Volunteer psychologist Amie conducts a one-on-one counseling session with Kaddy, a Senegalese woman who fled to The Gambia. Photo: IOM/Robert Kovacs

Foni, 8 August 2022 – When conflict broke out in Kaddy’s village in early April, she was forced to leave everything behind to save her family.

“We lost everything, we lost our animals, we lost our food. When we left, we could not take anything with us. Everything left behind has been destroyed from the fighting in Senegal.”

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

Having 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 to the other communities helping us,” Kaddy laments. “We feel ashamed to be ‘taken care of’, but we have no choice.”

Kaddy is among the thousands of Senegalese forced to flee to The Gambia according to the country's National Disaster Management Agency, after clashes broke out in January along the Gambian-Senegalese border in territories occupied by the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). An additional 6,200 Gambians have been internally displaced, with another 8,500 affected in host communities – according to The Gambia’s National Disaster Management Agency – by the conflict that dates back four decades.

Many Gambians living in Senegal have also been affected. Fatou left her home behind with nothing but her family and the clothes on her back. Photo: IOM/Robert Kovacs

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

One key approach being employed by the mobile team is psychoeducation, where volunteers meet with and engage communities to discuss mental health issues and possible signs and symptoms of stress. “The purpose is to raise awareness about the experiences of individuals who have gone through post-traumatic stress or have been negatively affected due to the change of environment brought by the crisis,” said Solomon Correa, SAF Managing Director.

These sessions, conducted in groups, leverage traditional sociocultural activities, such as regular attaya (tea) sessions, to facilitate discussions.

“We are able to teach them coping mechanisms during the discussions,” states Amie, a volunteer psychologist. “After we orient them on the possible signs and symptoms of mental health problems, they are often very interested to talk with us in private.”

Through the psychoeducation sessions, the mobile team is able to identify people with specific mental health needs that require further attention and conduct follow-up visits or referrals, as needed.

Muhammed, IOM’s National Health Promotion Officer, listens to the concerns of a community leader about the difficult situations many of them have experienced. Photo: IOM/Robert Kovacs

Fatou is one of many who have benefited from dedicated, one-on-one counselling sessions.

A Gambian previously living in Casamance with her Senegalese husband, her whole family fled when the conflict broke out. Fatou left her home abruptly and had no time to gather any belongings, as she was preoccupied with safely evacuating her 10 children, one of whom is physically disabled. For over two months, she has been living in her uncle’s compound in Janack.

Fatou has resorted to small, day-to-day jobs, including offering labour on farms during harvesting to sell the produce on behalf of the farmers to make ends meet. However, the stress of providing for her family in a new environment, along with painful memories resurfaced from the shootings she witnessed, has had a negative impact on her mental well-being.

“To date, this is one of the things helping me the most in my daily life,” Fatou says of the psychosocial support she has received. “I am really happy to talk to them [the mobile team] and share my feelings and problems without hesitation.” Fatou’s sessions with the mobile team have helped give her a sense of mutual solidarity with others who have been displaced: “It helps me to know we are not alone in this.”

Just a few kilometers away in Tambakunda, Solomon explains to the village chief the process of referring people with mental health needs for further health services. Photo: IOM/Robert Kovacs

Months after the outbreak of conflict, there seems to be no end in sight. “We are not sure whether it is okay for us to go back or not. Right now, we have no clue,” Fatou remarks.

Despite the uncertainty of the future, the psychosocial support provided is helping the most affected cope with drastic changes and pick up the pieces left behind. As Kaddy shares, “Just being able to talk to someone alone about our problems in this crisis really encourages us. It helps us to feel a little more comfortable even though there is no certainty about the future.”

“Since participating in these sessions, I have been less worried,” concurs Fatou.

In a world where mental health is often put in the back seat, the work of the six-person mobile psychosocial team demonstrates the benefits reaped when mental health is prioritized.

Written by Robert Kovacs, IOM Reporting and Communications Consultant in The Gambia

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions