Being a dentist in Kabul kept Mohammad Azimy busy.
Besides running his own clinic in the Afghan capital, he also provided dental services at a local hospital and trained dental students at a university. He often worked until 8 or 9 p.m.
It all disappeared within days last August when the Taliban took over the country and he, his wife and child were forced to flee.
It was clear something was wrong on the morning of August 15, Azimy recalls, but he headed to the hospital anyway as usual. When he arrived, he said he saw people running away in fear. The police had abandoned their weapons in the streets and were taken away by taxi.
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Later that day, he learned that the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban had captured a village about 16 kilometers from his home. He and his wife, who worked for the US Embassy in Afghanistan, began to think about a way out.
Azimy and her family are among approximately 200 Afghan evacuees who have settled in the Fox Valley. Nearly nine months after having to leave home, her skills are filling a gap in dental care in Appleton and beyond.
As he prepares to get his dentist’s license in the United States — a process that can take two or three years — Azimy works as a dental assistant for the Partnership Community Health Center, which has dentist offices in Grand Chute, Oshkosh. and Waupaca.
One of the few dental clinics in the area to accept Medicaid, it serves about 6,500 patients a year, CEO Kristene Stacker said. Many of these patients have complex dental needs because they could not afford treatment before.
Locally, Partnership faces a shortage of dental assistants, who play a vital role in ensuring the patient is comfortable, taking x-rays, preparing tools for the dentist and releasing the patient once the appointment ended.
Because a dentist cannot work without an assistant, Stacker said the shortage has forced them to cut the number of appointments they can offer per day in half.
Azimy and a handful of other Afghan evacuees are taking part in a training program developed by Partnership staff that they hope will solve their labor issues and provide meaningful jobs for those in need.
A difficult journey ends with a stable job and a safe place to call home
Once Azimy and his wife learned that the Taliban were close to Kabul last summer, they attempted to destroy all documents linking them to the US government. He remembers running papers under water in the sink instead of burning them to avoid the smoke that would cause their neighbors to ask questions.
A few days later, they were told they could come to the airport to catch a flight from Afghanistan. But when they tried, Azimy said, the airport was so crowded that no one could get in. They returned home.
A few more days passed and they received a second message from the Embassy. If they could get to the airport, they would be evacuated, he said; if they chose to stay, the embassy could no longer help them.
Their second trip was a success and they boarded a plane for Germany, and about a week later, for America. A day after they left, the airport was bombed, killing more than 180 people.
Azimy and her family spent about three months at Fort McCoy, a military base between Tomah and Sparta that housed thousands of evacuated Afghans before they were resettled in Wisconsin. He called the base a “difficult place” but said the servicemen working there were doing their best to provide care.
They moved to Menasha in December and he tried to find a job as a dentist before learning that his license from Afghanistan would not allow him to practice in the United States.
He was also taking classes at Fox Valley Technical College, where he appeared in a television news segment that caught Stacker’s attention when he mentioned he was a dentist.
Azimy’s employment with Partnership through the dental assistant training program was set up in a short time. And it was just in time, too – he was about to give up his search for a job in his field and start working in a factory.
“I was really happy,” he said of the partnership offer.
Dental assistants in high demand
Many areas of healthcare are facing workforce challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the shortage of dental assistants has been building up for about six years, said Maria Jacobson, coordinator of Partnership human resources.
They don’t know what the root of the problem is, but its impact is clear: Private practice, public health, and corporate dentistry programs are all competing for the same shrinking pool of dental assistants. At Fox Valley Tech, for example, there are only eight freshmen in its dental assistant program, Jacobson said.
Dental assistants rank among Wisconsin’s hottest jobs in a list compiled by the Department of Workforce Development of occupations with the highest projected growth.
Partnership had been developing an internal training program for the position since last year, but it accelerated about four months ago when they hired a full-time trainer. Of Partnership’s 30 staff dental assistants, nearly half have completed the training program, Jacobson said.
Interns are paid as they complete the program. Azimy first spent four weeks in Oshkosh and completed her observations at the Grand Chute clinic before beginning to work with patients.
Since most of the equipment he used for his practice in Kabul was made in the United States, there wasn’t much new to learn, he said, except the ins and outs. and insights into Dentrix, an electronic patient care planning and management program.
Besides Azimy, a second Afghan evacuee is already part of the program and two more are expected to start soon, Jacobson said. One, like Azimy, was a dentist in Afghanistan, and another had almost completed his dental studies when the Taliban took over.
There are others who also received their dental degrees in other program countries, Stacker said. It is linked to the mission of the organization.
“We believe that our ability to hire, train and assist not only Afghan evacuees, but also other foreign-trained professionals, as well as citizens, creates a healthy community by giving them the opportunity to develop a skill that can become a career for them,” she says.
Of course, it was already a career for Azimy – a career he hopes to return to as soon as possible.
He submitted applications last week for three dental schools: one in Boston and one in Chicago, as well as Marquette University in Milwaukee. He will also have to pass the National Board of Dentistry exam, for which he said he started his studies.
In the meantime, however, he said settling into life in Wisconsin has gone well. He credited Good Neighbor Teams, a World Relief Fox Valley program that recruits local church members to welcome refugees.
“We never felt like we were missing something,” Azimy said. “It’s because of the good people of Wisconsin, I think.”