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Traumatised by Boko Haram violence, women seek counselling to help them cope

by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 24 August 2017 09:00 GMT

"Another girl stopped talking. They killed her father in front of her and her mother had to bury her father in front of her"

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Aug 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fati Ibrahim was one of scores of women gathered outside a tent in a remote community of Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, struggling for a chance to get in and receive help.

Three years ago her husband was murdered, her first son went missing, and she was forced to flee her hometown of Gwoza in northeast Nigeria when Boko Haram Islamist militants attacked.

Struggling to cope, a friend guided her to free counselling sessions set up this year by the NEEM Foundation, a non-profit that helps people impacted by the eight-year insurgency in which Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people.

"She told me that they will be able to help me if I come here," Ibrahim, 28, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while attending a session in Dalori near Maiduguri where she lives.

For most of the 1.8 million people uprooted by Boko Haram's bloody campaign to create an Islamic state in the northeast are children and women who, having lost their fathers and husbands, are trying to survive in crowded camps and local communities.

Food, shelter and security are seen as the main concerns for those forced to flee their homes but increasingly health experts fear that psychological wounds are being left to deepen in a region with few psychiatrists and no mental health services.

To fill this gap the NEEM Foundation set up its Counselling on Wheels programme to provide psychological and social services to people in some of the most remote parts of Maiduguri, a city at the heart of the militants' operations.

The NEEM Foundation also runs deradicalisation programmes for both former Boko Haram militants and women and children rescued from the militants whose beliefs they often adopt while under their control.

Thousands of girls and women have been abducted by the group since it began its insurgency in 2009 – most notably the more than 200 Chibok girls snatched from their school in April 2014 – with many used as cooks, sex slaves, and even suicide bombers.


NEEM Foundation Executive Director Fatima Akilu said she had seen tragic examples of the impact of the violence on children including a four-year-old girl who was unable to walk after her town was bombed and her father killed.

"Through therapy, she is now standing up and walking on her own because there is nothing neurologically or physiologically wrong with her. I think she saw they bombed her town and they killed her father," Akilu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Another girl stopped talking. They killed her father in front of her and her mother had to bury her father in front of her. She comes here and through therapy she started to talk again. You do see these big changes when you take time to provide the intervention."

Using tricycles to reach communities, many of which are impassable by car and swamped by debris, NEEM's psychologists and counsellors hold sessions in tents or under trees for different groups of between eight and 10 people.

"We started in February with two tricycles. We have now grown to 12 tricycles. We see on average 1,200 (people) per month," said Akilu.

"We have four teams and we work in communities where a lot of aid has not reached. There are more people in these kinds of communities than there are in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where resources are being directed."

The programme begins with assessing the needs of the participants and psychologists and counsellors then spend the next three weeks teaching them how to block negative thoughts, an essential skill to cope with the trauma they have been through, and also how to build resilience.


"For some people, their coping skill is keeping busy. We always encourage them to do something," Akilu said.

"These were women who had never worked ... (then) they find themselves with no brother, no husband, no uncle. Women have had to step into roles they would ordinarily not have had if not for the insurgency and we teach them to embrace the new roles." Two weeks later and then months later, the psychologists return to evaluate the people and in the meantime, the different groups continue to meet, encouraged to consider their group as their "counselling family" who are there for support.

When people are found to need more support than the group sessions can provide, they are brought to the NEEM's centre in Maiduguri city, where they are offered more personalised counselling.

For the past two months, Yana Muhammed, 25, has been attending the Counselling on Wheels sessions in the Dalori area of Maiduguri.

A mother-of-three, Muhammed fled her hometown of Askira Uba about 130 km (80 miles) south of Maiduguri almost three years ago, after Boko Haram attacked and razed their house.

"I was always worried about the property and everything else we lost, but the counsellors taught me how to stop worrying," she said.

In the past three years since she was displaced from her home by Boko Haram, Muhammed has received various forms of aid from other agencies, such as food and medication, but this is the first time she has received psychological support.

"I have never seen any other group that helps people from their worrying," she said.

(Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith @BeeGoldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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