November 15, 2021

Bicultural workers in the Community Monitoring Program

During the COVID-19 pandemic in Melbourne, we have seen very high rates of COVID-19 amongst first-generation migrants in Melbourne’s north, with over 10 per cent of the 15,000 COVID-19 positive people registered in Northern Health’s support programs identifying as speaking Arabic, Assyrian or Chaldean as their primary language.

In response, Northern Health’s COVID Positive Pathway program recently recruited a team of bicultural workers to help us better engage with Arabic, Assyrian and Chaldean speakers isolating at home.

Flona Yousif and Hala Mehdi were seconded from the Research office at the start of September to work in the service, and Lena Toumayan joined from the Hospital Without Walls program. When asked why they have joined the workforce, Flona says that they both wanted “to ensure all communities are provided with the equal healthcare opportunities and to ensure they find a sense of belonging within Northern Health.”

Hala, who left Iraq with her family in 2003 after the war, and spent four and a half years in Jordan before resettling in Australia, knows more than most what it is like to build a new life in Australia. She says that “working alongside Northern Health’s COVID-19 Monitoring Program has given me a great sense of meaning and value, knowing that I am able to contribute positively towards helping my community.”

Flona’s parents immigrated to Australia from Iraq before she was born, leaving all they held close to their hearts behind in hopes for a better future for the family they envisioned of building together.

Flona says that being born here, but raised among a family and community so rich in its own culture, has meant that she has noticed the gaps between the two and has often acted as bridge between them. She says that has helped her better understand the struggles the community faces – “being part of the Chaldean/Assyrian community myself, I am aware of the limited support that is provided to these individuals in their respective languages. When I was given the opportunity to work as a bicultural worker for Northern Health’s COVID-19 Monitoring Program, I found great joy to able to voice the needs and struggles of these individuals, to not only help them receive the best quality of care but also ensure their wellbeing is prioritised here at Northern Health.”

When asked how they think the community might feel about these new roles, Hala and Flona report that the “community has voiced its appreciation for the support, informative information and generous aid that has been provided by the team.”

The rest of the 12-person team were recruited from the northern community, including overseas-trained doctors, pharmacists and a lawyer, university students and people working in allied health roles.

Isra’a Al-Jumaily, a GP who qualified in Iraq and worked with ‘Doctors Without Borders’ and ‘Iraqi Red Crescent’ in Jordan, explained her approach to the role.

“If you listen to the patient, you can understand how they are thinking about their symptoms. I know the way people communicate in our culture and what health care they had. I help them to stay calm so they can give me accurate information,” she said.

Fatemeh Sayahi, an asylum seeker who is working in the oximetry team, explains one monitoring call that stands out for her.

“I was calling a family who had not filled out the online symptoms survey. When I asked if they need help, they said yes because it was too hard to understand and too many questions. We started the call in English but the dad and mum were both struggling so I asked what language they wanted to speak. He said Arabic, she said Persian and both were happy when I could talk fluently with them.”

“The community have felt a greater sense of belonging and comfort knowing that Northern Health is committed to providing them with the best care possible in their own languages,” Hala added.

If you would like to learn more about bicultural workers and how they might be able to assist in your unit, work area or program, please contact Rebecca Jessup on or Janet Pelly on

Featured image (left to right): Flona Yousif, Hala Mehdi and Lena Toumayan