Inspired by Glasgow, rebuilding in Mosul

A dental school graduate is applying his experience of the city where he studied to help the city where he was born

21 June, 2021 / indepth
 Will Peakin  

Not long after 6am each working day, Dr Anas Almukhtar, a graduate of the University of Glasgow’s Dental School, sets off from his home in Duhok, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and drives south, through army checkpoints, to Mosul, the city where he was born.

Dr Almukhtar is a senior lecturer there, at the College of Dentistry. “Mosul has not yet recovered from the effects of war,” he said, “and my family’s safety and our children’s schooling is an issue. So, we settled in a place which is nearby, but much safer.”

Mosul was seized by Islamic State (IS) in 2014. The battle to retake the city began in October 2016 and lasted nine months, during which time around 10,000 civilians died – and large parts of the city were reduced to rubble, compounding the destruction already wrought by IS.

I instilled within Mosul’s dental school what I describe as the ‘Glasgow theme’

Four years later, normal life is still only slowly coming back to Mosul, according to a report by the Associated Press. “Merchants are busy in their shops, local musicians again serenade small, enthralled crowds. At night, the city lights gleam as restaurant patrons spill out onto the streets,” wrote Samya Kullab, a reporter, last December.

The Iraqi Government has made some progress on large infrastructure projects and restored basic services to the city. A complex mix of entities oversee other reconstruction efforts; from the local, provincial and federal governments to international organisations and aid groups. But much of the work is down to local people.

Inside Mosul’s College of Dentistry after IS had occupied the city

After graduating with a PhD from Glasgow in 2016, Dr Almukhtar returned home the following year to find that the university had, unsurprisingly, not escaped the ravages of war. He set about devising a plan to rebuild the damaged facilities. To date, his efforts have supported the restoration of 80 per cent of the teaching and clinical equipment at the dental college. The building has been repaired and cleaned, allowing teaching, research, and dental clinical care activities to resume.

Dr Almukhtar also campaigned for local, national, and international help, established a research fund, and secured a $15,000 USD grant from an international charity to help build a 3D laboratory similar to the one he had trained in at Glasgow.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he led an intensive training course on e-learning, attended by 400. This was followed by an international collaboration which led to publication of a scientific paper in the same field. He set up a patient data filing system and supported the development of an ethics committee to regulate clinical research at the university.

Dr Almukhtar has helped and supervised master’s and PhD graduates, coordinated post-graduate courses, encouraged his students to submit research findings for publication. He himself has published seven peer reviewed articles since his return to Iraq. Dr Almukhtar also established a programme of postgraduate events, including a weekly journal club, educational symposia and research seminars.

He is a founding member of the Iraqi Digital Dental Society and sits on the university’s committee working to establish academic links with European universities. Earlier this year, he was named as a finalist in the University of Glasgow’s ‘World Changing Alumni Award’.

Members of the College team inside the rebuilt facilities

On returning to his home city, for inspiration, Dr Almukhtar drew heavily on his time in Glasgow. “When I returned, I saw the university and the amount of destruction I recognised an opportunity to build an even better institution. Because of the positive impression Glasgow had left me with, I instilled within Mosul’s dental school what I describe as the ‘Glasgow theme’. I submitted proposals to upgrade the postgraduate studies, based on my experience in Glasgow,” he said.

“This was followed in a few months by a proposal and a pilot study of an exact copy of the patient filing system of Glasgow’s dental school. About a year from that – and with the help of other UK graduates – we were able to propose and luckily establish a research ethics committee based on British standards, inspired by the protocol and code of conduct that I received from the NHS research ethics committees in England and Scotland.”

Challenges remain, however. “The people of the city of Mosul have suffered throughout from neglect and the three years under IS control. It brought the population to an unprecedentedly low level of dental and oral health. Now, the dental school, with its very limited resources, is working to help as many as possible in the local community to regain an acceptable standard of oral health.” His dedication to the city is clear. “This was where I grew up, was educated and worked until I left for Glasgow in 2011,” he said.

Science and education run through his family; his father is a retired professor of public health at Mosul College of Medicine and his mother, a retired primary teacher. His sister is a biologist, one of his brothers is a doctor and the other, a dentist. “I grew up wanting to be a pilot, travelling everyday around the world. Perhaps it was my brother, the dentist, who now works in London, who was behind my eventual desire to enter the field.”

The destruction and loss of life in Mosul may have been halted, but people still live with uncertainty. “One of the main differences, in my eyes, when I returned was ‘order’,” he said. “In Glasgow you can clearly see that almost every event – this includes simple daily life events – are planned for and well-organised beforehand. In Iraq, life has a predominant nature of chaos and even plans that are well set will definitely need to be modified after a short-time due to being surrounded by an unstable environment and quickly developing situations.”

That does not curb the aims of Dr Almukhtar and his colleagues, though. “Our ambition is unlimited,” he said. “One of our goals is to increase the size of collaboration between the Glasgow Dental School and the Mosul College of Dentistry, to the level of an academic twinning. That’s a path that we have already started on through a series of meetings during the past two years.”

Although the pandemic meant a move to online learning, post-graduate teaching – with just a few students attending – can now be done in-person. “This week I’ve also been helping one of the postgraduate students to scan models in our 3D lab,” he said. “I gave an online lecture in orthodontics for year-four BDS students, along with few administrative duties.”

Away from Mosul, Dr Almukhtar strives to maintain a sense of normality. He works in the city until 2pm, returns home for a light meal and then works at a private clinic in Duhok until 8pm. Then it’s dinner with his family, a catch-up on the day’s news, and preparations for the next day.

“Family time is limited in my life. So, whenever I can, I take them on a trip to the countryside or even to the nearby park. This is my ultimate relaxation and joy. Then, each Friday one of the family will take their turn to choose a nice restaurant for a meal together – and then we’ll have a family movie night.”

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