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Compassionate care for refugees, year after year

05 Jul 2022


It’s been almost a year since Nazdana Bakhtiari first arrived in Australia from Afghanistan, seeking asylum from the Taliban.

“When the Taliban took over Afghanistan every Afghan lost their hope,” says Nazdana. “There is no hope to study there, especially for women and girls.”

Nowadays life is very different for Nazdana. She is studying English while working as an artist and will soon take on additional work as an art teacher. She has also recently won a scholarship to study fashion design at a Sydney college.

Stories like Nazdana’s are increasingly common, and the rapidly growing Penrith region is becoming home to more and more families from refugee and migrant backgrounds.

During the height of the 2021 COVID crisis in NSW, a cohort of 90 evacuees from Afghanistan came to the Penrith area in urgent need of medical assistance and long term accommodation.

Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District’s (NBMLHD) Multicultural Health team responded immediately, working in collaboration with local health and community services to meet the group’s health and housing needs.

“We needed to have them all cared for and in long-term housing within a very short time frame,” says Una Turalic from the Multicultural Health team. “There were health checks to be done which are usually conducted off shore, pregnant women in need of care and COVID vaccinations to administer. It was vital that we acted quickly.”

Dr Habib Bhurawala, Head of Paediatrics at Nepean Hospital, was also engaged to find local GPs and health services which could cut through significant linguistic and cultural barriers while reducing the potential burden on hospitals.

"Language is a barrier to many patients from refugee backgrounds accessing and receiving quality primary health care."

“Language is a barrier to many patients from refugee backgrounds accessing and receiving quality primary health care,” says Dr Bhurawala. “Assisting the Multicultural Health team, I identified professionals within the Local Health District who could speak the native language of the evacuees and understand their social and cultural context properly.”

“Together we discussed options on how these people could be best supported, coming up with solutions for immediate assistance, all while minimising additional pressure on the hospital system in the midst of a COVID crisis,” says Dr Bhurawala.

One of the primary health care practitioners central to the success of this initiative was Dr Musabbeha Khan from the MyHealth Medical Centre in Penrith who, in consultation with Settlement Services International (SSI), provided regular health checks for the Afghan evacuees.

“It was a real team effort. Our clinic arranged for a full day of protected time to do the refugee health checks. This allowed us to meet every patient’s health needs, including their interpreter requirements and by providing education about how to navigate the Australian health system,” says Dr Khan.

“Helping these lovely families who are looking for a peaceful life and a stable future was worth every second of my effort,” says Dr Khan.  “It gave deep meaning and pleasure to provide this service amidst the chaos of COVID.”

While having arrived in Sydney with a different cohort and some months earlier, Nazdana remembers well her own experience of transition and resettlement.

"This life was a dream for me, but now I have a dream in reality."

“The support I have received has been wonderful,” says Nazdana. “This life was a dream for me, but now I have a dream in reality.”

With the need for support of displaced people ever increasing, including for Ukrainian nationals fleeing conflict in their own country, our local health services will remain responsive to the plight of refugees and their health care needs, year after year.

“In close collaboration with all of our partners, we will continue to work towards the best possible health outcomes for everybody within our increasingly diverse communities,” says Gordana Kostadinovska, NBMLHD Multicultural Health Service Manager.