English for Adults (EFA): A New Psychosocial Therapy for Forced Migrants

As the world continues to suffer diverse conflicts and disasters, forced migration is increasing. Today there are over 70.8 million forced migrants, the highest number ever recorded. Of these, 29.4 million are refugees and asylum seeker who have fled their home countries due to conflicts, war and discrimination (UNHCR (2020)). Africa alone toils with more than 6.8 million. Even as it grapples with the legacies of numerous internal conflicts which have left millions of people displaced, disempowered and destabilized, Uganda now also hosts over 1.4 million refugees, the third largest refugee population in the world, and the largest on the continent.

Coming from South Sudan, Sudan, DRC Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, te majority of forced migrants in Uganda have sustained mental and psychological wounds before, during and after flight. Although not as visible as physical injuries, symptoms may include stress, depression, drug or substance addiction, anxiety, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among others. On the psychosocial side, they continue to struggle with issues such as discrimination, lack of social belonging, isolation and loneliness, low self-esteem, and loss of hope and trust in others. In addition to the above, their livelihoods are undermined by challenges that include poverty, joblessness, physical ill-health, interrupted studies, language barriers and illiteracy. Sustaining and struggling with the above can make forced migrants become more physically and psychologically impaired, deprived and disempowered, and, furthermore, can intensify the pain from the visible physical wounds.

Many institutions and individuals, including implementing and operating partners of UNHCR such as Refugee Law Project (RLP), have played an important role in promoting better and more dignified lives for forced migrants. Over the three years I have worked with RLP as an English for Adults (EFA) Facilitator, I have interfaced with thousands of forced migrants both rural and urban and also learnt some best practices which I seek to share in this submission.

The English For Adults Unit (EFA) under the Access to Justice Programme at Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University, was put in place as a tailor-made training course to empower forced migrants with English language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing as well as numeracy) so as to be able to demand and defend their rights. It is a response to the fact that majority of the refugees in Uganda are from non-English speaking countries while English is the formal and commonly used language in Uganda. With our current reach, EFA benefits over 2000 learners per intake and over 5000 per year. For the past twelve years, EFA has registered and reached over 25,000 forced migrants and their hosts. As a percentage of the total number of forced migrants in Uganda, this represents just under 2%.

Our EFA is guided by an internally developed comprehensive “Speak Your Rights” curriculum structured into five levels. To complete all five levels, which take the learner from being unable to speak English at all to being able to enroll in tertiary education conducted in English, requires 18 months. The curriculum integrates different relevant topics on access to justice, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, gender and sexuality, environment and global issues, conflict and transitional justice as well as the use of media for social change. This is intended to introduce learners to current local, national and international context and trends. These can also help with any of the three durable solutions; local integration, third-country resettlement, and voluntary repatriation.

We enroll adult learners from the age of 15 years and above from among the refugees/forced migrants and their host communities. The learners we enroll include victims or survivors of torture, victims or survivors of sexual violence, persons with disability or physical impairments, those living with HIV, elderly, young or single mothers and fathers, orphans due to war and conflicts, sexual and gender minorities. Remember, besides being victims of psychological and psychosocial impacts of forced displacement, they are also sustaining effects of the atrocities inflicted on them before, during and after flight as well as their natural challenges like age and physical injuries.

Through EFA our learners have realized many achievements, including:

  • ability to demand and defend their rights
  • being able to freely transact different economic activities including competing for jobs at different level
  • opening up businesses both large and small scale
  • buying and selling without being manipulated
  • returning to formal education systems and advancing their education at higher institutions of learning like universities where the language of instruction is English
  • becoming community change agents on environment, human rights advocacy and promotion of peaceful coexistence
  • speaking for themselves without need of an interpreter which promotes confidentiality and accuracy in communication
  • contributing to peace processes for their countries of origin like participating in peace talks at international levels where ignorance of English as a language would have excluded them
  • supporting their children like when given homework from school
  • regaining self-esteem and being empowered to live a normal or hopeful life;
  • regaining a sense of belonging through interaction with their fellow refugees through support groups, class gatherings and activities; among others.

