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Dentists Bridge Cultural Barrier

Hanifa fidgeted in Dr. Riaz Rayek's office, wincing at the sound of drilling coming from the back room. She was one of a group of girls from Afghanistan who are in the United States to play in an international soccer tournament. The girls were visiting Rayek for some dental work, which is scarce in Afghanistan.

"I'm going to get hurt," Hanifa said through interpreter Mariam Wardack, who lives in Maryland but is helping the girls on their trip. Of the eight girls, who are between 11 and 16, only three of them had ever visited a dentist before. Then the dental work was mainly extractions, sometimes without anaesthetics.

Rayek and partner Tara Ziev were filling cavities and cleaning the girls' teeth on Friday, June 25.

Rayek left Afghanistan in the late 1970's because of the Russian invasion. In the aftermath of that invasion, Afghanistan has had its share of ups and downs.

"In the last 15 years since the Russians left, it's complete chaos," Rayek said. "Essentially, Afghanistan went back to the Stone Ages."

Mariam Nawabi, an attorney who works in the Embassy of Afghanistan, knows the value of dental work for the girls. Like Rayek, she left Afghanistan as a child in 1979 after the Soviets invaded the country, got a law degree and now works with the embassy.

"The access that children have [to dentists] is very low. Most of the educated people left. The equipment doesn't compare to what is here in the United States," Nawabi said.

The girls admitted that while they now are going to school and becoming educated, a downside exists with the Taliban out of power. Law and order are nonexistent.

"We are happy to go to school, but now boys and girls are getting kidnapped," said Hasina, 11.

A few of the girls knew a little English, but for the most part, they relied on Wardack to communicate. In Afghanistan, some of them had taken language classes.

Nawabi added that the country is slowly getting better, with the introduction of banks, hotels, a currency and schools, but the children are in danger.

"There's been a real problem with taking the children, kidnapping and taking their organs," Nawabi said. "There is a big organ smuggling ring."

DENTAL WORK in Burke was just one leg of the soccer team's trip. The girls arrived in the area on June 20 and are staying with a family in Maryland for a few nights.

Then they are going to Connecticut to visit Amista Ayub, founder of the soccer program, and then Cleveland, Ohio, to play soccer in the International Children's Game, before returning to Afghanistan on Aug. 7.

"This is the first time a woman left the country for a sporting event," said Wardack.

None of the girls knew how to play soccer and learned in only the last three years they've been allowed to go to school. On the trip, they also got to swim in a pool for the first time.

Rayek is a graduate of George Mason University and earned his degree in dentistry from the University of Maryland. Ziev, a Virginia Tech graduate, received her degree in dentistry from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. Both were happy to help the girls. Rayek even put together pamphlets in Farsi, containing dental care instructions for the girls.

Rayek has worked with children from Chernobyl in past years, performing the same kind of dental work for them.

"Those kids from Chernobyl had no access to dental care, either," Rayek said.

Nawabi said that it's people helping people that will pull Afghanistan through its current tough times.

"There's really a long-term commitment by the international community," Nawabi said. "There is a lot of goodwill among people. It's a very multilateral effort. The most important thing is there is a sense of hope."