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Paul Orieny, PhD, LMFT, international services clinical advisor, recently returned from northern Ethiopia. Last February, CVT Ethiopia began group counseling in Mai Ani and Adi Harush refugee camps. Below are Paul’s observations.

Paul Orieny

Paul Orieny

Before I describe our work with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, it’s important to understand the context. There is a strong sense of mistrust among refugees in Mai Ani and Adi Harush. I think it stems from the oppression Eritreans experienced in their home country.

I heard similar stories of distrust from Eritrean and Togolese torture survivors that I counseled at CVT’s St. Paul clinic. Both countries are small and citizens feel the government is always looking over their shoulders. Even after they were resettled in Minnesota, Eritrean and Togolese survivors had a difficult time trusting in others. 

Most of the refugees in these two camps are men, about 70 percent, and most are there alone. They see the camps as a temporary stop before leaving for something better in Europe or Israel. They want to leave the camps to find work so they can send some money home to support their families.

The other distressing situation is the severe lack of basic services. Thousands of Eritrean refugees flee every month, so there are tremendous needs, but international resources and attention are just not focused on this small nation.

During my time in the camps, I heard many difficult stories. Some survivors experienced terrible torture at the hands of the Eritrean government. Others were exploited and abused by smugglers, who prey on refugees.

One man told of connecting with Bedouin smugglers who imprisoned him, tortured him and exploited his relatives for money. The smugglers burned his feet. He was only released when his open sores smelled so bad that the smugglers didn’t want to keep him. They abandoned him in the desert, pointing him in the direction of Israel.

Another man told of his detention over five years by the Eritrean military who claimed he was a traitor for not responding well in a skirmish with the Ethiopia military. He was tortured and kept in an underground cell, not seeing the sun for years. He became sick until a doctor prescribed sunlight. After five years he was returned to his unit. He was stationed near the Eritrean-Ethiopian border and was able to flee on foot.

The situation for women is distressing. Many women leave Eritrea after their husbands flee the forced military conscription. When a man leaves, the government will harass the family, so more and more women are arriving in Ethiopia with their children. Because they are often alone, the women are extremely vulnerable to harassment and worse.

There is clearly a need for the kind of emergency mental health services we provide. For the counselors, it can be difficult to determine whether they are providing care for torture and human rights atrocities experienced in Eritrea, for violence suffered on the journey to the camps, or if they have been exploited in the camps. Regardless, there is an overwhelming need for services to help them process truly traumatic, difficult experiences.