Emotional wellness sessions for refugee children in Uganda


Twenty-five refugee children aged 10–16 were identified by RAC Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda, for a mental wellness programme hosted by Rotary E-Club of Empowering Youth, RID 3132, under its Project Mindstrong. The 90-minute interactive session was anchored by host club member Sangeeta Chandran on Google Meet. She engaged the children with story-telling and drawing sessions. “Being in a refugee camp can be stifling. But the sessions gave the children moments of joy. They were all warm, curious and zealous,” says Sangeeta.

Ugandan children display their artwork following a drawing session conducted on Google Meet by Rotary E-Club of Empowering Youth.
Ugandan children display their artwork following a drawing session conducted on Google Meet by Rotary E-Club of Empowering Youth.

The project was initiated by the E-club member Bindu Shirsath following a conversation with Rtr Eric Mupika, a past president of the Rotaract club which, he says, “is probably the world’s first Rotary entity in a refugee camp. Our club is made up of young refugees who want to make our settlement better and comfortable for all.” Mupika is a refugee from Congo and a charter member of the club. He teaches yoga for children and adults, and is a retailer of cooking oil and handicrafts.

“Our focus is predominantly on mental health initiatives. So, when Eric discussed spreading joy and positivity among the refugee children, we designed Project Mindstrong,” says Bindu and recalls a session where the children had to express their feelings through emojis. “Although most of them showed ‘happy’ emojis, it tugged our heart to find some who put up ‘angry’ and ‘sad’ emojis… and there was one young boy who put up a placard saying ‘I want peace’.”

Referring to a session on anger management titled ‘What to do when I flip my lid?’, Sangeeta says that it is extremely important to address anger issues especially in teenagers. “These children are living in a world where they see lot of injustice and the inability to address such issues may induce violent behaviour in their later life.” Mupika agrees that it was “a significant and a valuable topic. It gave them an insight into how to recognise the triggers and place yourself in the other person’s shoes. The session ideally suited the teenage group, as most of these youngsters are traumatised.”

Sangeeta is an integrated therapy counsellor and heads the Wellness department at TCS. “Mental health is a huge challenge, especially for youngsters. We regularly conduct emotional wellness programmes to help them understand and overcome anxiety, depression and anger, and cultivate a positive mind.” Bindu adds, “We also train MSW students and health workers to volunteer as emotional help assistants. They visit schools, colleges and PHCs to identify people with mental disturbances and provide emotional support.”

The E-club, chartered last year, has 12 members including two in Canada and the US. “As our club’s name suggests, we work only to empower the youth,” she adds. The club transferred funds to the Ugandan Rotaract club to provide books, notebooks, stationery items, art material and refreshments to the refugee children during the programme. This year the Rotarians plan to buy tailoring machines for the women at the settlement. But, “transferring money to the African country is not so easy and the transfer charges are exorbitant. It takes about 10 days for the money to reach the Rotaractors,” says Bindu.

The Nakivale Rotaract Club

The Nakivale refugee settlement is located in the Isingiro district bordering Tanzania in Southwest Uganda. The late RIPN Sam Owori was instrumental in the formation of RAC Nakivale Refugee Settlement, says Mupika. Owori had attended an event where 13 young refugees from the settlement were honoured by the American Refugee Committee (ARC) for their project ideas to help the community. Impressed by their enthusiasm and determination, he suggested the organisation of a Rotaract club. Thus the club was born in 2017 with the support of RCs Kitwatule and Mbarara, Uganda, and Roseville, USA, and the ARC.

Rtr Eric Mupika entertaining the children at the refugee settlement.
Rtr Eric Mupika entertaining the children at the refugee settlement.

“When refugees leave their home country, they often abandon their belongings and arrive at a camp with nothing except the clothes they are wearing. The first point of entry at the Nakivale settlement is the reception centre where they normally stay for weeks. The initial days are traumatic as they cannot have access to any services here. So we make them feel comfortable by giving them extra clothes and other essentials, with support from the ARC,” explains Mupika.

The Ugandan Rotaract club has 22 members and is presently working on building public toilets and procuring sewing machines for its vocational training centre. “We want to train women in tailoring to augment their income; they can even use the sewing machines at our centre to stitch clothes for their clientele,” says Mupika.

The Project Mindstrong helped children become emotionally mature and “I could see how happy they all were to interact with the Rotarians from the host club. Later, many of them came to me with a lot of questions on how to conduct themselves and not lose their cool in trying situations. Their parents thanked me for that wonderful programme,” he adds.

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