Providing health care services to Syrian refugees in our region
Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Imagine arriving in a brand new country with little more than the clothes on your back and no understanding of an unfamiliar language, culture and climate. Compounding the stress of the move is the fact that perhaps this isn’t the first time, but just the latest in a string of stops you’ve made after fleeing your war-torn home country.

For the thousands of Syrian refugees who have arrived in Canada over the past several months, this seemingly incomprehensible scenario has been their reality. Many arrive with children and extended families in tow, faced with the daunting task of building a new life from the rubble of the old.

The Lower Mainland alone has seen more than 3,500 Syrian refugees arrive since last fall, with thousands more anticipated by the end of 2016. As the largest health authority in the province, Fraser Health has welcomed a significant number of these individuals to our region. Historically, this is not an unusual phenomenon as our communities typically become home to up to 90 per cent of all new immigrants and refugees arriving in British Columbia.

While all Syrian refugees are screened upon arrival and provided with immunizations by Bridge Clinic in conjunction with Fraser Health’s Population and Public Health staff, the region’s New Canadian Clinics in Burnaby and Surrey act as the second point of contact for those with health care concerns that require short or long-term attention. These issues could be anything from a pre-existing chronic condition to a prenatal care for an expectant mom.

Although the number of recent refugee arrivals from Syria is somewhat unprecedented, Nancy Desanghere, nurse practitioner at the Surrey New Canadian Clinic, is taking it all in stride.

“We are excited to work with the Syrian refugees and are working closely with community partners to help folks gain access to care on multiple levels,” she explains. “We have made a close connection with our Public Health team as well as settlement workers that work in the community and we’re ready.”

Though the health of the majority of Syrian refugees appears to be generally good thus far, there are those who out of necessity have let their health take a backseat to putting food on the table and keeping their family safe for the past several months – or years.

“Many people have had access to health care in their country, but the situation is such that they have had disruptions in regular, ongoing care,” says New Canadian Clinic physician Dr. Brian Poelzer. “For some, their diabetes, their cardiac disease, or their blood pressure may have not been followed closely in the last few years, so these are simple things that we can identify and correct when they arrive here.”

While the health concerns for some may be relatively simple to address, the teams at the Burnaby and Surrey New Canadian Clinics must be mindful of the challenges a history of mental and physical trauma may present.

“Every person coming to Canada – whether an immigrant or a refugee – deals with situations differently,” explains Desanghere. “You keep that on your radar and assess and treat accordingly. We have a close collaboration with mental health services within Fraser Health and connect closely with settlement services within the community to help folks with those mental health concerns as well.”

Further complicating any underlying health issue are the challenges of a language barrier for individuals with little to no understanding of English. However, this is an everyday occurrence at the New Canadian Clinics.

“We offer interpreting services for all refugees – including Syrian refugees – if language is a barrier.  Most visits are using a professionally-trained interpreter so the visits take twice as long as a visit where you are speaking English,” continues Desanghere.

As is often the case at the New Canadian Clinic, the team is mindful of the role distinct cultural differences play in delivering care tailored to Syrian clients’ needs.

“Culture and religious beliefs have a huge impact on their health,” says nurse practitioner Sara Hosseina of the clients she sees at the Burnaby and Surrey New Canadian Clinics. “When you work with patients from different cultural and religious groups, this has to be reflected in your practice. For example, many of the clients we work with are Muslims and some related social history questions may be sensitive for them. However that doesn’t mean we won’t ask the questions, but I definitely assure their confidentiality and try to normalize the questions. I can tell that they have a really good appreciation for that.”


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Source: Fraser Health