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Thousands of Senegalese have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in The Gambia after clashes erupted earlier this year in separatist-occupied areas of Senegal. The UN provides psychological support to many displaced people, who face the fact that returning home is an uncertain prospect.

When conflict erupted in the Senegalese village of Kaddy in early April, she was forced to leave her possessions behind to save her family. “We have lost everything. When we left, we couldn’t take anything with us. Our animals, our food; everything was destroyed in the fighting.

Along with her husband and seven children, Kaddy fled north into The Gambia, eventually finding her way to a small village in Janack district, in an area known as ‘Foni’.

Left with nothing, Kaddy and her family had to rely on the hospitality of the local community for food and shelter. “We feel like a burden on the other communities that help us,” laments Kaddy. “We are ashamed to be ‘taken care of’, but we have no choice.”

Kaddy is among thousands of Senegalese forced to flee to The Gambia, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Agency, after fighting broke out along the Gambian-Senegalese border, in territory occupied by the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC).

According to the Gambia’s Disaster Management Agency, a further 6,200 Gambians have been internally displaced, and another 8,500 have been affected in host communities by the conflict, which dates back four decades.

Post Traumatic Stress Awareness

Recognizing the significant impact of the conflict on the well-being of displaced people, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has mobilized its expertise in mental health and psychosocial support. In collaboration with the Supportive Activists Foundation, IOM deployed a mobile psychosocial team – consisting of a psychologist, two social workers, an educator and a community mobilizer – to provide direct services to affected populations.

One of the main approaches employed by the mobile team is psychoeducation, where volunteers meet and engage communities to discuss mental health issues and possible signs and symptoms of stress. “The goal is to raise awareness of the experiences of people who have experienced post-traumatic stress or who have been negatively affected due to the changed environment brought about by the crisis,” said Solomon Correa, executive director of the Supportive Activists Foundation.

These sessions, conducted in groups, take advantage of traditional socio-cultural activities, such as regular attaya (tea) sessions, to facilitate discussions.

“We are able to teach them coping mechanisms during the discussions,” explains Amie, a volunteer psychologist. “After orienting them to possible signs and symptoms of mental health issues, they are often very interested in talking to us privately.”

Through psychoeducation sessions, the mobile team is able to identify individuals with specific mental health needs who require additional attention and provide follow-up visits or referrals as needed.

“It’s one of the things that helps me the most in my daily life”

Fatou is one of the many people who have benefited from individual and dedicated counseling sessions.

A Gambian previously living in Casamance with her Senegalese husband, her entire family fled when the conflict broke out. Fatou left her home abruptly and did not have time to gather her belongings, as she was concerned about the safe evacuation of her 10 children, one of whom is physically disabled. For more than two months, she has been living in her uncle’s compound in Janack.

Fatou resorted to odd daily jobs, including volunteering labor on farms during harvest to sell produce on behalf of farmers to make ends meet. However, the stress of supporting her family in a new environment, as well as painful memories resurfaced from the shootings she witnessed, had a negative impact on her mental well-being.

“So far, it’s one of the things that helps me the most in my daily life,” says Fatou of the psychosocial support she received. “I’m really happy to talk to them [the mobile team] and share my feelings and problems without hesitation. Fatou’s sessions with the mobile team helped give her a sense of mutual solidarity with the other displaced people: “It helps me to know that we are not alone in this situation. »

No end in sight

Months after the outbreak of the conflict, there seems to be no end in sight. “We don’t know if it’s good for us to come back or not. At the moment, we have no idea,” remarks Fatou.

Psychosocial support helps those most affected to cope with drastic changes in their lives and to pick up the pieces left behind. As Kaddy shares, “Just being able to talk to someone alone about our issues in this crisis is really encouraging. It helps us to feel a little more comfortable even if there is no certainty about the future.

“Since I have taken part in these sessions, I am less worried, recognizes Fatou.

In a world where mental health is often relegated to the background, the work of the mobile psychosocial team of six people demonstrates the benefits of prioritizing mental health needs.

About Andrew Estofan

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