Adrienne Carter (left) and Sara Kharsa both work at the Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees (VICCIR), which recently received provincial funding for its services. Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Provincial funding allows Greater Victoria immigrants, refugees better access to counselling services

The Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees was a recipient of new funds

New funding from the provincial government aims to make counselling services more accessible to Canadians, both born residents and new arrivals.

Three years ago Sara Kharsa emigrated to Canada as a refugee from Syria. There she worked as a doctor, a profession she hopes to continue once her credits are reestablished in Canada. In the meantime however, she has taken on a new role as an Arabic interpreter at the Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees (VICCIR), a role she knows is important from her personal experience.

ALSO READ: Famed Syrian artist displays paintings created while living in refugee camps

“One of the difficult things we faced was just having somewhere to feel like we were part of the community,” Kharsa said. “I’m fortunate in that I could communicate in the English language, but other people have difficulty in communicating in English and that just gives them isolation.”

At VICCIR, counsellors are available for individuals, families, couples and children. There is also group therapy and different counselling styles, from somatic to art therapy and beyond, all offered at no cost to the clients.

These services can also be paired with an interpreter, with more than a dozen languages available including Arabic, Farsi, Tigrinya, Hungarian, Spanish and more. This allows for a fuller cultural context and understanding when talking about some of the most traumatic life experiences.

“At VICCIR when we give them an opportunity to express themselves and talk about the challenges they’ve faced, the trauma, or just what they’ve been through in their journey from their home country to Canada, that is a big step towards starting their lives and putting behind everything they’ve experienced,” Kharsa said.

These services, Kharsa said, have transformed peoples’ lives and helped them feel more integrated in their new communities.

READ MORE: Refugee family reunites at Victoria airport

Since VICCIR was established in 2015 all of the counsellors – who must hold at least a master’s degree – and interpreters worked pro-bono. Now, thanks to new funding from the provincial government the counsellors and interpreters will be offered payment for their work.

This, said director of services Adrienne Carter who came to Canada as a Hungarian refugee in 1957, will mean that hard-working volunteers can now be compensated and that a larger pool of counsellors can be considered.

“We can expand the staff, which means we can offer counselling to a lot more people with much shorter waits,” Carter said, expressing huge gratitude to the province for the funding. “Paying our counsellors will make VICCIR a lot more sustainable.”

READ MORE: Province unveils 10-year plan to boost mental health, addiction recovery services

VICCIR is the only establishment on the Island offering counselling services to immigrants and refugees, and has seen more than 300 people since it was established.

The funding was announced on Nov. 4 by the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. In total, $10 million will go to counselling services across the province in hopes of offering no-cost or low-cost mental health and substance use support to people of every demographic. VICCIR has been awarded $120,000 per year for three years.

These kinds of funds, said Minister Judy Darcy, are aimed at breaking down barriers.

“We feel so strongly as Canadians and British Columbians that access to health care should not depend on the size of your bank accounts,” Darcy told Black Press Media, adding that selected recipients were chosen because of their local ties and efforts. “This is about increasing capacity within our communities to deliver these counselling services, but to do it in a way that’s connected to community.”

ALSO READ: B.C. school district teams to focus mental health treatment

Other Vancouver Island recipients included the Hiiye’yu Lelum-House of friendship Society in Duncan, and the Ahousaht First Nation on western Vancouver Island.

The funding begins immediately, and is part of the province’s 10-year Pathway to Hope plan for mental health support.

For more information on VICCIR you can visit viccir.org

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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