Dedan Otieno is a psychosocial counselor at CVT Nairobi.
Counseling refugees for me is rejuvenating – we bring life back to someone who has lost hope. Almost every year at CVT Nairobi, we receive clients who are in dire situations, but they go through the counseling and change their lives.
I remember a woman who came to us and had been through many traumatic experiences before she found CVT. In her home country, her parents fled when they were pursued by militia. As for her, she was going to have a baby in only two days, so she had to stay home and give birth. The first day passed and then the second day; she stayed alone and had the baby. Unfortunately, the militia came for her. They raped her and forced her to tell them where her family was hiding. She was forced at gunpoint to go along with them together with her baby as they went to find her family. Her family was killed.
This woman made her way to Kenya and found CVT in Nairobi. She went through counseling sessions and made many improvements. She was able to tell her story to the group. After she finished counseling, she decided to help other refugees who needed support: housing, food and other kinds of help. This is the kind of story that is so rewarding to me, to see how much people heal and then want to turn around and help others as well.
I studied in India and earned a Bachelors degree in Economics and Rural Development. This gave me a good background for community work, which I later continued in Kenya, working with Red Cross in Mombasa. It is here that I made my first contact with refugees, helping them track lost friends and relatives and doing counseling for those with HIV/AIDS. Later, they were moved to Kakuma refugee camp. Thereafter, I moved to Kisumu town in western Kenya, where I worked with the Kenya Women’s Forum doing in-house training on counseling and gender issues.
It was after this that I took a position with CVT in Nairobi. I went through training and also earned a certificate in professional counseling in Kenya.
I was always interested in helping people. I have felt that as a human being it is part of my role to spend time thinking about how to relieve suffering. It’s my passion. In my family there were nine children, and I was the first born. This gave me a lot of responsibility for my younger brothers and sisters. I could see the vulnerability of the younger ones, and I helped them, things like doing household jobs, washing clothes. I learned when I was very young that it was important to help others in this way.
People we care for at CVT are challenged with poverty and torture – refugees are in very desperate situations. After they’ve been tortured, it remains in them; they are living with the pain. And pain cannot come out quickly – especially when you are now living in a foreign country, as is the case with refugees here in Kenya. They need someone to talk to, but they are not really free to talk to anyone. In some areas where refugees live, they are located near the perpetrators from their home countries. They do not feel safe; some tell us they fear they are being followed.
People in these vulnerable situations need support. We provide counseling and see the improvements over the 10-week counseling cycle. At the beginning, some are quiet, listening. However, by the end, they start speaking. It is a lot of progress for their healing.
Many clients, though, have impediments to their progress; they cannot find work, and they can’t heal if they are less fortunate in getting food or paying their rent. Clients tell me about situations when they don’t have rent – they are scared; they’re being told to move out. A client might tell me she has had no food for two days. In these cases, they need social support. We do referrals for these needs and also for medical or physical therapy needs.
One aspect of my work that is very rewarding is when clients refer new clients to CVT. One of the questions I ask during an intake conversation with a new client is, Who referred you? When the individual tells me he was referred by a former client, it makes me happy that our work is being noticed outside – former clients see when people need help and they send them to us.
I also appreciate when clients keep meeting as a group even though their counseling has completed. Many former clients come to say hello to us. We see them trying to engage in small businesses after counseling, and they’ve moved from avoiding people to making friends. It’s a good feeling. The 9th counseling session focuses on preparing for the future – so it’s good to see them taking steps to interact with people and do something to earn an income.
I was one of the first psychosocial counselors here at CVT Nairobi. There has been tremendous growth in our work since the early days. We started only doing one or two groups. But now we’ve had more support from our donors, and they see that we are meeting our targets and still have a large influx of refugees. So imagine if we’d kept seeing only two groups per week. Now we’re seeing quite a large number. I’m impressed about that.
I always feel it’s important to relieve suffering. We focus on refugees at CVT, but in Kenya there are also many who are internally displaced. They live more or less like refugees. I hope in the future if resources allow, we could help them, too.
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; and the S.L. Gimbel Advised Fund at The Community Foundation – Inland Southern California.