There are four Eritrean refugee camps in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Since Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia, many, but not all, of the refugees speak the local language, Tigrigna. The agreement with the Ethiopian government is for MSF to cover some of the medical and mental health needs primarily in two of the four camps, Hitsats and Shimelba. Eritreans have been fleeing their country to escape lifelong military conscription, among many other issues. When the refugees cross the border, they are picked up and brought to a Reception Centre, where Ethiopian officials decide which camp they will be sent to.
I am the Mental Health Officer currently in charge of activities in the Hitsats camp. The Hitsats camp houses primarily minors and young adults, with few families. Despite significant efforts to make this a final destination for the refugees, many people continue on their journey and use the camp as a short-term stop on their way to Europe. It is estimated that somewhere between 700 and 800 unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs), as young as seven years old, live in the camp. Their housing is arranged by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), who places them in houses with other URMs, supervised by a guardian.
The project is fairly new, about six months old. The mental health activities we run in the Hitsats camp currently include psychoeducation and psychosocial activities in the community, individual counseling, and psychiatric care. The psychoeducation activities aim at providing knowledge to the population regarding mental health, coping strategies, and available supports. The psychosocial activities target the children and URMs primarily and currently focus on providing structure and promoting healthy development and coping. The counseling and psychiatric services are available to support individuals of all ages that are having more significant difficulties adjusting and coping and/or struggling with significant symptoms related to their history of trauma and their current lives as refugees.
My task over the next months will be to ensure we meet the mental health needs of the population as well as we can, to further improve the quality of the services provided, and to support the counselors in the provision of the services. There is lots to be done, prioritizing is at times challenging and the level of need can be overwhelming. My motto has become: "One day at a time, Joelle! One day at a time!"