by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto 

Hossein is a 10-year-old Iraqi orphan with long hair, big olive-coloured eyes and a shy smile. He loves going to school and playing soccer. He also loves visiting his Canadian dentist for annual check-ups. 

Hossein’s dentist is one of 51 volunteers who fly into Iraq every spring to provide free dental care. 

Armed with colouring books, games and iPads – to entertain the children while they wait for their turn – the dentists come fully equipped to carry out everything from oral health instruction to preventative care, including fissure sealants, extractions and stainless steel crowns. 

Toronto dentist Jaffer Kermalli* has been treating Hossein for several years. “His long hair hides scars from a bomb blast he was in,” Kermalli shares. “He came back to us [this year] and specifically wanted us to fix a broken front tooth and take away the pain from another tooth in his mouth.”

Kermalli recently went on his fifth trip to Iraq with Global Kindness Foundation (GKF), a Vancouver-based charitable organization that takes two trips every year to provide medical, dental and optical services to countries in need due to war and poverty. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.”[/quote]

A passion project 

In 2015, GKF took its dental mission to Iraq and Kenya. In the past, the organization (members pictured) also travelled to Peru, India and Tanzania. 

The 33-year-old dentist calls it his “passion project.” 

“I plan my year around the GKF trips, and over the years have become more active in helping organize supplies and train volunteers. It gives me focus throughout the year, and is my ‘reset,’” he says. “To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.” 

The children they treat are generally thrilled to see them – notwithstanding the usual anxiety that comes with dental visits. 

For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush. The lack of basic awareness is a direct outcome of living in both a war-torn country and refugee camps, where dental care is scarce or not available at all. 

Many non-dental volunteers have also joined the group, along with several opticians and physicians. The non-medical volunteers are assigned roles like screening the children in the waiting areas, occupying the children while they wait for their appointment and assisting the dentists. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush.[/quote]

Shahina Rahim, an IT executive at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, joined GKF for a second time this year. 

“I wanted to make a small difference to the lives of the children,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wanted to come back and help.” 

This time, though, she took a few Arabic classes in Toronto before leaving in order to help overcome the language barrier. 

Meeting many needs 

Additional medical and optical camps were also set up, seeing more than 1,000 children over two weeks. Many were referred to specialists. 

“One child had a case of congenital heart defect which had gone untreated and required surgery,” recalls Vancouver dentist and GKF founder, Dr. Hasnain Dewji (pictured).  

“There were also some cases of severe psychiatric conditions, so a referral to a local psychiatrist was arranged. Two other boys needed growth-hormone therapy. We are trying to determine the cost of therapy and see if we can raise the funds needed.” 

The two opticians in the group also flew in from Vancouver, and determined that at least 60 of the children they saw required corrective lenses. The charity arranged for the eyeglasses to be made in Tanzania and delivered for free to Iraq. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[The kids] have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us.”[/quote]

Kids are kids 

The dental mission to Iraq started on March 19 and ended April 1. GKF is already recruiting its next set of volunteers to travel to Bhavnagar, India, in December. 

For Rahim, the hardest part of her trip to Iraq was witnessing the social remnants of war – the beggars, the children in wheelchairs and the sheer poverty. 

“For many of the kids, you can see the poverty through hygiene, dirty or worn clothes, and shoes or sandals that don't fit them.”  

But none of that seemed to stop them from smiling, laughing and dreaming, she adds. 

“My encounter with the kids has been a wonderful one. They have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us,” she says. 

“Kids are kids after all, no matter what part of the world they live in.” 

*Source is not related to the author.


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Published in Health

by Shenaz Kermalli (@ShenazKermalli)

When Michelle Chagpar, an information technology professional from Toronto, told her employers she was taking two weeks leave to travel to Iraq to carry out humanitarian work, they were more than a little taken aback. “They were very surprised,” she says. “But just before leaving, I mentioned it to a client and they asked how they could get involved. For the most part, that’s been the reaction from people.” 

