“If your tooth is painful, you can come here and get the help you need.”
Neil Schwartz, IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Kenya, describes the impact of IsraAID’s Mobile Dental Clinic in Kakuma Refugee Camp. For many patients in places with developed medical infrastructure, visits to the dentist’s office are often met with feelings of dread, fear, or annoyance. Not so in Kakuma, where the over 185,000 people that call this refugee camp in northwest Kenya home often long for the day that painful dental issues can be resolved.
In a community the size of a small US city, there is only one dental clinic, staffed by a single clinical officer. Janeshyleen Njoki usually sees over 100 patients a day and has limited access to the necessary instruments, sanitation practices, and space to accommodate the vast demand for dental remedies in the refugee community. Nonetheless, the Kakuma Dental Clinic has served as a crucial part of the local and refugee communities’ developments in public health. Seldom do dental cases in the developed world reach the point where we are unable to perform daily tasks like eating or drinking for long periods of time. Refugees and members of the local Turkana community in Kakuma with similar issues, like decay or tooth infections, face this reality with a much higher likelihood due to the lack of resources available.
Malachi, a refugee patient from South Sudan, described how much dental care at the Kakuma clinic means to him, especially in a place where there are virtually no other clinics around.
“[Dental care] helps protect me when I can’t eat,” he said. “Where I come from, you can’t remove [teeth] problems because there is war. There are no more hospitals. When I came here they told me there was a provider who could remove the teeth and I was so grateful. I couldn’t wait…”.
For one week, a team of three American dentists have been working vigorously with Janeshyleen, the local clinical officer, to treat over 180 cases like Malachi’s. With the help of supplies generously donated by Henry Schein inc., as well as cooperation between local and international efforts, the Kakuma Dental Clinic will continue to serve as a center that effectively addresses oral hygiene issues for the most in-need populations long after the visiting doctors leave their mark.
Beyond the clinic: oral hygiene in the community
Alongside working in the clinic, the visiting dentists have focused on shaping a vital aspect of dental care for the local and refugee communities: oral hygiene education.
Dr. Esmeralda Marquez, who is part of the week-long mission, spoke to the importance of educating the population on basic hygienic practices, which contributes to overall well-being. “If we are going to help out in the future, we will need to bring more oral hygiene instructions,” she said. “It’s going to be very important”.
As conditions in neighboring countries, such as Somalia and South Sudan, worsen from political instability and violence, the refugee population in Kakuma from these areas has continued to grow. Kakuma Dental Clinic struggles to maintain the proper supplies to treat the wide variety of dental issues that patients have.
“The camp is getting bigger and bigger every day,” Marquez said. “And supplies are getting lower and lower”. That is why, in addition to their work in the clinic, the dentists have reached out to the community on a more personal level. Over two days, the team has held training clinics at IsraAID’s two Child Resource Centers. The centers provide a safe space, daily activities, support and safe water to hundreds of refugee children every day.
Speaking to parents as well as IsraAID’s refugee community facilitators, they demonstrated the proper techniques for brushing and flossing teeth. “[Parents and facilitators] could provide oral hygiene instructions like brushing and flossing, as well as coming in for [regular] checkups,” Marquez said.
Kakuma’s future health leaders
The team of dentists from the US have worked hard to provide the Kakuma community with quality dental treatment. But one could reasonably ask: “What happens when they leave?” Fortunately, the future of the clinic is in the good hands of the individuals who run the clinic through the year.
Michael was born in South Sudan but fled in 1999 when violence and instability broke out. He has lived in Kakuma for almost 20 years, where he feels more stable and comfortable.
“I ran away from a country because of war,” he said. “Being [in Kakuma], I feel safe and protected compared to where I came from”.
Inspired by his family and the refugee community within Kakuma, Michael has been volunteering at the dental clinic while taking classes to become a nurse’s assistant. When he finishes in August, he plans to apply to be an officer at the clinic.
“I feel that I have a future in this career,” Michael said. “Becoming a doctor or a nurse … anything in health.” He said he is especially drawn to dentistry because of the wide range of oral health problems that he sees the Kakuma community struggle with, which affect their daily lives.
“I want to be aware about [dental issues] to protect myself and family,” Michael said. “I can also synthesize [information] to the community, so I can become an ambassador for dentistry in my community”. Juma is another volunteer at the clinic who left his home country of Democratic Republic of Congo seven years ago and has been in Kakuma ever since. He is also a student in the camp who is studying to become a dentist. Juma said he has been looking forward to learning from the IsraAID team because he has not had an opportunity to learn in his home nation.
“In the Congo, they don’t know many of the American procedures”, he said.
Like Michael, Juma said he is determined to serve his community by becoming a clinical officer of dentistry in Kakuma. He also said he was impacted by the passion that the dentists have demonstrated in their work with patients.
“When I finish volunteering, I hope to complete my studies and work here”, he said.
Wilson was one patient who came in to the clinic with an impacted tooth. Arriving from South Sudan 10 years ago as a small child, he said he is grateful for the opportunity to fix his dental issues with the help of volunteers like Michael and Juma.
“If [your tooth] is painful, you can come here and get the help you need,” he said. Michael and Juma have been driven to take action. They are enrolled in courses, volunteering at the Kakuma Dental Clinic, and motivated by their desire to better their community. Here, the future of sustainable practices looks bright with the help of those who are inspired to take the lead.