FREDERICTON – Asia Alabbas only started to learn English a year and a half ago when she and her family arrived in Fredericton as Syrian refugees. Today she’s a full-time assistant pharmacy tech at Bowman’s Pharmasave, helping co-owner Paul Bowman provide services in Arabic to assist other Syrian refugees and Arabic-speaking clients.
“I know a few Syrian families who live near us. They find it super helpful to find someone who speaks their language to [explain] their medication,” said Alabbas. “[One client] said she’s been taking this medication, but ‘I really don’t know what it’s for, why we taking it, we just know we’re taking this medication.’ So it’s really helpful and I’m happy to do that.”
Alabbas has been helping translate medication advice and instruction for Bowman for nearly a year, but the pharmacy has now decided to advertise the service.
“We start to promote it so everyone who needs any help can come here. I know how much it’s hard because since I came I [experienced] the same thing. I go [somewhere] and I don’t understand, I just say, ‘okay, yup, yup.’ But no idea what they said,” said Alabbas.
For Bowman, having Alabbas around helps him communicate with Arabic-speaking clients much better than Google Translate.
“As a pharmacist, you want to ensure that information you’re giving your patient is comprehended and it’s difficult to do that where language is a barrier. By having Asia here it’s definitely the right thing to do for the patient,” he said.
“As a professional, I have a higher level of comfort that the patient is leaving with an understanding of how to take their medications, what to expect from their medication, how to follow up if things aren’t going correctly … it’s also good to be able to serve a demographic in the community that might be being underserved otherwise.”
A Scottish immigrant who became a Canadian citizen in 2016, Bowman said he understands the challenges of moving to a new country.
It’s still difficult moving to a new place and trying to navigate how things work. When that’s also not in your mother tongue or your language, that’s an added difficulty. Doing this, I hope it makes it slightly easier for the Arabic speaking community to at least understand their prescription medications,” he said.
Bowman met Alabbas through the New Brunswick Multicultural Council’s (NBMC) Skill Launch, a 10-month employability program administered by multicultural associations and settlement agencies in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John. Alabbas did it through the Multicultural Association of Fredericton (MCAF), with support from the provincial government’s Post-Secondary, Training and Labour department.
Skills Launch is aimed at newcomer youth who weren’t able to complete high school due to gaps in formal education, unrecognized credentials and language barriers. It focuses on the construction and trades, health and human services, hospitality, and sales and service sectors.
NBMC Executive Director Alex LeBlanc told Huddle in May that these fields were chosen strategically because there’s a demand for workers.
Supports like coaching, childcare, disability supports and wage subsidies are also made available for participants through the Departments of Education and Early Childhood Development and Social Development, employers, and settlement agencies.
Alabbas, now a mother of three daughters, had been studying to be a pharmacist when her studies were cut short in grade 11 due to the war.
Through the program, she was able to attend English, math, science and other skill development training through the MCAF for four months and complete a six-month placement at Bowman’s Pharmasave.
“[It was] overwhelming at first. When I started working here I didn’t have any idea. But [Bowman] was a great teacher. He taught me everything in the pharmacy, how to work with the system, what every medication is for, so it makes it more easier to understand because I’m still learning English,” Alabbas said.
The whole experience has been eye-opening, but not without its challenges, Bowman said. At the end of the day, Alabbas has been a great addition to the team, he said. So when her placement ended in April, he decided to hire her on a full-time basis.
“To see a young woman with young kids here who has moved to a new country, who has taken a driver’s license, who has pushed to get into this program and wants to secure employment and wants to keep the employment after the fact, and now starting this week, she’s going to be finishing her GED. You know, all the kinds of things that I would absolutely want to be supporting anyway,” he said. “It’s kind of a fresh air when you have an individual who wants to do that and elevate her own status.”
Bowman’s Pharmasave, in operation for 18 months, focuses on pharmacy being a health and wellness destination. It doesn’t sell any junk food and carries health and wellness products made by New Brunswick businesses.
Bowman’s Pharmasave offers services in Arabic during Alabbas’ work hours – from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 3 pm.