As Lebanon faces political unrest and violence as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, two students at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine have launched Box for Health, a nonprofit company that aims to teach children there how to have healthy oral hygiene and other habits.
Already, Box for Health has reached more than 4,200 youngsters—four times its goal—with original oral-health curricula and sustainable dental products. It has partnered with a half-dozen non-government organizations and received mentorship from the Clinton Global Initiative University and Tufts Venture Accelerator.
Plus, Box for Health has set up a Shopify store to generate funding and nurtured a devoted cadre of interns and volunteers, according to the school.
“Everything exceeded our plans,” said cofounder Omar Harmouche, a member of the school’s Class of 2021, who was born in Lebanon and came to the United States at the age of 11. Cofounder Alia Osseiran’s father is from Lebanon, and she has visited relatives there often. She is a member of the school’s Class of 2022.
Harmouche and Osseiran both were aware of the gap between the health knowledge available to Lebanese children and that available to their counterparts in more affluent nations.
“We went from not being able to see the path to success to not being able to see the way to failure,” Osserian said. “You can be remarkably productive by focusing on what’s important. I’m doing things that I love.”
“Unfortunately, in many Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, not enough attention has been given to the importance of oral health for children,” said Wael Att, Harmouche’s mentor and chair of the school’s prosthodontics department.
According to the World Health Organization, children in Lebanon show significantly higher rates of decay and dental disease in primary teeth than children in Europe and the United States.
“Once we started, it felt like the project was leading the way,” Harmouche said.
What was little more than an idea during Harmouche’s first year in dental school very quickly became a possibility when, with the help of Att and Hend Alqaderi of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harmouche found himself with the chance to present his idea for a children’s oral health project at the Beirut International Dental Meeting in October of his second year.
While in Lebanon, Harmouche met with officials at the Ministry of Health, who liked his vision and suggested he return with organized support behind him.
Back in Boston, Harmouche entered Tuft’s dual-degree DMD and master of public health program. Osseiran, who already had an MPH from Boston University and experience working at startups, joined the effort.
As part of Harmouche’s applied learning experience for his MPH, he planned to travel to Lebanon and launch the children’s oral health project at two orphanages in early 2020. But COVID-19 changed his plans.
“We didn’t even second guess if we’d keep moving forward,” Harmouche said. “We still had to deliver health to kids, even during a pandemic.”
The education program, then, needed to be delivered remotely. Harmouche set to work writing an original curriculum on oral health and other healthy habits for K-5 students, later translated into French, one of the languages used for instruction in Lebanese schools.
“We want every single child in the entire country of Lebanon to know how to brush their teeth and wash their hands,” Osserian said. “These skills are lifesaving.”
Late last year, Box for Health sent a 20-foot cargo container to Lebanon filled with nonperishable food, winter clothes, and health products for women and infants. The founders also have begun to establish partnerships for similar ventures in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
“This is literally my dream,” Harmouche said. “When I was a kid, this is the work I envisioned myself doing.”