From Baghdad to Boston: Dental Student’s Journey Is About Healing and Building Bridges

Whether aiding refugees or encouraging his classmates during the pandemic, Modar Bilind Al-Roomi is quick to reach out
Modar Bilind Al-Roomi, DI21, a founder of the Kurdish Dental Health Organization, gives an interview in April 2016 for the Arabic social media platform Yalla at a refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Modar Bilind Al-Roomi
Modar Bilind Al-Roomi, DI21, a founder of the Kurdish Dental Health Organization, gives an interview in April 2016 for the Arabic social media platform Yalla at a refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq. Photo: Courtesy of Modar Bilind Al-Roomi
April 15, 2021

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Modar Bilind Q. Al-Roomi, DI21, was born in Baghdad in the waning days of the First Gulf War. He grew up against the backdrop of regional and ethnic conflicts, and when he chose dentistry as his calling, he used his profession to care for civilians caught up in the chaos sparked by the rise of ISIS. He helped found the Kurdish Dental Health Organization, a relief organization that aided hundreds of Iraqi refugees after the fall of Mosul in 2014.

Although he is now far away in Boston, earning a degree that will let him practice dentistry in the United States, his heart remains with his colleagues in Iraq, who have continued to help subsequent waves of displaced people.

Al-Roomi’s experience of his homeland has always been a little different than that of most Iraqis. He refers to himself as an “Arab/Kurdish blend,” with roots in two ethnic groups that have had a rocky coexistence for decades: his father, Qais Al-Roomi, was an Arabic businessman; his mother, Elham S. Al-Habeeb, a Kurdish doctor. He is known to his paternal relatives by his Arabic name, Modar, and to his maternal relatives by his Kurdish name, Bilind. This dual heritage, he says, is a privilege that has taught him about building bridges. “I cannot imagine myself being complete by choosing a side,” Al-Roomi says.

Modar Bilind Al-Roomi, DI21

After the start of the second Gulf War in 2003, the Al-Roomi family left Baghdad for Dubai, to return to the Kurdish city of Irbil about a decade later. His mother wanted him to follow her into medicine; she was the role model whom he always looked up to. “I am who I am because of her,” he says. “Her sacrifices are the reason I am who I am today.” When he finally decided on dental school, he started his training in the United Arab Emirates, then transferred to Irbil’s Ishik University. It was a time when oral-health status was poor throughout Iraq; it was not uncommon for people to postpone dental treatment until pain and infection reached a crisis point.

While still a dental student, Al-Roomi decided to make improving oral-health in Kurdistan a priority, and along with colleagues, cofounded the Kurdish Dental Health Organization. The group began offering dental screenings at schools, military bases, malls, and bazaars, and worked to connect people in need with affordable dental care. Then, ISIS insurgents captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, about 50 miles from Irbil, and thousands of refugees, mostly Iraqi Arabs, arrived in Irbil seeking safety.

The Kurdish Dental Health Organization raised money for two mobile dental clinics to care for the crowds moving into refugee camps. “As a dentist, that was the only way that I could help,” Al-Roomi says. Even so, the treatment was pretty much limited to cleanings, fillings, and extractions. Outside the refugee camps, the situation was not much better. “I used to have people coming into the clinic asking for an extraction when all they needed was a filling, because they couldn’t afford a filling,” Al-Roomi recalls. “I did a lot of free care.”

In 2017, amid the uncertainty of a future in Iraq, Al-Roomi came to the United States. Two years later he enrolled at Tufts, ready to resume his dental career.

As he was settling in as a student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine’s International Student Program (DIS), which prepares foreign-trained dentists for accreditation in the United States, the COVID pandemic upended the way dentistry could be taught and practiced. But if life had taught Al-Roomi anything to this point, it was about how to adapt. As president of his DI21 class, he joined the effort to pivot to a world of online classrooms and clinics early in the pandemic where a COVID-safe form of dentistry was being devised on the spot.

He also threw himself into the task of keeping his 36 DIS classmates connected, against the backdrop of Boston on lockdown. For some, the challenge was the isolation; for others, it was attending virtual graduate school surrounded by young children and other family members. “It did give us some funny moments, involving a kid or a pet interrupting the meeting,” he says.

And for everyone, there was the constant undercurrent of uncertainty. “It kind of reminded me of home during the war,” Al-Roomi says. “It was the idea of not being able to predict what was going to happen—it was a different cause, different surroundings, but the same exact scenario.”

Professor Ronald Perry, director of the TUSDM international student program and Al-Roomi’s mentor at the dental school, praises Al-Roomi’s leadership and compassion. “Regardless of whatever problems he may face, Modar is still able to reach out and help other people at the same time,” Perry says. “Difficulties have not tarnished his ability to think beyond himself, and that’s kind of refreshing.”

Meanwhile, the same refugee camps where Al-Roomi and his colleagues treated Arab Iraqis in 2014 were faced with an influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing Turkish airstrikes in late 2019, and Al-Roomi’s friends still in Irbil were there to provide dental care for them. Now, the Kurdish Dental Health Organization has combined its mission of oral-health care with COVID prevention education.

Al-Roomi’s immediate goal after his graduation in May is to work as an associate in a dental practice. “I have a plan in mind,” he says. “But with the pandemic, the thinking has to be short-term.”

Long-term, he’s hoping he can practice in both his countries, using what he learned at Tufts to bolster oral health back in Iraq. “I hope to serve my community with all of what I can, everywhere that I go,” he says.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.