The young woman had been plagued by tooth pain for years, but she pushed the pain away, day after day—because her main concern was survival.
She'd been born into an oppressive household, and suffered severe abuse at the hands of her family since she was a little girl. When she was just 7 years old, she was subjected to the life-threatening practice of female genital mutilation. Yet, despite growing up in a community that treated women as the property of men, she dreamed of a better life—of receiving an education—of having freedom.
The road to freedom
Years later, against great odds, she managed to complete a 5-year degree abroad. Her dreams were soon in jeopardy, however, as she faced a forced marriage to a man 40 years her senior. With her brother's help, she obtained a student visa and escaped to the United States.
Once she was safely in the U.S., she turned to Tahirih Justice Center—a national nonprofit organization that protects courageous immigrant women and girls who are fleeing gender-based violence. Tahirih provides free legal and social services, policy advocacy, training and education: a holistic-care approach centered in the organization's philosophy.
When the staff at Tahirih learned about the chronic tooth pain that the young woman had lived with for years, they searched for a dentist who could help.
They found Dr. Helen Jafari, who provided dental care to the survivor of violence at no cost. Jafari is one of thousands of pro-bono professionals who make up the nonprofit Pro Bono Network.
"For me it's a way to give back to the community, and because I'm a female dentist, it's important to me to promote the well-being, equality and education of women," Jafari said.
Working to pave that road
Tahirih opened its Houston office in 2009 in response to the urgent needs of vulnerable immigrant women and girls in Texas. In 2014 alone, Tahirih Houston protected more than 700 women and children through free legal services in the Houston-Galveston area.
In addition to the physicians and mental-health professionals who are devoted to serving Tahirih clients for free, dentists are essential to Tahirih Houston's pro-bono medical network. They have become an integral part of allowing courageous women and girls access to justice, not only by providing free or low-cost preventative and emergency care, but also by giving expert testimony in court on behalf of clients.
While a trip to the dentist's office is routine for many American citizens, for a traumatized immigrant woman or girl—who, just to survive, has had to flee her country, her home, and everything she's ever known—it can be uncharted and even daunting territory. When they first arrive in the United States, Tahirih clients often don't speak much—if any—English. They have a range of needs to be addressed, from urgent basics like food and shelter, to more long-term issues such as psychological care, medical care, and of course, dental care.
Lighting the way home
Jafari's thoughtful manner, dedicated care and impeccable professionalism make what could be a potentially intimidating experience into a positive and transformative one. Today, thanks to Jafari's expert, donated care, the woman who began life with the odds stacked against her is not only rebuilding her life free from violence, she is also free from the pain that plagued her for years.
"You don't often think of dentists as heroes, but that's exactly what they are to every woman and girl who they help," said Nasim Hoomanrad, Tahirih Houston's social services program manager.
In honor of her selfless service, Jafari, along with two other generous Houston dentists, Drs. Marjaneh Azad and Paul Lee, were presented with Pro Bono of the Year Awards at Tahirih Houston's 4th Annual Gala, "The Goodfellas: Celebrating the Role of Men in Ending Violence Against Women." The gala, which takes place each fall in Houston, raises vital funds for Tahirih to continue its lifesaving work to protect immigrant women and girls in need.
"A smile," someone once said, "is a light in the window of the soul."
In places like Houston, dedicated dentists are working behind the scenes to make that light shine for the brave women and girls who refuse to be victims of violence.
Kate Ryan is the communications associate at Tahirih Justice Center. She works with the development and communications team to create effective, truthful and compelling messaging around different issues facing Tahirih's clients and society as a whole, utilizing a range of media tools. Prior to Tahirih, she was an international freelance writer and a creative developer at Disney Online Originals. She has spent extensive time abroad, living in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Morocco.