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
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid