Tensions or not, UB dental instructor heading overseas to aid Syrian refugees

Apr 16, 2018

Late next week, a clinical professor and Associate Director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Dental Studies will join volunteers to deliver dental services to hundreds of war-displaced refugees along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Even before the United States launched missile strikes against the Assad regime late Friday, Dr. Othman Shibly told WBFO that Miles for Smiles will move ahead with its latest mission, regardless of the situation.


Dr. Shibly, a native of Syria, has previously teamed with colleagues in the program Miles for Smiles to provide care to refugees and others affected by violence in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. On their latest trip, Miles for Smiles is planning to provide care to 1,200 people, mainly children, and 900 of them Syrian refugees. The remainder will be Lebanese also affected by violence.

Dr. Othman Shibly stands in his office on the south campus of the University at Buffalo. He is heading to the Lebanese-Syrian border where, next week, he and peers in the programs Miles for Smiles will provide dental care for hundreds of war-displaced refugees.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

"The reason we are helping refugees is not because of our Syrian background or roots but because of the need," Shibly explained.

"They are under a lot of stress because of conditions. However, they are also strong and survivors, especially the women and children. They are studying hard. They are working hard. You can tell they are smart and making the best out of their time."

Tensions in the region escalated following an alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime, followed by Russian suggestions that the attacks were staged. The United States, United Kingdom and France launched missile strikes late Friday against targets where chemical weapon production was reported to be taking place.

Dr. Shibly said peaceful conflict resolution is always desired over military action and the Syrian people are "disappointed" by how the western powers have handled the crisis. 

"The moral question we always ask ourselves is, what is the moral stand of the Unites States on this conflict?" he said. "Do they really care? I'm talking about politicians. The people are perfect. They care and we love them. Donating, America is the most generous country in the world. But the political foreign policy of the United States, do they really care about the women and children, to protect them? Are they really upset about the chemical weapons that were used?"

Dr. Shibly noted that many displaced Syrians have heard the rhetoric from some in the west, that to allow them into the United States would threaten the nation's safety, that these are terrorists in waiting. 

The refugees, he said, are peaceful and while a few have expressed an interest in moving to the United States, more want to stay and rebuild their nation. But it's not safe just yet. 

He recalled an encounter his daughter, Serene, had with a young patient.

"My daughter asked one of the refugee girls, she was a 9- or 10-year-old girl, and she asked what do you want to be when you grow up in the future? She said 'I want to be an architectural engineer," he said. "So my daughter asked her 'why do you want to be an architectural engineer?' She said 'Because I want to build back Syria after all this bombing.'

"My daughter has tears in her eyes and said 'Dad, when I was young American girl, 9 or 10, I didn't know what an architectural engineer is! But this girl knew because that was her focus.'"

Shibly will spend time attending a conference in Lebanon before the Miles for Smiles team heads for the Lebanese-Syrian border late next week. His conversation with WBFO occurred hours before missile strikes were announced. Even before that, before the uncertainty of escalation in Syria, Dr. Shibly said the decision was made to go ahead with this mission.

"I hope the world will come together to finish this conflict so people can go back and rebuild their homes," he said. "That's what we really need to do for them. I feel bas for those people, women and children, who have to leave their homes and go to another place just because the world failed to help them. They are really great, great people."

(Videos were produced by Akram Shibly and are used with permission for this story.)