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Giving extra time to fix broken smiles

BCHC dentist Ola Hassan has a special place in her heart for supporting refugees. She started life as one herself  after her parents fled their home in war-torn Iraq in the 1980s, taking refuge in neighbouring Iran, where Ola was born.

When Ola's younger brother came along three years later, the conflict between Iraq and Iran had worsened further and so her parents decided to move to the UK.

Three decades on, having been a qualified dentist for five years, Ola dedicates her spare time providing emergency dental care to Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees and is  looking for more professional volunteers to support the project.

As if that were not enough commitment to her profession, when Ola’s not treating patients or providing clinical outreach teaching to undergraduates  at Birmingham Dental Hospital and School of Dentistry, she runs a dental clinic for refugees in Greece.

Ola Hassan

Ola set up the Dental-Point Project in December 2015 after receiving a call from Dr Hadia Aslam, an old university friend.

Ola explains that Hadia wanted her to get involved in a project to support the thousands of refugees fleeing war and arriving into Greece.

“Hadia was already on the island of Lesbos running a medical clinic for refugees – known as the Health-Point Foundation. Many of the patients she was seeing needed urgent dental care, and so she approached me for help," she said.

“I didn’t hesitate. I had worked in refugee camps in Calais previously, and I’d seen the shocking images in the papers and on TV of these tiny boats overflowing with refugees risking their lives to reach Greek shores. I couldn’t just sit there – I had to see it for myself and do something to help."

The project had no funding so Ola set up an appeal on Facebook for donations of supplies and funds and had an instant response.

“I was overwhelmed with support from friends, family and even complete strangers who found out about my appeal and wanted to help," she remembers. "Within three weeks I had six suitcases of supplies.”

On Christmas Eve, Ola flew out to a camp on Lesbos, and spent the Christmas period running the clinic, before returning to the UK in the new year.

Since then Ola, who splits her week between her part-time job with BCHC and her home in London where she also works as a dentist, has used annual leave to make another four trips to the refugee camps, accompanied by other volunteer dentists she has since recruited to the project.

“Our clinics are still very much in demand," she said. "Since the EU-Turkey deal, the borders have been closed off which means refugees are no longer able to seek asylum in countries other than Greece, so the people are stuck here.

“The Greek authorities have done a great deal for the refugees but, because of their own financial difficulty, they can’t afford to run a dental clinic for the refugees to seek help from.”

Ola and her team see between 40-50 patients a day – nearly five times as many as the Greek dental clinic was able to cope with in a week. They treat patients with severe dental pain and dental and oral infections.

“Some people might question how ‘critical’ dental care is in the general scheme of things, but anyone that’s ever experienced toothache would know how painful it is," she says.

"Their lives are already stressful enough so helping to ease their pain so they can sleep better in their tents at night is the least we can do.”

Ola said: “My parents made huge sacrifices for us - leaving their home, friends and family so that we would have the chance of a better life. I feel fortunate that they were able to do so, and now feel I can give something back to those in a similar situation.”

Ola, who is fluent in Arabic and Persian, says the gratitude of people who have lost so much is hugely rewarding.

 “The patients tell me how grateful they are for the service we provide, and are extremely generous," she says.

"I’ve been invited for dinner by patients who want to say ‘thank you’. They have lost so much - their home and their livelihood – and yet are willing to share what little they have.”

As long as the demand is still there, Ola hopes to continue running the Dental-Point Project as part of the wider Health-Point Foundation project. Ola and the team want to expand their service into other refugee camps in Greece and offer a wider range of healthcare services, including nursing, midwifery and physiotherapy.

To open up additional funding streams and support, the team is applying for non-government organisation (NGO) registration, but they also need to recruit more volunteers.

Ola said: “What we’ve achieved so far wouldn’t have been possible without the support of colleagues, friends and family. I am also extremely grateful to my line managers, Khalid Malik and David Newsum, for allowing me the flexibility to travel there, while working here.

"However to continue this project, we will need more funding, and more support. We need clinicians with great people skills and an ability to adapt to different environments. Providing care out there with the bare essentials isn’t easy, but it certainly puts things in perspective when you’re having a bad day back home. Doing this work has taught me to take the everyday stresses of modern life in my stride!”

Get involved:

The Health-Point Foundation is looking for dentist, dental nurses, registered general nurses, midwives, doctors, paramedics, physiotherapists and first aiders who would like to provide care to people living in refugee camps.  Language skills are not essential, but can be helpful.