Refugee health clinic opens in Kitchener

A new health clinic designed to help refugees navigate Ontario's health care system opened Thursday in Kitchener.

A new health clinic aimed at helping refugees navigate Ontario's health care system opened Thursday in Kitchener.

The Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre was established to help refugees get the care they need — something many doctors are ill-equipped to handle, says clinic director Dr. Michael Stephenson.

'They are turned away because the emergency room doesn't understand' —Dr. Michael Stephenson

"They come with illnesses that are unfamiliar to the average general practitioner," said Stephenson. "Like parasites, like tuberculosis. Diseases of public health concern that are very rare to Canadian born individuals."

There's also a problem of access to health care Stephenson told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris on Thursday.

"Doctors in the community have told me that they do not understand the health care administration of refugees and refugees have told me that they even go to emergency rooms and they are turned away because the emergency room doesn't understand their health care," said Stephenson.

It's something Sirri, a refugee claimant from Cameroon, experienced first hand. She only wanted to reveal her first name because she is concerned she may be persecuted in her homeland if she has to return.

Within a month of moving to the Kitchener area in November, 2012, she fell ill.

"I don't know if it was flu or just cold," said Sirri. "I couldn't even walk. I was so weak, so I had to go to a walk-in clinic."

She showed the clinic her refugee status card, as she had been instructed, but says she was denied access.

"She said 'No, we cannot receive you. We cannot attend to you if you do not have a health card.' "

Sirri says she was told she would have to pay $100 to be seen by a doctor.

"Trust me, I didn't even have $5 in my pocket, let alone $100. I was devastated, because I had to struggle to walk back home," she said.

She says she's relieved a clinic targeted to the region's estimated 400 refugees is opening. 

"Right now I think most [refugees], they don't go to anywhere when they are sick because they are scared. They don't have money to pay for all the services," said Sirri. 

Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre initially will be open one day a week at 825 King Street West in Kitchener Dr. Stephenson says they already have plans to extend that to two days a week.

The health centre is funded through the Ontario Health Insurance Program and the federal Interim Federal Health program, which provides temporary health care coverage to refugee claimants.


Jackie Sharkey


Jackie Sharkey is currently a multimedia journalist with CBC News in P.E.I. She has spent the last decade working as a producer and guest host in Kitchener, Ont. and helped launch the station when it was created in 2013. She has also worked for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.