Reporting from Santa Barbara — To Santa Barbara dentist Jim Rolfe, it seemed straightforward enough: Turn a couple of shipping containers into prefab dental offices, send them to Afghanistan and set up a clinic.
That was before the steely idealist encountered corrupt officials and inept bureaucrats, flying shrapnel and religious killings. It was before his private practice ebbed and his retirement account plummeted, before he spent $750,000 of his savings on a project that, to less driven types, would seem doomed.
"It's just an obsession," he said in his office recently. "For me to give up — to let down all the people who helped me, the people who gave me money and advice, not to mention the Afghans — well, I couldn't bear to do that."
As other dentists at the end of their careers amble across the golf course, Rolfe operates in the shadow of the Taliban, providing essential care to people who have gone their whole lives without it. At 71, he's determined to keep his 3-year-old clinic alive — even after a dentist friend unaffiliated with the clinic and nine other Western aid workers were shot dead last month in a rural Afghan valley.
Working on the idea for nearly a decade, Rolfe has made frequent trips to Afghanistan while trying to maintain his office in Santa Barbara. His clinic on the outskirts of Kabul has treated thousands of Aghans at no charge — an achievement that has earned him an award from the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy, an Iowa-based humanitarian group.
In a land where people sometimes die of infections caused by abscessed teeth, many of Rolfe's patients had never before seen a dentist. Now they're treated by three — all Afghan. There are 13 other staffers, including women who have graduated as dental assistants from a class introduced by Rolfe and the American volunteers who pitch in.
When he's in Kabul, Rolfe keeps a low profile. When asked about his religious beliefs, he demurs. In 2008, gunmen on a motorcycle roared by just half a block from the clinic, killing a woman who was known to teach Christianity in her guest house.
Still, Rolfe, who wears a diamond stud in his left ear, couldn't resist a biblical allusion when he described his last few years: "Sometimes," he said, half-laughing, "I feel like Job."
While he was still building his clinic-in-a-box in Santa Barbara, he tripped on a tangle of wire and smashed four ribs. When he gashed himself with a saw, he sewed up his wound and kept working.
In Afghanistan, a conniving government minister promised Rolfe a patch of land for the clinic. But Rolfe discovered that the land was nonexistent and the promise just a ploy to loot his shipment. Desperate, he paid $25,000 to have the two 40-foot containers — crammed with donated dental chairs, lab equipment and construction supplies — shipped back to California.
Misunderstanding followed mishap. A Kabul landowner tried to charge Rolfe $330,000 for an eighth of an acre — a price comparable to the stratospheric values in Santa Barbara's toniest neighborhoods. After an Afghan American family finally donated a site, a huge crane crashed through the ground and into a septic tank.
That winter, Rolfe, who was eager to build treatment rooms and establish a decent dental lab, lived in a house without heat or running water. He lost 15 pounds and his hands were numb from frostbite.
"He's a very hardheaded guy," said Dr. Ike Rahimi, a Placerville dentist who has volunteered for Rolfe in Kabul. "He's trying very hard to bring them a U.S. standard of care."
By Rolfe's account, he's motivated as much by political outrage as by a passion for healing.
He made his first trip to Afghanistan in 2002, a three-week dental mission to a remote, mountainous province. He kept returning, convinced that the U.S. had abandoned the Afghans. As the U.S.-led war effort expands, he believes it's up to ordinary citizens to right what he sees as the government's wrongs.
"We're not getting aid to the people who need it," he said. "If we could take a fraction of what we're spending on the military and spend it on clinics and schools and infrastructure, the Taliban wouldn't be an issue."
Religious extremists have not disrupted the clinic, even though it is training women as dental assistants and hygienists.
For Rolfe, a more urgent concern is funding. He dips into his personal accounts, he said, for about $3,500 a month.
One way to increase revenue would be to treat the relatively few Afghans who have money and foreigners posted to Kabul. Afghanistan has only about 120 dentists, so many of those who can afford dental care leave the country for it.
"For the good of the poor in Afghanistan, he has to reach a stage where he starts to charge some people," said G. Faruq Akchizad, chairman of a San Ramon-based philanthropic group called the Raqim Foundation. The group has contributed to the clinic and has tried to smooth Rolfe's way with the Afghan bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, Rolfe is trying to raise money by speaking to dental organizations, schools and civic groups. On Oct. 2, he's planning a benefit concert at Santa Barbara's Faulkner Gallery featuring Amiena, a Los Angeles singer, and guitarist Jamie Kime.
His next trip to Kabul will be this fall — but his life, he said, is still here: "I have 11 grandchildren. A few of them think I'm the best thing ever, but the others think I'm crazy."