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For Afghan-American dentist, Veterans' Smile Day is personal

April 18, 2016

By Kimber Solana

Giving thanks: Dr. Afsana Danishwar speaks with a patient during a Veterans' Smile Day at her practice in Culver City, Calif. Dr. Danishwar was among 300 dentists around the country who provided free dental care to veterans during last year's event.
Culver City, Calif. — Dr. Afsana Danishwar was only 8 years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of December 1979.

In the middle of the night in early 1980, and with only the clothes they wore, Dr. Afsana Danishwar said, she and her family — parents, two brothers and a sister — left her hometown of Kabul.

"It's been a country at war for 30 years," she said. "To have the U.S. step in [in 2001] and overthrow the Taliban, and help protect the people there, with many losing their lives. I just wanted to say thank you."

Dr. Danishwar is giving thanks by volunteering in the past two Veterans Smile Day events, held annually around Veterans Day, to provide free to low-cost dental services to former military servicemen and women.

During Veterans' Smile Day, participating dental clinics provide free dental care such as examinations, X-rays, oral cancer screenings, cleanings, fillings, extractions and other preventive and restorative dental care. Last year, more than 300 dentists from nearly 50 states provided more than $300,000 in free dental services to an estimated 2,000 veterans during Veterans' Smile Day.

About 10 of those veterans were treated by Dr. Danishwar in her private practice in Culver City. In the past two years, she has seen about 20 veterans, most of whom served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The experience was just very rewarding and very emotional to connect one-on-one with these veterans who volunteered to go to a country and protect people they didn't know," she said.

Those who served in Afghanistan, she said, would tell her of how they were invited to the homes of local Afghan families and sit down for a meal.

USC grads: Dr. Karin Irani (left) and Dr. Afsana Danishwar pose for a photo during last year's Veterans' Smile Day event. Dr. Irani, organizer, had asked Dr. Danishwar, a fellow University of Southern California dental school graduate, to take part in the event two years ago.
"As much as you hear that people from the Middle East don't like the U.S. or the military, it was interesting and good to hear the one-on-one stories from the veterans — that they were welcomed, and the residents were warm to them," she said. "The Afghan people are very hospitable."

Dr. Danishwar didn't grow up in a traditional Afghan family. Her father, she said, always maintained that his daughters were equal to his sons.

After the Soviet invasion, she said, many in Afghanistan had to conform to a new regime.

"My father was never a conformist, and we knew his days were numbered," Dr. Danishwar said. "We left Afghanistan one night with one outfit, what we were wearing, and left behind our friends and family."

The family settled in Germany as refugees, and with the help of her father's education — he was an engineer — the family was able to relocate to California's San Fernando Valley. At that time, Dr. Danishwar was 10 years old, in the fifth grade and did not speak English.

"It was challenging but my father always told us we were the fortunate ones," Dr. Danishwar said. "If we had stayed, high school would have been the highest level of education for me."

Instead, after working as a dental hygienist for about two years, she pursued dentistry. Dr. Danishwar graduated from the University of Southern California dental school in 2006.

Three years later, Dr. Danishwar returned to Afghanistan as a volunteer at a nonprofit dental clinic in Kabul where saw firsthand the continuing struggles of her birth country.

"There was little-to-zero dental care for the citizens. Only a few could afford to get care," she said, adding that many of the resident dentists didn't have the equipment they needed. "I had to try and teach some of them how to read X-rays."

She can only imagine what the men and women in the military serving in Afghanistan go through in helping to provide security in the country.

This year's Veterans' Smile Day is scheduled during the days around Nov. 11, and Dr. Danishwar hopes more dentists participate. Dr. Danishwar said she's reaching out to fellow Afghan colleagues to take part.

When it comes to dental care, many veterans simply fall through the cracks.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans have to meet certain eligibility factors to receive dental care, such as service-related dental disability or condition, or if they are a former prisoner of war.

In addition, some veterans who qualify for dental benefits still don't receive the care they need because of the distance to their nearest VA hospital.

For the event, organizers find veterans who need dental care by promoting the event in colleges, veteran services organizations, and through word-of-mouth and social media. Those veterans are then paired with a volunteer dentist. The day and time of the visit is scheduled ahead of time. Dentists interested in participating decide how much time they could contribute, how many people they could see, what time of day they could see the veterans, what dental services they could provide, and whether they could provide the services for free or at a discount.

"It's a day to just give back to these men and women who served, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere they've been needed," Dr. Danishwar said. "This is a way for me to say 'thank you' in a small way."

For more information on Veterans' Smile Day, contact Dr. Karin Irani, organizer, at ddsusc03@gmail.com.