Nov. 8, 2021

Community collaboration leads to improved health supports for refugees

Med school researchers join efforts with cultural leaders to break down health barriers
A road sign reads "Covid-19 testing clinic" with an arrow pointing to the left
Getty Images

This story is the second in a three-part series on how UCalgary researchers and the United Way are making progress in the areas of raising successful kids, building strong communities and overcoming poverty. Together, we can improve lives in our community. Find out how you can help.

Researchers at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) are exploring how partnering with community leaders can improve health supports for refugees and vulnerable populations.  

Upon arrival in Canada, many immigrants are faced with language barriers and a lack of culturally appropriate supports and services to support their transition. These challenges were amplified in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic set in.

When COVID outbreaks overwhelmed several Alberta meatpacking plants, Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, BSc’04, MD’08, MPH, Dr. Annalee Coakley, MD, DTM&H, and their teams set out to study the operational response of the outbreaks at the plants. However, they would face their own set of challenges when they got there.

“When we arrived, we were working with a population that had been marginalized, are low-income and are around 85 per cent newcomers,” says Fabreau, an assistant professor at CSM. “There was a lot of victim blaming and reports of people facing discrimination because of their status as meat plant workers.

“We were trying to do research in a community where their trust with any and all institutions was completely broken.”  

As co-leads of Refugee Health YYC, a research, innovation and education platform at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, Fabreau and Coakley, physician lead of the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in Calgary, are not unfamiliar with working with refugee and newcomer populations.

Closely partnered with Mosaic, Refugee Health YYC conducts research on refugee health and health care, seeking to improve care and outcomes for newly arrived refugees and refugee claimants. 

However, the unique problems brought on by the pandemic required innovative solutions. Fabreau, Coakley and their team recruited and hired eight leaders from various cultural communities in Calgary, who speak a total of more than 10 languages, forming a team of “community scholars.”

“None of my ideas (to reach people) worked, so we just stopped and listened to our community scholars who told us how to engage people, and it worked,” says Fabreau. He adds that, while this is some of the most humbling and difficult research he’s ever done, it’s also the most rewarding.

The scholars became true partners in our research. We trained them in research and they trained us in their communities.

While the scholars assisted with recruitment, interviews and data collection, they also helped provide resources and support to the plant workers, including combating vaccine misinformation in their communities.

Adanech (Adi) Sahilie is one of the community scholars. “This project gave me the opportunity to listen to (my community members), to engage them in a conversation and to validate what they felt,” says Adanech, a member of the Ethiopia and Eritrean community in Calgary, and the founder of the Immigrant Outreach Society.  

“It’s not just about collecting information. As a community scholar, it gave me the opportunity to be part of their life and part of their story. I really love this project.”

With more than 60 members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean community working at one of the meatpacking plants, Adanech saw the impact that COVID-19 had on them, and how it was exacerbated by their refugee or immigrant status.

In March 2020, together with a friend, Adanech launched the Ethiopian and Eritrean Support Group (now called the Immigrant Outreach Society), which mobilized churches, mosques and community members to provide meals and support to those affected by COVID.

The society now has five staff and 45 volunteers, including social workers, psychologists and nurses, who provide various supports to immigrants in Calgary.

In 2020, Adanech was also awarded with the United Way’s Community Building Award for her COVID-19 emergency-response work through Action Dignity, a United Way community partner.

Fabreau says doing research in collaboration with the community, meeting them where they’re at, was engaging and effective.

“Our research is more impactful because our community scholars gave us nuance, understanding and analysis that we otherwise wouldn’t have,” he says.

“After brokering this trust with research, when we showed up later to lead the vaccine clinics at the meatpacking plants, people came and we got a huge vaccine uptake.”

United Way builds communities in Calgary

United Way agency partners also seeks to meet people where they’re at to address the most pressing problems in our communities. In Calgary, one in 10 residents struggles with low income. This presents daily challenges for individuals in securing basic needs and ensuring their mental-health needs are met.

Forty per cent of low-income Calgarians report feeling lonely, more than double the percentage of higher-income Calgarians. Many do not know what supports and services are available to them. 

To address this need, the United Way’s Community Hubs initiative engages residents to offer welcoming and inclusive gathering places and connect them to supports and services.

When people have access to services in their communities, they have a much better chance to thrive.

Together, UCalgary and the United Way are working to build stronger community connections. Your donation to the United Way supports collaborative initiatives like Community Hubs that build stronger communities by engaging and supporting residents to create positive personal connections. Together, we can make a difference.

UCalgary’s 2021 United Way Campaign runs until Dec. 10. This year’s goal is to raise $625,000 to help improve local lives.

Donate to UCalgary’s United Way campaign by logging in with your UCalgary email address.