The last report from the United Nation Refugee Agency estimates that 4.3 million Syrians have been externally displaced as a result of civil war in their homeland. That is roughly the population of B.C. Media coverage of the refugee crisis gives us the tiniest glimpse into the desperation faced by Syrian families who have been forced to leave their homes, families and friends in search of safety.
For many Canadians, it is nearly impossible to imagine the trauma and stress of losing everything familiar to become a person without a home or country. For many nurses, it is only too clear how this type of suffering can contribute to long-term health problems. Now that the political wrangling is over and these new Canadians are beginning to arrive, nurses must consider how, when and where we can support our healthcare system, and the new arrivals, in achieving their best possible success in their new country.
B.C.’s Bridge Refugee Clinic receives government-assisted refugees (GARs) year-round – usually 900 in an average year. This year is already proving to be more challenging. The first wave of approximately 400 Syrian refugees are now being seen at the clinic and we expect our numbers to raise from the 900 per year to close to 3,500.
Refugees arrive in Canada with incredibly diverse and complex healthcare needs. At this point we are providing very basic care and assessments using primary care nurses. Public health nurses have been fantastic, supporting us with immunizations as we are managing the influx of influenza cases .Some of the refugees that we serve have spent time in refugee camps and need treatment for conditions as complex as like respiratory infections, diarrhea, malnutrition to simple skin infections. Others have suffered severe emotional trauma and require mental health and counseling services. Others come from countries where healthcare is not considered a basic human right, and are suffering from disease, complex dental problems or issues that would have been fixed had they been born in a different country.
Once they arrive, despite being in a safe place and having their healthcare costs covered by the Interim Federal Health Program, there are still significant hurdles that new refugee families need to overcome. Whether they are Government Assisted Refugees, individuals who have come to Canada independently, or arriving via private sponsorship, there is still paperwork to fill out. This includes applying for MSP and other services, which can often be a lengthy and challenging process. Imagine trying to sign a lease in a language you don’t read? Or enrolling your kids in a school where they might only understand 30% of what is being said? Riding a bus when you aren’t sure how or where to buy a ticket?
Social issues such as housing, literacy, and jobs pose significant challenges for new Canadians and caring for this population requires more than just an understanding of physical illness – it means understanding and supporting every aspect of the individual or families’ life.
Caring for refugees is far outside the standard medical model of care in Canada. As nurses we recognize the need to support our new citizens holistically because we see the long term effects of mental illness and chronic disease left unchecked. We also understand the dire need for proper care to be made available to refugees. Assisting them now will only serve them to become healthier, more productive members of our communities.
This is a moment in history where Canadians get to decide what we truly believe in. With stories of middle-eastern terrorist organizations dominating media for well over a decade, it is far too easy for some to see all Syrian refugees through the same distrusting lens. Will we fall prey to the racist rhetoric within or will we choose to see each man, women, and child as worth the human effort to care for? As nurses, we have an opportunity to shine a light of caring and compassion into some of the hardest and darkest moments imaginable. As a human being, and as a proud RN, I know that our profession will be ready to support and uplift every person who comes through the door, listening to their stories and ensuring their good health – for this generation and the ones to come.
For more information on Nursing and Refugee Health in B.C., visit our Refugee Health Information Page and read our interview with Nurse Practitioner Ranjit Lehal who provides primary health care services for refugees at the Burnaby New Canadian Clinic
ABOUT MAYLENE FONG, RN
Maylene has worked in various roles as a front line nurse, educator, and clinical nurse specialist. She is currently a manger in community health, where she works closely with both nurses and health authority management to develop long-term, evidence based solutions to existing and emerging issues.