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As a first-year doctor in Melbourne, Dr Linny Kimly Phuong saw many patients from refugee backgrounds presenting to hospital with easily preventable conditions.

This reminded Linny of how difficult it had been for her parents – who were Vietnamese refugees – to navigate the Australian healthcare system and inspired her to create change.

“My parents came here in 1979 as Vietnamese boat people. They gave up everything to come here,” Linny said.

“My sisters and I grew up with the privilege of being Australian-born and speaking English,” recalled Linny.

“But… if you can’t speak English and have come from a country where you’d only ever see a doctor if you were dying, how would you know about preventative healthcare?”

Determined to make a difference in the community, Linny founded The Water Well Project, a unique charity that aims to improve health literacy for people from migrant, refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, in 2011.

“The Water Well Project is about getting everyone on the same page, Aussie-born and others. Preventing people from ending up in hospital in the first place,” Linny said.

“We often take for granted that people will remind us to go get our flu vaccine, participate in cancer screening or get our child checked by their maternal child health nurse.”

The Water Well Project sends volunteer healthcare professionals into the community to provide free, interactive health education sessions for people from migrant, refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds.

“We have over 300 active volunteers who are all registered healthcare workers and despite being very busy, volunteer their time and expertise,” Linny said.

Sessions are organised upon request from community groups, and co-designed so they meet the needs of each group and delivered in a culturally safe manner.

Linny said ‘Navigating the Australian healthcare system’ is one of their most requested sessions.

“It’s the session where we learn the most about the community - their health beliefs, myths and preconceptions,” Linny said.

Two adults sit on the grass in front of a tall building

Linny's parents arrived in Australia as refugees from Vietnam in the late 1970s

Woman smiling

The Water Well Project won the 2018 Melbourne Award for Contribution to Multiculturalism by a Community Organisation

Group of women

“We teach people what to do with a prescription. We assume that handing a patient a green piece of paper means something and that they will know what to do with it.”

From small beginnings as a Melbourne-based organisation with doctor volunteers, The Water Well Project has gone onto expand into New South Wales and Tasmania. “We needed to involve healthcare professionals other than doctors, so we recruited nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals,” Linny said.

“Suddenly we were in three states and we became a registered company. We’ve been really lucky with the partners who’ve supported what we do and believed in it.”

“The City of Melbourne provided us with one of our first grants – we received a Connected Communities grant in both 2013 and 2014,” Linny said.

“A lot of the groups we deliver sessions to come from or meet in the City of Melbourne.”

In its 12 years of operation, The Water Well Project has now delivered over 1,400 health education sessions and reached more than 17,000 community participants connected to 186 different partner community organisations.

In recognition of its achievements, The Water Well Project won the 2018 Melbourne Award for Contribution to Multiculturalism by a Community Organisation.

Linny said the COVID-19 pandemic presented a massive opportunity to make a difference.

“Unfortunately these communities were at the highest risk of getting COVID-19 infection, ending up in hospital and dying from the virus. They also had the lowest rates of getting vaccinated or tested,” Linny said.

“It was so important for us to be ‘on the ground’ hearing and answering questions directly from the community. There was so much fear and confusion about the virus and the vaccine.”

“Moving forward, The Water Well Project is thinking big – tackling health literacy in problems such as diabetes, cancer and mental health. As a small charity, which is primarily powered by volunteers, we've shown how a team of motivated people can do a lot with very little money.”

To read more or support this project by making a donation, visit The Water Well Project website.