The RefugePoint conference room is a brightly lit space where sun pours in from two sides and a circle of fifteen chairs can fit comfortably. Coffee mugs and tea line the back table while RefugePoint Counselors Lonah and Clotilda finalize the agenda on the front white board and then wait quietly for their fourteen guests to arrive.
The setting is a stark contrast to the dark, complicated stories the refugee women exchange over the course of the next four hours on Tuesday morning. Born originally in the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, the refugee women are here for their second group counseling session for survivors of gender-based violence – a new approach RefugePoint began in September that is already leaving a positive impact.
“We recently finished a similar six-part series with Oromo refugees fleeing Ethiopia and the women told us they want to organize similar groups within their community outside of our office. This is a good sign they found the experience worthwhile,” Clotilda shares.
Once settled, Lonah begins the conversation by sharing a video produced by the international organization IRIN entitled “Our Bodies – Their Battleground” about the role of gender-based violence in war – a subject these women know all too well. One statistic during the film notes how during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda between 250,000 and 500,000 females were raped. As reenactments of young women caught in the grasps of aggressive soldiers flash on the screen, some clients begin to look away while others fold their arms tighter across their chests.
When the film ends, Lonah gently notes how gender-based violence is an epidemic in war and these women are not alone and should not feel ashamed. Young girls are especially vulnerable. In today’s group, one mother cries at length over failing to protect her seven-year-old daughter from being raped on the outskirts of a refugee camp. In her words, “I have no peace inside. I will never have peace.”
The mother, like many of the women in the room, was also assaulted prior to escaping her home country. Her recovery is further complicated by the fact she has also not seen her son since her family fled the Congo in 2007 during the escalating conflict that has claimed more than 6 million lives since 1998.
“I don’t know if he is dead or alive. I don’t know if he has eaten today. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.”
Again, the mother is not alone. Every woman in the room is either separated from or grieving the loss of a loved one. Several times throughout the morning, the counselors are struck by an almost honorary collective moment of silence that follows each woman’s testimony. When a different mother with a baby in her arms begins to fight back tears while recounting the death of her parents at 11 years old that left her an orphan, another guest quietly crosses the circle, scoops up the baby in her arms and exchanges a tissue into her hand with a soft grasp, again as if to say, ‘you are not alone.’
Facilitators like Lonah and Clotilda often grapple with how much to speak during sessions and how much to remain quiet and let conversations unfold. Reflecting on the session, Lonah notes, “I really felt today for the first time the power of silence. We didn’t need to speak. These women were bringing hope to each other.”
NOTE: The Urban Refugee Assistance Program. Last year, eighty refugees took advantage of individual counseling. Another twelve Oromo refugees participated in the pilot group counseling session that will continue in 2012.