A NSW pharmacist has been recognised with a humanitarian award for her work supporting refugees
Veronica Nou, a pharmacist and proprietor of two Western Sydney pharmacies, is the winner in the Refugee Supporter category of this year’s NSW Humanitarian Awards, for outstanding achievement in supporting and assisting refugees.
The awards are hosted by the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) as part of Refugee Week, which ran from 14 June – 20 June, with support from the Refugee Council of Australia.
Ms Nou, a former Cambodian refugee herself, was recognised for her work in feeding, clothing and caring for newly arrived refugee families as National Convener of the ‘Mums4Refugees’ (M4R) group, which comprises over 40,000 members.
With working groups across Australia and New Zealand, she and M4R campaign for refugee rights and welfare. The group was instrumental in the successful #KidsOffNauru campaign among other achievements.
Ms Nou has also spent the past four years donating expensive life-changing medication for people ineligible for Medicare or Centrelink, visiting families held in detention, and delivering low-cost groceries through the MamaPenny Food Pantry.
STARTTS described her as a “tireless” campaigner for refugee rights and welfare, with “great compassion for people seeking asylum”.
“I’m thrilled and amazed and beyond honoured and so grateful,” she tells AJP of the recognition.
“It’s completely unexpected! I must say the Humanitarian Award should really belong to all the incredible and brilliant women at M4R I have the privilege to work alongside, who selflessly dedicate so much of their time and energy to look after people less fortunate, and who inspire me daily to carry on when I’m tired or frustrated,” says Ms Nou.
I’ve really come full circle, from needing help to being able to pay it forward, because of the people I’ve met along the way.
One important way Ms Nou helps refugees is by utilising her pharmacist background to organise free ongoing medication review services for asylum seekers.
“The medication review service for refugees and people seeking asylum is such an important one given how difficult it is for them to access or afford even the most basic services we take for granted,” she says.
“Medicare is withheld from most of the people we see; having the money to pay for prescriptions is another giant hurdle for a family that might be surviving on $90 a fortnight.
“Then there’s the language and cultural barriers; so we are providing MedsChecks and DiabetesChecks and pretty much all the amazingly valuable services a pharmacy can provide free of charge, via video call or phone if necessary, and prearrange interpreting services through the National Translating and Interpreting Service as needed.
“Pharmacists are highly skilled healthcare professionals, and services like these really make a tangible and immediate difference in people’s lives. It’s not difficult to set up but emotionally some of the things you see can really stay with you.”
Ms Nou says one medication-related case, related to a refugee mother with a young child, bothered her for a long time.
“She made it to Australia but suffered terrible trauma and lives with major mental health issues as a result. She speaks very little English, was prescribed antidepressants by the International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) doctor and received them from a nearby warehouse-style pharmacy,” she explains.
“No one bothered to make sure she understood how to use them, leaving it up to her young child to explain. This is no task to unload on a little kid – they got it wrong, she massively overdosed daily thinking she was doing the right thing, until a week later she ended up carted off in the back of an ambulance.
“She was taking four tablets daily instead of one,” says Ms Nou.
“Not only did she suffer terribly and unnecessarily, it traumatised her son as well. He now lives with this incredibly unfair guilt, that if he had understood his mother wouldn’t have been rushed to hospital in the back of an ambulance.
“Imagine feeling that way before you’re old enough to ride in a car without a car seat.”
Ms Nou continues to be horrified by the situation, and says pharmacists can play an important role in lifting this load and bridging the gap when it comes to safe use of medicines.
“We can make sure this kind of awful situation never happens again. That alone is worth the extra effort,” she says.
There is another woman in particular who always stays with her.
“Soldiers were attacking her teenage son. She threw herself over him to protect him but they were relentless – in the end they broke her back,” says Ms Nou.
“They survived and fled seeking asylum. She eventually arrived in Australia with her youngest daughter but was forcibly separated from her other two children.
“A wheelchair was kindly donated by Peter Nelson of Reform Pharmacy, but she needed so much more than that. I remember one time she was in such deep pain and depression she just sat and held my hand silently for forty minutes before she could even open up enough to cry.
“Encounters like these – they can stay with you for a long, long time.”
STARTTS is a specialist, non-profit organisation that for 30 years has provided culturally relevant psychological treatment and support, and community interventions, to help people and communities heal the scars of torture and refugee trauma and rebuild their lives in Australia. See more about their Humanitarian Awards here