What is possible if refugees are given greater community and government support? A story like that of Dr Linny Kimly Phuong and The Water Well Project is possible.
Linny’s parents were Vietnamese boat people, leaving the war-torn country in the 1970s when her dad was about to be conscripted. Ten boats left that day, with her parents arriving safely at a Malaysian refugee camp on Bidong Island, but still to this day, they do not know who else survived. After a few months, the United Nations Humanitarian Refugee Program picked up the survivors and flew them to Australia as humanitarian refugees.
Refugees were supported at the time with housing, employment opportunities and educational opportunities to learn English. “I think my parents arrived at a good time,” Linny said.
Linny admits: “The political landscape now is different”.
Support services organised chaperones for the family then, teaching them where to catch public transport, where to get fresh food and even taking the family to see the zoo. Linny said they still connect today, and consider them old family friends. Her parents experienced so much giving, that they taught their children to help people and give back.
During her medical training, Linny was seeing people come to the hospital with preventable diseases. As a child, she often acted as the interpreter for her parents at medical appointments, so it was clear in her profession that there was a big language gap but an even bigger health literacy gap between those who were Australian-born and those who were from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
Poor health literacy translates into poor adherence to treatment plans, and creates a greater likelihood of preventable disease complications and longer hospital stays. Poor health literacy can mean individuals have a fear of entering health services and therefore have reduced engagement with vital preventative services, like cancer screening.
From giving an impromptu health information session to a group of kids at a Sudanese Homework Club, Linny progressed this idea to found and become the Director of The Water Well Project (TWWP) in 2011. TWWP improves the wellbeing of migrant, refugee and asylum seeker communities through the provision of free, interactive health education sessions given by volunteer healthcare professionals.
TWWP gets its name from a place where people gather to collect water, where traditionally people also share stories, experiences, and knowledge. The health sessions at TWWP occur organically and are community-led through participant questions. The sessions make use of props, where possible, making it more tactile, engaging and thought-provoking.
There are a wide variety of sessions, with the most common being on the Australian Health Care System, Women’s Health, and Healthy Eating. At the Women’s Health session, props include a pelvic model and a pap smear brush. At a Healthy Eating session, empty food packaging is used to demonstrate and teach individuals how to read nutritional labels, so that they can make healthier choices at the supermarket. Other health sessions include eye and dental health, child development, infant and toddler nutrition, men’s health, and mental wellbeing.
Since starting, TWWP have delivered over 1000 health sessions to more than 16,000 community members in over 40 different languages across three states. The organisation is grateful to have secured free translating and interpreting services.
When Elizabeth, from South Sudan, acquired a disability after suffering a stroke, she could no longer continue her prior work. Through health education, TWWP supported her to come to terms with her disability and evolving depression.
She learnt that her body was still capable of doing lots of things. She also learnt that people with disabilities are equal to others, that there are many different types of disabilities, and most importantly that she is ‘not alone and not the only one’.
Elizabeth was able to gain a more positive mindset which has had a flow-on effect to empower her family and community.
There are over 200 volunteer healthcare professionals who facilitate the sessions at TWWP in their spare time.
Dr Asika Pelenda, a paediatric doctor, is appreciative that she gets to meet different community groups, listen to and understand their concerns and is grateful that these communities are empowered to make healthy lifestyle decisions. Apart from firsthand experience in working with communities and hearing about the barriers to accessing healthcare, Linny said TWWP volunteers are also able to better advocate for multicultural communities in their regular work.
In Victoria, the volunteers speak 35 different languages, and come from over 37 different cultural backgrounds.
It appears the community support Linny’s family received as they arrived in Australia all those years ago has paid itself forward through TWWP. No doubt someone impacted by The Water Well Project will rise, like Linny has, to offer greater avenues of wellbeing for others. Or perhaps they already have.
To organise a health session for your community, inquire about being a volunteer, donate to support their work or to find out more about The Water Well Project, please click here.