both doing it and teaching it—is his calling. He recounts a time when his daughter Thawab (BA ’12) was asked why she didn’t become a dentist herself, and she responded that her father never talked to his children about dentistry. Rather, he talked about how to be a good person.

“This is how we grow in this world,” he says, smiling.

Story by Sally Jarzab