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Psycho-social support helps heal a young family at the Egypt-Libya border

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Emmanuel Streel, a UNICEF Psycho-social Support Specialist, is part of the agency’s mission on the ground in Salloum on the Egypt-Libya border.

By Emmanuel Streel

SALLOUM, Egypt, 29 April 2011 – Adam (not his real name), his wife, mother-in-law and four young daughters fled the Libyan city of Benghazi late last month.

In fear of their lives

Staying at home no longer felt safe. Rumours of violence and people leaving the country progressed to losing contact with their friends and feeling isolated and vulnerable. Then they started to hear gunshots at night.

One morning they packed as many things as they could carry and abandoned their house in the direction of the Egyptian border. By taxi and on foot they followed many others going in the same direction.

They finally reached the Egyptian border town of Salloum late one evening. After hours of queuing they were authorized to enter a transit area. Disoriented, exhausted and traumatized by events and the rapid change of environment, they made the bottom of a staircase outside a designated customs hall in the transit area their temporary home. They stayed there for two nights before being noticed by UNICEF staff, who were completing their daily screening and monitoring rounds of the site.

Psycho-social support

Adam and his family had no idea of the registration procedures for repatriation to Chad. As the UNICEF Psychosocial Support Specialist, I guided them through it. I also ensured that a safe place was organised for them to sleep and rest inside a centre on the Egyptian side of the border.

Adam and his family then received a psycho-social support family session where they were able to freely express their fears and worries about their predicament. “When are we going to leave Egypt and where will we go?” they asked. “What will happen to our belongings we were forced to abandon in Libya?” And: “How are we going to live in the future?”

By simply listening to their stories and hopes for the future – helping them to better understand the situation, share their feelings with others, encourage them to play with their children and keeping them informed about the on-going situation – a relationship built on trust emerged.

The four daughters started to participate in child-friendly activities at the centre and, for the first time in a week, the mother was able to get some proper rest. Smiles progressively reappeared on the family’s faces. But Adam, a young father still dressed in the oversized brown suit he was wearing the day he fled Libya, asked for additional counselling. He was relieved to see his family on the mend, but felt stressed about what would happen next. The counselling sessions took place while we walked around the site. They gave him back his hope.

Desire to help others

One morning, as Adam greeted me, he turned to me and said: “You know, although I am young, I am almost one of the oldest people here. Is there a way I can help the others?” My team jumped at the opportunity of involving him as a volunteer.

During the few days he remained on the site, Adam gave us amazing insight and support. He circulated crucial messages, strengthened the relationship between our team and the community, acted as a translator when needed, and even helped others to organise their luggage in the departure buses.

Families leave the camp every evening at approximately 6 p.m. They don’t know if they are on the bus until the roster of names are called. Despite the wait, Adam remained upbeat each day as families departed. “Tomorrow, God willing, my family and I will be in that bus,” he would say to me with a smile.

It happened soon after. I instantly recognised their luggage wrapped in orange plastic sheets near the bus. Adam and his family were finally moving on. I couldn’t believe it. He had been with us for almost two weeks, which here seemed like a life time.

‘Smiles of the children’

When all their bags were safely in the bus, I looked at Adam, his wife, mother-in-law and their beautiful daughters. I told them how happy I was that they finally were getting to leave, but realized instantly how sad I felt to see him go.

We remained silent for a few seconds then he smiled. “I already recruited a replacement for me,” he said, and we laughed. As Adam’s family departed, his youngest daughter smiled and waved goodbye.

“This is why we are here, what we are all about, the smiles of the children,” my colleague said as he placed a hand on my shoulder. It was the beginning of another day at the Egypt-Libya border caring for families and children in need.