Strangers in Paradise

Kosovar refugees in Houston fight to hang on in a land they don't understand

(The Houston Chronicle reported recently that Texas dentists install such crowns at a rate far above those in other states, mostly on indigent children qualified for Medicaid.)

"Some of the [dental] offices apparently have a connection inside the relief agencies, and they knew exactly which day the Medicaid would kick in," says someone familiar with the refugees, who prefers anonymity. "Some of the kids probably got good treatment, but I question the good intentions -- these people had been there for long before the Medicaid kicked in, and no one cared, and all of sudden these vans were rolling up."

Complaints about the work reached Dr. Jafar Naghshbandi, a faculty member at the dental branch of the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center. He couldn't do anything about work already done on the kids, but he decided to help the adults.

"A lot of these people, it's not just that they've been in this country with no dental care, but they haven't had any decent care in 15 years because of the political situation over there," he says.

Naghshbandi recruited volunteers from the UT faculty. He recruited volunteers to drive school buses and to knock on the doors of refugees. He got translators.

And on September 25, six schoolbuses, carrying 200 or so refugees, pulled up to the dental branch's building in the medical center. Eighty volunteer dentists were on hand; another 40 volunteers from the Al-Noor Society of Greater Houston were also there.

The refugees got a big lunch, including ethnic delicacies from local restaurants; there was baby-sitting and a big-screen TV for the kids. If someone needed emergency treatment -- and many did -- it was taken care of on the spot.

Most, however, were simply screened and diagnosed. Coming up with the money to treat their problems is a very big Step Two.

It may cost $100,000 to treat all the adults, Naghshbandi says. It's still up in the air where that money might come from. "We needed to put some data together through the screenings to see what the scope of the problem is and what kind of budget might be needed," he says.

"Right now we're trying to put together that budget and determine how best to do the treatments, and then we'll take it to the school for approval," he says. "We're not looking to give them whiter teeth or to straighten their teeth -- these are people in pain from their dental problems."

He says the refugees still talk about that day at the dental branch.

"They expected maybe two or three doctors there who would give them a quick look and say, 'You're fine, move on.' But there were 80 doctors there, and the dean of the school ate lunch with them. It was truly a nice day. It was so elegant, and the school treated them with such respect, saying, 'You are our guests.' You could see it in their faces how much that meant."

Corporate donors tapped their supplies of samples to give toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss and mouthwash.

Naghshbandi has become heavily involved in the refugees' lives. A native Kurd who has been in America for 20 years, he helped Kurdish refugees from the Gulf War when he was in Dallas. Now he's helping the Kosovars.

He can't walk ten steps into the refugees' apartment complexes without being greeted -- sometimes by a gaping mouth. A recent visit saw Qemal Robaj stop him and point to his mouth; some pantomiming and Naghshbandi's limited Albanian got across the point that Robaj was in pain.

He needed a root canal, but without Medicaid or UT's program, he wasn't going to get one. Medicaid would pay for antibiotics, though, so Naghshbandi phoned in a prescription, and Hughes gave Robaj a ride to the pharmacy.

Several other refugees asked Naghshbandi when they might get the treatment that the UT dentists had said they needed. "I would be lying to you if I said next week or next month," Naghshbandi told one, "but soon, my friend, I think it will be soon. We are working on it."

"Some of these people, they are so bored living here and not being able to get out that they just get so happy to see another human being," he said later.

In some cities around the country, Kosovar refugees have expressed bitterness over what they see as broken promises made by the U.S. government. At refugee camps and at Fort Dix, refugees have said, American officials promised them jobs, English classes and enough money to cover their living costs, at least for a while.

Some agency workers have said the money intended to support the refugees here gets sent home to help relatives in ever more dire conditions. While noble, that's not what the money is intended for, they say.

Naghshbandi and Hughes say that the complaints from refugees have been more muted here in Houston, but they admit that the gap between expectations and reality can often be daunting.

"How realistic is it that they should make it in the U.S.? They've seen all the movies, they see the high-rises and the highways," Naghshbandi says. "Now, did you promise them that, or did you just say that you would give them a safe place to live away from the war?

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