Health Links: helping overcome cultural barriers

April 1, 2015 Written by Georgina Pearson

Bristol is a hugely diverse city, with residents from over 50 countries of origin and approximately 90 different languages spoken. Many immigrants have fled their home countries to escape war or persecution, and have moved to the UK in search of a better life for themselves and their families. But moving to a new country with little knowledge of the culture, or ability to speak the language, can be a terrifying experience. Our migrant health teams work with immigrants living in Bristol to ensure they have fair access to the healthcare system and are able to settle in the city.

After witnessing her mother being killed during the Somalian civil war, Shaama Omar escaped the country in 2002 and moved to the UK alone, aged just 26. When she first arrived in Bristol, Shaama lived in a hostel, was unable to speak a great deal of English and was unfamiliar with the culture. Members of the Health Links team would often visit the hostel to help refugees settle in Bristol, assisting with doctor appointments and housing needs. Over time, Health Links interpreter Amran Hussein gained Shaama’s trust and developed a good working relationship with her, allowing her to assist Shaama in important issues concerning her health and welfare.

The differences in healthcare between Somalia and England are stark, as are the cultural practices. There is generally very poor health in Somalia, whilst we often take the good health provisions in England for granted. Sadly, female genital mutilation (FGM) is very common for women in Somalia, meaning they have a heightened need to visit a GP or gynaecologist, yet their culture only allows them to visit a female GP. Antenatal care is non-existent in Somalia, so when Shaama fell pregnant with her first child she didn’t’ expect to have to visit her GP so often and admits to feeling distrust in the system, worrying that her child may be taken from her. Amran was a huge source of comfort for her, and helped with her translation needs. Eleven years on, and Shaama still visits the same doctor as when her daughter was born!

Since meeting many years ago, Amran and Shaama have remained in touch and have become firm friends. Amran has helped with other translation needs, enabling Shaama to move to a larger house more suitable for her family’s needs. Amran also attends every GP visit Shaama makes, which ensures that her health needs are understood. Without this translation assistance, it is difficult for patients to portray their concerns effectively and access the treatments they need.

The Health Links team have been instrumental in helping Shaama integrate in Bristol and feel at home in the city. Shaama now takes an active role in her community, sitting on the Board of Governors for her children’s’ school and cooking meals for Bristol’s new arrivals who are feeling the same anxiety she experienced many years ago.