Othman Shibly speaks softly as he relates the war-related horrors facing Syria, his home country. “It is beyond imagination. Seventy percent of Syrian refugees are women and children … what kind of a world do we live in?”
Shibly, associate professor of periodontics and endodontics at UB, was raised in Lebanon by a Lebanese mother (a Shia) and a Syrian father (a Sunni). He attended dental school in Syria before moving to Buffalo in the 1990s, where he is a prominent member of the Islamic-American and dental communities.
In 2012, he toured a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey while attending a dental conference in Istanbul. He was so moved by what he witnessed—he says 220,000 refugees are currently living in these camps, many with war injuries and without proper health care—that he decided to do something about it.
Upon returning to the U.S., he raised enough money from friends and relief agencies to establish dental clinics in two Turkish refugee camps, staffed by Syrian refugee dentists. A team of North American volunteers visits every few months to pitch in. He has since worked with several nonprofit organizations, the UB dental school and dentists based throughout the Middle East (including some UB alumni) to secure equipment and space for clinics at other camps.
Shibly, who lectures internationally on how religion can help bridge cultures, has been traveling regularly to the Middle East to visit family in Syria and to work with the local dentists in the Turkish camps. In the course of these visits, he came to recognize an even greater need in Syria: education. “Medical aid heals injuries, but education heals trauma,” he says. “It is for the heart and the soul.”
With the help of a local professor, he converted basements outside Damascus into underground schools, raising money to pay teachers a modest salary. Currently there are more than a dozen schools serving about 5,000 children, who still live under great risk. “Every few weeks,” he says, “one desk in a school will be empty because a child got killed.”
Shibly sees his most important contribution as curricular. Using Syrian lessons as a base, he advises on modifications, such as removing nationalistic ideology and adding world culture and religions, with an emphasis on commonly shared values to demonstrate the unity of humanity.
His goal is to create educational opportunities, and impart a way of thinking, that will move these children away from sectarianism. “If you destroy ISIS, extremist ideas are still alive,” he says. “Through education, we can raise a new generation. These students want to be architects, physicians, teachers. They should have the opportunity.”