Dr. Ali Barbarawi stands at the front desk of the rebuilt Chicago Lake Family Dental clinic. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Dr. Ali Barbarawi saw his south Minneapolis dental clinic engulfed in flames from his phone screen in the middle of the night.

At midnight on May 29, when the riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd were in full swing, Barbarawi received a notification from his security system that his clinic had been broken into. He watched the security camera footage live from his cellphone as looters took everything: computers, personal protective equipment, chairs, televisions. Then they set the building on fire.

The office had closed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Minnesota two months prior. Barbarawi, 37, originally had planned to go back to the clinic over the summer. 

“As soon as we decided to reopen and welcome those patients who’ve been waiting for us, we were hit with a riot,” Barbarawi said. As he watched the destruction in real time, he remembered thinking: This is it. I’m going to lose everything.

Almost a year later, Barbarawi has rebuilt his clinic, Chicago Lake Family Dental, and he’s scheduling appointments beginning April 13. His long-standing patients, many of whom come from immigrant backgrounds and receive Medicaid, have been waiting eagerly. 

Businesses in Brooklyn Center and in Minneapolis were looted after the killing of Daunte Wright, just days before the clinic reopened. Former Officer Kim Potter fatally shot Wright, 20, during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, sparking a week of protests in Brooklyn Center. South Minneapolis businesses saw damages, too. But Chicago Lake Family Dental remained untouched.

Barbarawi’s dental clinic also reopens against the backdrop of the trial of former Officer Derek Chauvin, who faces murder charges for Floyd’s death. More than 100 businesses on Lake Street, like Barbarawi’s practice, suffered destruction during the upheaval that followed the killing of Floyd. Health care providers like Midtown Eye Care, M Health Fairview, Hennepin Health Care, and Health Partners all closed their doors around the time of the unrest.  

The death of George Floyd prompted conversations about health equity, which Barbarawi has been thinking about throughout his entire dental career. Barbarawi’s choice to return reflects an urgent need for dental care in the neighborhood, especially for his Somali and other immigrant patients.

After a stressful night, around 5 a.m. Barbarawi drove to the clinic, which stood just a mile from Cup Foods, the site of Floyd’s death. As he approached, he realized it looked more like a war zone, he said. Still, he felt lucky that the damage to his building wasn’t as bad as what his neighbors experienced. The bookstore next door, called Uncle Hugo’s, was ashes. A few yards away, Popeye’s had turned to rubble.

In his own clinic, Barbarawi couldn’t salvage much of anything either. He kept thinking to himself: People who don’t want good for the community are not from the community. They’re outsiders.

As news spread, Barbarawi started receiving phone calls from his patients urging him to reopen—as quickly as possible at the same location. Barbarawi recalled his patients telling him: We need you. Our children depend on you.

“They already have always struggled with finding the right dentist,” Barbarawi said of his patients with Medicaid. Chicago Lake Family Dental is one of the few clinics in the area that accept state insurance. 

“Being in the community and helping the children, the uninsured, underinsured, the disabled—it was very important for us to stay here and help those communities.”

Finding a clinic that takes your insurance

Barbarawi, who is Palestinian-American, previously worked at a clinic in Chicago after he graduated from dental school in 2012. That clinic specialized in providing care to uninsured and underinsured people in Chicago. Barbarawi brought that same vision when he came back to Minnesota and bought his own practice.

Chicago Lake Family Dental originally opened in 1995, but Barbarawi purchased the practice three years ago after its former owner retired. After buying his new clinic, Barbarawi expanded the insurance coverage network so he could see more Medicaid patients. He noted accessible dental care had been lacking in south Minneapolis.

“We have patients who would drive more than an hour to get to an office that accepts their insurance,” Barbarawi said. “Nothing worse than your kid not getting sleep because they have a toothache, and you’re calling everywhere and there’s no clinic that takes your insurance.”

Chicago Lake Family Dental used to be very kid friendly. While they were waiting for what might be a scary appointment with the dentist, kids could play with toys, read books, watch TV, and play video games. 

The rebuilt Chicago Lake Family Dental clinic sits across Chicago Avenue from the Sheraton, which remains boarded up since last summer. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

For the reopening, Barbarawi wasn’t able to salvage any of these amenities. And while he wants to replicate the former play area in the new clinic, he’s waiting for COVID-19 to subside.

“We had to start over,” Barbarawi said. “Now, we have a very beautiful office. We have six rooms—all new. We have the latest and newest technology when it comes to dental equipment and imaging equipment.”

While Barbarawi was rebuilding the clinic, he met Matthew Robak, an IT specialist who was helping out with the technical aspects of the office. Robak said he appreciated Barbarawi’s commitment to reopening, not just for business, but for his patients.

“That was what struck me,” Robak said. “I felt like he really cared about his patients, because he knew he was a long ways away from being open again. But he was putting everything into it.”

The first thing Barbarawi asked Robak to do was to recover patient data in case they needed it to transfer to another dentist for immediate dental needs.

“We’re not like a pizza place that can go somewhere else and open for new customers. Patients have been coming here for years and it’s hard to move,” Barbarawi said. “We wanted to rebuild quickly, but we struggled with the financial process.”

The original plan was to reopen in six months. But the clinic also endured multiple break-ins during construction. On top of that, the pandemic greatly delayed shipping for new supplies. “But that didn’t stop us,” Barbarawi said.

‘Not every business is going to have the opportunity to rebuild’

Barbarawi raised almost $100,000 through GoFundMe to fund construction and help pay his eight-person staff, who were out of work for a year. 

Karen Paiz Ramirez is the office manager at Chicago Lake Family Dental. While the staff cleaned the office, Ramirez recalled Barbarawi finding a box of the previous owner’s belongings. She flipped through an old photo album with pictures of the original building being constructed—from leveling the ground to laying out the floorplan.

Ramirez said she feels overwhelmed when she drives through the neighborhood. “You’re still hit with that reality that things are different,” Ramirez said. 

“I get a little emotional. A lot of these businesses were here for a long time and it’s sad that not every business is going to have the opportunity to rebuild,” Ramirez said. “These are people that we used to go and have lunch with at Popeye’s. Or our packages were being held next door because our office was closed for the weekend.”

Robak noticed examples of that commitment to the community while he worked with Barabawi. He lived in south Minneapolis for about eight years before recently moving to Eagan. But he’s always had difficulty finding a dentist nearby who would accept his insurance. He previously needed to drive almost 40 minutes out of the city to see a dentist. Other clinics he qualified for would rarely accept new patients.

“I had hard financial times early on when I first moved here to Minnesota,” Robak said “Trying to find a dental clinic that would work with me was so hard.” 

While they were working together one day, Robak told Barbarawi about his difficulties finding care. “It immediately struck me: Wow, this is an important thing for the community to have.”

After the clinic reopens April 13, Robak will become one of Barbarawi’s newest patients.

Ben Hovland contributed reporting to this story.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.