With a view of the border wall that separates Turkey and Syria in front of him, UNC School of Medicine student Yousef Abu-Salha pulls up a chair at a makeshift dental and medical clinic to talk to a child from Syria, a refugee orphaned by war.
She is a student at Al Salam School – or School of Peace – in Reyhanli, Turkey, where the clinic has been arranged in an outdoor classroom. Her left leg bears a long scar, perhaps the result of shelling that occurred in her community, before her family fled Syria.
Yousef notices that she is quiet, reluctant to open up. As a member of Project Refugee Smiles, he understands that he and the team of dental and medical students and professionals might be viewed skeptically by this population of patients, which has endured so much pain, for so long. He pulls out a large green dragon head with an enormous set of teeth, given to him by a friend from Raleigh who traveled with Project Refugee Smiles one year earlier. Speaking in Arabic to her, he uses the dragon to demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. He feels close to her – as if she’s his own family.
This summer Yousef was one of two dozen dental and medical students and professionals who were part of the international relief effort to provide care to child refugees from Syria. They performed fillings and extractions, taught preventative medicine and dental-care techniques, and offered acute dental and medical care for hundreds in need at Al Salam. For refugees of the war in Syria, such access to health care is anything but typical.
“Providing these services for Syrian refugees at Al Salam was the dream of Deah, Yusor, and Razan,” said Yousef, the older brother of Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha and the best friend of Yusor’s husband, Deah Barakat. “They were so passionate about helping these children.”
Deah, Yusor, and Razan are remembered throughout the United States and the world, including by children and staff at Al Salam, as the three young Muslim Americans who were murdered in Chapel Hill in February 2015. As the world learned more about them, they became widely admired as caring young people who had already accomplished many great things in their far-too-short lives.
“In 23, 21, and 19 years, respectively, it’s almost like they lived a thousand years,” says Yousef, who is now a second-year med student. “It’s amazing how much they did for people. Deah and Yusor went on relief trips to the West Bank and Turkey, and Razan worked tirelessly to feed the homeless in downtown Raleigh. Razan’s dream was to utilize her background in architecture to build playgrounds for children in African countries — I hope to fulfill that dream for her.”
Now Yousef is walking and working in their footsteps while learning to become a doctor with a heart focused on serving his communities in North Carolina and abroad.
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By Zach Read, UNC Health Care