Uganda to Kamloops

An immigrant doctor’s challenges in Canada and challenges back home

Karla Karcioglu, Roving Editor Ω

HIV/AIDS affects the lives of millions in Uganda and across Africa. Jon Rawlinson/Flickr Commons.

HIV/AIDS affects the lives of millions in Uganda and across Africa. Jon Rawlinson/Flickr Commons.

Jacinta Oyella grew up in Uganda where she worked as an HIV/AIDS specialist. She decided to work in medicine after watching her cousin, her childhood best friend, die from malaria in the 1980s. Oyella was devastated that there was nothing she or any of her family could do to help him.

“From that moment, my life changed,” Oyella said during her presentation on March 11 at this year’s TRU International Days. “I know I could do more than I ever thought.”

She vowed to make the world a better place for those who were suffering.

Oyella wanted to become a doctor because of what had happened to her cousin. She also credits her grandfather for distilling in her the spirit of giving and helping those in need. She decided she wanted to become a specialist so she could thoroughly understand the issues faced by people in her country.

During her presentation, she recounted a day that rebel forces came to her high school to abduct girls. She said the rebels had gone to the wrong school. They wanted the school for younger girls because they realized that most of the girls Oyella’s age already had HIV or AIDS. Oyella said in total, 42 girls were abducted, two were later killed and the rest were released.

Oyella explained that in primary schools in Uganda and across Africa, there are typically posters on HIV/AIDS hanging in the schools and a learning curriculum in place to help educate students.

Uganda had a population of 36 million in 2012 according to the World Health Organization. UNICEF estimated that 1.5 million people in Uganda were living with HIV in 2012.

Oyella attended Makerere University in Uganda and achieved a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery. She then completed an internship with a local hospital and a master’s degree of internal medicine.

After a fellowship with the AIDS International Training Research program and a paper published by the AIDS Society, Oyella helped open an urban antiretroviral therapy clinic for migrant workers who are notable transmitters of the disease.

When she moved to Canada with her husband, Oyella knew the transition wouldn’t be easy. She would have to put her career on hold in order and prioritize her family. She knew she would have to re-establish herself and her career, but she didn’t realize that none of her education and skills would be recognized in Canada.

It’s a problem faced by many immigrants according to Rajinder Lotay, a settlement and adaptation counsellor for Kamloops Immigrant Services. Lotay said that she has dealt with many immigrants who struggle to find equivalent work in Canada despite the education and skills they have achieved in foreign countries. She has seen many immigrants leave the country because they cannot afford to stay in Canada.

Oyella said that she understands the need to gain soft skills, such as language, as well as new skills to get certified in Canada, but that the process has been a very frustrating struggle. “It’s tough because you have a balance of putting food on the table for your family and studying,” Oyella said.

She appreciates the support she has received from people within the Kamloops community, but feels that the government could do more to improve the process, especially since Canada has a limited number of health care professionals.

Oyella told the audience that it was very difficult for her to stand at TRU that day and talk about HIV/AIDS while back home the Ugandan government had recently introduced a new anti-gay law, which has led several European nations to cut their funding to the country. Oyella said she is concerned about what this will mean for HIV/AIDS research and programs that are funded by international donors and believes it is a step in the wrong direction for eliminating the disease in Uganda.