Edna Gicovi is a psychotherapist/trainer at CVT Nairobi.
It’s early on a Tuesday morning. Michel*, a refugee from Burundi, sits inside a church building staring blankly at his phone. He is not here for an early morning church service. He spent the night here. This is his current home as he has been unable to pay his rent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya. The pastor at the church lets him sleep here, though with constant reminders that he cannot continue to stay for too long. Sometimes he is lucky to get one meal out of a few congregants who come to pray in the church. Frequent well-being checks from his counsellor at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and wandering around the neighbourhood, at times spending time with a few people known to him in the community around the church, have somewhat kept him going though in the midst of this difficult struggle.
“My clients were excited to hear that there was a food distribution in their community but they were very disappointed to get there and have their IDs demanded so that they could get this assistance. They left empty handed as the food is only being distributed to Kenyans,” says a CVT counsellor. His clients are from Somalia and Ethiopia and reside in Nairobi’s Eastleigh area.
The Ministry of Health had previously declared Eastleigh a COVID-19 hotspot and the area was under a partial lockdown for 30 days after numerous infections were found there. This had made life rather difficult for Eastleigh residents, including CVT clients who rely on daily earnings from their small businesses. The lock down and cessation of movement were however lifted on the 6th of June.
The COVID-19 pandemic reached Kenya in March 2020 with the initial cases reported in the capital city, Nairobi. Urban refugees and asylum seekers living in Nairobi have been greatly affected by the pandemic. Many of CVT’s clients who would support themselves and their families through casual work no longer have jobs. In addition, those who were running small businesses like hawking fabric, second hand clothes or selling vegetables or coffee are also struggling to maintain these businesses due to government restrictions.
In the midst of the pandemic, CVT in Nairobi has strived to continue providing direct services remotely to ensure that its clients are supported. Since the suspension of the regular therapy and physiotherapy group and individual sessions, CVT Nairobi has adapted its interventions in various ways to meet its clients’ needs.
CVT psychosocial counsellors and physiotherapists have been doing weekly well-being checks through phone calls for some of their most vulnerable clients. With time, these well-being checks have given way to telecounselling and remote physiotherapy support for clients experiencing high levels of anxiety or distress and physical challenges, owing to the current COVID-19 situation as well as a result of past traumatic events.
“The clients have really appreciated the fact that we are reaching out to them and that we are concerned about their welfare even at this time,” says one of the counsellors. This sense of gratitude from the clients and knowing that they are playing their part to support clients during a rather uncertain time are among the factors that have kept the counsellors in CVT’s Nairobi program motivated. However, offering remote psychological support to clients in the face of very dire circumstances has not been without its challenges.
“One of the most common issues facing clients at this time is a struggle with basic needs and the expectation that CVT could do something more to support them,” says a CVT Nairobi counsellor. This particular challenge has made it difficult to support some clients psychologically during this time.
“Some weeks ago it took me three days to reach one of my clients. His phone would ring and he wouldn’t answer. He also wouldn’t respond to my messages,” says the counsellor. “I decided to try one more time before deciding that I would call him the next week and he answered. When we spoke, he said he didn’t answer my calls because he didn’t know what to say to me as his situation remains the same. He has seven kids at home—the youngest is two—he had to stop hawking shoes in the evenings as a result of the 7 p.m. curfew, and he is unable to feed his family or pay his rent.”
“Sometimes I call one of my clients and I can hear her young children crying in the background. She tells me it’s because they are hungry. It’s heartbreaking,” says another counsellor.
Nevertheless, all is not lost as CVT Nairobi has a social worker on staff who is responsible for ensuring that CVT clients can receive other forms of assistance that are not offered by CVT. Through the social worker, a number of referrals are made to various refugee agencies and community- and faith-based organizations for livelihood support as well as medical assistance during this time. Every successful referral is a cause for celebration during this unusual time.
*Names and some details have been changed for safety and to protect identity.