My family lived in Zambia as refugees after fleeing political persecution in our native country of Zimbabwe. Despite facing challenges, we gladly called the refugee camp our home because we were safe and alive. I must say that refugees are some of the most resilient people I know. They risk their lives in search of safety and a better life, and they are not afraid to rebuild after losing everything. While resources in the camp were scarce, what struck me about refugees is their profound understanding of communal suffering, survival, and gratitude. Their will to live and survive was never up for negotiation. Based on my experience in the camp, being resilient can take a toll on your mental health and well-being.
In one of my previous writings, I described life in the camp as living in the darkness and how nobody liked to be in that darkness. At the same time, I acknowledged that there is nothing we could have done as refugees. The camp is where we found safety and a home. Indeed, it was our light of life at that given moment of our lives. In the camp, suffering became a way of life, but when joyful moments came, we felt like we had met God. In the midst of adversity, we still maintained our spirit of gratitude because at least we were not dead yet.
I would like to briefly share my experience with mental health. First and foremost, it is difficult to nurture good mental health while living in a refugee camp. When resources are scarce and you are living under adverse conditions, you tend to prioritize your survival and safety more than your mental well-being. Perhaps, if mental health services were readily available in the camp, refugees would have considered them. Although refugees had access to some clinical services, mental health services were not available. This resulted in refugees, for instance, seeking counseling support from religious leaders and traditional healers. While some refugees may have benefited from spiritual services, others would have benefited more from clinical mental health services. I also want to emphasize that due to the ongoing suffering that came by nature of being refugees, it was difficult to find the time to process our emotions and share our pain. We were emotionally burdened because we piled all our emotions in hopes that we would sort them out at a later time. There was always time to invest in our safety and survival. But we never had time to disclose our pain or ask for help.
Within the refugee community, mental illness was stigmatized and perceived as a taboo subject. More often, refugees associated mental illness with demonic possession, witchcraft, sin, or cerebral Malaria. Shockingly, those who suffered from severe mental illness were viewed as a source of public entertainment. For some families, maintaining a good name in the community was more important than helping family members cope with mental illness. As a result, individuals observed to have mental health issues were hidden from the public to avoid embarrassment from the community. Refugees also feared that if they suffered from mental illness, they would face deportation, and surely, no refugee wanted to go back to an unsafe place.
Having lived in a Zambian camp where refugees didn’t have access to mental health services, I see great value in the work that Moving Well Project International is doing to address the mental health needs of vulnerable migrants in Zambia. Years ago, I knew nothing about mental health and it was never my priority. But after learning about the intersection of mental health and public health, I feel empowered to educate others about mental health. I am honoured and happy to volunteer with Moving Well Project International.