Syrian Refugee Gets Free Dental Care From A Dentist Who Also Was A Refugee

Sep 16, 2016
Originally published on September 16, 2016 7:55 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, let's hear more from a refugee family who fled the civil war in Syria and is trying to forge a new life with help from a New Jersey church. My colleague Deb Amos has been following their progress. And before we listen to more of her reporting, Deb is back with us again.

Hey, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Just take me back to how you found this family.

AMOS: Sometime in the winter, I was driving through Princeton, N.J., and I saw a sign on Nassau Presbyterian Church's lawn that said we welcome refugees.

GREENE: The best kind of reporting - it just sort of - you just notice something.

AMOS: I went in and asked them, and they said, we are going to resettle one Syrian family. I wanted to tell their story, the story of Americans willing to resettle Syrians in this political climate. I also wanted to tell the story of what it's like to be a refugee, people who come here because their lives were in danger. They have to leave everything behind. It turns out refugees don't like to talk about it. They're starting their lives from zero, where everything is alien and strange, even a visit to the dentist.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello. Osama's here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, OK.

AMOS: For Osama, the father of the Syrian family I've been following, the war has left its mark. He's disabled after surviving a mortar blast in 2013 that blinded him, scarred his face and broke his teeth. Sue Jennings, part of the Nassau church team, is getting him the medical attention he needs from a dentist who treats refugees for free.

JASMINKA KOPANJA: How are you?

(CROSSTALK)

AMOS: That's dentist Jasminka Kopanja. She greets Osama as a volunteer interpreter gently guides him to the chair.

Is it harder because he's blind?

KOPANJA: A little bit, probably, for him, you know, because with the touch of our machines and it's a little bit, you know, more trauma for him.

AMOS: She knows what it's like to be lost and overwhelmed. Kopanja was a war refugee from Bosnia two decades ago. Even now, it's painful for her to recall that first harrowing year after landing in America with her husband and young children.

KOPANJA: We are not aware how much we don't know, you know, at the beginning. I didn't know too much, you know? And I thought, OK, it will be a year maybe to learn English. And looking back, it was tough, that time.

AMOS: Like the Syrian family, Kopanja was sponsored by Nassau Church. She was able to restart her dental career with the church's support. She wants to assure Osama that he can make it, too. But there's no time and no common language, so free care is the way that she sends the message.

KOPANJA: It's just a good feeling to help somebody who needs help at some time, you know. I understand.

AMOS: Back at the house in the quiet neighborhood where the Syrian family now live, Osama is learning to use a white cane for the first time to navigate solo walks.

GHADA: Cookies, Tom.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah, James (ph), I think we...

AMOS: In the dining room, his wife, Ghada, serves Arabic sweets and strong coffee to the church sponsors, Tom Charles and Sue Jennings, as they go over next week's schedule. The group has fallen into a comfortable routine over the past few months. Jennings lists the many medical appointments ahead, like with a dentist.

SUE JENNINGS: But she certainly can give him a more beautiful smile. We've told him that. She hopes to give him a full mouth of teeth (laughter).

AMOS: And Charles says he's found a slot at a place that provides vocational training for the blind.

TOM CHARLES: With some help, we found a program that will actually help train Osama with not only mobility, getting around, but also with vocation and finding, possibly, a job for him.

AMOS: When he hears the translation, Osama's face brightens.

OSAMA: I am happy.

(LAUGHTER)

OSAMA: In English, I am happy.

AMOS: He's been worried about how long his family will be dependent on the church. He had his own business in Syria before the war. These people were all strangers just a few months ago, meeting for the first time at an airport. Now, when the four Syrian kids come home from school, they turn to Jennings to ask about a music program and English words start to pop out.

JENNINGS: Cello. Yes, cello.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Cello. In the school, Mr. Watson email...

JENNINGS: Yes. You hear his English?

CHARLES: Yeah (laughter).

AMOS: She's organizing church volunteers to help them with homework, but the bigger challenge is ahead. Can these Syrians find their way in the community in a year's time when the sponsorship runs out? For now, Jennings, a new grandmother, spends more time with the Syrian family than with her own.

JENNINGS: We have a new baby in the family, so my husband would agree with that (laughter).

GREENE: All right, the voices of that family brought to us by my colleague Deb Amos who is still on the line.

Deb, it's amazing the amount of help that a family really needs. This woman is spending more time with his family than her own family.

AMOS: It's a huge time commitment. That's the remarkable thing to watch.

GREENE: How typical is this? I mean, this is a day in the life for a refugee family. Is this what most refugee families are going through?

AMOS: You know, as tough as this sounds, this is a five-star resettlement. This church has a long history of doing this, and it's a wealthy community. There are volunteers across the country, but most refugees only get three to six months of support. The official refugee agencies in the country have been overwhelmed by this surge of Syrians. If it wasn't for volunteers across the country, the whole thing would fall apart.

GREENE: President Obama - you say there's been a surge. I mean, there might be even a bigger surge because he has said he wants to increase the number of refugees that the United States brings in from around the world over the next year 30 percent. That's something like 110,000. There's been mixed reaction to this from people in this country.

AMOS: Predictably mixed - complaints from both sides - refugee advocates wanted 200,000. Republicans denounced the increase because they said, you are ignoring our national security concerns. The president sets the numbers, but it's Congress that sets the budget. And they've already signaled the spending will be restricted next year. That's unprecedented. So here's the question - do you bring in all of those numbers and give them two months of support? And that will be tough because refugees must be independent quickly when they come here. They have to find a job. They have to pay for rent, utilities, just like the rest of us.

AMOS: And next week, the president is going to be hosting a summit about this very subject on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings up in New York. What's his goal there?

AMOS: He is expected to call on other countries to double the number of refugees they're taking. And he wants a pledge from countries that are bordering Syria to put a million more kids in school, to let a million more people work so that families can legally work in these countries. This is the largest refugee crisis we've had since World War II, so he is trying to push the world to grapple with it and take in more refugees.

GREENE: All right, great reporting this week, Deb. Thanks a lot.

AMOS: Thank you.

GREENE: That's NPR's Deb Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.