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Taliban government shuts down free dental program in Afghanistan created by Santa Barbara dentist

Dr. James Rolfe (left) working on a dental patient in Afghanistan.
Jay Farbman
Dr. James Rolfe (left) working on a dental patient in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Dental Relief Project has treated more than 200,000 people for free.

For two decades, a Santa Barbara dentist has been helping to make little miracles happen halfway around the world. His grass roots program has provided critical dental care to the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan.

"Over the years, we treated over 200,000 people for free," said Dr. James Rolfe

But, he said the future of the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project is up in the air. The Taliban Government has seized the clinic land in Kabul. It’s been unable to serve patients for the last month.

The project started 20 years ago, when Rolfe decided to visit Afghanistan.

"I went to Afghanistan in 2003 with a portable dental care kit, and went to a province where there wasn't any dental care," said Rolfe.

He realized the problem was much bigger than he could handle, and came up with a unique plan. Rolfe bought a giant shipping container, and converted it into a three chair dental clinic, with modern tools, and even its own generator.

The Santa Barbara dentist then set about creating a staff. He hired a dentist, and trained a dental assistant. Then, he opened a school to train dental assistants and other staff.

Rolfe took donations, but funded much of the operation through profits from his Santa Barbara dental practice. Then, he had an idea. They started offering advanced dental care in Kabul to some who could afford it, and used the profits to support the free services.

Business was booming until August of 2021. That’s when Afghanistan’s government collapsed, and the Taliban took control of much of the country.

Not knowing what would happen next, they temporarily closed the main clinic, as well as other facilities they had opened. It was well known that the Taliban objected to women working. But, eventually it was allowed to reopen with women resuming their key roles with the programs.

Then several weeks ago, out of the blue, Taliban officials ordered the clinic closed. They refused to honor a lease from the previous government for the site.

The government wants to the clinic site for a market. It’s banned street vendors, and wants them to move into stalls planned for the clinic current site.

Making the situation worse is the fact that the only other free dental facility, at a Kabul hospital, also had to close because the government can’t afford to pay for the fuel to heat it. Rolfe says there is literally no dental care available right now for the poor in Kabul.

Rolfe says it will probably cost $10,000 to move the clinic. Then, there’s the question of where to move it to, and whether they will have to pay rent.

The Santa Barbara dentist works six days a week, trying to save as much money as he can for the project. But, he admits at 83, it’s hard. He’s hoping members of the community will step up to help support the type of basic, yet critical care that we often take for granted here in the United States.

You can find more information at the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project's website.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.