Mental health support for refugees in Zimbabwe

22 Aug 2023

Tongogara Refugee Camp (TRC) is a remote place in the south-east of Zimbabwe where over 15,000 people live; mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Burundi and Rwanda. While in their country of origin, most of the refugees experienced traumatic events including war, rape, torture and physical injuries, among other traumatic events that caused them to flee.

For some people, the camp is the only home they have known for nearly 20 years. As a result, they have become long-stayers, without access to jobs and other income generating activities to rebuild their lives. This community has an increasing risk of distress, a feeling of hopelessness and anxiety.

Having faced stressful events in their home countries, they are also at risk of developing mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. MSF conducted an assessment of Tongogara Refugee Camp which revealed that, despite the availability of basic services in the camp, mental health support remains a priority.

MSF runs a mental health program at Tongogara Refugee Camp, which seeks to strengthen refugees’ resilience and coping mechanisms with the provision of psychological first aid, the formation of support groups, and the use of psychosocial support activities including sewing clubs and sports games.

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MSF has built a centre for psychosocial wellbeing, named Baobab House by the community, for the tree’s resilience in harsh weather conditions. Refugees from the camp painted the mural of the centre, telling a story of what the centre means to them. The centre provides psychosocial support and is a conducive platform for recreational activities with shared ownership by the community.  

The burden of unaddressed grief, loss, trauma and depression was visible whilst talking with most of the refugees during an anthropological assessment. The refugees overwhelmingly reported experiencing uncertainty and lack of control over their current life and future. The passivity of life in refugee camps aggravated feelings of meaninglessness and powerlessness.

Janet Mukurumbira
Mental health activity manager at Tongogara Refugee Camp

The project uses community engagement as a key strategy to involve community leaders, young people and community team members from all age groups. As community champions, supporting the health promotion they encouraged community buy-in and awareness of the services offered at the centre. Through this approach, community members are supported to rebuild their social networks and support structures and find some relief from their trauma, stress and depression. 

Elina is an MSF volunteer and community supporter who has been living in the camp since she was six years old, when her family fled Rwanda. When she attended school in a nearby community, she faced discrimination. She grew up with unresolved anger and bitterness, but she says she has started to heal from this. She now works alongside the health promoter on this project to provide mental health support to other refugees. 

"Before MSF came into this camp, I was always full of stress and anger. There was no place to go and release your mind and express your feelings. With the role I was given as a community supporter, I can now interact with others in the community and coming to the Baobab House has helped me on how to address my anger issues through speaking with the MSF psychologist," she said. 

The community of refugees painted a mural on the Baobab House Wellness Centre wall. © MSF/Dorothy Meki

The community of refugees painted a mural on the Baobab House Wellness Centre wall. © MSF/Dorothy Meki

Andrea (23), a refugee who fled the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) together with his family, recounted the torture and physical pain they suffered in his home country. He described how being at the Baobab House gives him a sense of belonging, calms him down and helps him to express himself. Andrea likes participating in music and now teaches others how to play guitar and piano.

"Baobab House is my safe haven. The activities here are mind soothing. I used to feel so lonely and anxious, but music has helped me to express and find myself. I got healed of depression and stress," says Andrea, with his left foot on a bass drum pedal. 

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Conflict and unrest in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa region, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea have displaced large numbers of people who have moved to Tongogara Refugee Camp. Under Zimbabwean law, refugees are obliged to stay in the camp and are not permitted to work outside its boundaries.  

Please note the last name of some sources in this article have been omitted in order to protect the identity of our patients.