© image courtesy of CCRIHC
Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in Canadian society. They have come to start over but find it stubbornly difficult when injury or sickness strikes them or their family. Sixty percent of our over 80,000 refugee visits have occurred in the past five years—each refugee’s journey is treacherous.
At the Canadian Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Health Care (CCRIHC), we believe that if it is a refugee’s job to get their children and family to safety, out of harm’s way from war, famine, and persecution, then when they are in Canada and are ill, it is our job to help them. And if there is no medical centre where they can go for care, then it is our job to build one. Injuries, PTSD, torture, sexual abuse, and infections don’t magically disappear when a refugee arrives in Canada.
In 1999, from a donated church basement in Toronto, four volunteer community nurses and doctors began Canada’s first free medical clinic for refugees. For more than 20 years the clinic has welcomed waves of refugees and immigrants from over 125 countries. Volunteer dentists added the Urban Dental Clinic. Public donations helped build a modern medical, dental and resettlement centre, and added a food and warm clothing bank.
During the 2016 Syrian refugee crisis, CCRIHC opened clinics in Toronto refugee resettlement sites. We did the same in 2018 at Canadian Red Cross shelters as refugee border crossings surged, and again in October 2021 when the gut-wrenching Afghan refugee tragedy unfolded. Planning is now underway for refugees arriving from war-torn Ukraine.
Women and child refugees predominate in clinics. War rips families apart. Children are deeply traumatized. Women often arrive without their partners, fleeing alone to protect their children. Many are pregnant, without care. CCRIHC opened women’s clinics and children’s clinics, with help from Toronto’s SickKids Hospital pediatricians. We expanded our diabetic clinics to help surging numbers arriving without access to care, often for years.
The pandemic hit the most vulnerable hardest. Demand for CCRIHC’s care grew by 300
percent. Refugees find jobs quickly after arriving, often lower-paying frontline jobs as cleaners, cooks, PSWs, and construction workers. Partnering with Global Medic, we opened outdoor COVID assessment and vaccine tents, administering over 30,000 vaccinations. We established on-site medical clinics in our community homeless shelters hit hardest by COVID, providing over 2,000 vaccinations.
Our clinics are volunteer-supported. Healthcare and other professionals give their time freely. They don’t judge their patients or question their immigration status or ability to pay. The clinic has served as a model that others have followed in establishing similar clinics across Canada. Doctors, nurses, and allied care professionals have sought out the clinic to volunteer upon hearing about the work it does. Beyond their altruism and dedication to a humanitarian cause, they want to give back by helping Canada’s newcomers overcome illness to get on with their lives.
They believe Canada is a compassionate society; that’s what makes Canada great is its ability to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate. A fundamental understanding exists among clinic staff and volunteers, many of whom have refugee experiences of their own. The memory of what it means to leave one’s country and begin a new life in a new land is still fresh. They, or their parents and relatives, have first-hand experience of what it takes to make the mental and physical journey and start again.
They recognize the refugee and immigrant experience is common to Canadian families. They and all Canadians have benefitted from the energy of newcomers and their unyielding will to succeed. The drive and determination of refugees and immigrants to make better lives for themselves and their families have helped Canada prosper and become one of the most admired societies in the world.
Canada’s immigrants and refugees deserve a fighting chance. Providing them humanitarian medical treatment “inside borders” is the CCRIHC’s contribution to this higher purpose. Donations are the lifeblood that allows us to carry on.
CCRIHC was the first volunteer medical clinic in Canada dedicated to refugees and immigrants. In 1999 a borrowed church basement in a Toronto suburb became home to a new and innovative kind of refugee and immigrant health centre.
A clinic operated by a handful of volunteer doctors, nurses and community members began providing free healthcare to newcomers to Canada who found it difficult, often impossible to obtain the medical treatment they needed. Many refugees and immigrants have to wait before they receive access to Canadian public health coverage. The wait can be years.
Where a clinic in a church basement began two decades ago a seventy-member volunteer interdisciplinary medical, dental and social care team with staff in a modern clinic now provides humanitarian medical care and assistance to those new to Canada who find themselves sick and medically uninsured.