May 17, 2022

Nearly 700 refugees — half from Afghanistan — have received care at the New Canadians Health Centre since it opened in late August 2021. The centre is the result of a partnership between academics, local settlement and health-care organizations, and the provincial government.

Family doctors, nurses, specialists including a pediatrician, psychological therapists, an immunization clinic and other health-care services are all available under one roof.

Centre manager Astrid Velasquez, on loan from Catholic Social Services, came to Canada herself as a newcomer from Colombia in 2002. For her, the goal of the new centre is to help newcomers feel safe and at home in Edmonton as quickly as possible.

“I remember taking my parents to the doctor and having to do the language interpretation because nobody else was available, and I am sure that my parents couldn’t be themselves and couldn’t talk about everything that was happening to them because they had one of their kids in the room,” Velasquez said.

“This is a place where refugees will be treated with respect and people will understand what they are going through from the start.”

“Community members who have refugee experience have very specific pre-migration challenges that deeply impact their physical and emotional health,” said Yvonne Chiu, a founding member of the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative and recipient of an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Alberta. Both Chiu and Velasquez were directors of the interim board of the centre.

“It’s more than a clinic — our vision is to look at health equity and social inclusion in a holistic and comprehensive way that supports the full wellness of newcomers, particularly refugees,” said Chiu.

“It’s not just about integration,” said current board chair Vera Caine, professor in the Faculty of Nursing. “We will bring forward the assets and strengths that refugees bring to our communities, and we will all benefit from that.”

The clinic is funded by Alberta Health (doctors), Alberta Health Services (support staff) and Catholic Social Services (space), with additional services provided by the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative, as well as support from the Edmonton Community Foundation and various U of A programs including the Faculty of Nursing and the Community-University Partnership. The centre also has a working relationship with the Edmonton North Primary Care Network and receives support from the Edmonton Oliver Primary Care Network.

“Health is everything”

The Refugee Health Coalition was formed to advocate for the establishment of the centre after a previous clinic was closed in 2017, leaving Edmonton as the only major city in Canada without a dedicated refugee health service, Caine said. Led previously by Velasquez and Caine, the coalition also included the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Stan Houston and Tehseen Ladha, and is now led by U of A grad Rhianna Charchuk and emergency physician Jessie Breton.

For now, the New Canadians Health Centre is located within Catholic Social Services’ main refugee reception building in downtown Edmonton, but the long-term goal is to provide stand-alone services to new immigrants, regardless of their refugee status. 

Physicians are on salary rather than receiving fee-for-service, so they can take all the time needed to screen patients with complex health histories while using a translation hotline. 

“Some of our clients may have been in refugee camps for decades, their kids may have been born in refugee camps and never had access to adequate medical care and may not have been screened or treated for common chronic diseases,” explained Velasquez.

She said most of the refugees are very resilient. For example, one woman flew from Afghanistan to Canada on the same day that she gave birth. “This was her opportunity to come with her family to Canada, so she did it. It is incredible,” Velasquez said. “I was so happy to have the health centre ready and to be able to take care of her and the baby when they arrived here.”

Velasquez said she feels fortunate that her family was able to leave Colombia and come to Canada intact. “I was able to come with my mom and my dad and my siblings. I didn’t have to leave anybody behind.”

Although she trained to be a teacher, she soon realized her newcomer experience would shape her career.

“I remember when we first arrived and we were receiving settlement help, when I saw all the people from all different parts of the world hidden in that waiting area, I wanted to help them, even though at that time I was the one needing help,” she said.

Over the 16 years she has worked for Catholic Social Services, she has assisted people from Colombia, Bhutan, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and now, Afghanistan, to settle in Edmonton.

“For me, health is everything. If you have health you can do everything else,” she said.

“A diverse, equitable and kind community”

“Receiving the appropriate health services upon arrival, being treated with respect and according to your culture, being screened for the right things — that is all going to give you a chance to thrive in your new country,” Velasquez said.

Caine, who is a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute, sees the opening of the New Canadians Health Centre as a chance for the community to tap into the skills and talents of the newcomers.

It is also a sign she has come full circle. Caine came to Canada as an immigrant from Germany as a young adult and has spent her academic career working to improve the health of refugees, Indigenous peoples and those living with HIV. On a personal level, she teamed up with a group of retired nursing professors to sponsor a Syrian refugee family to come to Canada in 2017 and they are now supporting two more families to migrate. The mother of the first family, Amina Altamo, now serves on the board of the new centre.

Several members of the board arrived in Canada as refugees. Mana Ali, who is also the centre’s co-lead for research and evaluation with Tehseen Ladha, came to Canada from Somalia and has been a social worker and cultural broker in Edmonton for many years. Joud Nour Eddin, who fled Syria in 2012 and is a recent graduate of the public health master’s program at the U of A, has long advocated for increased involvement of refugees in decision-making processes.

“We have a circle of people with lived experience who guide the centre,” Caine said. “This is not just about meeting medical needs; it’s about building a diverse, equitable and kind community.”

“The well-being of newcomers is interwoven with our recognition of their full humanity,” said Chiu. “They’re not just coming with lots of needs. There’s so many talented people with different strengths that we mustn’t overlook.”

“We belong to the community and we are for the community,” said Velasquez.

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