“Psychosocial support is the most challenging work.” A volunteer’s devotion to helping Burundian refugees

Published: 4 August 2016 8:00 CET

By Naoko Ishibashi, IFRC

Since April 2015, close to 270,000 people have fled pre-election violence in Burundi to neighbouring countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, while increasing numbers of people have been internally displaced. Most of those who have crossed into Rwanda are living at the permanent Mahama refugee camp in Kirehe district, where they receive shelter, food, and other basic necessities from UNHCR, the Rwandan government, the Rwandan Red Cross, and other partners. Currently, the camp is accommodating approximately 49,000 Burundian refugees, with approximately 45 new refugees continuing to arrive in this camp every day.

Kaliza Jonas, 46, is a volunteer at the Kirehe branch of the Rwandan Red Cross. Since July 2015, he  has been engaged in supporting Burundian refugees in the Mahama camp. The volunteer team is providing water, sanitation and hygiene promotion services through mobile cinema, first aid and psychosocial support, non-food items such as blankets, clothing, mats and soap, and assistance to families to enable them to establish and cultivate household gardens.

Helping people work through their trauma

“Among the variety of activities, psychosocial support is the most challenging work,” says Kaliza. “Imagine, most of the refugees living in this camp were forced to flee their homes with nothing aside from enormous pain and burden. People have different backgrounds and their own stories, and what they had to experience was too hurtful to overcome. Some lost their family members who were killed in front of them, some had to leave their spouse, parents or children, and still don’t even know where they are or if they are even still alive.”

The Red Cross psychosocial support team, comprised of five to six volunteers, conducts door-to-door visits to help refugees lessen the emotional consequences of the trauma they have suffered, as well as resolve concerns arising in their everyday life in the camp.

“People are under enormous stress and fatigue. Our role is to listen to their concerns and to accept their feelings and difficulties. Even if we cannot solve the problems themselves, we can assist them in overcoming their difficulties together,” explains Kaliza.

“We are not psychosocial specialists. We are doing our best by using our skills and knowledge we have from our own experiences. This is not simple work at all. We volunteers are also needing psychosocial support.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has supported the Rwandan Red Cross through an Emergency Appeal of almost 550,000 Swiss francs to deliver assistance to 10,000 people, including host communities. The focus is on emergency heath (first aid, psychosocial support, and violence prevention), water, sanitation and hygiene promotion, shelter and settlements, food security, nutrition and livelihoods, with a component of disaster preparedness and risk reduction. The Appeal is 78 per cent funded.