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Expert Voices

Creating New Meaning After Loss

Published July 18, 2019

Edna Gicovi is a psychotherapist/trainer at CVT Nairobi.

I recently met with two clients for a counseling session on the same day. Though they both came in separately and hailed from different backgrounds, I was struck by how interwoven their experiences were. I’d like to share them with you:


Angelique* was a health specialist working at a hospital in Burundi, doing well for herself, before she was forced to flee the country with her brother and two children. Her brother became a target after witnessing the murder of a high-ranking government official. The family started their new lives in Kenya and had seemingly adjusted to refugee life in Nairobi when Angelique’s brother mysteriously disappeared.

She searched for him everywhere. She even even went back to Burundi to see if she could find him. She travelled with her then five–year old son Jean and while there, took him to all the schools she attended. “I was proud to show him these schools I attended. I was a good student and I wanted to inspire him to love school and study hard as I did,” she said.

However, something tragic happened. A group of men looking for her brother found out where she was, attacked and gang raped her. She was forced to flee the country yet again, this time pregnant from the rape.

Fast forward several years: Angelique is struggling to take care of her three children, now 11, seven and four. Her brother is still missing. She hawks mandazi (a Kenyan doughnut-like pastry) in Nairobi’s central business district to make ends meet.

During one of our counseling sessions, she recalled a time when her older son read in a newspaper that there were government vacancies for health workers and asked her mother to apply for one of the jobs. “Though he was only a little boy when we went back to Burundi to search for his uncle, he seemed to remember that I was college-educated and that it was in something health-related,” she said smiling.

“What he doesn’t understand is that I studied in French in my country, and of course I did not come to Kenya with any of my certificates when we fled. He doesn’t understand why I’m working in a lowly job hawking pastries, why we’re sometimes late with the rent and struggling when I could be a ‘doctor,’” she says with a wry smile.


Khalid* spent his childhood and youth in rural Somalia herding camels. Education was not a priority, nor was it readily available. He grew up in a remote area of Somalia and his family lacked the means to ensure that he went to school. In his early twenties, Khalid eventually left his rural home and moved to the city in Mogadishu in search for a better life. His thirst for education had not been quenched, or changed with his age and life circumstances. Here, he had the chance of fulfilling his dream of receiving a formal education and hopefully bettering his chances in life.

However, the threat of conscription, enlisting young men into the dreaded Al-Shabaab terror group in Mogadishu by force, intensified and he had to flee the country. “It was one of three options: stay in Somalia and die resisting, join Al-Shabaab, or leave the country,” Khalid said. “I chose the third option: my life.”

He has been in Kenya for about six years and sells drinking water across the numerous shopping malls in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area to get by.

“I think that having no education has held me back in life. Even if I can do something more than I’m currently doing for myself, I feel that there will be a ceiling for me, a level I cannot get past,” he said with a sigh during our counseling session.

Though he is very keen on pursuing education, Khalid’s current life circumstances in Kenya as a refugee have not allowed him to do so.

A New Way Forward

Angelique and Khalid, two refugees with diverse stories and backgrounds, shared these thoughts in their counseling sessions on the same day. What struck me after their sessions was how intertwined their stories were. Both circled around the theme of loss, particularly with regard to education.

Apart from other profound losses they had both incurred in the course of their lives, both of them were also dealing with the painful loss of prestige, or at least the opportunity to achieve it, and what could have been had they not had to flee their countries. Angelique could not use the knowledge and skills gained from her education; she was struggling to meet the basic needs of her family. Khalid lost the opportunity to receive an education and felt that his life would not amount to much because of this.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of the story for Angelique and Khalid. As part of CVT’s trauma healing through counseling, the session that covers loss subsequently explores the new meaning survivors of war trauma and torture can create for themselves after experiencing indescribable atrocities. This creation of new meaning goes a long way in the journey of healing.

Though the struggle to keep her family afloat continues, Angelique is proud of herself for finding the strength to carry on, and for learning new skills, like braiding hair and cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit that she didn’t have prior to these experiences. “I didn’t know that I could do all the things I’ve had to do in order to take care of my family,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact that I can work hard with my hands to ensure that my children go to school, meet their basic needs and also look back on how far we’ve come.”

Khalid feels that in spite of the lost opportunity to receive an education in his own country, all is not lost. He has not abandoned the zeal and desire to pursue his goal, even now in his late twenties. “I’ve registered with an organization that provides various adult courses and would like to learn English the next time they have openings,” he explained. “Until then, I have to continue ‘hustling’. Apart from selling drinking water, I’m trying to see what other business opportunities I can pursue.” He says, “I cannot give up.”

*Names and some details have been changed for confidentiality reasons

CVT’s work in Nairobi is funded by a grant from the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture; and the S.L. Gimbel Advised Fund at The Community Foundation – Inland Southern California.

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