In open discussions with current and former learners as well as EFA graduates concerning the contribution of EFA towards improving their mental and psychosocial wellbeing, I have realized that, besides the above tangible achievements of the EFA program, at least all learners have benefited with enormous, though intangible mental and psychosocial benefits. This has helped me as a facilitator not only to concentrate on the obvious aspects of the training program but also to look beyond the obvious predetermined scope with new lenses. Different learners opened up to me sharing their experiences and these were diverse and rooted within other visible and tangible benefits of the kinds mentioned above.


Many of the youths attending EFA in Kampala were already pursuing their academic career in their countries of origin. The education of the majority was interrupted at primary (39%), secondary (43%) or tertiary (11%) levels. When they come to Uganda, they find a different education system delivered in English, and this limits them from advancing normally. Many come to RLP to learn English and, having acquired the language skills, go back to school especially those at secondary, College and University levels, to advance their careers. However, some of the candidates of this benefit had this to comment about their psychosocial wellbeing;

“… I had lost hope because I dropped out of school in DRC in secondary. I did not know English and I couldn’t continue in Uganda. Now I finished EFA, I know English, went back to secondary (S.3) and am hoping to do UNEB[1] next year, …. I will continue with “A” Levels then finally do my dream course (nursing) at University or Institute. …. I now have a future am to fight for than before because I have learnt how to manage my past, psychologically through EFA.”

Another candidate Mahmoud (not real Name) from Somalia said “I am now happy and hopeful” as captured in this photo text.

This implies that very many are stuck, stressed, depressed and disempowered within the community and cannot go back to school for many reasons - including language barriers. There is need for a deliberate effort to support them so that they may regain hope for a better future.

Social belonging

Many of the learners confirmed that, during forced displacement, they lost their loved ones, and that during flight they were separated from their families and relatives and still don’t know where they are. “This poses a very big challenge especially in our psychosocial and mental health wellbeing… We lost parents and we are missing all their support and love as children”. Many learners said that when they joined EFA, they got a new family with which they could associate and create a sense of belong.

“…… I don’t want to share a lot because I don’t want to relapse. However, I saw all my family being killed by gunmen and I escaped to Uganda. I lived a lonely life, isolated without help from anyone. I was stressed, sleepless and fearing everybody I don’t know. I went for counseling somewhere but little changed and later [I] joined EFA. I got a new family since the classes have different people. … I know they cannot fully replace the family I lost, but I find myself pushed to come to school so that I meet and interact with them. I now feel I am safe with my classmates and I have a family (father, mother, siblings and others) again. I have even regained my identity, all the energy and I am now working to at least meet my basic needs because of EFA…”

Livelihood and employment

Before fleeing to Uganda, many of the learners had a good life with jobs and a source of income in their countries of origin. They came to a foreign land where they do not know the law, language and economic context. The threatened livelihoods put them at risk and made them totally disempowered both physically and psychologically. One of their key solutions to the problem was joining EFA. They have learnt the language; they now know the basics of the law as well as the economic context. Many have acquired jobs and others have started their own small-scale businesses which are saving them from their feared threats.

“…I have over 9 dependents in my household, and for a very long time, I have been struggling to meet the basic needs of the family. I was a doctor by profession in Sudan, fled to Uganda, lost the job, I didn’t know English to work in Uganda and this psychologically traumatized me.  I joined EFA from level one and struggled to learn English (reading, writing, listening and speaking). At level four, I had gained a relative confidence in English and I started looking for a Job. I am now working and able to meet some basic needs of my family. I no longer fear to go back home every day at any time and I am free and relieved from the trauma and stress I had before ….”

Another learner made a very short but powerful statement.

“…I spent over two years as an urban refugee, homeless, feeding from the dust bins, putting on [clothes] like a mad man and facing very many other anomalies.  When I joined EFA, I learnt some little English and moved on at Level three. I have found a Job in a big Saloon, changed my life, feed well, got married and have one child now. I can pay school fees and even once in a while take my family to the beach ….”

Personal Empowerment

“Being refugees, we thought we are inferior, vulnerable, with lost identity and unable to do anything.” This implies that many refugees looked at themselves as foreigners who are disempowered by the context they are living in and this affected their psychosocial wellbeing. Many agree that when they joined EFA they learnt the language and regained; their rights as well as identity; knowledge and skills to cope up with the current life. These benefits pushed them back to a better mental health, self-esteem and hope for the future.

