Raquel Velásquez’s objective on her visit to a clinic was to have a prenatal check-up. Instead, the medical practitioner asked her if she was sure she wanted to keep her baby.
Raquel was also encouraged to reconsider her decision at two other health facilities she attended afterwards. “They thought I was too young to be a mother, but they knew nothing about my culture or religion,” she explains.
Navigating a health system where patients’ backgrounds are not fully considered is one of the obstacles that women face when expecting a child abroad.
Irene Santos, who was a paediatrician for 29 years in Mexico, explains that further difficulties may include not knowing the language, the culture, or how the system operates. “Not being a permanent resident and lacking networks of support are also common challenges,” she adds.
Ángela Hiraldo remembers yearning to return to the Dominican Republic when first learning about her pregnancy: “I didn’t have access to the health system and I didn’t know how it worked. When you come to another country, there are so many things you need to do but there is no one to show you the way.”
“With the CCHB, I feel that my time is valued because she listens to me and understands what I need; we can talk in my own language, and we explain everything to the doctor together.” – Ángela Hiraldo, immigrant mother
To help others going through similar situations, Raquel and her team started Voces Maternas (Maternal Voices).
Voces Maternas is one of the programs of Umbrella Multicultural Health Co-op, a member-driven, not-for-profit organization that offers medical services to immigrants facing barriers to accessing health care in British Columbia. Financially sustained by the Vancouver Foundation, Voces Maternas delivers free pre- and post-natal support to immigrant women, their children and partners.
The Cross-Cultural Health Broker (CCHB) is one of its crucial components. CCHBs are bi-cultural and bilingual health workers with medical degrees, and extensive knowledge of both the community with whom they work and the Canadian health system.
Irene, Voces Maternas’ CCHB, indicates that the goal is to become a bridge between the patient and the medical services in Canada by helping newcomers understand and navigate the health system, and by being an interpreter and translator – in both linguistic and cultural terms – between the patient and the doctor.
“With the CCHB, I feel that my time is valued because she listens to me and understands what I need; we can talk in my own language, and we explain everything to the doctor together,” Ángela says.
Moreover, the CCHB gives workshops that provide immigrant families with information about pregnancy, birth and post-partum so that they feel empowered to take decisions according to their own set of beliefs.
“We don’t try to impose ideologies, areas of interest, or methodologies. We talk about different options so that people can choose what works best for them,” Raquel explains. As a result, they provide a safe and non-judgemental meeting space for parents to connect and support each other.
“Sometimes people can’t access the services they’d like to because they learn about them when it’s too late. We assist them so that they can know their options and choose from them on time.” – Raquel Velásquez, Voces Maternas
Resources for maternity health: an urgent need
Voces Maternas currently focuses on Latin American women, but it aims to include other communities in the future.
Other projects of Umbrella – such as the Umbrella Mobile Clinic, the Pediatric Health Outreach Program and the Many Faces of Diabetes Program – offer services in several languages and work with communities from different parts of the world.
In an email to New Canadian Media, British Columbia’s Ministry of Health states that “we recognize newcomers may face challenges in accessing health care services, which is why we continue to introduce services aimed at this population,” some of which include the Bridge Clinic, the Global Family Care Clinic, the New Canadian Clinic, and the Newcomer Women’s Health Clinic.
Similar services are available in other provinces. For example, the Multicultural Health Brokers Co-operative, which functions in Edmonton, Alberta, offers diverse programs where multicultural health brokers provide support to 22 cultural and linguistic communities.
Both Raquel and Ángela recognize the urgent need to provide more information about the existing maternity health options in British Columbia.
“Sometimes people can’t access the services they’d like to because they learn about them when it’s too late. We assist them so that they can know their options and choose from them on time,” Raquel explains.
Immigrant health: a combined effort
Newcomers can also visit the WelcomeBC webpage to know more about B.C. health services, or the Government of Canada’s Health page to learn about health services across Canada. For more support, they can access the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia or the Community Airport Newcomers Network.
Improving immigrant health is a combined effort. According to the email from B.C.’s Ministry of Health, “though we strive to offer comprehensive services to new British Columbians, non-profit organizations providing further education and resources are certainly a valuable addition to the system of care.”
In addition, Umbrella highlights the need for people to actively look for information and get involved. Ángela is pleased she did: “I feel empowered thanks to Voces Maternas, not only because I know more, but also because of the bonds I created.”
Raquel adds that “if we surround ourselves with people that support us, we also feed the circle by empowering other mothers to enjoy their experience.” She believes in the proverb that says that raising a child takes a village, “and we want to be that village for immigrant parents living in Canada.”
Belen Febres is a Phd Candidate at Simon Fraser University with a focus on Community Media and Health Communication. Belen collaborates with historically silenced communities and communication initiatives to co-create spaces for self-representation and social change.