Providing Free Dental Care for New Afghan Residents in Los Angeles

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation  |  May 20, 2022
In affiliation with a Federal Emergency Management Agency program, Tzu Chi USA, as part of its medical mission, provides three weeks of free dental care services for new residents from Afghanistan in Los Angeles. Photo/Luo Shuli

Written by Qiaojia Yang and Shili Lo
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

From April 11 to April 30, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hosted a three-week service for Afghan residents starting up in the Los Angeles area to help them adjust to their new life and integrate into the community as quickly as possible. Tzu Chi USA was invited to participate by providing free dental clinic services and dispatched its Mobile Dental Clinic. From 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day, the mobile clinic stationed itself in various locations to care for these new patients.

The End of a Difficult Journey

Debra Boudreaux (left), CEO of Tzu Chi USA, is honored that Tzu Chi can assist the new residents from Afghanistan. Photo/Luo Shuli
Dr. Shirley Chen, Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Medical Development Department, and volunteers prepare to receive patients in the Tzu Chi Mobile Dental Clinic. Photo/Luo Shuli

At the end of August 2021, the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. As the Taliban took over the capital, Kabul, tens of thousands of Afghans fled abroad. The U.S. government took in some Afghans who fled and earmarked funds for “unexpected urgent refugee and immigrant needs, including special migrants; and to provide for refugees, victims of military conflict, and others at risk in the Afghan situation, including visa applicants.”

According to statistics, around 16,000 Afghans have currently immigrated to Los Angeles. In addition to housing, food, and education, disease prevention and health maintenance are also integral components of their new lives. Tzu Chi volunteers have worked closely with FEMA over the years and thus were invited to provide free clinic services for new Afghan residents, namely dental care.

Dental Services Offered with Heartfelt Care

Deputy CEO of Tzu Chi USA’s Medical Development Department, Steven Voon, drove the mobile dental clinic vehicle from Fresno County, Central California to Southern California one day ahead of schedule to get ready. After a day’s inspection, it was stationed at Los Angeles Community College in the early morning of April 11 to offer its dental clinic services.

A dentist treats an Afghan patient in the Tzu Chi Mobile Dental Clinic. Photo/Luo Shuli

Debra Boudreaux, CEO of Tzu Chi USA, who was on site, expressed, “We’re delighted to receive the honor of assisting new residents. In the next three weeks, in addition to free dental clinics, we’ll utilize our own experience as immigrants to empathize with these new immigrants. In addition to welcoming their arrival, I hope they can get back on their feet and establish a future direction for themselves.” She went on to highlight:

We’re the only Buddhist organization on the whole site and also a non-profit, non-governmental organization. [Being here] is an important footprint of our deep cultivation in the community over the years.

Dr. Shirley Chen, Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Medical Development Department, prepared for this free clinic, arranging all the planning and staffing to ensure the smooth operation of every link.

Dr. Shirley Chen (right) administers a dental treatment for an Afghan patient. Photo/Luo Shuli

Once Tzu Chi’s medical service began, she shared that “I’m glad that many volunteer doctors came to participate in the free clinic. On the first day of the free clinic, we served some patients. In addition to tooth extraction, cleaning, and filling, we also interacted with patients on prevention and regular care according to their conditions, offering them the help they needed and hoping that their dental conditions would improve.”

She continues, saying, “These new residents from Afghanistan have neglected to take care of their teeth while fleeing, and many of them have dental problems. Once they came to the United States, their lives tended to become more stable; but due to a language barrier, they may not be able to express their daily needs fully. It is our honor to have the opportunity to contribute to [their health].”

All the medical professionals and volunteers focus on providing the best care through the Tzu Chi Mobile Dental Clinic. Photo/Luo Shuli

With the venue’s permission and time, we’ll try our best to solve dental problems for the new residents from Afghanistan. Some of them need further treatment, and we hope to continue to serve them through Tzu Chi Medical Centers in the future.

The whole Tzu Chi Mobile Dental Clinic team serves patients with dedication, everyone fulfilling their role. Photo/Luo Shuli
The team also brings information about Tzu Chi USA’s Health Centers and books by Dharma Master Cheng Yen to share with interested patients. Photo/Luo Shuli

We Are All Family

After being displaced by war and chaos, the physical and mental pressure and pain that these new residents from Afghanistan have endured are unknown to outsiders. Although they were fortunate enough to come to the United States, they still had to go through the complicated yet required path of re-settlement in a new and unfamiliar environment. 

With their pasts erased and everything starting anew, it can feel like a jumble of problems amplified by language barriers that can complicate integration into the community, future livelihood skills, and children’s education issues. That’s a lot to deal with and overcome.

During the three-week service period to help the new Afghan residents transition into their new lives in Los Angeles, FEMA arranged for several social welfare agencies to set up booths and provide assistance according to their needs. They also placed interpreters on-site to translate for them. In addition to providing free dental clinics, Tzu Chi also set up booths in the Welcome Center to introduce Tzu Chi stories and provide English periodicals to uplift their spirits.

When Dr. Chen engaged with the new residents from this war-torn country afar, she told them, “We avoid calling you refugees; we call you friends, family. Please don’t feel bad about the challenges ahead as we are all friends; we are all one.”

To start a new life in a foreign land is not easy for ordinary people, let alone those who fled in a hurry due to war. One recent arrival who accompanied his parents to the clinic confided about the challenges the family is facing:

Some of us don’t understand or speak English. It’s tough to communicate, so we can’t buy what we need. Some of us can’t even find housing. It’s been very difficult.

Communicating heart-to-heart with this family and other new residents from Afghanistan, Tzu Chi volunteers, many of whom are also immigrants, shared their experience of moving to the United States, including how to accept a new culture and learn a foreign language. The volunteers also introduced Jing Si Aphorisms and other notable works of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, aiming to offer spiritual support during the families’ transition to a new life in a foreign land.

The Tzu Chi USA medical team is grateful for the opportunity to provide three weeks of free dental care services for new residents from Afghanistan. Photo/Luo Shuli

Tzu Chi has assisted Syrian refugees in Europe and continues to support those who settled in Turkey through various programs. We are now mounting aid for Ukrainian refugees. Join hands with us to help these displaced families find some relief, or to offer health care to those in need in the United States and beyond.