Release Date: October 13, 2015
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The two female students who scored the highest on the Syrian national high school final exam studied in a small basement classroom without electricity near Damascus, the Syrian capital at the heart of the country’s four-year civil war.
“In spite of everything, those two girls rank first and second in all of Syria – from a war-zone area,” says Othman Shibly, DDS, clinical associate professor in the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine.
The school is one of 15 that the Syrian-born dental professor helped establish in the suburbs of Damascus. And although the war has produced countless atrocities, the accomplishments of his students are a point of pride and inspiration.
In addition to the schools he helped build, Shibly worked with members of the Buffalo community to create more than 20 dental clinics in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
These camps house hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, 75 percent of whom are women and children, he says. More than one-third of Syria’s population have become refugees, according to the European University Institute.
Shibly will travel to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Oct. 20 with nearly $20,000 in dental supplies donated by Henry Schein, the world’s largest provider of health care products and services to office-based dental, animal health and medical practitioners. Before the end of the year, he also plans to tend to refugee patients in Turkey.
He first toured a Syrian refugee camp in 2012 while attending a dental conference in Istanbul. Moved by what he witnessed, he returned to Buffalo and began fundraising to establish the camp’s first full-service dental clinics.
Since then, Shibly has partnered with several UB Dental alumni and the Syrian American Medical Society to raise more than $100,000 and found nearly two dozen dental clinics.
“I knew that one visit wouldn’t be enough to address all of the problems,” says Shibly. “Everything collapsed, so there isn’t a good medical system, or resources or experienced dental personnel available. And many of the refugees are living in these camps with war injuries and without the proper health care.”
Despite the ongoing conflict and personal demands, Shibly travels to the camps every few months to deliver additional supplies and donate time.
Some of the clinics, staffed by volunteers and Syrian refugee dentists, serve nearly 100 refugees daily, performing treatments that range from fillings and root canals to trauma support. For his upcoming visit, Shibly recruited several maxillofacial surgeons to repair broken jaw bones.
“We’re helping out of compassion, not sympathy,” says Shibly. “These people are like us – they are teachers, doctors, nurses. They just happen to be in this conflict.”
By helping start schools in Syria, he says he hopes to provide Syrian children with those same career opportunities.
The schools, which range from elementary to secondary, have taught more than 5,000 children. The students, however, are not refugees. They are the children of families who chose not to leave the war zone.
To avoid explosions, classes are held in basements, all of which lack electricity. One of the schools recently lost a math teacher as a result of a bombing, says Shibly.
“Can you imagine the kind of trauma those children are exposed to if, every week or so, one desk is empty because a classmate was killed?” he says.
Shibly understands the significance of his support to Syrian students and refugees.
He recalls the story of a Syrian college student who also dedicated her time to teaching children. When her father came to rescue her from the war, moments before leaving the country, she watched her students begin to cry as they waved goodbye and couldn’t bring herself to leave, he says.
“She begged her father to stop, telling him, ‘Either I live with them or I die with them,’” says Shibly, who later helped the same college student found her own school near Damascus.
An ardent believer in giving back to the community, Shibly strives to instill similar values in his children and UB students as well.
“We cannot wait for the United Nations and other super powers to find solutions,” says Shibly. “Every one of us should think of what we can offer to help, whether it be through medical relief, education or the settlement of refugees in the U.S. The support will make a difference in the lives of those Syrian people.”