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The Cycle of Healing for Survivors of Torture

By Frezgi Gebrekristos, Associate Psychotherapist/Trainer
Published April 11, 2017

Frezgi Gebrekristos is a counselor at CVT Ethiopia.

One of the great rewards of counseling is to see how clients change over the ten weeks of CVT’s counseling cycle. I work with survivors of torture in the refugee camps here in northern Ethiopia, and at the end of the cycle, we ask clients to write a letter to the new clients who will follow them in the next cycle. This is a time when I see the hope and progress our clients experience. They write of how they appreciate CVT’s work; they write of hope:

After I came to CVT, I became hopeful.

CVT is not what you think – it’s not for crazy people. It’s a good thing.

In order to gain hope, you must come to CVT.

Before I came to CVT I earned my Bachelors degree in psychology from Mekelle University and then worked as a community facilitator in the Relief Society of Tigray NGO. I worked in a department which cared for highly vulnerable children. This was a large group; there were 860 children, and I did supervision and clinical follow-up for them. We provided holistic support as well as shelter, legal protection, health and psychological services for vulnerable children at the household level; this meant that in addition to working with the children, we also had activities for families. Many of the beneficiaries were orphans or children who were from HIV families or from families with a low economic status.

At that time, I didn’t know about CVT, but when I saw a counselor position vacancy, I applied. After the screening, CVT called, so I traveled the 300 km to Shire and did the exams. I started working here in 2015.

I was interested in CVT because of its specialization in my profession of psychology. In particular, I like doing counseling, and here at CVT I work with people who have challenges and problems in a number of different circumstances. I am happy to be part of CVT, and I feel very proud to be part of this work. At first I focused on care for children in the Adi Harush camp, where we provide rehabilitative care that helps them heal and be more resilient in daily life. I work with male and female clients, and I see common symptoms among almost all of them before they come to CVT: loneliness, depression, hopelessness. But after the counseling, we see hope in almost all clients. They gain hope through the process.

Most of the children are unaccompanied minors. Some have support from their families in the West or Europe besides the support which is provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) child protection program, and they have information about their families. Some do not, though, and they worry a lot about their family situation back home. They live under very difficult circumstances. This causes them to be very depressed. It’s very stressful. They come to CVT with serious problems, but after counseling, we see a difference.

There are a number of things CVT does in addition to our counseling cycles. One of these is psychoeducation, where we hold sessions with the refugee community to educate them about CVT’s care and about the role of psychological services in general. When we hold psychoeducation sessions with children, we often use pictures. We show them photos of sad people and happy people. We ask the children to respond to the pictures, to help them think about feelings. We use a similar technique later when they are part of counseling sessions, and I find that they mention different things in the psychoeducation compared to their interactions during counseling. In counseling, as an example, they often show no emotion in early sessions. The photos help ease this conversation about feelings. We ask them questions: why is the person in the photo sad? I listen carefully to their examples. I ask them, What things make you sad? I ask them to picture someone who is sad and explain why she’s sad. Then we interpret the examples they give us in the context of counseling.

The most important thing about this work is the changes I see in clients as they go through group counseling. As an example, I remember a male client who was a survivor of torture. We met him when we were doing a type of sensitization activity where we go door to door and talk to the community about CVT’s rehabilitative care. We found him at home. He was lonely, sad and isolated. After we had this sensitization session with him, he came to CVT for an intake assessment. After this, he participated in the group.

During the first session, he was silent. He was not feeling good, not sleeping. He was not comfortable in the group context. After the sessions during which we have clients talk about difficult moments, which for many include their personal stories of torture, he started to participate in the group. This was a significant change. Up to this point, his dressing style was not good; he wasn’t taking care of himself. He was hopeless. But by these later sessions, he was completely different. He was dressing better and his hair cut was different. I asked him in our session check-in: Do you feel different now than you did before you started the group?  He said he was improving now after group counseling . Previously he had not been sleeping and was lonely and isolated, but after experiencing the group, he started work as a social worker in the camp. Even though we were only at session 7 and not done with the full ten weeks of counseling, he was already working. He started to serve his community, to help the unaccompanied minors.

This is the most important thing: when those who are survivors who don’t have hope, gain hope. They start to work in the community, to reconnect with the community. I feel proud of this work when this happens.

During the group counseling, I listen to clients’ problems. They have such very difficult circumstances. We share difficult moments as a group, and the group members participate and support each other. I see clients go from being isolated in their homes because of their symptoms from past difficult experiences, and then I see them later at the close of the session, when they write that letter for the next cycle, for new clients. Those who were hopeless and depressed have become different.

I see my efforts for their heart – so that is rewarding.

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.

Frezgi Gebrekristos
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Frezgi Gebrekristos
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