Refugees of Congolese War Navigate Life After Trauma

May 30, 2017

Esther Faida, 28, speaks five languages and worked as a seamstress in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She hopes to complete an MBA in Springfield, Missouri one day.
Credit KSMU

In the crowded lobby of Life 360 Church in Springfield, Esther Faida, a 28-year-old Congolese refugee, is keeping an eye on her young daughter.

Esther’s journey to the Ozarks started in a war zone. 

A former seamstress, she lived and worked in the capital city of South Kivu, where the conflict between ethnic and rebel groups has forced entire communities from their homes.

Esther, her husband and two small children had been living in war zone since 1998. Bloodshed, fear and instability became routine.

“Many things happen like they soldiers, some people can wear the solider uniform and come and attack you in the house,” Faida said.

According to the Reuters news agency, the Second Congo War is the deadliest war since World War II.

Many refugees who have escaped war have battle scars themselves—emotional and mental trauma from all they have experienced.  Esther’s husband, Claude, told us the harrowing story of how their family escaped to the forest, only to return to their home to find all of the men in their neighborhood killed.

Esther, however, doesn’t want to say a word about it. Right now, ignoring it is her way of trying to cope with the trauma.

“Yeah too many people (were killed), I don’t want to talk about because I remember. I can remember them and feel bad yeah. I’m trying to forget but it’s not easy,” Faida said.

She says many of the refugees here in Springfield have also seen violence they can never forget, but that it’s not common among refugees to seek mental health services for trauma. 

She was unfamiliar with the condition known in Western medicine as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Dr. Margret Buckner is an anthropology professor at Missouri State University. She volunteered with the Peace Corps in eastern Central African Republic in the early ‘80s.

She says avoiding talking about trauma shouldn’t necessarily be chalked up to culture—it’s a normal human response, she says.

“If you see someone in your family being shot in front of you or you see your mother being raped in front of you, is that really something that you want to talk about and share with strangers, no matter what culture you belong to?” Buckner said.

Buckner cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach to treating mental health.

“I would assume refugees in camps don’t go around sharing horrendous stories that happened to each other. We may think that our medical customs of treating trauma as a mental illness is valid cross culturally, but that’s what I would ask questions about,” Buckner said.

Refugees qualify for Medicaid health care coverage. And in Missouri, that does cover therapy and counseling for psychological trauma from war.

If refugees do decide to seek help, there are some services that will make communicating easier.

Peggy Gray is an Interpreter Coordinator at Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

“We use generally a laptop or an iPad, but the program that we use is called Stratus, ODI. ODI is on demand interpreter, and we actually have 26, I think it is video languages, but they do over 200 audio languages as well, and that’s so that we can make sure our coworkers and our patients are cared for and can participate in their care,” Gray said.

After dialing, a small video showed up in the corner of the screen so the patients can be seen. Gray emphasized that video is the primary choice since nonverbal communication is just as important as verbal communication. Gray explained that nodding could mean different things in different cultures.

“So a video interpreter is trained to judge that of when it’s understanding and when it’s ‘I’m listening, but I’m not understanding,’” Gray said.

Back at the church, Esther Faida says she’ll try to heal her trauma in another way:  through her church, her newfound friends and her goals of earning a Master’s degree so she can open up her own business here one day.

Editor's note:  the KSMU series "Resettling" is a team reporting project produced by the students in Missouri State University's International Reporting class, taught by KSMU Contributor and MSU Journalist-in-Residence Jennifer Moore.