Making A Friendship: Why North Carolina Students Set Out To Help Children In The Middle East

Apr 19, 2016

When Ali Heydari was a teenager, he knew he wanted to be a productive member of society. He just didn't know what he wanted to do. He flipped burgers at Burger King. He stocked groceries at Target. And then one night at the gym, he met another young guy his age named Deah Barakat.

It was Ramadan, and as observant Muslims, they only worked out late at night because it was the only time they could eat after exercising. Deah had just been accepted to dental school, so he asked Ali, "Have you thought about dentistry?"

The next time they met was at a library on the campus of NC State University, and Deah, looking at the classes Ali had taken as a student at Wake Technical Community College, helped Ali organize the rest of his college career to meet dental school application requirements and prepare for the Dental Admission Test.

Ali transferred to NC State, and Deah began his first year at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry. While they were living in separate cities and studying at different schools, the two became friends. If Ali told Deah about a test he had, Deah would call him after to ask how he did, Ali says.

"He really looked out for me," Ali says.

Deah looked out for Ali so much, that he even tried to be his matchmaker and suggested a possible girlfriend. Says Ali: "I thought to myself, 'Nah, I'm not ready for this.'"

Eventually, in a shooting that was heard around the world, Deah was killed.

According to police, a neighbor in Chapel Hill shot Deah and his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, who had been admitted to the UNC dental school, and his sister-in-law Razan Abu-Salha, a first-year design student at NC State. Their deaths inspired reactions from leaders in majority Muslim countries around the world, but in life, the three had already had a deep impact on family and friends, including Ali.

Ali was determined to make Deah proud, so with his emotions still raw, he prepared for the Dental Admissions Test, and he carried on with a trip he and Deah had been organizing to give free dental treatment to refugees on Turkey's border with Syria, which was Deah's parents' native country.

In July last year, Ali arrived to the clinic he set up in Reyhanli, Turkey, with the help of the Syrian American Medical Society and more than 40 American volunteers.

"I walk in, and I see a bunch of people walking around, getting ready, setting up," Ali says. "And I see Deah's dad, standing in the corner, looking out of the barred windows, looking off into the distance. I went and stood next to him.  I just couldn't help holding back my tears."

When he returned to North Carolina, Ali submitted his applications for dental schools (His top choice was UNC). And he developed a friendship with one of Deah's classmates -- the one Deah once suggested to Ali.

Radwa Behairy, now a second-year dental student, like many others, had been shocked by the shooting, and was moved by charitable work Deah, Yusor and Razan had done.

"I was thinking, 'We're not really guaranteed another day, and what am I really doing to help this world?'" she says. "I really had no answers about what I’m doing to better anything about the world."
 

Volunteers packed several suitcases with dental supplies for treatment in Cairo's Manshiyat Naser.
Credit Jorge Valencia

Radwa decided she wanted to organize a trip like the one Ali and Deah had done. She traveled to her family's native country, Egypt. A dentist there took her Manshiyat Naser, a section of Cairo that is informally known as Garbage City, and introduced her to children there. Radwa remembers seeing that the children's teeth were peppered with black dots.   

"I was just thinking, 'Wow, these kids are just way too young.' All their teeth were worn down or eroded," she says.

Radwa began the months-long process of organizing a volunteer group to work in Manshiyat Naser, and she has succeeded: This week and next, Ali, Radwa, three classmates from the UNC dental school and a faculty advisor are there helping give free dental treatment and education to children.

Ali has been accepted to the UNC dental school and will enroll in the fall. Radwa says she will plan a service trip to Egypt for next year. And the two of them are planning to get married this summer.

"I think when we talked about getting engaged," Radwa says, "I think one of the first things on my mind was, 'Deah would've been so excited.'"

Says Ali: "Yeah, absolutely."

Learn more about UNC School of Dentistry students’ work in Egypt at egyptiandentalrelief.org.