Refugee Mothers Find Strength in Each Other

In Ethiopia, Action Against Hunger offers holistic support to women who have fled conflict and violence

“My name is...” One after another, mothers say their names. Sitting in a circle, they make sure no one feels excluded. Babies sit on their mothers’ laps, eating from packets of Plumpy’Nut, a therapeutic food used to treat malnutrition. Older children surround them, playing with toys.

“How is it going with your child lately?” begins Nyaluak, the psychosocial assistant. Slowly they open up to each other, and women share their experiences. Some speak loudly, others just listen. In a refugee camp, there is a lot to say.

Refugees in Nguenyyiel, a camp in eastern Ethiopia, have experienced unimaginable traumas. Some women fled while pregnant or just after giving birth. Others have witnessed or experienced violence and sexual assault. Many have lost loved ones and were forced to leave their homes with nothing but what they could carry. 

“They have lived the worst possible nightmares,” says Geta, head of the camp’s mental health and care program.

Since conflict began in South Sudan more than five years ago, refugees — most of whom are women and children — have sought safety in neighboring Ethiopia. 86,000 now reside in Nguenyyiel, located in the border region of Gambella. The area hosts more than 405,000 refugees, a population equal to the number of Ethiopians living in the region.

Nuyakeen, 33, at an Action Against Hunger nutrition center with two of her children.

Photo: Lea Vollet
for Action Against Hunger,
Ethiopia

With all that these women have lived through, mental health care is hugely important as they try to rebuild their lives; it’s also vital to their physical health and nutrition. A mother in psychological distress can feel anxiety or insecurity, and may lose her appetite or a desire to feed herself. Sometimes, she finds herself unable to take care of her family. Many feel they cannot share what they have been through and suffer in silence; rape and sexual violence remain extremely taboo subjects.

To respond to these needs, Action Against Hunger organizes support groups for pregnant and nursing mothers in the refugee camp. Within the safety of the discussion group circle, women begin to unload their burdens as they speak of things that are not usually talked about: their workloads, experiences, or what they left behind in South Sudan. 

“They are refugees: they had to leave their country, their home, some of their relatives were killed,” says Geta. “Many of them do not know what happened to other members of their family, do not know if their husband is alive or dead. Here is a safe and friendly place. They meet other mothers here. They can talk and share their ideas with our team.”

During group sessions, Action Against Hunger staff educate women about child care and give advice on breastfeeding, hygiene, nutrition, and health. In addition, mothers participate in baby bath and massage workshops and stress management sessions.

Mothers gather for a discussion group session.

Photo: Lea Vollet
for Action Against Hunger,
Ethiopia

The support groups also offer a chance for Action Against Hunger staff to better understand the cultures of the communities we serve as well as their traditional child care practices.

“We ask them questions about their traditions and work from what they tell us,” says Geta. “We do not apply a top-down approach at all. The women have a lot of knowledge about what is good for children based on cultural habits. But some traditional practices are detrimental to children’s health.”

Mothers like Wossane, 30, have learned a lot from attending meetings regularly. Now, when her children are ill, she takes them to the health center instead of a traditional healer.

There are 228 support groups for mothers in Nguenyyiel, and nearly 2,500 pregnant and breastfeeding women participate in the program. Our mental health and care practices teams have also created five baby spaces in the camps, designed for children under two years old and their mothers – comforting places where mothers and children can play and strengthen their bonds. The spaces are staffed by psychosocial workers, a psychologist, and other refugees, who work as assistants.

“Being refugees, and having been through the terrible experiences of war, it is difficult for mothers to find time to bond with their babies,” says Geta. “During the day, they have to fetch water, food, firewood or medical assistance. We call these places the ‘special baby spaces’ because mothers can spend time and play with their children here.”

Inside a baby-friendly space, a refugee mother and child play together.

Photo: Lea Vollet
for Action Against Hunger,
Ethiopia

Action Against Hunger is the world’s hunger specialist and leader in a global movement that aims to end life-threatening hunger for good within our lifetimes. For 40 years, the humanitarian and development organization has been on the front lines, treating and preventing hunger across nearly 50 countries. It served more than 21 million people in 2018 alone.