Afghan evacuees filling gaps in Fox Valley dental health workforce

Being a dentist in Kabul kept Mohammad Azimy busy. 

In addition to running his own clinic in Afghanistan’s capital city, 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 in a matter of days last August as the Taliban took the country over and he and his wife and child were forced to flee. 

It was clear something was wrong the morning of Aug. 15, Azimy remembered, but he still headed to work at the hospital like usual. When he arrived, he said he saw people running away, scared. Police had abandoned their weapons in the streets and were being taken away by taxi. 

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Later that day, he learned the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban had captured a village about 10 miles away from his home. He and his wife, who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, began thinking about a way out. 

Azimy and his family are among nearly 200 Afghan evacuees who have settled in the Fox Valley. Nearly nine months after he had to leave home, his skills are filling a gap in dental health care in Appleton and beyond. 

As he prepares to become qualified for his dentist’s license in the U.S. — a process that can take two or three years — Azimy is working as a dental assistant for Partnership Community Health Center, which has dentists’ offices in Grand Chute, Oshkosh and Waupaca.

One of few dental clinics in the area that accepts Medicaid, they serve about 6,500 patients per year, said CEO Kristene Stacker. Many of those patients have complex dental needs because they haven’t previously been able to afford care. 

Locally, Partnership has been facing a shortage of dental assistants, who play a critical role making sure the patient is comfortable, taking X-rays, getting tools ready for the dentist and discharging the patient once the appointment is over.

Because a dentist can’t work without an assistant, Stacker said the shortage forced them to cut the number of appointments they could offer per day in half. 

Azimy and a handful of other Afghan evacuees are taking part in a training program Partnership staff developed that they hope will both solve their workforce problems and provide meaningful jobs for people who need it. 

A difficult journey ends with a stable job and a safe place to call home

Once Azimy and his wife knew the Taliban were close to Kabul last summer, they tried to destroy any documents linking them to the U.S. government. He recalled running papers under water in the sink instead of burning them to avoid 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 out of Afghanistan. But when they tried, Azimy said, so many people crowded the airport that no one could get inside. They returned home.

Another few days passed and they received a second message from the Embassy. If they could get to the airport, they’d be evacuated, it said; if they chose to stay, the Embassy could no longer help them. 

Their second trip was successful and they boarded a plane to Germany, and about a week later, to America. A day after they left, the airport was bombed, killing more than 180 people. 

Azimy and his family spent about three months at Fort McCoy, a military base between Tomah and Sparta that housed thousands of Afghan evacuees before they were resettled across Wisconsin. He called the base “a difficult place,” but said military members who staffed it were doing their best to provide care. 

They moved to Menasha in December, and he tried to secure a job as a dentist before learning that his license from Afghanistan wouldn’t allow him to practice in the U.S. 

He was also taking classes at Fox Valley Technical College, where he appeared in a TV news segment that caught Stacker’s eye when he mentioned he was a dentist. 

Azimy’s employment at Partnership through the dental assistant training program fell into place in short order. And it was just in time, too — he was about to give up his search for a job in his field and start working at a factory. 

“I really was happy,” he said of the Partnership offer. 

Dental assistants in high demand

Many health care fields are facing workforce challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the shortage of dental assistants has been building for about six years, said Maria Jacobson, Partnership’s human resources coordinator. 

They’re not sure what the root of the issue 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 just 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 in-house training program for the position since last year, but it picked up speed about four months ago when they hired a full-time trainer. Of the 30 dental assistants on staff at Partnership, nearly half have gone through the training program, Jacobson said. 

Trainees get paid while they complete the program. Azimy spent four weeks in Oshkosh first and is finishing up observations at the Grand Chute clinic before he’ll start working with patients. 

Because most of the equipment he used for his practice in Kabul was made in the U.S., there wasn’t too much new to learn, he said, except for the ins and outs of Dentrix, an electronic scheduling and patient care management program.

Besides Azimy, a second Afghan evacuee is already part of the program and two more are set to start soon, Jacobson said. One, like Azimy, had been a dentist in Afghanistan, and another had almost completed dental school when the Taliban took over. 

There are others who received their dental credentials in other countries in the program too, Stacker said. It ties into the organization’s mission. 

“We feel that our ability to hire and train and assist not only Afghan evacuees but other foreign-trained professionals, as well as citizens, is creating a healthy community by giving them the opportunity to learn a skill that can become a career for them,” she said. 

Of course, it was already a career for Azimy — one 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’ll also have to pass the national board exam for dentistry, for which he said he’s begun studying. 

In the meantime, though, he said settling into life in Wisconsin has been going well. He credited Good Neighbor Teams, a program from World Relief Fox Valley that recruits local church members to welcome refugees. 

“We have never felt that we are missing something,” Azimy said. “It’s because of the good people of Wisconsin, I think.” 

Contact reporter Madeline Heim at 920-996-7266 or mheim@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @madeline_heim

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