It seems like on just about every public surface in Libya, there’s a freshly painted sign with either the new Libyan flag or the word “Freedom” proudly displayed. It’s a constant reminder as I’m traveling through the country that although the culture and institutions are very old, the climate is young and full of possibilities.
As we walk by newly named Martyr’s Square in downtown Tripoli, Abdulrahman, International Medical Corps’ Psychological First Aid (PFA) trainer, shows me photos on his phone of him celebrating with friends here after a recent soccer match. “Last year, no one was allowed in this square. Look how many people gathered,” he says.
With the first democratic elections in more than 40 years taking place this month, Libyans have fought hard to be able to take charge of their own freedom and futures. But the wounds of war – both physical and emotional – run deep with many local people I meet; they talk about how hard it was to fight in the conflict or see their loved ones risking their lives. Many recount losing family members or witnessing horrific events in their own hometowns. I find it hard to imagine war coming to my own neighborhood – how would I, let alone children who witness conflict, be able to return to normal, everyday life?
For a country with a weakened health infrastructure and a culture with stigma toward mental health needs, there are critical gaps in care in Libya. That means many people are suffering. Through support from GE, International Medical Corps has been working to train local health workers in PFA as well as gender-based violence awareness to increase the country’s capacity to manage war-related distress.
“There are still a lot of needs in our society regarding psychological first aid,” says Abdulrahman. “We are training people such as nurses, doctors, and humanitarian responders because they are the ones on the frontlines after any disaster.”
Designed to help people in a supportive and practical manner, the trainings are conducted throughout the country in areas where health needs are high, including the Western Mountains, Benghazi, Misurata and Sirte, all areas that saw extreme fighting.
“We always keep telling them in the training – they can provide PFA skills such as supportive listening in their homes, in the streets with friends, in their workplace, in clinics or hospitals. And also we’ve trained teachers who can provide psychosocial support in their schools,” explains Abdulrahman, who encourages using positive coping skills like listening to music, drawing or going out with friends. “At the follow-up trainings, we really see the difference between their way of dealing with patients before the training and after.”
At one session I attend at Ryayna Health Clinic in the Western Mountains, I see first-hand the impact that Abdulrahman has on the local community. He is able to impart his knowledge to roughly 15 nurses, exponentially increasing local capacity to support people experiencing distress in this remote area. What’s more, these nurses are trusted members of the local community who can help their neighbors in a culturally appropriate and comfortable environment.
“I really appreciate this work because we all have experienced something like this with our own families and our friends who have suffered during the conflict,” Abdulrahman says.
In addition to mental health and psychosocial support, International Medical Corps in Libya is also building the capacity of the rehabilitation sector and providing primary health care support, nursing support and prevention of and response to gender-based violence.