The Dental Clinic For Syrian Refugees That Deah Barakat And Yusor Abu-Salha Started

Sep 14, 2015

Months before his neighbor barged into his Chapel Hill apartment and fatally shot him, his wife and his sister-in-law, Deah Barakat had decided he wanted to help people escaping the war in Syria.

Deah, a 23-year-old student at the University Of North Carolina School Of Dentistry, had seen and heard about the escalating violence ravaging parts of his parents’ native country, so he called a dentist who was running clinics for displaced Syrians, and he told him: he wanted to take Americans to the Middle East and treat refugees.

Deah had come from a family with a heart for helping, so his plans weren’t unprecedented. His parents, Namee and Layla Barakat, for years had hosted and welcomed hundreds of people for annual feasts at the end of the Muslim observation of Ramadan. As a medical student, Deah’s older sister Suzanne arranged to have part of her training in a hospital emergency room in Southeastern Turkey so she could help treat people fleeing from neighboring Syria (she also raised $10,000 to buy antibiotics for patients). Deah’s older brother, Farris, raised $7,000 and donated it to a school in Turkey serving Syrian children. And Deah’s wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21 and soon to be a first-year dental student at UNC, traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border city of Killis and volunteered for a week at a dental clinic for refugees.

But Deah’s plans for a dental trip were perhaps more ambitious than anything his family had done before. He and Dr. Mohammad Al-Nahhas, the Syrian-American dentist from Florida helping him organize the trip, had agreed that to give free treatment for one week in a school in Reyhanli, a busy Turkish border city, Deah would have to raise $20,000 for dental supplies and medicine.

They agreed to call the trip Project Refugee Smiles, and soon Deah set up a website asking for donations and started stuffing toothbrushes and toothpaste into Ziploc bags. His sister-in-law, Razan Abu Salha, an architecture student at N.C. State University, made a poster-sized sign that Deah and a friend used to set up outside of local mosques.

The sign asked, “Have you changed your toothbrush in the last 3 months?” Deah planned on meeting his fundraising goal one $5 toothbrush kit at a time.

Namee remembers seeing Deah carry the kits in his laundry basket.

"It was kind of funny to me,'" Namee remembers. “I said, ‘You know, Deah, you have a long way to go, my friend.’ He said, ‘Dad, I'm going to try it. I'm going to give it my best.’ So he started doing different activities like basketball tournaments to raise this money. And every time he has off school, he has a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, he tries to sell his tooth brushes.”

By Feb. 10, the day Craig Hicks, according to police, shot Deah, Yusor and Razan, Deah had raised more than $16,000. Chapel Hill police said the shooting appeared to have been motivated by a dispute over parking spaces outside their apartment building in the Finley Forest condominiums complex.

For the families of the victims, the police’s statement was insulting and insensitive. They, and governments from Malaysia, Turkey and Palestine, immediately replied that Hicks, who was atheist, had been motivated by a hatred toward Muslims.

In the ensuing days, people donated more than $500,000 to Project Refugee Smiles. And Deah, Yusor and Razan’s family and friends decided they would carry out the project. The above radio story documents part of the results of more than 40 volunteer Muslim American dentists and assistants to a temporary clinic in Reyhanli.

Tomorrow on Morning Edition, we'll hear from some of the patients treated at the Project Refugee Smiles Clinic. Learn more about projects honoring Deah, Yusor and Razan on the Project Lighthouse website

Reporting for this story was made possible by the International Center for Journalists sponsored by the Ford Foundation.