When Kasoke first arrived at RefugePoint’s office, the Congolese refugee mother was frail from emaciation. She and her young son were malnourished and in need of critical medical attention. RefugePoint immediately enrolled her small family in our food program and medical services. As weeks passed and the staff learned more about her background, the young mother was also recommended for group counseling to address the sexual trauma she had endured in her native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Currently, RefugePoint is working with our partners to help 50,000 Congolese refugees resettle to the US over the next few years. This will be the largest resettlement commitment out of Africa in US history. Like Kasoke, many of the refugee women to be resettled are survivors of sexual violence. At a recent human rights forum, a senior United Nations official reaffirmed that rape remains alarmingly prevalent in DRC, and is especially brutal.[1]

As a survivor of sexual violence, Kasoke presented many of the complex medical and emotional symptoms RefugePoint routinely sees in female, as well as male, clients. Reticent to share the events that forced her to flee DRC, Kasoke often fluctuated between being withdrawn and outwardly suspicious of strangers and staff.

In 2012, RefugePoint introduced our group counseling program to assist survivors like Kasoke. The sessions are designed to provide clients with emotional support as they transition towards self-sufficiency. Over the course of six weeks, clients have the opportunity to collectively grieve and establish critical social networks in Nairobi, a city with more than 100,000 refugees. In urban slums and refugee camps, the stigma of rape and other forms of sexual violence often results in victims being ostracized by relatives and their broader community, elevating their insecurity.

When Kasoke first connected with RefugePoint, she did not have a local social network. This changed over the course of her participation in group counseling, which RefugePoint organizes by country of origin and gender to aid in creating a safe environment for participants and to facilitate conversation.

Some of the most nurturing moments are not always communicated in words. During one session, Kasoke listened intently while a mother of the same age recounted her rape. When the woman began to cry, Kasoke reached across the circle and held her hand. “For many women, this is their first opportunity to share their story with other survivors,” RefugePoint Counseling Unit Manager Clotilda Kiriongi explained. “It is healing for these women to know they are not alone and they should not feel ashamed.”

Clotilda and her co-facilitator alternate between providing trauma counseling and helping the women gain practical survival skills, recognizing that life in Nairobi still includes many risks for refugee women, including the potential for further sexual violence and human trafficking. The most vulnerable refugee women living in Nairobi are often forced to engage in survival sex simply to shelter and feed themselves and their families. To combat this trend, RefugePoint staff and participants exchange strategies for earning alternative income, as well as lessons for managing stress and navigating their neighborhoods safely. In 2013, 237 refugee women and men participated in individual and/or group counseling.

In the last two years, Kasoke has made tremendous progress. After improving her health and gaining confidence through the counseling program, Kasoke enrolled in RefugePoint’s expanding livelihoods program, which provides cash grants to motivated clients to begin small businesses. Today, she is managing her own business and has become an inspiration to other refugee women in her neighborhood.

[1] Human Rights Council holds High-Level dialogue on combating sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, United Nations Human Rights Council, March 25, 2014