University of Alberta researcher calls for refugee health-care clinic in Edmonton

Edmonton needs a specialized refugee health clinic similar to one in Calgary, says a University of Alberta researcher who spent four months interviewing Syrian families struggling to access health care in this city.

Language barrier a major challenge for Syrian refugees trying to navigate the health-care system

Rhianna Charchuk researched the experiences of Syrian refugees trying to access health care in Edmonton for her master's thesis. The University of Alberta student presented her findings Tuesday afternoon at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. (CBC)

Edmonton needs a specialized refugee health clinic similar to one in Calgary, says a University of Alberta researcher who spent four months interviewing Syrian families struggling to access health care in this city. 

Rhianna Charchuk, a master's student at the U of A's School of Public Health, wrote her thesis on the barriers faced by privately sponsored Syrian refugees seeking medical and dental care in Edmonton.

They faced plenty of problems stemming from poor communication, confusion about their health coverage and a lack of translation services, she found.

We have to advocate for them and that requires addressing these needs that there might be services for, but they're not connected with.- Rhianna Charchuk, master's student at the U of A's School of Public Health

"Arriving in Canada as a refugee is a really difficult and complicated process," said Charchuk, presenting the findings of a study involving 16 Syrian refugee families at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers on Tuesday afternoon.

"As Canadians taking them in, we have to advocate for them and that requires addressing these needs that there might be services for, but they're not connected with." 

The Mosaic Primary Care Network in Calgary helps refugees in that city navigate the health-care system.

Doctors there have expertise in refugees' unique health-care needs and are trained to deliver culturally appropriate care. As well, there are translators on hand to overcome language barriers. 

Translation services a 'big issue'

Samy al Aloul, 33, arrived in Canada on Nov. 30, 2015, as a privately sponsored refugee. He has strong English skills compared to others in his family. His parents can't see health-care providers without a translator, so he has served that function for them in Edmonton.  

When his mother fell, al Aloul spent most of his day in the emergency room with her for one reason. 

"She can take care of herself, but she still needs someone to go with her to translate, to explain," al Aloul said. "We spend more than four hours in the hallway and I know that's regular here."

While al Aloul said he's grateful for the health coverage he's offered, the long wait times and the complicated nature of the system can be discouraging. When he broke his rib, he didn't even seek medical attention, he said.

"In Syria, it's way better than here, to be honest," al Aloul said, citing a lower doctor-to-patient ratio there as the primary reason. "That's a big issue."
Samy al Aloul says when his parents need to seek medical care, he accompanies them to translate. (CBC)

While there are systems in place to track the settlement of government-sponsored refugees in Canada, the same checks and balances aren't there for privately sponsored refugees. That means it falls on those who have helped the refugees get to Canada to help them navigate settlement. 

Although refugee settlement falls under federal programming, the regions across the country taking in refugees have their own systems in place.  

"There's just no standard care across the country," said Charchuk, who would like to see one implemented. 

Suzanne Gross, the Mennonite Centre's manager of strategic initiatives, said one challenge when it came to Syrian refugees settling in Edmonton was that so many were not only privately sponsored, but privately sponsored by individual families. 

"The group-sponsored had more capacity to support with health care than the family," said Gross, adding the Mennonite Centre worked with a number of family-sponsored refugees, connecting them with social workers. "But it was still a challenge and that's because the system isn't really set up to ensure there's translation, to ensure there's enough time for those initial meetings."

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell