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Expert Voices

From Trauma to Hope: Extending Care to Refugees in Nairobi

Published October 24, 2017

Elizabeth Mbatha Muli, MSc, psychotherapist/trainer, CVT Nairobi, gave this speech at the CVT Restoring Hope Breakfast – October 12, 2107.

Hello everyone and thank you. My name is Elizabeth Mbatha Muli. I am a psychotherapist/trainer at CVT Nairobi, where I do clinical supervision for the counselors and individual counseling with clients. I hold a Masters in Clinical Psychology and am currently pursuing a Ph.D.

I was there from the day CVT first opened in Nairobi in 2013, as a psychosocial counselor. I have grown with CVT, moving up through the counseling levels ever since.

The work I do is with survivors of torture and horrifying atrocities. But my work is filled with hope; many of my days are filled with joy at seeing individuals heal and move ahead with their lives.

At CVT Nairobi, we work with men, women and youth, but we have specialized groups for teenage girls and for LGBTI individuals, primarily from Uganda.

In Uganda, a bill was passed stating anyone who is gay should be killed. This increased homophobia and violence, so many escaped to Kenya, where prohibitions are looser.

I worked with a man I will call Peter, a 24 year-old gay man who fled his home. His family rejected him, and he was beaten and stoned by his neighbors who wanted to kill him, calling him an abomination. After the beating, the police arrested him instead of taking him to a hospital. When he got out, he fled to Kenya.

When Peter began counselling at CVT, he felt overwhelmed and worthless, like no one cared whether he existed or not. Peter made progress at CVT, but his life was still very difficult in Kenya. He had no income and once his neighbors knew his status, they became hostile. At one point, police forcefully moved him to Kakuma refugee camp. Because he protested this move, he was detained for one month. He was humiliated daily by the police, who even forced him to sleep with a woman in an attempt to change him.

He was able to return to Nairobi and to CVT for individual counseling. Today he says he still fears police but has started taking walks in his neighborhood and does breathing exercises when he feels overwhelmed. And CVT is starting an LGBTI aftercare group to continue support after counseling. Peter says CVT made him feel like a person again. He realized not all human beings are out to harm him.

Another group I work with is the Heshima girls – “heshima” is a Swahili word that means “respect,” and Heshima Kenya is an organization that helps girls with housing, safety, education and much more.

These girls come from the Great Lakes region in eastern Africa. Many have escaped life as bush wives – when militias attack villages they abduct the girls. When these girls come to CVT, many are pregnant. Some have no idea how many men had sex with them. They are teens. They are still children. They are trying to love their child, but the child is the result of rape.

“The world is not a place where I can trust anyone,” one girl told me. She said “I am a child. I’m supposed to be playing, not breast feeding.” The girls say “Can someone take this child so I can play?”

I worked with a client I will call Dina, a girl from Congo who now is 16 years old. Her parents were killed by militia, so she lived with her grandmother. They were attacked too, and her grandmother was killed as Dina watched. The soldiers then took her and other girls from the village to their camp. This marked the beginning of a painful and difficult time for Dina and the other girls as they were raped daily and forced to do domestic chores. She was frequently beaten, denied food and at times sleep, and the soldiers taunted them daily with loaded guns. The camp leader singled her out to be his wife and locked her away from others. Sometimes he beat her and threatened to shoot her. She feared he would kill her especially when he realized she was pregnant.

So she ran away with another girl who was also pregnant. They ran for hours till it was night; they did not know where they were running to. Her friend was heavily pregnant and started bleeding. This was one of the most difficult times for Dina, as she watched her friend die in her arms. There was nothing she could do.

Dina felt guilty being so helpless at that time. She had to leave her friend’s dead body in the open without a decent burial, so she could continue running when the sun rose. And as she ran, Dina feared she would die like her friend.

She could not remember how long she ran. At one point, she collapsed. A woman helped her, and a truck driver took Dina to the buses where he gave her some money to come to Nairobi, Kenya.

When I met Dina, she had a little baby girl called Lucky. Dina looked sad and was tearful. She spoke with a soft voice and avoided eye contact. She had nightmares of soldiers chasing her or shooting her; sometimes she would remember her friend and start crying. Dina was also struggling with her child; at times she felt like dumping Lucky and walking away. Dina was ashamed to be a mother at such a young age.

As counselling started she would cry a lot, but by the end of the sessions, a beautiful flower had begun to blossom. Dina was laughing more and no longer isolating herself to cry. She was also learning to love her baby; Dina felt Lucky was a gift from God. Dina said that CVT walked with her without judging her and gave her hope at a time she had lost hope.

By the time I did a 12-month follow-up, Dina was strong and happy and felt hopeful about her future. She was well dressed and beautiful. Heshima occasionally holds fashion shows and Dina was part of the modelling team. “I am a Heshima model and I love it,” she told me.

As we speak today, Dina is in the U.S.A. having been resettled.

At CVT, we help people accept their situation. We help people find hope. In my work, there is so much hope. It’s like magic. After counseling, clients say “I can live again.” CVT gives survivors new skills and a way to go on with life.

And all of you are part of that. By supporting CVT, you are supporting Peter and Dina and all the clients we care for.

I thank all of you for supporting our work.

Names and some details have been changed for safety and to protect confidentiality.

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

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