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Fate Of South Coast Based Humanitarian Project In Afghanistan Up In Air

Dental students in Afghanistan learn how to do x-rays through a program created by Goleta dentist Dr. Jim Rolfe
James Rolfe
Dental students in Afghanistan learn how to do x-rays through a program created by Santa Barbara County dentist Dr. James Rolfe.

Santa Barbara County-based project, which provided dental care to more than 200,000 people in Afghanistan, is in jeopardy.

He’s a South Coast dentist with a modest office just off of Patterson Avenue in Santa Barbara. He's been helping people on the South Coast with dental issues for decades.

But Dr. James Rolfe has dedicated much of his life to also helping others in need halfway around the world. The U.S. first intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, after 9/11. In 2003, Rolf went to the war-torn country to get a first hand look at the situation and to see what he could do to help the country’s people.

"I decided to just actually go there, and see for myself what it was all about," said Rolfe. "I put together a portable dental office, and went to Kabul. I saw people who had seven or eight abscessed teeth. And I thought why don't these people have their abscessed teeth removed? I found that their only option was to go to a barber, and have the tooth removed without anesthetic."

That trip led to Rolfe creating the non-profit Afghanistan Dental Relief Project.

"I came back to Santa Barbara, I bought a 40 foot shipping container, and I converted it into a three chair dental office," said Rolfe. "And then I sent it over there, and I found a dentist and trained him and a nurse to operate it."

He then created a school to train dental technicians.

The program has now been up and running for 18 years. He even figured out a way to make it self-sufficient. There are two clinics. One offers high-end dental care for those who can afford it. The second is free, but it subsidized by the the pay for services clinic. The program has served more than 200,000 people during its history.

Goleta dentist Dr. James Rolfe in one of the dental offices he helped create in Afghanistan
Photo courtesy Afganistan Dental Relief Project
Goleta dentist Dr. James Rolfe in one of the dental offices he helped create in Afghanistan

It was sometimes dangerous work. The dentist pulls out a cardboard box filled with chunks of metal. They are shards of metal from car bombs which exploded near him.

When he visited in recent years, staff members wouldn't even let him go to a store by himself, and would instead send someone to pick up food. But, that didn't stop him from returning again and again to Afghanistan.

But now, with the Taliban takeover of the country, the dental project is in limbo. He says most of the dentists, and other staff members are women. Because the Taliban have historically not allowed women to work in key professional jobs, or even drive, the clinics are closed,

Rolfe says they’ve trained about 80 dentists, and other key staff members, and well as hundreds of other people who worked as assistants. He says when things got bad a couple of weeks ago, they tried send some staff members to the airport in Kabul to see if they could get out. Rolfe says they never made it past the airport's gates.

The dentist says like many, he’s worried about Afghanistan’s future. He thinks the Taliban may be in over their heads when it comes to running a government. But, he's hopeful that the new government will realize the important, and value of the clinics, and allow then to reopen.

Rolfe says with bank accounts frozen, and borders closed, it’s unrealistic to think that those involved with the dental project will be able to get out of Afghanistan. He’s trying to send what money he can to help staff members survive, as they remain mostly huddled in their homes.

More information on the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project

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.