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A worthy testament: Ottawa welcomes Syrian newcomers

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

By Aileen Leo, Somerset West Community Health Centre Volunteer. Originally published in the Centretown Buzz.

Ottawa’s local response to the refugee crisis has been impressive. Collectively, dozens of community-based organizations and businesses, as well as thousands of residents, have come together to welcome those fleeing war and deprivation to Ottawa through grassroots initiatives such as the city’s largest, Refugee 613.

This shared objective is a worthy testament to the late Marion Dewar, Ottawa’s mayor from 1978 to 1985, and her legacy of Project 4000.

In 1979, Dewar committed to welcome 4,000 Vietnamese boat people to our community (out of 8,000 slated to arrive in Canada). Dewar also challenged other cities and the federal government to do more to help. This time, Canada has already surpassed its goal of accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016. In Ottawa, we can proudly say almost 1,500 Syrian refugees now call our city home.

Ottawa Community Health Centres (CHCs) are one group which took a leadership role in the resettlement effort by acting quickly and nimbly to provide essential health care to refugees.

They did this by delivering care where it was most needed: onsite at temporary housing sites (three hotels) where refugees were staying.

At each hotel, CHCs established medical clinics where nurse practitioners and nurses tended to the health care needs of Syrian refugees.

Initial screening prioritized health issues that needed to be addressed quickly, such as pregnancy and diabetes, and refugees could also renew prescriptions. For the assessment and treatment of chronic conditions, refugees were referred to newly-created Refugee Hub Clinics established at Somerset West CHC, Centretown CHC and the Bruyère Family Medicine Centre.

These hubs provide longer-term health care while refugees wait to relocate to permanent housing. At that point, the Ottawa Newcomer Health Centre (a program of Somerset West CHC) helps refugees find a family doctor near their new home.

Through its work with Refugee 613, the Ottawa Newcomer Health Centre also developed a toolkit to provide sponsors and local healthcare providers with the essential information they need to navigate health resources available to refugees, who are insured under the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP).

IFHP is a public program that covers refugees’ basic health care needs for up to one year, at which point they are eligible for provincial health insurance. In response to government cuts to the IFHP in 2012, CHCs across the country have fought hard in recent years for the restoration of full IFHP benefits.

In February 2016, the federal government announced that it would fully restore refugee health care benefits. The toolkit developed by the Ottawa Newcomer Health Centre considers IFHP coverage and helps connect refugees to appropriate and timely health services.

Many organizations are stepping up to offer free services that may not be covered for some refugees under the IFHP, such as emergency dental care. In response to the poor oral health condition of many Syrians who have arrived in Ottawa, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is running free dental clinics every Friday until the end of May at two locations in Ottawa. OPH’s three staff dentists and other practitioners are volunteering their time to help Syrian refugees.

While primary care for refugees is vitally important, social services, especially for children, are also important. CHCs, Mothercraft (Ottawa’s Ontario Early Years Centre), and the Dovercourt Recreation Association have partnered to provide essential early childhood development services as part of resettlement support at the temporary housing sites.

Early childhood development workers, health promoters, outreach workers and interpreters collaborate to run lively playgroups up to four days a week in Ottawa hotels where refugees are temporarily housed. Children aged zero to six years and their families can attend hours of learning through play, including singing, crafts and connecting in a safe and supportive environment.

These essential services support regular monitoring of the health status of refugee children. Benefits include decreased isolation and improved language development and social and emotional functioning.

The playgroups are also a platform to engage with parents, providing them with information in their language about community resources for health and wellness such as CHCs, libraries and recreational programs. As they start planning for the future, they also receive reassurance that services will be available to them once they move out of temporary accommodations.

Let’s continue to work together in common purpose to ensure that newcomers from Syria and elsewhere will continue to be welcomed into our community.