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Table of Contents
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 172-175

From a Refugee Camp in Ethiopia as a Social Worker to Working with Refugees as an Expert Psychotherapist in Ethiopia: A Story of a South Sudanese Canadian Immigrant

Center for Victims of Trauma (CVT) Field Office, Ethiopia

Date of Submission17-Jul-2020
Date of Decision28-Jul-2020
Date of Acceptance04-Aug-2020
Date of Web Publication30-Nov-2020

Correspondence Address:
Nhial Korow Wicleek
Master of Counselling Psychology, BSc Psychology, Gambella Refugee Camp
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/INTV.INTV_20_20

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The author is an expert psychotherapist narrating how he became a refugee in his own country of origin after long years of persecution from an Arab-dominated regime. As the war broke out, the author, a young person at the time, was forced out of the country and sought refuge in Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia along with his parents. As a result of this displacement, the author then settled in a number of refugee camps in Ethiopia. During this time, he volunteered as a community worker and his interest in psychology was sparked. Upon arrival in Canada, the author began to pursue his studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and a Master of Counselling Psychology. In 2019, he then was certified as a Canadian Certified Counsellor. While in the process, the author worked for the Catholic School District Board at an Intercultural Wellness Programme as a Family Liaison Support Worker.

Keywords: expert psychotherapist, family liaison psychology, intercultural, refugee, social worker, wellness

How to cite this article:
Wicleek NK. From a Refugee Camp in Ethiopia as a Social Worker to Working with Refugees as an Expert Psychotherapist in Ethiopia: A Story of a South Sudanese Canadian Immigrant. Intervention 2020;18:172-5

How to cite this URL:
Wicleek NK. From a Refugee Camp in Ethiopia as a Social Worker to Working with Refugees as an Expert Psychotherapist in Ethiopia: A Story of a South Sudanese Canadian Immigrant. Intervention [serial online] 2020 [cited 2023 Jun 3];18:172-5. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org//text.asp?2020/18/2/172/301834

  Introduction Top

Gambella has a population of 307,096 people who are predominantly Ethiopian by nationality and more than 400,000 refugees living in five refugee camps. This includes Kules I and II, Jewi, Nguenyiel, Pugnido and Dima Camp. Before the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991, Gambella used to be a small town surrounded by two large refugee camps (Itang and Pugnido). Itang refugee camp was situated to the west and Pugnido to the southeast. Both had a total population of one million people. Itang was the largest refugee camps which hosted almost half a million by then.

  Being a Refugee Top

Born in 1980 into a family of David Korow Wicleek and Sarah Thalow Tuong, I was brought up attending to our livestock (cattle, goats and sheep) in a village with my parents before the destruction of our livelihood. My father, David Korow Wicleek, took up arms as a veteran fighter fighting to liberate the South Sudanese from the oppressive Arab regime. As a result of the war, the majority of South Sudanese fled the country to seek refuge elsewhere. My parents fled to Ethiopia in 1985, where I began to live a refugee life. Before we arrived at Itang refugee camp, we had gone through a lot of villages escaping for our dear life as attacks were sporadically increasing. I had witnessed villages being burned, people dying of gun wounds and properties destroyed. Life was meaningless and was surrounded by absurdities and uncertainties. Imagine kids living without families, missing family members or orphaned completely because they were separated by war. It was very disheartening indeed, but I was lucky to have fled with my parents. I had lived in Itang, and the surrounding areas of Tharpam, currently known as Madhureng, and Pulkota, a cattle camp two hours away. We had some of our cattle being attended to by one of my uncles in Pulkota; the rest were stolen during the war. In 1991, after the downfall of the Derg Regime, my parents and I fled back to South Sudan but had returned due to the ongoing insurgency between the opposition forces and the Sudan Armed Forces involved in committing atrocities against South Sudanese people at the time. In 1992, refugees were relocated from Itang Refugee Camp to Dima Refugee Camp due to insecurity posed by the host community in Itang. The process took some months until it was completed. We were taken to Dima and lived there for several years. Again, due to the circumstances, my parents decided to go back to South Sudan. My mother left in 1994; my father and two of my siblings subsequently followed in 1996, leaving me under the care of a relative at age 14 because they did not want to interrupt my schooling. This was because a year before my father and my siblings left, I was granted a high school scholarship by United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Development and Inter Church Aid Commission, (DICAC), to study along with 300 South Sudanese students at a local boarding school. It was a great opportunity that influenced my parents’ decision not to pull me out of the school.

