CVT Ethiopia’s Team in Tigray Carries on Difficult Work during Ongoing Conflict | The Center for Victims of Torture

CVT Ethiopia’s Team in Tigray Carries on Difficult Work during Ongoing Conflict

Monday, May 10, 2021

Liyam Eloul is clinical advisor for mental health, CVT Ethiopia.

I have always loved my work. As a humanitarian mental health worker I have the immense fortune to be a witness daily to the resilience and fortitude of humanity. I work with people who are skilled and compassionate and motivated to change the status quo, to do their part to build a better world. From our teams in the field to our staff at headquarters (HQ), there is a shared value system, with a focus on restoring the dignity of individuals and hope for broader communities.

I have been in the humanitarian mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) field for more than a decade, almost half of which has been with CVT. I can honestly say I have never been prouder to be a member of CVT than I have in the past five months. On November 4, 2020, while many in the U.S. celebrated a change in administration, our CVT Ethiopia team watched in horror as a civil conflict erupted in the northern Tigray state, where we work. The next weeks unfolded painfully, as the violence spread and communication networks shut down. We lost contact with our staff and had no way to know if they, their families and our clients were okay, were alive, or not. For our team at HQ, who are used to speaking daily to staff on the ground, this was devastating. All of us struggled through our daily lives for the next six weeks with a portion of our awareness constantly worrying about our team.

However, while we at HQ were in the communications black-out, our team in Tigray was hard at work. Each of them has been impacted, some living through bombardments, through direct attack and threat of death, some losing family members. Miraculously they all survived. Many had been trapped in Shire, a town in Northern Ethiopia, during the fighting because the roads were closed suddenly and they were unable to get home. While there, they witnessed the growing numbers of displaced Ethiopians being driven into the town by violence in the countryside. Despite the horrors that our staff were personally facing, they saw the need to help these waves of people impacted by trauma and loss, and recognized their own skills to do so. The team self-organized and began working in the informal camps for the internally displaced, conducting psychological first aid (PFA) and other forms of crisis stabilization. By the time the phone networks came back on in December and our HQ team was finally able to reach our team in the field, they were already implementing a well-articulated response.

For months following the conflict, CVT was the only mental health organization operating in Shire. Our team built up referral networks with the few health centers that were still operating, as well as local religious and social service bodies to provide what care there was available to those in need. It took another month for the roads to open sufficiently for travel to become possible back to Mai Ayni and Adi Harush camps, where CVT has been the only mental health program operating. Here again, we found that our refugee psychosocial workers, with support and coordination from a single staff member who lived in a town near the camps, had been providing crisis support to the refugees there, including the thousands of new arrivals from the destroyed camps of Hitsats and Shimelba. The devastation caused by the Eritrean military in these two northern refugee camps had caused an influx into the camps where CVT works, with fresh horrific experiences re-triggering past distress.

While sporadic fighting continues, slowly the roads and the borders to the region have opened, and other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have been able to enter. This is an enormous relief because, as cited by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, food had been harder and harder to find in Tigray, and most of the health centers had been utterly destroyed. With each assessment our staff advocated for the acute mental health needs that they were seeing in the adults and children we were serving, among them an overwhelming number of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. This advocacy has been effective, and more partners are joining us in serving the mental health and psychosocial needs of both the refugees and the newly conflict-displaced.

Over the past two months our program has expanded rapidly, as we stretch our resources to cover as much of the need as we can. Our team has grown and we have expanded the area we serve, adjusting our programming to fit the presenting needs. All of this must be balanced, however, with mindfulness that staff are struggling to cope with their own experiences, and efforts to support them to do this in a healthy way, that does not put either them or our clients at risk. We have brought in a staff support consultant for three months, who is providing both individual and group counseling to our staff. We have also tailored our supervision content to focus on how to separate the counselor’s material from the client’s and how to find healthy boundaries that allow staff to hold client experiences without triggering their own. Staff are given more time to use for their own self-care, and structured staff-support activities and policies have been initiated. We have also been approached by other humanitarian organizations to provide support for their staff, requests to which our clinical programs director has been responding.

We are very lucky to have a talented, well-bonded team, who are able to trust and provide support for each other. This strong social network in the workplace has been cited by multiple staff as a primary protective factor as they engage in their work. Another protective factor is the sense of meaning that our staff find in the contributions they are able to make to their community. Conflicts such as this one make those who experience them feel powerless; helping to heal others gives our staff back a feeling of agency and the ability to right some of the wrongs they have observed all-too closely over the last months. We will continue to build on the capacity that we have invested in over the last eight years, supporting our staff’s resilience so that they, in turn, can build resilience in the communities we serve.

Unfortunately, as always, funding lags behind need, and although our HQ team is mounting a full-court press to secure the necessary resources, we are still in the awful position of needing to determine who gets prioritized for services and who does not. If you would like to contribute to our team’s efforts, you can send your donations here.



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