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Haidar Ibrahim, 26, receives basic physical therapy and counselling from JRS refugee peer counsellors. When asked what he misses most about his home in Blue Nile, he responded, "I miss my old bed. It had wheels so I could be pushed outside and watch my brothers and sisters play. Here, I am stuck in bed." (Angela Wells / Jesuit Refugee Service)

Maban, 19 October 2015 – When bombs fell on the homes of hundreds of thousands in Blue Nile, Sudan, people ran with just the clothes on their backs, leaving all other worldly possessions behind. For those with severe medical or psychological conditions, such an event proved doubly stressful. 

People with disabilities lost all their lifesaving medicine and equipment while those suffering from psychological problems were re-traumatised.

Haidar Ibrahim, 26, struggles with a spinal deformity and is bed ridden. When asked what he misses most about his home in Blue Nile, he responded, "I miss my old bed. It had wheels so I could be pushed outside and watch my brothers and sisters play. Here, I am stuck in bed."

Haidar receives basic physical therapy and counselling from JRS refugee peer counsellors. By training refugee community leaders to work as peer counsellors in Doro refugee camp in South Sudan, JRS is addressing the needs of those who have suffered the most from displacement.

"I need to be close to the people I serve first.  It's the first step before providing any assistance. Our service is not just about providing material goods, but about sharing and conversing with them. Only then they will feel peaceful and secure with us. I tell them, 'I'm here just to be with you'," said Ganun, a 30-year-old peer counsellor and refugee from Blue Nile, South Sudan. 

Caretakers. The psychosocial team consists of 12 peer counsellors who are trained to offer basic counselling and physical therapy to those with special needs, especially the elderly, widowed and disabled. 

Counsellors refer those with serious medical conditions to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other partners for more specialised care.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides amputees with prosthetics while Handicap International provides wheelchairs or other equipment. Save the Children offer counselling to minors and survivors of sexual- and gender- based violence.

This type of assistance not only helps the patients but also takes a significant burden off their loved ones who have taken on the responsibility to care for them.

"I worry about my father and mother. They can't go collect firewood, take care of my siblings or build the new house we need, because they are always caring for me," said Haidar.

Similarly, Apia, a 30-year-old single mother, has locked knees which make it impossible for her to walk more than a few minutes. Her parents carried her and her five children to safety in South Sudan from Blue Nile and continue to care for her family.

JRS peer counsellors try to alleviate some of these pressures by providing physical therapy, taking patients out for walks and providing counselling. Sometimes, though just visiting them regularly, being with them and listening to them proves to be the most valuable service. 

"Our psychosocial team embodies the JRS mission of accompaniment, of remaining close to those in need, even when we might not have an immediate solution for their problems," said Pau Vidal SJ, JRS Maban project director.

Cultural mediators. In addition to addressing current conditions, the team tries to use their cultural knowledge to prevent unsafe childbirths and subsequent disabilities of newborn babies, such as cerebral palsy, paralysis or paraplegia.

Refugee staff are most effective at promoting safer child births and better health care because they understand how to speak to their community while remaining sensitive to cultural values, 

JRS peer counsellors also reach out to widows, who live on the margins and struggle to survive after their husband's deaths.

"Before we reached out to some widows had isolated themselves. They considered themselves to be unwanted. We told them, 'you don't need to be alone. You must sit close with others and share together.' They soon started to take our advice and they are beginning to build a community amongst themselves," said Lydia, 27, JRS refugee peer counsellor.

In addition to isolation, widows in the refugee camp also lack support they need to survive and raise their children. They often sell their food rations in order to buy other basic needs, leaving them without enough food at the end of the month. Rarely are they able to give their children the books and uniforms they need to attend school. JRS tries to subsidise some of their costs to help them live a more dignified life.

From the heart. While walking around the camp the peer counsellors constantly greet community members, who respect them for caring for those most in need of extra support.

"I started this from my heart. Someday I want to be an expert on working with disabled people, with those left out of society. They must be supported. When I'm working with them my heart beats so fast. I really care about them and want them to be treated equally. I pray and ask God every day for Him to help me help them," said Ganun. 

"My skills will allow me to keep helping my community long after JRS leaves, either in the camp or back home. Now I have a chance to build my expertise and change the lives of others," said Lydia.

Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer