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Expert Voices

Extending Rehabilitative Care to the Youngest Survivors of Torture and War Atrocities

Published October 6, 2016

Job Onyango is a psychotherapist/trainer at CVT Ethiopia. He gave this speech at CVT’s Restoring Hope Breakfast Oct. 4, 2016

My name is Job Onyango, and I am a psychotherapist / trainer at CVT Ethiopia. I started my career as a counselor in Nairobi, Kenya, and then joined CVT as a psychosocial counselor. I’d been with CVT for a couple years when I accepted my current role in northern Ethiopia where I oversee our program of rehabilitative care in two refugee camps: Adi Harush and Mai Ayni.

The refugees we care for are from Eritrea – a small country on the Red Sea. The situation for Eritreans has become increasingly oppressive over the years. Today, young people face the prospect of compulsory and indefinite conscription. If you are about 15 years old and you’re big enough, you will be taken. While you are in the military, you are very likely to be tortured and imprisoned. You may be restricted based on your religion or some other perception they have of you. To fight for your rights in Eritrea is a crime. You will be detained and tortured.

If you are suspected of smuggling people out of Eritrea, including members of your family, you will be detained, imprisoned indefinitely and tortured. For women, you will be imprisoned, tortured and sexually abused. Some survivors never know why they are detained and put into prison.

I recently worked with a client I will call Gebriale. He was at work one day when two men took him in a car; he thought he was being transferred to another worksite until they pulled out guns and blindfolded him. Gebriale was in prison for seven years. He survived horrific torture.

One minute you are working in your office. The next moment, you can be in prison. When Gebriale arrived to CVT in Ethiopia, he looked like he was over 60 years old: white hair, white beard, wrinkled skin. In reality, he was only 35.

These conditions in Eritrea have resulted in an exodus of refugees, including large numbers of unaccompanied minors. Today 200-300 children cross the border every day. It is devastating for these young people to be separated from their families and adjust to life in the camps. Their needs are too great for the services that are available. Hopelessness begins to set in.

Last year, there was a rash of attempted suicides among the children in camp – two children killed themselves and another 14 tried. CVT responded by conducting training about the principles of suicide intervention to over 300 social workers. In addition, we counseled over 400 unaccompanied minors about depression and suicide.

As time goes on, though, new children arrive in camp every day and the problems continue. Sadly, this summer two more children attempted suicide. One child set herself on fire; she survived but was burned on 40% of her body. The other child hung herself; thankfully, the rope broke.

In response, we are continuing to work with 1,700 minors in the camps, working closely with the survivors and also with their roommates, the children who witnessed these attempts.

These are desperate times for these children, for families. But there is great hope, too. I’d like to tell you the story of a client I worked with recently. I will call him Tesfaye. Tesfaye’s elder brother fled their home and came to Mai Ayni camp. When he was able, Tesfaye followed in his brother’s footsteps and made the journey to the camp. However, when Tesfaye arrived, his elder brother had already left on a secondary migration, seeking passage to a better life elsewhere.

Tesfaye was a teenager and alone. Not long after he arrived, a widespread grieving process began going on in Adi Harush and Mai Ayni. ISIS had released videotapes of beheadings of migrants, and these horrifying images were felt deeply by those living in the camps. It was a time of great mourning within the community.

Tesfaye, too, watched the videos. There, he saw that one of the people shown being beheaded was his elder brother. When Tesfaye saw this, he collapsed, unconscious.

He revived and began recovering from this shock. But then, Tesfaye’s behavior started to change. He withdrew and became isolated. At other times, he was aggressive. He found himself crying easily. He began having nightmares and flashbacks of images from the video.

A caretaker who looked after children in the camp noticed what was going on and referred Tesfaye to CVT. The counselors did an assessment and had him join the group counseling cycle. At first, Tesfaye found interacting with the group very difficult. He was not able to interact and engage with the others; often, he would simply shut down and cry. There were many days when I would arrive for work at the center and find him just sitting outside, alone.

But he continued to show up for the 8 weeks of counseling sessions. He listened to the counselors and the counseling supervisors. He gradually began to make progress. He told us he was starting to sleep regularly. He began for the first time to make friends inside the group and outside. I could see that he was beginning to have hope for the future.

Today, Tesfaye is living with relatives. I see him often riding a bicycle in the camp, and he is on the cycling team of Mai Ayni. This is quite an accomplishment; cycling is very competitive in Eritrea and this is one of the top teams in the world, with goals of racing in the Tour de France. Tesfaye is living like other refugees in the camp and finding value and meaning in life again.

There is enormous hope for survivors. The group counseling model we use brings healing and new support networks for survivors. As one of my clients said to me, “You can’t clap with one hand.” When survivors work through CVT’s counseling cycle, they come together, they let go of the isolation caused by torture and trauma, they lift each other up and go back and function well in the community.

We can’t clap with one hand. Today, all of you are here, extending another hand for us. I am grateful that you are here, and I thank you for your support.

Names and some details have been changed for security and privacy.

CVT’s work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

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