From war to ward manager, a refugee’s journey into mental health nursing

John Kasensa, Ward Manager at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation (NSFT), came to Britain as a young refugee, having lost his family in the war that ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo over 20 years ago.

“I’ve seen the trauma of war and seen people struggling with their mental health. Witnessing the transformative impact of compassionate care inspired me to get into mental health nursing,” said John, who is one of our special guests in an online event in May as part of NSFT’s celebration of International Nurses’ Day, which anyone can join.

John, who now manages Glaven Ward, an adult acute inpatient unit at Hellesdon Hospital, has never forgotten the kindness he was shown along his journey to mental health nursing.

He was just 16 when he and a friend escaped the war-torn DRC and made it to a refugee camp in Zambia.

Here he experienced the shared trauma of war, the families lost and torn apart, and lives destroyed.

Here he also discovered the power of compassion from families who took him in and looked after him.

“They became my family,” said John, who said that suicide was common in the camps, but no one really knew what to do apart from support one another the best they could. The camp, run by the United Nations, provided basic food, tents, and medical care but mental health support was unheard of.

About six years later he was granted asylum in Britain, coming to Norwich in 2007, aged just 22. “It was January and I just remember how very cold it was,” said John, who spoke fluent French and Swahili but no English at the time.

Thanks to the Settlement Programme, he was given a place to stay – sharing with another refugee from the DRC – a case worker and mentor, who helped him take English lessons and a course at City College Norwich to catch up on the education that was cut short by war.

He volunteered at a lunch club, joined the local church and the football club.

“I will never forget the kindness I was shown and the support I got. It helped me get back on my feet and see hope and purpose in life. It taught me the importance of having strong support networks,” said John, who also started work in the Post Office sorting office, while learning business administration, bookkeeping and accounts at college.

But it was while volunteering as a first aider with the British Red Cross at football matches that someone suggested he might like to consider a career in healthcare.

He joined an agency which involved attending training sessions at Hellesdon Hospital where he became curious about mental health, later doing shifts at NSFT’s Norvic Clinic (now Northside House).

“I started recognising some of the symptoms of trauma that I had seen in the camps,” said John. “I wanted to do more to help and saw how my own experience of trauma and of the compassion and kindness I was shown, which supported my recovery, could be valuable.”

He took an Open University course in Social Policy and Criminology, which included psychology, and further explored mental health care.

In 2013, he joined NSFT as a Clinical Support Worker on Rollesby Ward, progressing to Assistant Practitioner and completing his Nursing Apprenticeship in 2020, becoming Staff Nurse, then Charge Nurse, and finally Ward Manager on Glaven Ward.

“I entered mental health nursing out of a deep-seated passion for supporting people in their journey towards wellness,” said John.

“What brings me immense fulfilment is the opportunity to foster resilience and empower people facing mental health challenges. I enjoy looking at each person as an individual, exploring what is most effective for them. Is it the talking? Is it the medicines? Then working with them to find the right path to recovery for them.

“Mental health nursing is about building trusting relationships, and witnessing moments of progress and recovery are among the most enriching aspects of this profession.”

He added: “Sometimes I wonder how I got to this position. I feel so privileged to be able to help others and so grateful for the kindness I have received and the support of the Trust to help me learn the skills I needed.”