Cultural Health Navigators bridge gaps at the doctor’s office, and beyond


support for refugees with high heath needs

GGP’s Cultural Health Navigators program trains workers who sound and feel like home to assist refugees in accessing the health services they need. Cultural Health Navigators (CHNs) provide a combination of interpretation services, mediation, advocacy, teaching about health literacy, encouraging clients to identify and express their health needs, and facilitating conversations with healthcare providers. 

We regularly witness the game-changing impact of CHNs. Drawing on their shared language and similar background, CHNs are often able to establish a unique rapport and trust with clients. This relationship can determine whether or not a client accesses necessary healthcare. 

A critical service for clients, healthcare providers also benefit from interacting with CHNs. These workers educate providers on the needs, expectations, and barriers that their refugee patients may have. The program seeks to promote a more accessible and inclusive healthcare system, so that all Canadians may receive the care that they need.  

As you might imagine, CHNs have very interesting jobs! Read on to hear from two who tell us about their roles. 

Fatima Abdillahi, Somali interpreter & CHN:

What do you like about being a Cultural Health Navigator?

Acting as a bridge between our community and the doctor and explaining our culture. That’s the best part of it. The doctor can make many decisions and give advice but at the end of the day the client gets to make the final decisions about their health. I like helping the appointments to be more 50/50 between the patient and doctor. 

Why do you think it’s important for GGP to provide interpretation services?

Important because some of the people don’t speak English. They have opinions they want to express, but because of the language barrier they can’t express them. With an interpreter, they can express their opinions more easily. 

Having an interpreter takes away one problem for the client, so they can focus on everything else that is new about their lives. If they have someone who understands them that can express on their behalf, this eases the load a bit. 

Is there something you’ve learned since providing these services? 

Everyone is different, every client is unique in their own way. I have learned how to talk to different kinds of people, and the ways that different people communicate and prefer to be communicated with. 

There is an opportunity for healthcare here, better than back home, with bloodwork and appointments and all of that. Many clients were misdiagnosed back home, but now they have a big opportunity to get better treatment. 

Some clients will listen to the doctor very well and are willing to do everything because they know how hard it was back home, but some are resistant to treatment.  

What is a memory (or more than one) that stands out to you? 

Going to the lab with clients. Back home, they don’t do this kind of stuff. The clients are always so shocked to hear how much blood they have to take and to see the little bottles with their blood in them! 

Also, where we came from, we share medication with our neighbour; for example, if I have a headache and my neighbour has some medication, even if it’s not for a headache, they would share it with me. That’s not allowed here, and I noticed this is a shock for clients.

Hadidja Uwamahoro, Kirundi interpreter & CHN:

What do you like about being a Cultural Health Navigator? 

I like that I get to help newcomers and make them feel like their concerns are being heard when they need me to help them. 

Why do you think it’s important for GGP to provide interpretation services? 

I think a language barrier is a very big challenge for newcomers and for the professionals that help them to integrate into Canadian society, so interpretation links newcomers and the people that need to help them. 

Is there something you’ve learned since providing these services? 

Something that I learned, especially through GGP, is that teamwork is very important when helping newcomers. I think that you guys work together really well to help newcomers. 

What is a memory (or more than one) that stands out to you? 

Not so much a memory, but the feeling of joy I get when I help somebody, when they feel understood and their concerns are addressed through me—it makes me feel happy when I see them happy. 

Anything else you’d like to share? 

The only thing I can say is I would like to thank GGP for providing these services to newcomers. It does make a lot of difference for them; it makes life easier for them in Canada.