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It’s like doing international aid work right here at home

A physician at the Woolwich Community Health Centre, Dr. Michael Stephenson also spends a fair bit of his professional time tending to the area’s growing population of refugees.

Looking to help some of the most vulnerable residents, Stephenson founded the Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre. His efforts have not gone unnoticed, last week garnering him a City Builder Award from Kitchener’s mayor. Just launched in 2015, the awards are presented to those who’ve dedicated themselves to improving their community.

He’s quick to share the credit with his team of volunteers and translators working with him at the clinic, treating vulnerable populations in the region.

“It is a tremendous honour for me. I feel like it is actually an award that should be going to my entire team, not just me. We have quite a number of volunteers and people who are dedicated to this work. It is a team that has been terrific to work with. They make my job a lot easier,” he said.

The refugee-focused health centre had humble beginnings, starting in 2013 with just six patients on their first day. They started treating refugees out of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Kitchener, seeing the response grow from there.

Dr. Michael Stephenson, pictured at the Woolwich Community Health Centre, has been awarded the Kitchener mayor’s City Builder Award for his work at the Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre. [Liz Bevan / The Observer]
“Now, we have 700 to 800 patients, and all of the people we see are refugees,” he said. “There is a huge need and I can’t keep up with the requests for new patients coming on board.”

Stephenson isn’t new to treating refugees. He has worked in Toronto and Montreal, volunteering his knowledge and services to those who need it most. His wife accepted a job at the University of Waterloo, and getting tired of commuting back to Toronto, he decided to explore volunteering opportunities more locally.

“I spoke with a lot of social service agencies that work with refugees, like the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support, Reception House, I spoke with folks at Immigration Services at the YMCA, and what everyone was telling me was that the need was here,” he said. “There is a huge need for health care providers that are willing to see refugees and follow refugees to help them navigate the Canadian health system.”

The problems that bring refugees to the doctor’s office are unique, in some cases. Likewise language barriers can also present a challenge. Stephenson faces those challenges head-on.

“Just the illnesses that refugees get, how they present with different illnesses, can be quite a challenge for health providers that aren’t used to treating this population,” he said. “We particularly focus on the more complex patients. The patients that have mental or physical health issues that make them more vulnerable, or just need more connection with Canadian health care and social services system.”

He also spends some of his week seeing patients as a family physician at the Woolwich Community Health Centre in St. Jacobs.

The Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre is almost completely run on volunteers and donations. It is a labour of love.

“I get to work with individuals that have been through terrible things – violence and persecution that you wouldn’t imagine would exist on Earth,” he said. “You hear stories about what people have gone through, and yet, they are somehow resilient and somehow motivated to start again. That kind of human spirit, that is the best part of my job, just meeting the people and hearing their stories of survival and hearing how they have become connected to Canada. I think it makes us all feel good about being part of this community and part of that process.”

The clinic is always looking for donations to enhance their services. They aren’t registered as a charity with the Canadian Revenue Agency quite yet, so tax receipts aren’t available. The clinic could always use a hand, either with cash donations or medical equipment in used, but good, condition.

To learn more about the Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre, visit their website at www.sanctuaryrefugee.com or call 226-336-1321.

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