I’ll never be broken again

How strength, resilience and a little help from a passionate health advocate, kept a young mother from bankruptcy.

Tattooed in cursive writing, one atop the other on 23-year-old, Zambian born, Marie Bashangi’s right shoulder blade are two phrases: Yours Forever/ Forever Young. She touches them. Her fingers linger and she smiles at her eldest son, five-year-old Tyrell.To utter these phrases or touch them, she says, is a reminder that “I don’t belong to anyone but myself, and I’ll never be broken again.” In many ways, these phrases mark the place where Marie’s past ends and the love for her two sons begins.
For Marie, it began in the late 1990s as a child refugee fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the horrific shadow of the Rwandan genocide. According to Amnesty International, two wars displaced over a million people. One-year-old Marie was among them. For protection, she was sent to live in a refugee camp with relatives in neighbouring Zambia, where she was born. A few years later, she arrived in Ottawa as a four-year-old. Marie has no memory of her mother or father, not even a faded one. She has never seen their faces in a photo. Because of this, she cannot see them in the faces of her young boys, two-year Ezekiel and five-year old Tyrell. 

“Even though my story is kinda sad, there’s still a lot I see that I consider a blessing. God doesn’t make mistakes. He knew I needed my boys. If I didn’t have them, I’d be in trouble. I’d have given in to the depression.”

Now, Marie is in danger of bankruptcy. Aparna Kajenthira, Marie’s Youth Outreach Worker at London InterCommunity Health Centre, explains that it’s the result of a five-thousand dollar unpaid hospital bill from last winter. Maria has been denied OHIP coverage due to a lack of sufficient documentation. No record of Marie’s birth can be acquired from her country of birth. Therefore, she has not been issued any official Canadian documentation. Any documentation she did have was misplaced by a service organization when at the age of 12 she left the care of an abusive aunt, and became a ward of the state. All of this was revealed when, at the age of 15, Marie unsuccessfully attempted to apply for a Canadian passport. Now, eight years later, she is still waiting. As the lack of one document results in the inability to secure another, she is, literally, unverified.

Marie needs verification of status before she can take her bills to the OHIP eligibility board to backdate her status and pay her bills.  Aparna shakes her head, “Can you believe it? The day I contacted the hospital, the very day, they were sending Marie’s file to collections. She was one sleep away from bankruptcy. For not having the health care she’s entitled to.” 

Through day-to-day work and long-term advocacy, the Health Centre pushes for equitable  healthcare for all. Marie’s Youth Outreach Worker has supported Marie’s immediate needs by working with the hospital to delay the collections process. At the system level, Marie’s case has been taken to the government level. Marie’s case has finally caught the attention of the highest level of government, through London-Fanshawe MP, Irene Mathyssen. 

 “She’s a success,” says Aparna, “I mean, she gets her kids to school. She feeds them.  Loves them. Is getting her high school diploma at Wheable. It’s incredibly frustrating. Status is a basic human right. Health care is a basic human right.”

Despite all of this and the lack of documentation, 23-year-old Zambian born, London resident Marie Bashangi does in fact exist. Marie’s strength and resilience, coupled with short term supports and system advocacy will ensure that documentation will not remain a barrier to health for Marie or her children.

Each year, the Health Centre  supports thousands of families just like Marie’s, through inclusive health and social services.