Agnes Jr, a Congolese refugee now living in the Northern Territory, recalls the fear she felt during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was frightening. It felt like death was coming,” she said.
Agnes Jr is one person of a small group of senior Congolese women who came to Darwin after experiencing displacement from their home countries due to armed conflict.
As refugees in a new country who speak only Swahili, the pandemic was a particularly difficult time for this group of women with limited information available in their language.
According to the Left Behind Report, compiled by Gender Equity Victoria, migrant and refugee women did not have access to the same level and quality of COVID-19 information in their language.
Over a quarter of women in the study found the government’s messaging about COVID-19 insufficient because it was not tailored to their specific needs and was not readily provided in languages other than English.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data in 2021, almost a third of the Australian population was born overseas, with 22.8 per cent speaking a language other than English at home and just over 3 per cent speaking little English or none at all.
This highlights a vital need for health information that is tailored to the needs of migrant and refugee communities as we now navigate our way out of the pandemic.
One organisation providing this critical resource is Melaleuca Australia, a Darwin-based not-for-profit that provides humanitarian services to people from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
Their latest project, Health in My Language, aims to remove the barriers to accessing COVID-19 information for migrant and refugee communities by providing multilingual, culturally appropriate health education sessions.
“This program is empowering our communities to make informed health choices,” Melaleuca Project Coordinator Ms Sucha Chakravarthy said.
“Health in My Language education sessions will also give many migrants with or without Medicare an opportunity to explore free resources that may otherwise be inaccessible for them.”
Through the program, Agnes Jr and the Congolese women were able to learn how to self-test themselves for COVID-19.
“One of the women said she didn’t want to ask her son to drive her to the testing centre,” Ms Chakravarthy.
“She just wanted to do it by herself and be independent.”
The group were taught how to perform the test through live demonstrations in Swahili, performed by Bilingual Health Educator Rose Kute.
Ms Kute said the session was adapted to suit the specific needs of the women.
They cannot read in Swahili, so she used visual elements, such as videos in Swahili, and ensured there was plenty of time to ask questions.
“For me, what I see is that they felt empowered,” Ms Kute said.
“Because when you don’t know English, and you’re around people only speaking in English, you can never know what is being said.
“And because we have a safe space with each other.
“They trust me and know what I’m saying is true,” she added.
Agnes Sr, who arrived in Darwin in 2019, said it “felt good” to learn how to self-test because she can now take care of herself.
“If I feel bad or uncomfortable, I can quickly go buy a RAT and test myself to see if it is COVID or not,” she said.
Josephine, who arrived in Australia in 2013, said the lesson made her “really happy”.
“Every Tuesday, I test myself and get the result to see if I’m negative,” she said.
Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health National Program Manager Regina Torres-Quiazon said the need for multilingual health messaging cannot be understated given the high vulnerability of migrant and refugee women to COVID-19.
“Overcoming the structural barriers to ensure migrant and refugee women can access health information is urgent work,” she said.
“By ensuring access to culturally appropriate, in-language health education, we can build migrant and refugee women’s trust in the health system and encourage women’s active participation in health outcomes,” Ms Torres-Qiazon said.
The Congolese women in Darwin said in-language health education helped them regain independence and control over their health.
As Josephine adds: “Without dedicated bilingual and bicultural workers, how will we understand anything?
“Because they are here, they make it easier for us,” she continued.
“We can now speak up.”
Learn more about Health In My Language.