News / Africa

Doctors Battle Psychological Trauma in Dadaab Refugee Camps

Abdi Ibrahim, 20, at the hospital in the Dagahaley, refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Doctors believe Ibrahim suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress from the journey into Kenya. Somalis often chain family members suffering from mental illness in an
Abdi Ibrahim, 20, at the hospital in the Dagahaley, refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Doctors believe Ibrahim suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress from the journey into Kenya. Somalis often chain family members suffering from mental illness in an
Michael Onyiego

In humanitarian crises, the immediate focus is often on providing food, shelter and medical treatment to those in need. But in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps, there is a small but concerted effort to help treat the psychological trauma suffered by refugees who have fled a lifetime of conflict.

In the Doctors Without Borders hospital at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, Kenya, clinical psychologist Bethuel Isoe-Nyachieng’a tries to calm an hysterical patient who has recently arrived from Somalia. His name is Abdi Ibrahim, a 21-year-old who, until just a few weeks ago, was perfectly normal. His brother explained that Ibrahim began complaining nearly five months ago of worsening headaches and body pains. During the journey to the Dagahaley camp, his condition suddenly deteriorated. One night, Ibrahim woke up screaming and trying to remove his clothes.

This is the first time Isoe-Nyachieng’a has seen Ibrahim, but at first glance he believes the young refugee’s illness has been triggered by some sort of post-traumatic stress. On their way to Dadaab, Ibrahim and his brother were robbed by bandits, though neither would explain exactly what happened. Ibrahim’s brother says Ibrahim has lately acted very violently, forcing him to bind Ibrahim’s hands with a lock and chains.

The chains do not shock the psychologist, who says he sees them quite often in his work around the camps.

“These patients who are captured with mental illness are those ones who are very agitated," he said. "Those ones that somebody can see they want to fight back, they want to run away and they are in chains. That is when we are called immediately for management.”

The imprisonment of refugees with mental health issues is a stark reminder of the need for a more comprehensive approach to treating victims of famine and war. While chaining victims of trauma and mental illness seems cruel at first glance, many families in the camps do so out of concern for their suffering relatives.

VOA witnessed one woman suffering from schizophrenia who had been chained to her house by her brother. The brother said the woman would regularly wander off from the house into the Dagahaley market and had been raped multiple times without being able to defend herself. She was chained, said her brother, in order to protect her from further abuse.

And for those without serious mental illness, the public nature of the camps often prevents victims of trauma from recovering without the help of mental health workers. Janet Ndoti-Ndila is a counselor for CARE International at the Dagahaley camps. Ndoti-Ndila says CARE speaks with over 50 people per day in Dagahaley alone who feel they cannot turn to their family or friends for support.

“If you tell one person about something, everybody in the community will know," she said. "So instead of being stigmatized and being discriminated, you decide not to tell anyone. You are given a name, you are the raped one.”

Both CARE and Doctors Without Borders estimate they see around 1,400 people in the Dagahaley camp alone. While the CARE counselors do not diagnose patients, Isoe-Nyachieng’a of Doctors Without Borders says they see a range of problems from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and manic depression.

Perhaps the most common is post-traumatic stress disorder, which the psychologists say many suffer from the harrowing journey across Somalia, fighting both starvation and threats from armed bandits and the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab.

But many of the refugees in Dadaab have lived most of their lives in conflict zones, and for some psychological trauma goes back years or even decades.

In one section of the Dagahaley camp, a family of refugees from Ethiopia had two members who suffered torture at the hands of soldiers years ago.

Siyad Abdi Ali was just 16 when he went out to herd his family’s livestock. His mother, Fatum Mahmud Mohamed, explained that he was found days later, chained to a tree with severe injuries on his arms. His mother says he was tortured by the Ethiopian troops who regularly harassed the villagers in their area. In the eight years since the incident, Siyad has never fully recovered. Mohamed says she must keep him chained otherwise he becomes violent and destroys property.

Ibado Mahmud, 50, at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Mahmud had her eyes removed by Ethiopian troops before travelling to the camps. Doctors believe she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ibado Mahmud, 50, at the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Mahmud had her eyes removed by Ethiopian troops before travelling to the camps. Doctors believe she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ibado Mahmud is Siyad’s aunt. The 50-year-old woman was beaten and had her eyes removed with a knife by Ethiopian troops during an attack on her village four years ago. Mahmud said her sons were killed along with many other people in her village.

Unlike Siyad, Mahmud has not been restrained by her family, and appears able to function independently, but psychologist Bethuel Isoe-Nyachieng’a told VOA both have been suffering from acute forms of post-traumatic stress disorder for years. They only recently began to receive treatment from Doctors Without Borders, after arriving in Dadaab around seven months ago.

Many of Dadaab’s residents have similarly disturbing stories. Isoe-Nyachieng’a says more must be done to address their problems.

“Mental health has not been given the emphasis that it deserves," he said. "If all can be given the same coverage, like nutrition or malaria or HIV/AIDS. If mental health can be given that level then we’ll be able to manage our patients very well.”

There are only a handful of mental health officers to address the needs of the people in each of the three camps - a population pushing 400,000. With so many other pressing issues, psychologists within the Dadaab camps will continue to do the best they can with the resources available.

You May Like

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs