Giving refugees a healthy new start

As Refugee Health Nurses in the Hunter and New England region, RNs Christine Foletti and Joy Harrison are helping refugees when they arrive in Australia.

Starting a new life in a new location can be very daunting – there is always so much to do, including adapting to the new surroundings.

For refugees, this new life and the associated changes are even harder, even if it means their new home is safer than the one they left behind.

Cultural differences and language barriers are well-known obstacles for refugees, but medical and health issues are also important and need to be addressed.

Christine Foletti, RN and midwife, and Joy Harrison, RN, are helping refugees when they arrive in Australia, ensuring they know what medical services are available to them and providing basic health care.

Christine and Joy are the Refugee Health Nurses for the Hunter and New England region. The new roles aim to improve the access to health care for refugees, and introduce them to the Australian health care system.

‘I am based in the Newcastle Refugee Health Clinic, drawing on a team of people including other nurses, interpreters, multicultural liaison officers and health care professionals,’ said Christine.

Joy works in the northern sector of the region, from Tamworth to Tenterfield. She is based on the road and tries to run clinics at the local health centres every fortnight.

‘I am paving the way as this is a new role, and with an area this large to cover, there is lots to do.’

Both Christine and Joy have always had a strong interest in community health and working with people from other cultures.

‘I have worked in remote areas of Australia and was involved in humanitarian work overseas in Sudan and Rwanda,’ said Christine.

‘It is going to be a challenge to build the bridge between the refugees’ country of origin and their new life, but in the end they will have better health and be empowered and educated,’ said Christine.

The service involves an initial health assessment for the refugees in the first week of their arrival to Australia.

‘We take their history, do blood tests, administer any vaccinations needed and see if other health professionals need to be seen,’ said Christine.

‘Education is a big element to our work as well – we want to set these people up for success.

‘Some things are very basic, like how to cook and keep certain vegetables that are new to their diet,’ said Joy.

Through this educational initiative, refugees’ health will hopefully improve and add to their experience in their new home.

‘Many of the refugees have longstanding health problems, and health care may not have been a concern due to the poverty and unsafe conditions in their original countries,’ said Christine.

Joy adds that ‘people are overjoyed to have a designated health care worker focussed on them when they first get here’.

While they have a big task ahead of them, both Christine and Joy have a wealth of experience and dedication, which is a great start for such an important role.