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Za’atari is the “Ritz of refugee camps.”
That’s what the Syrians living there said, anyway. I still remember their faces—especially the children.
“Nana na nana!” the kids said, teasing me with their lollipops as I left them at the end of Day One. I stared at the Syrian children with a heavy heart and glazed eyes as exhaustion, along with the settling shock resulting from the first break of the day, hit me.
My name is Amal Lattouf. I am known as “Emma” among many of my American friends, although recently I find myself mostly referred to as Dr. Lattouf.
I graduated from Boston University School of Dental Medicine in 2015 and began my residency at the University of Texas Advanced Education in General Dentistry. When I was given a week off to treat patients at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, I asked my father, surgeon Dr. Omar Lattouf, and sister, Zeena Lattouf, to join me.
Dental was by far one of the busiest specialties. Dental pain is usually not detrimental but it is debilitating. The trip was comprised of 70 internationals, mostly doctors and nurses, as well as three dentists. I learned from my co-volunteers that the only pain worse than dental pain is kidney stone pain.
Each day we arrived with a waiting room filled with hundreds of patients in pain. The number of kids with facial swellings and adults rocking in their seat cupping their jaws was far beyond anything we would be able to treat in our short time there. Until the moment of pain, teeth are the least of these peoples’ concern.
As I rode on the bus back to Amman, the images of the kids smiling and giggling replayed in my head. Prior to visiting the camp, I felt a sense of sadness, despair, and loss of hope amongst people both within the U.S. and in the Middle East.
But standing outside the bus and watching the kids playfully giggling, with their parents admiring us in the background, gave me a confused emotion that I couldn’t pinpoint. You see, the people in the camp were all smiles and giggles. They were happy and profusely thankful for us and to God for their health and safety. Their optimism and strength was contagious. All I could think was that we owe it to them to at least match their level of optimism.
We, the Syrian American Medical Society volunteers, treated approximately 5,500 patients at the camp that week (of a total 120,000 refugees). Although our contribution was great, the lessons I gained from the refugees were even greater. Watching the kids playing in the mud and running between “homes,” merely four metal sheets stuck together to create a semblance of shelter, reminded me that happiness comes from within.
Many patients had never been to a dentist before so their apprehension and lack of knowledge led to encounters I had never experienced in the U.S. I spent a substantial amount of time discussing dental education because without knowledge and education, you cannot expect behavior to change. In order to spark a change in mentality, behavior, and customs, you have to introduce and implement it. That day, I gained a new level of appreciation for Ghandi's quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” As I looked around at my co- volunteers, I saw those words come to life.
It's hard hearing all the praise about what we did because the real heroes are the refugees who have survived, and pushed through while maintaining a smile on their face. Its obvious that the refugees need our help, but what’s less obvious is how much I needed them.
I think I gained more from this trip more than what I gave. I have a new respect for dentistry as a profession, a new sense of hope, and a more grounded view of the world. I’m thankful for the opportunity provided by SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society) and I can't wait to go back.
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