Concern over Canadians visiting Iraq right now is far from misplaced. With the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Iraqi forces still battling over control of Tikrit, and dozens of foreigners – from charity workers to journalists – kidnapped and killed on a daily basis, Iraq remains highly dangerous, particularly for Westerners. Only a handful of international charities remain in the country.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We are so blessed, especially in Canada, that we need to give back as much as possible.” - Dr. Hasnain Dewji[/quote]

The volunteers from the BC-based charity Global Kindness face an even greater threat. Most of them belong to the Shia sect of Islam – the minority group that has been targeted most brutally by ISIS. ISIS fighters believe that the Shias are heretics and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam. While Yazidis, Turkmen, Christians and the country’s other minorities have also been singled out, the risk to Shia Muslims is far more widespread. Last year, ISIS claimed on Twitter that it had killed at least 1,700 Shias in one month alone.

But that hasn’t stopped Vancouver dentist Dr. Hasnain Dewji from venturing on a high-risk mission to Iraq with Global Kindness, which he founded in 2002. The charity takes at least two trips each year to provide medical, dental and optical services to people in impoverished countries. It has run missions in Iraq before, but not since the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2014. 

500 Children Treated

This year, 24 Canadians, including nine dentists, an orthodontist, a periodontist, a paediatric dentist and nine other trained volunteers, joined the mission. They left Canada for the southern city of Najaf via Turkey on March 19 and so far have treated about 500 children, most of whom are orphans, in the southern cities of Kazmain, Kerbala and Najaf. Treatments range from preventative care in the form of fissure sealants to fillings, extractions and stainless steel crowns.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching. One of the kids we saw last time was known to never smile or laugh. He told me he was sitting in his dad’s lap when his dad was shot dead.” - Dr. Hasnain Dewji[/quote]

“We are so blessed, especially in Canada, that we need to give back as much as possible,” Dewji says. “And the people we help are very appreciative. They tell us that very few people are willing to give their time and skills, and that being treated with dignity and compassion is something they don’t see often.”

“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching,” he adds. “One of the kids we saw last time was known to never smile or laugh. He told me he was sitting in his dad’s lap when his dad was shot dead.”

“I fixed his teeth... But I couldn’t get him to smile.”

Volunteers Impacted Forever

Volunteering overseas is something the Ugandan-born dentist feels so strongly about that he’s turned it into a family experience. His nine-year-old daughter happily joined the Iraq mission this year. “She likes playing with the kids and giving them the gifts we bring for them after their treatment,” says his wife, and fellow volunteer, Fatemah. Their four other children have also joined Global Kindness on previous trips to Cambodia, Peru and Haiti.

For Chagpar (pictured to the left), a vice-president at a software company, a humanitarian dental mission abroad initially felt far out of her comfort zone. But the Iraq trip this year marks her fourth mission with the charity and she says she comes back to Canada feeling inspired each time. “One time we treated a boy with long hair,” she recalls. “In Iraq, the boys all have really short hair, so it was a bit odd to see. After inquiring, we learnt that the boy has been injured in a bomb blast and had extensive scarring, hence the long hair. Whenever I feel down, or like I’ve lost focus on what’s important, I think of him. Even after everything he had been through he would still be laughing.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“You could see the devastation on the country side the war has caused, but you could also see how these people are trying to overcome it. They are slowly, but surely, rebuilding and that is an amazing thing to see.” - Michelle Chagpar[/quote]

Another pivotal moment for the group came during the long drive from Kazmain to Karbala with a driver who said he was a high-ranking soldier on leave from the army. “He pointed out areas along the way where the army had pushed back against ISIS,” says Chagpar. “You could see the devastation on the country side the war has caused, but you could also see how these people are trying to overcome it. They are slowly, but surely, rebuilding and that is an amazing thing to see – and you see that attitude in the orphaned children as well. They don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Twenty-one other volunteers from Global Kindness’ U.S., U.K. and Africa chapters joined the group on this mission. The Canadian volunteers will be returning on April 3.

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Published in International

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