Community Centers Provide Help that heals

Written by and Photo by Charlotte Brudenell, ACT-Caritas Field Communicator

Dereig camp, South Darfur, Sudan, --On the outskirts of the town of Nyala, Dereig camp is a temporary home for more than 20,000 people who have been displaced by the ongoing violence in Darfur. They have been attacked, have lost family members and had their homes destroyed.

However, a community center inside the camp is enabling people to help each other to overcome their traumatic experiences.

Amina and her extended family came to Dereig camp in 2004, after their village was attacked. Recounting how she came to be here, Amina looks down, and with a key, softly marks her pain into the table in front of her.

A mother of four, Amina works as a volunteer at the camp's community centre. As she talks about the center, she raises her eyes and looks straight in front of her, focused and determined.

"People are suffering. The whole community is suffering; we are all internally displaced," she says. "In spite of this suffering, I feel the need to give my time and any kind of service that will offer some help to the community."

Every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Amina is at the community center. She is responsible for opening the center, tidying up, arranging the equipment, registering participants, and supervising the activities.

The community center offers a whole range of activities: making grass mats, sewing, making tablecloths, and making pasta. The men are involved in the heavier work - building beds, for example. These livelihood activities allow people to earn money to buy essential items themselves.

But it's the company that really counts.

"The most positive thing about the center is that it brings people together. People can talk to each other and forget their suffering and the difficulties they have gone through. Some have been attacked; some have seen their villages burned and lost loved ones," Amina says.

"For a person that has been suffering, talking is a kind of healing. It's a kind of group counseling. People say what they have in their heart, what has injured them, and overcome it," she explains.

The positive energy is palpable. From each room, a hum of gentle chatter radiates out through the open doors as women's fingers expertly weave palm tree leaves into mats, guide material under the needle of a sewing machine, or turn dough into strings of pasta. Everyone is smiling.

Elizabeth Cornelio, or "Mama Eliza," as everyone calls her, runs the center. She has been trained in trauma counseling by the ACT-Caritas Darfur Emergency Response Operation.

To encourage people to come to the center, Elizabeth makes personal visits around the camp.

"I go to where the people are staying; I sit with them and speak with them. If I find a woman alone, lying down, crying, I tell her not to stay alone. When you are alone, it is very difficult. You just remember what has happened," she says.

The centers help survivors to talk about their trauma in order to overcome their pain.

"If someone has something in their heart that they want to say, but is afraid to say it in front of everyone, they may come for individual counseling. Some will cry. It is important to let them cry; crying is healing, and after they have cried, many laugh. Others do not cry. They say there is nothing and that everything has gone," says Elizabeth.

But it isn't enough to just talk, she says. "You have to give people something to do, so that through the activity they can forget what happened, says Elizabeth. This is why the activities at the community center are so important.

The center also offers training in recognizing and dealing with trauma. "Most of the women have trauma, and yet they do not know how to recognize it in others or even in their children," Elizabeth says. With this training, people learn how to help each other.

Elizabeth herself fled the war in southern Sudan. What motivates her to help others? "I thank God, I've made something good not for me, but to God because all people are created by God."

The community center in Dereig camp was set up one year ago by Sudanaid, a local partner of the ACT-Caritas projects in Darfur. It has been so popular that a second hut has been built to accommodate everyone.

Action by Churches Together International (ACT) and Caritas Internationalis (CI) are working together in a joint response to the Darfur crisis.

ACT International is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.  UCC Wider Church Ministries is a founding member of ACT International. 

Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organizations present in 200 countries and territories.

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Ms. Phyllis Y. Richards
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