Counselling service is a place of emotional refuge for refugees in Cork

Maeve Lee speaks with Toufik Messabih, founder of Lib Counselling, about their work in providing free counselling services to asylum seekers and refugees
Counselling service is a place of emotional refuge for refugees in Cork

Toufik Messabih, founder of Lib and participant on the SEI Ideas Academy 2020. © Patrick Bolger

“IT’S not just about this generation. Trauma is a bit like a hot potato. If it’s not dealt with, it’s passed on to the next generation.”

Those are the words of Toufik Messabih, founder of Lib Counselling, which provides free counselling in many languages to asylum seekers and refugees.

Toufik, a Carrigaline-based psychotherapist, set up Lib Multicultural Counselling and Support Programmes after meeting with an asylum seeker who was living in direct provision.

Lib currently supports children from as young as six years old to adults in their 70s.

Speaking to The Echo, Toufik shared his ambitions for Lib, which was aided by the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Ideas Academy.

In late 2019, Lib Counselling met with its first client and was officially established, offering free, culturally sensitive counselling to asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland.

In 2018, Toufik had met with a woman who was living in direct provision.

“I didn’t know much about direct provision then and that really opened my eyes to the need to provide support for people in direct provision,” Toufik said.

“That’s how it was set up, really, with the idea of supporting asylum seekers in direct provision and then, very quickly, the realisation came that support was needed also for refugees and then for children.”

When he began researching the topic, Toufik, who has been living in Cork for 20 years, said he was “very surprised” at the lack of free counselling services for asylum seekers and refugees.

“After my research, when I realised that there was nothing…that’s when the idea of creating a service was born.”

Toufik said that people come to Lib with varying backgrounds and traumatic experiences, including war, kidnapping, and torture.

“People come to Ireland to seek asylum or refuge and the reason they do that is they are trying to move away from a traumatic situation,” he said.

“It can be war, it can be tribal violence, it can be gender discrimination, it can be sexual discrimination, it can be poverty, it can be loads of different factors that are highly traumatic.”

By providing the counselling services as soon as possible, it can also bring “a sense of hope and resilience even further for the next generation”, Toufik said.

“Whatever is not addressed now will be dealt with later on by the children or the grandchildren. That’s what happens in loads of other countries.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Toufik and the team quickly adapted and began to offer email, video-chat, and phone-counselling sessions.

Noting the benefits of moving online for those without a means to travel, Toufik said that they saw a spike in interest during the second Covid-19 lockdown in Ireland, which, he believes, was more difficult for a lot of people.

“It can never replace the face-to-face, but, at the same time, it can be a great resource for when, for example, people cannot travel or have the means to pay for a bus,” he said of the new, online services.

“Really, the online has opened up possibilities, in terms of support and availability,” he added.

Upon completion of the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) Ideas Academy in 2020, Toufik was awarded €5,000 to further Lib’s mission and has since piloted an art-therapy programme for children living in direct provision in Cork, called the Roots Creative Expression for Connection programme.

Supported by Bank of America since 2018, SEI’s Ideas Academy is a three-month programme that provides participants with the support and direction that they need as they take the first steps from idea to action.

Toufik said the programme helped to kickstart things and that since January, Lib Counselling have delivered the Roots Creative Expression for Connection programme to a number of children aged between nine and 16, across direct-provision centres in Cork.

Starting with a team of just six or seven, since January 2021 19 adults and eight children have benefited from Lib’s one-to-one counselling in County Cork alone, with the team doubling in size since.

Those 27 individuals came to Ireland from 15 countries.

In looking to the future of Lib, Toufik said his hope is to make counselling available to all asylum seekers in Ireland.

“To have a service that is close enough to various centres, so that people can have access to supports, so that they don’t have to wait months or years before they can start addressing their challenges or their concerns or their worries,” Toufik said.

“The big thing is, it’s not just about this generation. Trauma is a bit like a hot potato. If it’s not dealt with, it’s passed on to the next generation.”

“I think, by providing counselling services and providing supports, we’re not just taking care of people right now, we’re anticipating and we’re creating some base and some foundation for the next generation,” he added.

Bank of America has supported Social Entrepreneurs Ireland since 2018 and has been the lead corporate sponsor of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland’s Ideas Academy since 2020.

Lib is endorsed by HSE and is actively working with Nasc, Tusla, and various supporting organisations and is supported by the Social Health Education Project.

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