  Challenges and Opportunities Top

Being a refugee is one of the greatest challenges a person could live; however, it also was full of unforeseeable opportunities. To begin with, I remember going to school by foot, barely clothed and with an empty stomach occasionally because there was not enough to go around. During the first few years, we began by sitting under trees as our classrooms, until Save the Children constructed a school building for us. Life was full of stressors (lack of security for refugees, restriction in movement, diseases, social and emotional stress, just to name a few). However, on the other hand, the educational opportunity provided to refugee kids was a benefit. Children would go to school starting from kindergarten through to high school. As one of the beneficiaries, I had the chance of studying both Thoknaath and English at the same time from 1st Grade to 12th grade. I did my 1st grade to 3rd grade in Itang and in Dima. After our relocation from Itang, I was enrolled in my 3rd grade and studied until 8th grade. High school and junior high were separated, with junior high in the camp and high school in Mizan Teferri, Ethiopia. Now, in 1995, I became one of the few South Sudanese children granted a scholarship to further my high school studies in Mizan High School. I did my grade 9th and 10th grades in this school from 1995 to 1997. After the closure of this boarding school, we were taken to Pugnido and continued our schooling there until I graduated with a high school diploma in 2000. After a couple of months, I was able to gain employment as a social worker working with unaccompanied minors and separated children, both of whom were disadvantaged in nature. Life was very hard for them. However, under the Save the Children Sweden programme, they were provided with shelter and non-food items such as clothes, blankets and cooking utensils. Although this kind of support was not enough, it helped reduce the gap at least a little bit. The children could see that the community cared for them, even though their parents were not present at the time.

In 2001, after three and half years my resettlement process with the Canadian government was completed and I was granted a rare opportunity to emigrate to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee, although this meant leaving my family behind. The resettlement process, most of the time, was very tedious and cumbersome. It was a process that could take a long and unpredictable amount of time. The long wait could also turn into a denial of one’s immigration status, often without explanation, and this would become a painful memory. I therefore felt extremely lucky that my process was successful. However, even with this chance, it was not smooth sailing. After my arrival in Canada, I began to go to school and worked as well to support myself. It was a very hard life, but manageable in a sense because I put all my energy and focused all my attention to ensuring that I thrived, strived and shone to the next level.

  Working with Refugee/Immigrant Families in Canada as a Family Liaison Support Worker Top

Even before getting an official job offer as an Intercultural Wellness Programme worker, I had the opportunity of working with various immigrants and refugee communities starting from the time I landed in Canada on May 3, 2001. My experience as a social worker in Pugnido refugee camp had provided a wealth of experience that helped me become an interpreter in Canada. My other portfolio while with Save Children Sweden at the time was working as a Youth Coordinator, facilitating youth activities and psychosocial programmes. This experience helped me become a youth coordinator in Canada, both in the community and for various agencies that wanted an experienced person to help them in their work with refugee and immigrant youth. The majority of all the jobs I did were volunteer jobs to either connect me with potential employers or to gain cultural understanding about Canada. I also picked up janitorial jobs, warehouse jobs and cleaning jobs to ensure I survived and continued to pursue my dream goal of becoming a psychologist. I made a great effort and had the opportunity of becoming independent after one year of government assistance.

On April 6, 2011, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology, the Catholic School District Board, Intercultural Wellness Programme offered me the position of Family Liaison Support Worker. This meant providing one-on-one counselling and some group counselling to immigrant children who were presenting with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychosis, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), learning disabilities or challenges with social and cultural adjustment. In this role, with my educational and experiential background, I felt that the position was a right fit and gave me an opportunity to grow personally as well as professionally.

I held this position for seven years and nine months before I officially requested a leave of absence for a year to reunite with my parents in Gambella, Ethiopia in January 2019. On the job, I was lucky to work under a clinical team leader who had been very supportive throughout all my years of counselling service. My client population was from a very diverse background. I worked with South Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Congolese, Burundians, Spanish, South Africans, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Filipinos and Columbians. Although certainly challenging, it has always been a positive experience to me and very self-enriching professionally. It kept me engaged in clinical tasks and on track to fulfilling my dream goal. Growth is about personal development in things that matter most regarding how one perceives the future. I am very much determined and shall persevere to ensure I meet my intended objective.

