Kenya: Refugees helping each other
21 August 2012

A JRS refugee incentive staff member in Kakuma provides massage therapy for a fellow refugee. Katie Allan/JRS
It is true the saying that it is wrong to judge a book by its cover. Disability is not inability, and the disabled refugees proved to the entire audience that 'yes they can’.
Kakuma, 21 August 2012 – In Kakuma refugee camp, the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) staff in their delivery of the psychosocial and education programmes would not be nearly so effective without the invaluable help of refugee volunteers, known as 'incentive staff’. More than 200 volunteers have been trained by JRS to provide support to their fellow refugees in education, counselling and alternative healing, in return for a small monthly stipend. As a tribute to their dedication to JRS, despite their own problems and challenges, we asked three refugee incentive staff to share their thoughts on their experiences working in Kakuma.

Miracles of patience

My name is Paul* and I have worked for JRS as a Mental Health Care Assistant since 2009. Over the years, many new clients have been brought to our centre with different conditions. Some are deaf, some blind, and others are cognitively impaired. Recently I had quite a big challenge – I was asked to make an individual educational plan for two young children, one who was totally deaf and another who was mentally retarded. Educational planning is a key task which I do every day, but in these circumstances I found it very difficult and quite frustrating. With these children, I found it hard to see progress as I worked with them. However, I attended some training workshops conducted by JRS and I learned more about the patience and commitment needed.

I felt encouraged by the training and I multiplied my efforts as much as possible. Eventually I began to see the fruits of my patience – these two young children are now in school! I taught the child with hearing impairment how to use sign language and this helped him to successfully gain a place at a school sponsored by JRS. The child with the cognitive impairment has also started learning at a JRS-sponsored school and is now in Class 3.  With these small achievements I feel very proud of myself.

The hidden ability

My name is Jean-Baptiste*, a Field Education Officer for JRS in Kakuma. Last month, I attended a workshop organised by the JRS scholarship programme. Students sponsored by JRS and their parents and guardians all attended. Amongst them were the visually impaired and the physically disabled. The essence of the workshop was to raise awareness on issues related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), HIV/AIDs and early marriage.

As a sign language interpreter for the deaf, I was flabbergasted to see a deaf person explaining, in sign language, the benefits of abstinence from sexual relations and the related positive impact on finishing high school with good grades. The compassionate waves for him ran into my nerves. Later, another Sudanese scholarship programme beneficiary, who is totally blind, stood and gave the most wonderful speech, thanking the facilitator. It is true the saying that it is wrong to judge a book by its cover. Disability is not inability, and the disabled refugees proved to the entire audience that 'yes they can’.

My work experience

My name is Sara* and I am Ethiopian by nationality. I work in Kakuma refugee camp as a Trainer in the Mental Health Department. I just want to explain briefly what I do here. I provide training in different parts of the camp in basic mental health issues affecting refugees. We also conduct parent workshops where we educate parents on managing different disabilities so that they will be able to handle and care for their disabled children.

We provide community mental health training for almost 200 refugees per year. Most of the participants are men, but we are trying our best to encourage women to also attend. We have been really impressed with the performances of the trainees. Through the training, we get to see real change in our communities and an increased understanding of what JRS can offer refugees in the camp. All in all, that is my work experience with JRS and I am proud of it.

JRS has been accompanying and serving refugees in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya since 1994. The long-standing camp currently holds more than 100,000 refugees of over 11 different nationalities. JRS works in the areas of education and psychosocial counselling and helps refugees to gain new skills in order to  have hope for the future, no matter how long their stay in the camp. Refugee incentive staff members play a key role in the work of JRS at the camp. This article was published to celebrate World Humanitarian Day 2012. Learn more here:

*Not real name