OTTAWA – When Abid Jan and his young family escaped from Pakistan 13 years ago, the last thing he worried about was the red tape he would face upon his arrival to Canada.
Jan had been working as a journalist and had recently written a scathing article about corruption and mismanagement in the community development field, exposing a number of local and military officials. When he and his family started receiving death threats, he knew he had no choice but to flee his home country.
“I arrived to Canada with only $150 in my pocket,” said Jan.
While refuge in Canada meant that Jan and his family no longer faced the threat of death, they were confronted with a whole other set of challenges: navigating the refugee process and particularly, the health-care system.
As refugees, he and his family received extremely basic health-care coverage that would cover some prescriptions, but not dental care. There was no education about how the health-care system worked and Jan wasn’t informed about what services were available to him and his family.
Looking back at family photo albums, Jan, who now works at United Way in Ottawa, recalled just how tough the first five years in Canada actually were.
“Up until 2006, we had no furniture, not even beds,” he said. “We just couldn’t afford it.”
As Canada prepares to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees over the coming months, there is hope that this time around, things will be different.
Refugee settlement groups and community health-care centres in Ottawa have made it their mission to try and figure out how best to deal with the large influx of new arrivals. This collective effort has resulted in the creation of “Refugee 613”, a grassroots organization that is co-ordinating Ottawa’s response to the global refugee crisis. The group is comprised of settlement agencies, community health centres, immigration lawyers and local fundraisers.
A key part of Refugee 613’s mandate is to create a consolidated approach to health care in order to avoid duplicating services. There are only six community health centres in the National Capital Region and there are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 refugees expected to arrive in the city within a short time frame.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel …. We already have all the structures in place, we just have to ensure that we co-ordinate effectively.”
Doug Gruner, a longtime local refugee doctor and head of Refugee 613’s health task force committee, said the most important thing is ensuring that people don’t fall through the cracks because of a capacity issue.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” said Gruner. “We already have all the structures in place, we just have to ensure that we co-ordinate effectively.”
Gruner said that when refugees start arriving, the first step will be to provide everyone with a basic orientation of the Canadian health-care system to inform new arrivals about what services they can access and to educate refugees about the importance of preventative care and the function of hospitals versus walk-in clinics.
On the medical side, Gruner said that doctors and nurse practitioners will first conduct an initial screening, prioritizing issues that need to be addressed quickly, such as pregnancy and diabetes. Part of the process will also be to screen for chronic diseases, mental illness and to ensure that vaccinations are up to date.
Gruner said that depending on where the refugees arrive from, there may also be some additional blood tests or X-rays ordered to ensure that any serious illnesses that the refugees may be bringing from their country of origin can be addressed immediately. Once the initial screening process is completed, the next step will be to provide the new arrivals with information on how to find a family doctor.
Siffan Rahman, a program co-ordinator at the Somerset West Community Health Centre, said that she is confident that the Ottawa health-care system is equipped to deal with the large influx of refugees.
“I don’t think it’s a big issue because we’ve had government assisted refugees before. We’ve seen them in our clinics and we know how to treat them,” she said.
For Rahman, what is most important is that the federal government quickly reverses the cuts made to the Interim Federal Health (IFH) Program. Rahman explained that once reinstated, the program will ensure that refugee claimants can receive basic health-care coverage while they’re awaiting approval of their application. Rahman said that this will make it more affordable for community health-care centres to treat refugees within their current framework and existing programs. Cuts to the program in 2012 under the Conservative government left refugee claimants uninsured, discouraging them from seeking health solutions early on.
“They waited until the situation got worse and they ended up in the hospital, which ended up costing the system more,” said Rahman.
“Restoring the IFH program ensures that all refugees are given equal treatment.”
While the Liberal government has already committed publicly to reinstating IFH, they have yet to do so. If they don’t reverse the cuts by the time the refugees arrive in Canada, privately sponsored government refugees won’t have any health-care coverage.
In regards to reinstating the IFH program, a spokesperson at the Department of Citizenship and immigration Canada said, “The government is committed to doing this fast, but to also doing it right.”
While most people would agree that health care is priority number one for the refugees coming to Ottawa, there are those in the community that believe that other aspects of well-being also need to be considered.
Twenty-three-year-old Ottawa resident Maria Fleming is one of those people. She and her friend Renee Taylor decided to do their part by launching “Welcome Box”, a non-profit campaign that aims to provide essential items to the thousands of Syrian refugees who will soon call Canada home.
Fleming said that many of these refugees would have experienced years of hardship and adversity. She also said that many will arrive without basic necessities, such as winter coats, clothes and toiletries.
“Although we’ll never be able to box away their past, we believe that a box filled with those essential items can help make their transition to Canada easier in spite of such difficult circumstances,” she said.
Fleming said that Welcome Box is about more than just providing necessary items. The campaign also aims to raise awareness about an issue that is so often misunderstood. Fleming believes that the project will help bring the community together and she hopes it will go a long way in making the refugees feel at home.
With so many Ottawans committed to ensuring a seamless transition for the thousands of Syrian refugees expected to arrive over the coming weeks, Gruner said he is optimistic about what’s to come.
“There is so much goodwill in the community and so many people are behind this effort. I feel very hopeful.”
Feature photo: © Hayley Chazan
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