Building Bridges

Now seven months into my service term, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the incredible power of community, not only how it can be sustained but also how I have contributed to the spirit of community in my role as an AmeriCorps member and a Health Access Liaison at Nationalities Service Center (NSC). I am able to reflect so vividly on this sense of community due in part to the freedom I have at my host site to create projects and see the product of my work unfold and come to fruition. One project I am most proud of is starting a refugee clinic at Penn Dental School.

This relationship between Nationalities Service Center and Penn Dental School first began by happenstance. Early in my service term, I was looking for an emergency dental clinic that would see two Syrian clients who were complaining of severe dental pain. In addition to finding a suitable location and time, language access is another layer of difficulty to overcome when scheduling appointments for the international clients of NSC. Luckily, I found Penn Dental School was able to see my Syrian clients the next day.

To our surprise, the dental student, Jamal, who was scheduled to see my clients was a Syrian asylee resettled by another resettlement agency in Philadelphia. The look on my clients’ face when they first met Jamal was so heartwarming. They had the opportunity to see a dentist who not only spoke their language but also came from the same country and culture.

Because Jamal understood  the journey of our Syrian clients, he became my point person at Penn Dental as I began coordinating dental appointments for the growing number of Syrians resettled by NSC. However, like all good things, the demand began to exceed the number of patients Jamal could see in a timely manner.

This is when my supervisor and I planned a meeting with clinic coordinators at Penn Dental School to discuss further steps. Penn’s wealth of resources and diverse student body meant that they were eager to help in any capacity they could. We decided to plan our first dental fair during which we would bring 15 Syrian clients to Penn Dental en masse. Each client would receive individualized comprehensive dental care by either an Arabic speaking dentist or through an in-person interpreter.

Now with two fairs for our Syrian clients behind us, and in the process of planning a third fair for our Congolese clients next month, I can see how all of this would not have been possible if the Penn Dental School and Nationalities Service Center communities hadn’t already been an immense collection of resources of their own, each fostering a diverse community, yet willing to work together. Watching all of our Syrian clients, interpreters and dentists begin to create yet another small community at these dental fairs has been such a beautiful thing, especially knowing the humble beginnings from which it developed.

This blog post was written by NHC Philadelphia member Natalie Shovlin-Bankole.
Natalie serves as the Health Access Liasion at Nationalities Service Center.