Supporting fellow refugees to help heal their wounds is my clinical calling. Coming from a war-torn country has made me do the job I do because I wanted to help my people come out of their traumatic experiences after long years of torture and oppression by both the Khartoum regime and the current government in Juba. Torture survivors have lost everything including trust in their own communities. If they could rebuild trust within themselves, their friends, their community and could make sense of themselves once again, this would help them to be able to support their families and themselves, which is what matters most. If I could do this in Canada, I am more than willing to serve in a refugee camp like I did in the past when I was still a refugee. I was a refugee once, a Canadian citizen now by naturalisation and an expert psychotherapist by training. I strive to live my clients’ experience, share their pain with them and support them to heal from all the wounds inflicted upon them by the victimisers.

  Returning to Work with Refugees as an Expert Psychotherapist in Gambella, Ethiopia Top

I have always been thinking about working in a refugee camp once again like I was when I still was a refugee years back. I am indebted to such kinds of service, and the opportunity to return was significant to me for many reasons. Firstly, putting to work my practical and acquired skills is something I have been intending to do. This is because I am passionate to serve the needy and to ensure that the gap in this kind of service is closed. Secondly, much has been invested in me by so many individual members of all walks of life; therefore, giving back to the community I once came from is enormously profound.

I initially came back to Africa for the purpose of visiting my family. When the opportunity to take a position as an Expert Psychotherapist with the Center for Victims of Torture opened, I had to take it because it fulfils my dream goal. I am currently working in Nguenyiel, one of the largest camps in Gambella Regional State. I love working with refugees. I have graduated 54 clients and trained 78 people on topics such as understanding the impact of trauma, the CVT model of care, principles of suicide response and prevention, stress management, improving workplace ethics and the list goes on. The outcomes realised by our clients include recovering from their life challenges, reconnecting with families, friends and the community, realising their potential and beginning to regain a positive sense of self, dressing neatly, eating well and doing their daily chores in their homes. Clinically, I am tasked to supervise 23 staff, both Ethiopian citizens and South Sudanese refugees. Although supervising staff in this kind of setting requires a lot of focus and activeness, it is indeed useful for staff development and their growth as professionals in the field, which is fulfilling for me.

The client population I have treated has presented with symptoms ranging from suicidal ideation, insomnia, loss of appetite, chronic stress, disturbing thoughts, flashbacks, lack of trust, social isolation, hopelessness, helplessness and so on. Some of the clients who came to us have attempted to take their own life but have failed in their plan. However, once they come to seek the services which we offer, we work hard to help them learn to develop coping mechanisms in order to manage the problems facing them.

  Challenges of Working as an Expert Psychotherapist Top

I haven’t worked in a low resource setting since I emigrated to Canada. I last had this experience not only as a psychosocial worker, but also as an individual South Sudanese refugee with no experience about the usefulness of various resources in this kind of work. It is quite an experience to go back to working in a restricted environment and a very challenging one. I have also encountered an unstable and deteriorating security situation, which disrupts services frequently. This puts both clients and staff in a vulnerable position and has a negative impact on them because it makes the staff and clients feel anxious. My worries in this regard are the periodic gap in service delivery, lack of ability to attend to clients and unpredictability of the situation occasionally. We begin our day each morning by checking the security situation in town, on the road, and in the camps before we can head out to the camp. Nguenyiel is 45 minutes away from the main Regional State Capital, Gambella. Communication challenges and the lack of smooth coordination of activities between the state authority and all the INGOs in times of heightened security risk is a challenge. Although a number of security measures keep being put in place by the national and regional governments and UNHCR, the situation continues to impact the effective delivery of services to refugees in respective camps. My hope is that the coordination system will improve, and services can be delivered reliably to those in need.


Thanks to Liyam Eloul and Maki Katoh for giving me the opportunity of working for CVT and to Dr. Pieter Ventevogel for playing a great role in urging me to write this personal reflection. Thanks too to my wife, Nyaman Puok Luke, aka Joyce Wicleek, for her unwavering support and to my children, Sebit, Tasloach, Mat, Nyadin and Mut, for the joy you have brought into my life. I am indebted to give thanks to the South Sudanese refugees in Nguenyiel Camp, with whom my clinical knowledge and expertise find value. It has been my sincere wish and aspiration to give back to the community, as it has been a long-held dream for what the community has done for me which could not be repaid. I am always touched by the stories of your suffering and hard-earned struggle after the government displacement in your own country of origin (South Sudan), which led to this suffering you all are experiencing. You have all along endured it and such pain will one day turn into tears of joy. Be yourself, be strong and work for the betterment of yourself, your family and community.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts on interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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Being a Refugee
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