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Published on June 19th, 2017 | from CAMH

Supporting the health needs of our newest Torontonians

by Dr. Branka Agic, Manager of Health Equity at CAMH & Anna Oda, Registered Nurse and Research Analyst

Over the past year and half, since Canada began resettling large numbers of Syrian refugees, many of us have wondered how we can help. Health care and mental health professionals wanted to know the best way to provide support. This latest study on Syrian refugees in Toronto provides some answers.

Dr. Branka Agic and Anna Oda

This research was conducted by individuals from the Wellesley Institute, York University and the CAMH Office of Health Equity. Here is some of the need-to-know information…

The need; why we conducted this study…

Canada has welcomed over 40 thousand Syrian refugees since November 4, 2015. Approximately 40 per cent resettled in Ontario, and of those, almost 40 per cent resettled in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Over half of the Syrian refugees who came to Canada were Government Assisted Refugees (GARs), while the rest came through the private sponsorship program. A small number came through the blended visa office-referred cases program.

Planning efforts to try to meet the health, mental health and overall needs of these refugees was impressive and unprecedented.  Most of this planning, though, was done without knowledge of this population’s needs “on the ground.” We had limited knowledge about the self-perceived and actual health needs of these newly-arrived Syrian refugees. This raised important questions for health planners and policymakers about the realities of resettlement and the social determinants of health that might affect these refugees. It also raised a lot of questions about how they might use (or not use) health services.

With these questions in mind, our team, led by Dr. Kwame McKenzie, conducted a cross-sectional study of 400 Syrian refugees in Toronto, from April to September 2016. It was the first assessment of the health status and needs of newly-arrived Syrian refugees to Canada.

The results; what we found in our research…

Our study offered a snapshot of how newly-arrived Syrian refugees use health services and any difficulties they might have in accessing services.

Almost three quarters of the 400 Syrian refugees we interviewed had low education levels, at grade 12 or less. This is important to note, as education levels can affect people’s health; the better educated people are, the better able they are to access and understand information that can help keep them healthy.

Of the entire sample, 59.5 per cent said they prefer to speak to health care providers in Arabic. The rest preferred to speak in Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and/or English reflecting the heterogeneity of the Syrian refugee population.

We know that Syrian refugees have suffered war-related violence, which can negatively affect their physical and mental health. What may be surprising though, is that the Syrian refugees in our study reported having better perceived physical and mental health than the general population.

We were glad to find that over 90 per cent of the Syrian refugees we interviewed had seen a doctor in their first six months of being in Canada and 80 per cent had a family doctor they saw regularly. Despite this, however, almost half of all respondents reported unmet health needs. These needs were mostly unmet because of barriers to accessing care such as long wait times or the costs of some health care services like dental care.

Moving forward…

We hope this research will help health care providers be more aware of the potential problems Syrian refugees in Toronto might have when it comes to accessing health care services and staying healthy. We continue to research this topic by conducting follow-up interviews and focus groups with some of these newly-arrived Syrian refugees.


Branka and Anna acknowledge the dedicated support of the research team:

  • Kwame McKenzie, CAMH and the Wellesley Institute
  • Michaela Hynie, York University
  • Brenda Roche, Wellesley Institute
  • Andrew Tuck, MA, CAMH

Header image credit: Domnic Santiago via flickr. No alterations were made.

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