Healthcare advocates unite at newcomer clinic

Refuge: Hamilton Centre for Newcomer Health has completed its first year of operation by successfully gathering support and interest from both clients and fellow service providers in the community.

In November of 2011, prominent Hamiltonians Hodan Ali and Dr. Elisabeth Canisius came together to open Refuge. The centre provides healthcare services to new immigrants and refugees, who often face barriers in accessing culturally-appropriate healthcare services.

We interviewed Hodan Ali, Director at Refuge to learn more about the work she and her colleagues are doing in our city.

What community needs did you address by opening Refuge?
I am a Registered Nurse by profession, and have worked in the Hamilton community for the past few years serving immigrants and refugees and other marginalized groups.

Through my work I’ve seen a great need for this particular population due to the added barriers of language, culture, and not knowing how to navigate the system…We looked at the need in the community. A lot of women with children have no access to basic primary care. That’s how it started.

We opened up a year ago and we have close to a thousand patients registered already. Because this is a transient population, some of those people have been deported so the number shifts. A large number of our people have never had a family physician in Canada or been able to access a family doctor other than through a walk-in clinic. We know there is a lot of work that needs to be done. We are just getting started.

Why is Refuge’s presence important amidst walk-in clinics and hospitals?
Even for people with health coverage through Interim Federal Health (IFH) it is not easy to find physicians who want to take them on [as patients]. Because refugees are under a different billing system, [the process] is more difficult.

Many people used to go to walk-in clinics to get access. Because of the changes in IFH, more people are being rejected. Most people with IFH get turned away because the clinic doesn’t have adequate information to determine if the people are eligible for coverage. They find out after they submit the billing. Walk in clinics don’t want to be in that situation. It’s going to be more difficult to serve this population.

A large number of refugees access walk-in clinics as their number one access centre. The changes in IFH are going to have a huge impact. We’ve already seen a high demand at our clinic because of them. We also know that walk-in clinics are not holistic care. It’s different than if you have a consistent provider.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Every day we see patients, it is rewarding. It’s rewarding to see patients say they feel welcome and respected, like part of the community. They are not sidelined. We see it in the faces of mothers who face a lot of barriers with children or for themselves. A lot of women take on more household responsibilities and do not put their health as a priority. We find it rewarding to see women come through and get that preventative care. If the mother is healthy, the family is healthier.

Every day we go into the clinic and have patients come in, and that alone is rewarding for us because we know we are reaching people that otherwise would feel they are not a significant part of our community.

Everybody should have equal and equitable access to health services regardless of their immigration status.

What are the greatest challenges in your work?
Changes to the system are always challenging. Recent changes in eligibility will be an increased barrier for a large number of our community members who have huge access issues already.

Referring clients outside the centre and arranging for interpretation services is never easy, especially in healthcare when people’s lives are at stake. It’s important to be able to communicate accurately. For translation, our staff is diverse so we often use them along with community members, but will hire interpreters in urgent matters.
All of these resources come from the volunteer model that we have set up. We don’t get any formal funding from the government. Given that we have limited resources we have to be cautious of where we spend the little that we do have.

Who is behind the work at the centre?
What makes our work stand out is that it is volunteer driven. All of our physicians and nurses give their time to ensure that newcomers have access to primary healthcare. We have a diverse group of professionals. We have a variety of family physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, specialists, international medical graduates, infectious disease specialists, mental health workers, psychiatrists, and a wide range of community members, such as administrative staff. All these staff members make our work possible.

Refuge is located at 183 Hughson Street South, Lower Level, Hamilton. Contact them at 905-526-0000.
Refuge’s services are available for newcomers covered under the Interim Federal Health program.

Interview and Photo by Michelle Drew 

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