The Harsh Reality of Life in a Refugee Camp | The Center for Victims of Torture

The Harsh Reality of Life in a Refugee Camp

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Judith Twala, MA, is a psychotherapist/trainer with the Center for Victims of Torture in Dadaab, Kenya. Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp in the northeast region of Kenya, close to the Somali border. Most refugees in this complex of camps are from Somalia with others from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries.

For as long as I’ve worked in the Dadaab camps these past 16 months, I’ve observed the harsh reality of life for refugees. They live in tents in a very hot environment, with some large families sharing one or two tents. During the heavy rains in March and April, the camps flood and refugees improvise using sacks of sand and stones to stop the water flooding into their tents. Those with old and torn tents live with the leaks.

During times when funding is reduced, there are fewer food rations, lack of adequate medical facilities and long queues as they wait to fetch water or to pick their rations.

Some of the cultural practices refugees bring with them are not child-friendly, particularly for girls. Girls can be married at a young age, their education is not valued, and there is the cruel practice of female genital mutilation.  

Most of the refugees I have met had big houses, successful businesses, happy and united families. Their children were in good schools and loved to play.

Our counseling compound on the edge of one camp is a  relatively quiet, peaceful and shady area. CVT has built Tukuls for privacy and shelter from the sun and blowing sand. Our counseling site offers refugees a break from daily life. But after their sessions, they return to tattered tents and, in the windy months, dust blows everywhere, getting into their eyes and food.

In the camps, minority communities are sometimes rejected by the majority, even their kids are made uncomfortable in the schools. During the rainy seasons, boys gather in the pools of rain water to swim, but I have witnessed fights among children from different communities. Although all women are at risk to sexual and gender-based violence, especially when they go to the bushes to fetch firewood, there are more cases of minority women compared to the majority. Some do not get incentive work (incentive work provides modest pay for refugees), so they cannot afford to buy milk, fruits or meat for their families. Often this means they sell part of the rations they receive two times a month to buy such basic things. As a mother, I can imagine how depressed I would be if I could not provide bread to my children.

There are many agencies working in Dadaab, but what they offer is frequently not enough for all the refugees – there are more than 460,000 refugees living in Dadaab. Sometimes our CVT clients tell us they are treated harshly by other agency staff and others have been asked for financial or sexual favors in exchange for materials or incentive jobs. Due to the tribal nature of this place, even our own clients have been forced by circumstances to convert to Islam so that their life can be bearable in the camps. Other clients have reported of continuous telephone threats from their home countries or even within the camps.

This is the life of refugees in Dadaab.

Most refugee survivors who experienced serious atrocities in their home country come to CVT with very high levels of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and physical symptoms. They are assessed by our clinical staff, receive group or individual counseling, and are consulted periodically for up to one year after their treatment. When we follow up with them, in most cases we document significant reduction in their symptoms and they are able to do the daily tasks needed to live.

While we are helping survivors of violent conflict process their past traumas, we are really helping to improve their ability to function. Living in this harsh reality means refugees must be able to function with all their capacities in order to survive. That includes reducing their stress so they can do well emotionally and physically in this difficult environment.

Mental health care is really a basic, life-saving intervention in Dadaab. I am amazed that under such harsh daily conditions, I see refugees support each other in so many ways. I have heard in our group counseling sessions women confess to visiting other group members when they give birth or when they are unwell. They exchange phone numbers and will check up on each other. It gives me hope when I witness women reconnecting with their lives and forming bonds with other women.



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