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Numbers Don’t Lie: MedLife takes a look at refugee health in Canada

by Ash Abraham Coutu

When approaching a discussion surrounding the crisis in Syria, it can be helpful to strike a balance between logic and emotion. MedLife, a University of Ottawa campus based club, did just that with their MedTalk conference, which examined the numbers and costs associated with refugee health.

UOttawa epidemiology professor Raywat Deonandan dispelled several commonly held misconceptions about refugee resettlement in a presentation, in which he mentioned that only four per cent of refugees have been settled in North America. Forty-eight per cent of refugees are found in Asia and twenty-nine per cent have been resettled throughout Africa.

Deonandan also described healthcare costs for refugees, which on average are only one-tenth of  a Canadian’s healthcare costs. He noted that refugees pay taxes, yet “their taxes do not give them the same choice or breadth of services as other taxpayers.”

Biomedical science student and organizer of the MedLife event, Israa Dawod, was floored by the information laid out in Deonandan’s presentation. Dawod told the Leveller that, “I knew we weren’t taking in as many people as we could but I was blown away by all of those numbers. Without these numbers, we would go on assuming that what we hear in the media is correct and it’s not.” Dawod added, “I think we have an obligation in a privileged society such as ours to take in refugees. I do a lot of refugee work and most of them are children.”

Suelana Taha, who works directly with refugee children, gave a presentation from her perspective as the Newcomer Patient Navigator at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).

Taha told the Leveller, “when the [Syrian] refugees first started coming to CHEO, there were misunderstandings and miscommunications but I’ve started to see changes.” Taha asserts that education has been key in perpetuating the change. She says, “it’s about educating these families so they don’t fall through the cracks.”

Language barriers and a lack of awareness of available health services often hinders refugee families from accessing healthcare. To tackle this issue, Taha provides culturally sensitive information to staff members. Additionally, Taha makes sure each family has an interpreter. One practical way interpreters assist is by calling families to remind them of their upcoming appointments. As a result, CHEO has seen a decline in their “no show” rates. Taha believes it is important to treat newcomers’ health issues right away. She points out, “we have refugee children who are coming in with advanced dental care issues and they are in pain. We can prevent more pain and save the hospital more money with admissions. Fix the problem first before it becomes bigger and costs more in the long run.”

Although saving money is an advantage, Taha says, “our goal is to make kids better and feel supported.” The quicker the children are treated, the faster they are able to integrate into society and begin to live a healthy life. Taha says, “Syrian refugee children are resilient. All children are resilient.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 6 (Spring 2017).

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