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Saskatoon health-care team calls for more services for refugees

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WATCH: Accessing healthcare it isn't easy for some when the system and languages used within it are completely foreign – May 7, 2021

A team dedicated to helping refugees get health care says services are lacking for people unfamiliar with Saskatchewan’s systems and languages.

Fatima Abdillahi came to Saskatoon as a refugee from Botswana in 2014, and said navigating her new home would’ve been challenging if she didn’t already speak English.

“But for most families… it’s very hard. They rely on translators,” she said.

Accessing health care is crucial, but knowing where to go, how to get there and how to communicate health concerns can be difficult for refugees, she said.

Read more: Refugee Engagement and Community Health holds first clinic in Saskatoon

The Refugee Engagement and Community Health (REACH) Clinic in Saskatoon helps newcomers navigate the system. The health care team works alongside medical interpreters to provide a one-stop shop for initial assessments and follow-up care.

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“The person doesn’t feel scared or intimidated,” said Abdillahi, one of the clinic’s interpreters.

“Everything is in one place for them and everyone is just so kind to them at the same time.”

The team includes four doctors who work out of the downtown Saskatoon Community Clinic on Monday and Wednesday mornings.

Dr. Mahli Brindamour, one of two pediatricians at the REACH Clinic, said she’s seen how the welcoming environment can help patients thrive.

Before the clinic set up shop in 2017, she said many refugees struggled to access healthcare.

Read more: Canada facing legal action over COVID-19 policy that pushes asylum-seekers to U.S.

“[They] would often end up very sick in the emergency department because they delayed seeking care because of so many barriers,” she said.

Refugees may have undiagnosed illnesses, and can be exposed to certain diseases and emotional trauma, Brindamour said.

“Our health-care system is not necessarily ready… to receive refugees who have these specific and heightened needs because we lack structural things like interpreters,” she said.

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“We need dedicated, specific services for refugees because those are proven to be associated with better health outcomes.”

Saskatchewan’s health ministry said the province approved a one-time $41,000 request from the health authority to support the REACH clinic in 2020/21.

“Thus far this fiscal year, the ministry has not had discussions about, or received a request for funding, of REACH,” ministry spokesperson Jennifer Graham said in an email.

Brindamour said sustainable funding is still needed.

Melanie Baerg with Global Gathering Place (GGP), a REACH Clinic partner, said the clinic could expand its hours with more funding.

“A lot of families [arrive] with a number of complicated health issues,” said Baerg, GGP’s health and case coordination team lead.

“We try to get them in as quickly as possible, but there are definitely times when there is a wait to get in.”

Prior to the pandemic, she said roughly 350 refugees came to Saskatoon each year.

“Trying to get those needs met and feeling like they can talk to somebody about what’s going on with them is so important,” Baerg said.

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“It makes them feel like they’re cared for at the REACH Clinic and that they will be listened to.”

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