When five-year-old Malak arrived in Canada in July, her teeth were so decayed, sharp jolts of pain kept her up at night.
“She lived with pain for so long,” her uncle Yaser Al Mtawa told The Huffington Post Canada.
As newly arrived Syrian refugees in Kingston, Ont., her family didn’t qualify for coverage from the province’s Healthy Smiles program for kids' emergency care. That is eligible only to families who have filed taxes.
So the only option for the girl's parents was to give her Tylenol and Advil for the pain — until a local dentist stepped in.
Malak cruises around in Kingston, Ont. in a toy car.
The rapid deterioration of Malak’s teeth came partly from inadequate nutrition and water when the family lived in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp for two years after fleeing Syria.
Malak stayed in the sprawling camp with her parents and two younger sisters while their Canadian refugee application was being processed. Just over 79,000 refugees still live in the camp, according updated UNHCR data.
Dentist to the rescue
The Four Rivers Presbytery church and the local Islamic Society worked together to privately sponsor the family to join Yaser, a Ph.D candidate at Queen's University, in Kingston. They had a home now but no money to pay for the dental work Malak needed.
So a member from the group “Save a Family from Syria” put out a call to the community for help — and a local dentist came forward to offer his services for free.
Yaser identified the Kingston benefactor as Dr. Chan, who is known in the community for offering his services to those in financial straits. Dr. Chan declined to comment.
Aerial view of Zaatari refugee camp near the Jordanian city of Mafraq on July 18, 2013, approximately eight kilometres away from the Jordanian-Syrian border. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
Dr. Alastair Nicoll, president of The Canadian Dental Association, said “very limited” dental coverage for refugees is a concern given the expectation that 25,000 will arrive in Canada by the end of February 2016.
“It needs some tweaking — I wouldn’t call it inadequate, but it’s not optimal, either,” he said in an interview. He added that the federal government has not reached out to the national organization, though some provincial branches say they’ve been approached by resettlement agencies.
On the local level, grassroots efforts are helping the newcomers navigate a patchwork system of refugee care. In this particular case, it started with someone asking for help to fix a five-year-old girl’s teeth.
And Dr. Chan didn't start and stop with Malak.
“He stepped forward to not only treat Malak's teeth, but also to provide a dental care for two Syrian refugee families,” Yaser said.
After the surgery, he said Malak's mother broke down in tears when she saw her daughter smile “finally free of pain.”
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In 2011, internal conflict erupted in Syria that would later escalate into a full-blown civil war that rages on to this day, now complicated by the arrival of Islamic militants from neighbouring Iraq. Since the start, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called on countries to help resettle some of the most vulnerable Syrians who can never return home, a call that grew louder as the crisis has escalated. Here's a look at how Canada responded over time. (Information by The Canadian Press) Syrians hold a large poster depicting Syria's President Bashar Assad during a rally in Damascus, Syria in 2011.
- Canada closes its embassy in Damascus, a move that would come to have major repercussions for refugee resettlement out of the Middle East as that visa post was handling the majority of the files for refugees from other countries who had sought temporary safety in Syria. Those files were then transferred to nearby countries, leaving visa officers scrambling to handle them and the start of a surge in Syrian refugee applications. - By the end of 2012, the UNHCR had registered close to half a million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. - Syrian Canadians call on Canada to do more to support the refugees, including speeding up family reunification programs and opening the doors to more refugees, but the government said without an official request from the UN for resettlement, it would not act. Syrian refugee girls wash their clothes at a camp in Idlib, Syria, in October of 2015.
The number of people registered as refugees from Syria or being assisted by the UN hits one million. A Syrian refugee boy at a camp in Turkey in October 2015.
The UN makes its first formal request to member countries to assist in refugee resettlement, asking for 30,000 spaces by the end of 2014. Syrian Kurdish refugees walk in the United Nations Refugee Agency refugee camp in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, in January 2015.
The Harper Conservatives promise to admit 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014, with the majority sponsored by private groups. The 200 spots available to government-assisted refugees are not new refugee spaces — the Conservatives choose to allocate the 200 they set aside each year for the Syrian program. Stephen Harper speaks in the House of Commons.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits a refugee camp in Jordan, one of the main host countries for Syrians. He announces $150 million in humanitarian aid; over the course of the conflict Canada has been one of the lead financial donors for relief efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. By this point, some $630 million has been committed. Stephen Harper and wife Laureen Harper visit Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan in January 2014.
The UN High Commissioner makes a new request: an additional 100,000 places for Syrian refugees by 2016. Canada says it is reviewing its options. Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2015.
Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander admits that fewer than 200 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada since the July 2013 promise, saying the UNHCR was slow passing on referrals. Chris Alexander speaks in the House of Commons.
By the end of the month, just over 1,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada, meaning the government missed its deadline. A Syrian Kurdish refugee walks in a UNHCR refugee camp in Suruc in January 2015.
The Conservative government commits to allowing 10,000 more Syrian refugees in by 2018, most through the private sponsorship program. The focus is to be on religious minorities. Syrian refugee girls sit at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 'Child Friendly Spaces' in the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian border with Syria in 2014.
The government finally meets its July 2013 promise to resettle 1,300 people, achieving it by increasing the number of government-assisted refugees. Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up during a photo opportunity.
The Conservatives order an audit of the government-assisted refugees coming out of Syria, citing security concerns. The review identifies no problems but delays the processing of those files for several weeks. Chris Alexander speaks at a press conference in Toronto in September, 2015.
The Conservatives pledge that if re-elected, they will allow a further 10,000 Syrians in over the next four years, continuing a focus on those being persecuted because of religion. Stephen Harper takes questions from the media on the campaign trail.
- Three-year-old Alan Kurdi dies during his family's escape from Syria. The photograph of his body on a Turkish beach and word his family had considered Canada as an eventual destination sees Canada's refugee response become a dominant issue in the election campaign. - The Conservatives increase available resources for the processing of refugee applications, promise to speed up resettlement of the 10,000 originally promised places and announce they'll match donations for Syrian relief. - The Liberals say they'll bring over 25,000 government-assisted refugees as soon as possible and encourage the private sector to take in more. They later promise to bring them in by the end of the year. A handout photo courtesy of Tima Kurdi shows a photo of her three-year-old nephew Alan Kurdi.
The Liberals win a majority government and say they remain committed to refugee resettlement. Justin Trudeau waves to the crowd as they arrive to Liberal election headquarters in Montreal.
The Liberal government announces its plan to resettle 25,000 Syrians. Immigration Minister John McCallum holds a news conference with Health Minister Jane Philpott and Defence Minister Harijit Singh Sajjan.