Oct. 19, 2018

Supporting traumatized refugees

Supporting Traumatized Refugees

A 28-year-old woman hyperventilates before collapsing as she recounts horrific experiences while being held captive by the Islamic State. As medical professionals rush to her aid, today she is safely at the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, a refugee resettlement agency in downtown Calgary.

The woman is a Yazidi refugee, one of more than 1,300 mostly women and children from northern Iraq or Syria that the federal government resettled to Canada. Captured in 2014 and freed in 2016, the woman is one of approximately 300 people moved to Calgary through a program supporting traumatized Yazidi refugees. Calgary was one of four Canadian resettlement cities because of its expertise in this area and ability to provide quality health care.

Her story is told in heartbreaking detail in a New York Times article from March 2018 that helped shed international light on the challenges of Yazidi refugees starting a new life in Canada.

Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, MD’08, has seen a number of patients with similar experiences. Fabreau, a general internist, is an assistant professor in the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. He also works clinically and directs a research program at Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic (MRHC).

Fabreau is the son of political refugees from Uruguay who were resettled in Medicine Hat in the late 1970’s. He graduated from medical school and completed his specialty training at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) before earning his Masters of Public Health at Harvard.

To enhance the support for refugees in Calgary, Fabreau and Dr. Annalee Coakley, MD, began a grassroots project called Innovation in Refugee Health. 

“The world is facing a global refugee crisis, and this is just a small part of addressing it,” Fabreau says. “In Calgary, doctors are seeing women and children who have experienced significant trauma. It requires innovative care and co-ordination among many health services.” 

Coakley is the physician lead at the Mosaic clinic. A clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine, she received an Alberta Medical Association Award for Compassionate Service in 2016 for her dedication to local refugees. She also teaches immigrant and refugee health courses to CSM undergraduate students.

Innovation in Refugee Health supports the design, implementation and evaluation of refugee care programs through support and collaboration with the O’Brien Institute, Alberta Health Services, the Calgary Refugee Health Program and the Mosaic Primary Care Network. The aim is to help locally resettled refugees achieve better health so they can more fully participate in the community.

Initial assessments and medical appointments can involve entire families if traumatized women and children become stressed by an unfamiliar environment. Some individuals who come to the MRHC are disabled and unable to walk while others may have unique needs, such as being illiterate or nonverbal. The program also hires community members to act as interpreters and help navigate the basics, such as explaining how public transit works, to newly arrived refugees.

“We’re seeing remarkable success stories. Without proper support it’s difficult to navigate our complex health system and transition smoothly from specialized care into the general health system,” says Coakley. “The program is also designed to better address language and cultural barriers, and support health-care providers and clinical staff who demonstrate signs of burnout and trauma through this difficult work.”

Get involved

To support community health programs designed to help Yazidi refugees, donate today to the Innovation in Refugee Health Program: https://netcommunity.ucalgary.ca/innovationinrefugeehealth