Another born again Christian Female refugee said that;

“… I was married to a Ugandan who treated me as a useless thing because I am a refugee. He beat me, abused me and did not care for my children. These made my life so hard and feel so helpless and [I] nearly committed suicide. I separated with him, and later started studying at RLP, learnt children’s rights, reported him and now he takes care of the children. I started a small business and now I can meet other family basic needs as a single mother……... I have forgiven him and I feel so empowered and proud of myself today because God led me to RLP to learn English …”

Durable solutions

It has been perceived that, before joining EFA, the majority of the learners were only interested in resettlement to the western world as a durable solution over voluntary repatriation and local integration. Others looked at resettlement as their only solution to the problems they were facing. Being rejected from resettlement stressed and depressed very many thus worsening their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. Many agree that, today, even though they still like the idea of resettlement, they also look at the other two options as key and important than before. Many had to testify, but one of the EFA graduants, a 61-year-old refugee from Burundi said;

“...at this old age, I have learnt enough to appreciate local integration as I pray for peace in my country so that I can return home. … Uganda is even better than Canada or USA where I was fighting to go and I wasted all my monies. I am looking forward to peace in my country and to go back home. I have a peace of mind now to concentrate on sustaining my family [rather] than wasting resources on going abroad….”

Another female refugee youth from South Sudan noted;

“…. With what I have learnt, I believe in myself, I feel empowered and relieved form all the anger I have kept for long. I should concentrate on learning as much as possible so that I can go back to my home country without weapons to work or fight for peace …...”

Lessons identified and lessons learnt

With my experience and this exposure to the individual truths from the EFA learners, a lot of lessons have been identified on the surface of the EFA activities implementation. These include but are not limited to:

  • Deeply and critically analyze the trend of learners’ needs, especially their specific learning needs. In addition, during determining the learners’ needs, there is need for a critical eye and ear to dig out the invisible mental health and psychosocial wellbeing aspects that are often hidden within the learners’ needs;
  • Continue to take into concern the key guidelines and principles of adult education/learning according to Malcolm Knowles but also be sure that “One size fit all” is a wrong hypothesis in this context;
  • Before starting the EFA course, there is need to conduct an extensive assessment as well as a screening of the learners to identify their different needs, particularly the felt needs.;
  • Equipping learners with any knowledge or skills when their minds are preoccupied by other things is not of any impact and may yield unrealistic results;
  • There is also need to first awaken the invisible potentials that are suppressed by the effects of previous experiences; proper identification and capacity building of learning facilitators has to be paramount in this case. A facilitator must be able to professionally deliver on the curriculum content but also on building the invisible potentials so as to have the best results; and a more conducive environment where the learners can fully and freely interact with their facilitator is paramount and this may also involve issues of learners to facilitator ratio.

It is also clear that, to ensure that quality learning is achieved on topics like refugee rights and obligations, gender and sexuality, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, conflict and transitional Justice Mechanisms and environment, technical persons from within and outside the RLP have been involved in planning and facilitating the classes and this has improved our quality of learning. On ensuring capacity building of our facilitators, RLP management has ensured that EFA team members participate in different capacity building workshops, trainings and seminars thus improving on our functionality. The other very important aspect which has improved the operations of EFA at RLP has been the promotion of self-care activities which include social activities but also ensuring that facilitators get enough time off duty to relax and refresh through different leave packages.

Recommendations and conclusion

Beyond the immediate knowledge and skills acquired from EFA there are immense psychosocial benefits that this paper only touches on. More efforts should be put in place to ensure in-depth research is done to have more concrete and scientifically proven findings that can help to inform many other similar education programs across the world. Also, more investment should be made in literacy programs like EFA to reach to bigger communities so as to improve on the standards of living of forced migrants and to improve on their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. It is imperative to note that, if we are to realize development today or set a foundation for the future development, we need to educate the adults of this generation and one of the key strategies is Adult Literacy.

Conclusively, for us as RLP EFA team, we are looking at EFA as a new and cost-effective psychosocial intervention that is complementary to traditional individual therapies and has helped many of the thousands of forced migrants we have reached. In terms of numbers, this therapeutic intervention can empower many more collectively than the conventional and traditional counseling therapies of individual, group and family counseling. Indeed, to me and the EFA facilitators’ team, English for Adults Course is a new psychosocial therapy in the context of forced migration.


Mulondo Apollo
EFA Facilitator, Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University
June, 2020


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