Honoring Family Resilience & Love

Judith Twala, MA Counseling Psychology, is a psychotherapist/trainer with the Center for Victims of Torture in Dadaab, Kenya. Below she describes her experience working with mothers who are survivors of torture and violent conflict.

I currently work for Center for Victims of Torture, Kenya as a Psychotherapist. The Center for Victims of Torture Kenya has clinics in Nairobi and Dadaab. I am based in Dadaab, which is more than 400 kms from the capital Nairobi.

Dadaab is the home to the largest refugee camp in the world. So like many professional mothers I have to leave my children with the caregivers.

Mothers in Dadaab, Kenya refugee campAny mother can empathize with how difficult it is for me to be away from my children. I am comforted knowing the work we do here saves lives and restores hope.

Still, I admire the deep attachment I witness among mothers and their children here in this remote and dusty refugee camp.

Despite the difficult, painful and violent experiences they have gone through, I find women coming to counseling with their young children. I observe their undivided attention toward their children, by how they love and hold them during counseling sessions. Through their eyes, the women say, “Regardless of the position we are in, I’m here for you.”

After the counselors have conducted home visits, they report that they notice how close the families are and how the family members appreciate the good work CVT has done through therapy sessions. That appreciation often leads them to recommend CVT to their family and community members.

The strength of the many families I’ve met in Dadaab is truly a testament to the resilience of humans after torture. Parents who were tortured can have symptoms that make it difficult to provide a calm and loving environment. Common symptoms might be distraction, fear, anxiety and depression.

Mothers often confide in me memories of being very loving towards their children, but the war affected their temperament. They find themselves highly irritable. Survivors can have symptoms that are disruptive or frightening, like out of control behavior or suicidal feelings.

Through counseling, they begin to understand how they were affected by the war, and they learn skills to work through those difficulties so they can be better mothers and fathers.

One Somali mother who is a war and torture survivor living in a refugee camp in Dadaab suffers terrible rejection by the community. She stays in her shelter all day and avoids going out because in the past she has been insulted and sometimes physically assaulted.

She was rejected by the community because she married an outsider, a man who was from the minority and different religion. Her marriage was seen as a threat that her own mother even hired men to attack the couple. Her husband has had to hire someone to accompany her in the camps to act as her security.

Through counseling, we have helped her deal with the communal rejection that she lives with each day. Through interagency referrals, she has found other resources who are working to find her resettlement.

For this mother, who lives with ongoing physical threats and is treated like an outcast, she says, “This baby is like an angel. He is innocent.” He gives her strength to survive the communal rejection, and in return, she gives unconditional love and keeps him safe.

I wanted to share this experience in the hope we can all see refugees through our own human experience. Despite the extreme difficulties, those horrible experiences of war and fleeing their homes, I also find mothers who have a deep attachment to their children. I admire and celebrate the time, love and physical care they give their children here in the Dadaab refugee camps.

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