Toronto, July 20, 2016 - When newly arrived Syrian refugees attended an event hosted by the Armenian Family Support Services (AFSS) of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church this summer, CAMH was there to offer hope, support and resources.
“CAMH is helping us to open a communications channel about mental health for refugees,” said Maida Icliates, AFSS Board member and founder. “Together, we are bringing home the idea that mental health and illness can affect anyone, and that there is help.”
Her group recently hosted a presentation by CAMH’s Dr. Branka Agic and Dr. Tania Tajirian at a Community Support Circle for about 90 refugees. The participants of the biweekly group are among approximately 700 privately-sponsored Syrian-Armenian refugees who arrived in Toronto late last year.
Participants held candles at a vigil for peace -- and to think about their loved ones who remain in Syria.
The CAMH presentation focused on the successful integration and well-being of refugees.
Dr. Agic, who is CAMH’s Health Equity Manager, spoke about key factors in successful integration such as language skills and utilizing available community and social services. She also provided details and contact information for the New Beginnings Clinic, a joint initiative of CAMH and Women’s College Hospital. The new clinic provides direct support to primary care providers as well as treatment at CAMH for new refugees to Canada.
The most important needs for refugees are a sense of hope and opportunity based on community support, she said. Along with the basic necessities of food, clothing and a home, refugees need meaningful employment opportunities, access to health care, education and services. In turn, they have a tremendous capacity to enrich the society that has welcomed them.
Dr. Tajirian is Medical Head for CAMH’s Hospitalist Service and a member of the AFSS committee. She has been engaging CAMH colleagues on this initiative and is developing a series of lectures related to refugee mental health. At the AFSS support circle, she encouraged every participant to share their experiences. “Participants spoke about the tremendous difficulties of forced displacement, as well as their hopes for life in their new country,” she said.
Branka and Tania (at right in photo below) can empathize with the refugee journey on a personal level – Branka fled her home in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War; Tania is an Armenian-Iraqi refugee who fled her home in Kuwait after the first Gulf War.
Maida closed the session by addressing the “amot” – an Armenian term indicating shame about mental health. She spoke about the serious consequences – such as hospitalization -- when stigma may prevent a person from seeking the immediate help they need. Participants were given the CAMH New Beginnings contact line -- 416-535-8501 ext. 31683 – as well as the 310-COPE service.
Participants also enjoyed pot luck meals, blessed by Rev. Archpriest Fr. Zareh Zargarian, and Armenian songs and dance, with a live performance by musician Mher Minasian.
“Many of the participants approached us to thank us for opening this dialogue on mental health,” said Maida. “One person who approached me, a mother who has a child with special needs, said she felt the session made her feel it was okay to seek support. That is really important, that we give permission to people to seek help.” A future session by CAMH will focus on support and resources for smoking cessation.
As the evening support circle came to a close, all participants gathered in the church sanctuary to light a candle for peace “and to think of their loved ones still in Syria,” Maida said.
CAMH is partnering with the Sherbourne Health Centre and Thorncliffe Neighborhood Office to build a refugee mental health framework.
The New Beginnings Clinic – a joint initiative of CAMH and Women’s College Hospital -- offers a range of refugee mental health services to primary care providers and refugees.
CAMH is stepping up its local, national and global efforts on refugee mental health as Canada welcomes a surge of 25,000-plus Syrian refugees.