It’s one of the fastest-growing medical clinics in Waterloo Region – and certainly the most unique.

In 2012, Dr. Michael Stephenson arrived in Kitchener. He had worked with refugee patients in Toronto and Montreal, and wanted to keep doing that work here.

“There was, at that time, a lack of health care options for the spectrum of refugees,” he says.

So Stephenson set up a makeshift clinic at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.

What started as a six-patient centre that took up a few hours of time every week has since blossomed into a full practice operating four days a week, with a few paid staff members, 25 volunteers, and 1,700 patients.

It’s called the Sanctuary Refugee Health Centre, and it’s also moved into a new home on King Street West.

“It’s been remarkable growth,” Stephenson says.

Treating refugees comes with a unique set of challenges.

Language barriers are one of the more obvious issues. Not wanting complex medical issues to be communicated through someone who may not have a full grasp of either English or the patient’s language, Stephenson searches out professional translators in the community.

“Often they have enough English to deal with day-to-day things, but health care is different,” he says.

“I can’t make a diagnosis without being able to communicate with my patient.”

Another issue is that many of Stephenson’s patients come from countries with different standards of care. They may have been diagnosed with a certain disease inaccurately, or given medications that don’t actually fit their needs.

In some cases, people may have arrived in Canada straight from refugee camps where their health needs weren’t met at all.

And it’s not just physical health that Stephenson and his team concern themselves with. They see their role as helping the refugees integrate into Canadian society – which can mean helping ensure that they have proper food and housing.

“Our goal is to make refugees healthy … but also to help them become active members of Canadian society,” Stephenson says.

In addition to Stephenson, the clinic employs a registered nurse and a physician assistant. There’s also a social worker – funded by the Canadian Mental Health Association – while another physician and a nurse practitioner regularly volunteer their services.

Last weekend, Stephenson was presented a City Builder Award by Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic for his work setting up and expanding the clinic.

“It’s hard not to be totally impressed by what Dr. Mike does, and in fact what the whole clinic has done for the community,” Vrbanovic said in an interview.

For his part, Stephenson calls the award a “tremendous honour” and says he considers it an award everyone working at the clinic should be proud of.

“I feel blessed working with the people that I do,” he says.

“They certainly make it easy for me.”

Stephenson hopes to expand his clinic, but he says that’s unlikely to happen until the practice is nationally recognized as a charity, which would allow them to accept donations and provide receipts.

With reporting by Allison Tanner