Finding a way to help
For third-year dental student Lina El-Kashef, like most of her peers, weekends are a time to recharge, relax with friends and family and, of course, study. But there’s something else, too.
Sunday mornings find El-Kashef at the Islamic Association of Collin County’s volunteer dental clinic. It’s exactly where she wants to be. For several hours each weekend, El-Kashef, a registered dental assistant since 2011, works alongside volunteer dentists; even recruits classmates to join the effort. It’s something she’s done since the clinic opened in fall 2014, a feat she and other Texas A&M College of Dentistry classmates had a hand in before they even became dental students.
Until that point, the Plano mosque’s clinic offered just medical care and psychiatric services, so El-Kashef, then a predental student at the University of Texas at Dallas, worked alongside classmate Sammy Mahmoud ’17 to introduce the idea of a clinic expansion to the mosque’s administrators. They researched costs, sought input from community dentists and attended meetings with association leaders.
“I remember when we had chairs donated, we were so excited,” El-Kashef recalls. The clinic’s first chairs came from, of all places, the College of Dentistry. Organizers gave them affectionate nicknames, according to Mahmoud: “Banana” and “Big Blue.”
The Plano mosque dental clinic, which continues to run entirely on donations, offers patients much-needed care in the form of extractions, cleanings and dentures, and it also gives El-Kashef and dental students a means to help others, even if not in a direct “hands-on capacity,” as overseeing dentists aren’t necessarily college faculty.
“I really like to encourage people to volunteer,” says El-Kashef, “and just use their time and skills in a good manner, in a good way. We are in a really great field, and not a lot of people have that opportunity.”
Dr. Amal Noureldin, clinical assistant professor in public health sciences, is adviser to the Muslim Student Dental Association chapter on campus, which means she’s present at the organization’s student outreach events. El-Kashef, the organization’s community service chair during the 2016-2017 academic year, became a familiar face.
“Lina showed up at every event we covered in our outreach program,” Noureldin says. “She is always very helpful, very talented and has exquisite communication skills with patients. Imagine a dental student speaking four languages fluently: Arabic, English, French and Spanish.”
“You are going to find someone in need even next door if you really look.”
—Lina El Kashef, D3
Several events include the opportunity to partner with other organizations, such as the American Muslim Women Physicians Association, which recognized El-Kashef last spring with its community service and leadership award.
“I encouraged Lina to apply for the AMWPA award because she was, and still is, extremely active in the community,” says D4 Sonya Berriche, also a UT Dallas alumna. “Every weekend she volunteers at the free dental clinic in the local mosque. She truly loves what she does, and her devotion to dentistry and passion for helping patients motivates those around her.”
Origins in patient care
El-Kashef’s roots in health care and volunteerism began early. Growing up in the northwestern African country of Mauritania, a desert nation bordering the Atlantic, she spent much time at the hospital with her father, a surgeon. She’d watch him work; see people call to him in the halls as he passed, just to say “hi” to the charismatic doctor.
“I’d see how passionate he was about medicine in general and helping people,” says El-Kashef. “He was really into volunteering and giving back.
“It’s about utilizing yourself in a good way. It’s so rewarding when you see people’s reactions and how happy you make them feel.”
Faith plays a role, too.
“My religion, Islam, is a big part of who I am, and it has greatly shaped my principles and ethics,” El-Kashef says. “Islamic teachings of virtue, righteousness and service inspire me to be the best dentist I can ever be.”
Nearly a decade ago, when a school assignment called for El-Kashef to shadow a professional in the working world, she turned to a family friend, a dentist, and was hooked.
Service has always been the goal; dentistry just became the means.
“She always spent time with her dad, mainly at the hospital, instead of at the playground growing up,” Mahmoud says. “After years of watching her dad, I think wanting to serve patients is in her DNA.”
It’s something El-Kashef decided she needed to do in the U.S.
“I remember I had this conversation with my mom,” El-Kashef says. “I told her ‘I really want to become a dentist; I don’t know where I’m going to go.’” An uncle in Dallas offered for her to stay with him and his family, and she accepted. Her English, still broken at that point, needed some fine-tuning. So she gave herself the summer to learn, hunched over the computer at the Richardson Public Library, studying, taking and re-taking the SAT until her acceptance to UT Dallas in fall 2010.
She took off a semester her junior year in 2012 to go back home. It was there she worked with the French arm of Doctors Without Borders, spending two months at a hospital in her hometown of Nouakchott, Mauritania.
“It’s my dream to work with them when I graduate,” she says. “I want to encourage giving back. And it doesn’t have to be somewhere far away; you are going to find someone in need even next door if you really look.”