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South Coast non-profit reopens dental clinic in Afghanistan closed by Taliban takeover of country

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Afghanistan Dental Relief Project
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Patients lined up outside of the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project clinic in Kabul waiting for treatment.

Clinic was initially closed over concerns about safety of clinic staff.

It was a shocking development in war-torn Afghanistan, as the government quickly collapsed last August as the Taliban overran, and took control of the country.

It hit home for a Santa Barbara based relief program especially hard. For nearly two decades, the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project had been providing critically needed care for people.

"Our worst fears...people were going to be killed. We really didn't know," said Dr. James Rolfe, who founded the project. "We really didn't know what our future would be."

In 2003, the Santa Barbara dentist visited Afghanistan, treating a number of orphans. He was overwhelmed by what he found, discovering that dental care was virtually non-existent for most people in the country.

He noticed that with the lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan, he couldn’t just build a dental office. Rolfe came up with an unusual idea.

Back in California, Dr. Rolfe bought a 40 foot shipping container, and turned it into a clinic with detail chairs and even an X-ray machine. He then shipped it to Afghanistan. He hired and trained a dentist and a nurse, and set up a school to train assistants.

A few years later, he came up with a plan to make the clinic self-supporting. He set up a second facility to do more elaborate procedures for people who could afford to pay. Money from that clinic largely subsidized the free operation.

Things were going well, and the clinics were treating hundreds of people a week until the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government, and the Taliban takeover last August.

Out of caution, they burned the clinic records with the names off staff members.

The dental clinics relied on a largely female workforce, which was another issue. The Taliban have a history of putting restrictions on women doing even basic things like driving, and working. But, Dr. Rolfe says the new government knew it needed the clinic.

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Jay Farbman
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Afghanistan Dental Relief Project
A child being treated at the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project's clinic.

He says they negotiated a deal with the Taliban allowing them to operate. The deal even allowed mixed genders in the reopened clinic, which is now treating about 60 people a day. Female staff members are treating men, and male staff members are treating women.

Money has become an issue. Afghanistan’s economy is in shambles. Because of the Taliban’s reputation of brutality and poor treatment of women, the United Nations cuts off billions in aid. The U.S. has committed to more than $780 million in humanitarian support.

The money to pay the dental clinic’s workers is coming from donations to the Santa Barbara based non-profit.

Dr. Rolfe has subsidized much of the clinic’s operations over the years through his own dental practice in Santa Barbara. He estimated that he's put about $2 million over the years into the project.

But, without other contributions, the clinic can't pay its staff, and keep its humanitarian work underway. The project is hoping people will step up with donations.

More about the Afghanistan Dental Relief project.