For the Westlock News.
Dentist Dr. Shideh Pejman is headed to Afghanistan in December to provide free dental services to orphans and others in need.
When Dr. Shideh Pejman came to Canada as a teenager, she swore she would repay the favour the world had given to her. Years later, the young dentist is on her way to fulfilling her vow as the Afghanistan-born Canadian, who works at the Leigh Smile Centre is heading to Kabul Dec. 23 to spend 10 days performing free dental work for anyone who needs it.
As she explains it, that amounts to just about everyone.
“The whole country is going without dental care,” she said. “There’s one dentist for every 250,000 people, and that’s a dentist that doesn’t have enough equipment; they’re probably just doing extractions on teeth that could potentially be saved. But there’s no instruments, or supplies to do a filling. Any tooth that needs a filling gets pulled. That’s a disaster — we’re going to have a young population with no teeth.”
Pejman and her family left Kabul when she was six years old after the Soviet Union invaded in the 1980s. Her family first found their way to Iran where, with the help of the United Nations, they were able to move to Canada and start a new life.
Now, she is giving back.
“What I told them is that when I’m there, I’m there to help,” said Pejman. “I’m not going to say no to anyone, if I can help, I’ll be there. Dentistry is important — it’s not a luxury, it’s not an add-on to
your lifestyle. People are dying from oral diseases. With teeth, you know, your brain is right there. The infection, the only place it goes from your mouth is to your brain.”
Pejman is involved in the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project, a non-profit organization that has been working in Afghanistan since 2003. The group seeks to help fill the dental void left in Afghanistan after several decades of invasions and civil wars.
Aside from a lack of dental expertise and infrastructure, a serious problem facing the beleaguered nation is the fact that years of conflict have left many children orphaned. UNICEF estimates that at least 600,000 kids are currently homeless and that there are over two million orphans in Afghanistan.
“There are a lot of orphans, there are a lot of kids on the street,” said Pejman. “We’re talking about the youth in Afghanistan growing up in conditions where they’re super-traumatized. They’re not able
to contribute to the future of the country if we don’t help them out.”
To contend with this, Pejman is hoping to raise $10,000, with 25 per cent of the funds going to help orphanages. Pejman is paying for her own travel and living expenses while in Kabul, which she estimates will be close to $5,000.
The rest of the money raised is planned to help complete the newly-established Kabul Dental Training School, which educates locals and allows them to provide dentistry themselves.
“What I’m going to raise money for is towards them trying to build that clinic in Kabul,” explained Pejman, noting that the ultimate goal of the project was to reestablish dentistry across the country. “Because the training takes so long, we’re in school for 10 years to become a dentist, so that’s something that’s high in demand. They need doctors to go over and teach the assistants to use the equipment.”
Aside from her dental expertise, Pejman also plans to serve as a translator for many of the staff as she is fluent in Dari, her native tongue.
“The fact that I speak the language I think is going to help the team out a lot, because they always need a translator,” she added. “I can give them a true perspective of what's going on, what I’m hearing from people, and what the community wants to see more of.”
Having been away from her homeland for well over a decade, Pejman admits she is both excited and a bit apprehensive to return home.
“It’s probably going a little bit of a shock as to what I’m going to see, but it’s really good to know that I’m going to a place where they really need help,” she said. “It’s going to be different, for sure. I’m so used to my life here now, that I think it’s still going to be a bit of a change. But I’m going there with the outlook that I’m here to make the best of the situation. No matter how big of a shock, I’m planning to do the best that I can.”
She added that she was preparing for potential gender barriers as part of her itinerary.
“I think being a woman in Afghanistan right now is not easy. You always want to be there with a guy, and that’s something I’m not used to. I’m very independent and do everything on my own, so that’s going to be challenging,” she noted. “That’s something that really needs to change in Afghanistan. We have a lot of trained women that I know would want to help, so we need to make sure that it’s a
safe environment for female doctors to give back.”
However, the social situation is not shaking her resolve.
“I’m doing this for the kids. We’re talking about a huge orphan population, and I know that most of our patients are going to be kids,” she said. “I really want people to focus on how this project is focusing on kids and giving back to the younger generation that’s going build Afghanistan. We want to make them self-sufficient. This is going to be a stepping stone in a very big project.”
The Afghanistan Dental Relief Project was started by Dr. James Rolfe in 2003, who began by simply travelling the countryside with a backpack full of dental equipment. From those humble beginnings the organization has grown into an international group, with volunteers from across the planet.
For Pejman, helping out is a natural extension of her practice.
“Being helped out in a way where you can’t put a face to someone who has helped you is something that is very familiar to me,” said Pejman. “When we left Iran I promised myself that I would do this for somebody else someday. So that’s where I’m at. It took about 14 years, but I can finally give back.”
If you would like to help Dr. Pejman on her journey, you can visit her fundraising page at https://www.generosity.com/medical-fundraising/afghanistan-dental-relief-project.