Kakuma, 7 July 2016 – When people flee from war or persecution, daily stresses of life are multiplied. Not only do parents have to worry about feeding their children but also moving them on dangerous routes to safety. Students strive to excel in school often while inadequately nourished in harsh environments. Those with mental health concerns or disabilities are even further disadvantaged.
In an effort to help mitigate the devastating effects of conflict and displacement for those with disabilities or mental health concerns, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Kakuma camp, north-western Kenya, offers a variety of services to ensure all refugees have the chance to learn and heal.
"Refugees come from war-torn zones after losing everything. Mental health services show the benefit of being together and the importance of caring for others, especially those most in need. By helping others I am helping myself," said David Manyang, 44-year-old refugee who fled South Sudan and has been in Kakuma since his mid-twenties.
Healing from trauma. He serves as a JRS Kakuma mental health supervisor in one of the four JRS centres located in the camp which house around 185,000 people. By acting as a "counsellor for others," he has also been able to help himself, his family and his community.
"Refugees come here with horrible memories, memories of their homes being attacked in the middle of the night and of life in war zones so their mental health is obviously affected. I struggle with my own trauma. Helping others has also helped me heal. I used to have nightmares of the camp being bombed, but now I've learned to deal my fears in a healthy way and impact others.
I'll always remember one South Sudanese man who lost his entire family and was totally traumatised when he came to Kakuma. He could hardly speak. We welcomed and counselled him. Eventually, he opened up and shared stories of injury and loss. We found him psychiatric care. He's recovering and studying in a secondary school today," said David.
Learning with disabilities. Through the leadership of refugees like David, JRS trains other refugees to serve 169 children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down Syndrome, speech and hearing disorders, cerebral palsy and epilepsy in four JRS centres where they learn life skills, grow fresh food, make creative art projects and play sports. Children also partake in group counselling and physical therapy sessions.
"We give these kids space to be free, learn and play. We want to make sure all children can get an education," said David.
"We monitor their medicine and serve them breakfast and lunch. We help children learn basic life skills. Our goal is to help them improve and discharge them to normal schools one day. We fulfil this by making specialised education plans for each child. In 2015, we discharged 33 children to normal schools," said Ali Mutai, former JRS Kakuma Mental Health Coordinator.
Overcoming physical challenges. JRS also cares for six adults and 25 refugee children unable to leave their homes due to physical disabilities. Home visits conducted by JRS community counsellors and mental health care providers offer basic occupational therapy. They distribute walking aids for those recovering from injuries and children with cerebral palsy.
In addition to the onsite programme, JRS offers scholarships to children who are deaf, blind or have physically disabilities. Students are sent to special boarding schools around Kenya that are better equipped to cater to their needs.
"Some of the students were injured in the camp, while others arrived with disabilities from conflict, like after stepping on landmines. Most of the schools in the camp are not handicap accessible and the families can't afford to meet nutritional needs of the children. In the boarding schools there is proper nutrition and staff members help them stay healthy so they can focus on learning," said Nyamweya Omari, JRS Kakuma Psychosocial Education Coordinator.
JRS covers school fees, books, uniforms, medicine and transportation fees for 36 students to study in boarding schools where they can excel and reach their full potential.
"One deaf student graduated university and a few years ago, he secured a job in Kenya," added Nyamweya.
Community outreach. In addition to making an impact on individual lives, JRS also strives to encourage entire communities to become healthier and more accepting of those with disabilities.
"We visit parents who have children with disabilities and advise them on how to care for their children with special needs. We connect them to parents in similar situations so they know they're not alone and will understand their kids are not ill of their own will...We also run multi-lingual campaigns in schools to sensitise students and teachers on issues people with disabilities face," said Ali.
Despite the obvious successes, challenges still persist. Medicine for patients is costly and facilities allowing those with disabilities to navigate the camp are nearly non-existent, but the refugee counsellors continue to use their expertise to serve and engage the community.
Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer