Spotlight: A conversation with Sabine Kampmüller of AFYA


Sabine Kampmüller is the founder of AFYA, an organization that works on intercultural health promotion. Their current mission is to support children and adolescents who suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Prior to founding AFYA, Sabine worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for 20 years. After several years abroad doing field work in Africa and other parts of the world, she settled in the MSF offices in Vienna to tackle global health issues and work on organisational learning. Currently in the midst of setting up AFYA, Sabine took some time to sit down and talk about her organization, what motivates her, and the future she wants to see.

What made you start AFYA?

AFYA is directly linked to where I come from professionally. It was a privilege to work for MSF, but it was time to do something new. The last few years, with all the migrants and refugees arriving in Austria, I see new and different health needs and these needs are not being covered by the existing health system. Given our extensive first-hand experience of working in health and intercultural settings, my colleagues at AFYA and I feel that we have something to contribute. We want to offer our expertise and do something to address the current problems that we see.

What does AFYA stand for?

AFYA is not an acronym. The word means health and well-being in Arabic and Kiswahili. Kiswahili was my first working language in Kenya so that’s why I chose AFYA as the name for the organization.

I feel that mental health is an important issue in the refugee population. A big proportion of people have experienced trauma either from the conflict in their home country or during their journey here. There aren’t any hard numbers because nobody has studied this but from experience, and from working with different groups, the estimate is that at least half of refugees and migrants have significant post-traumatic stress reactions. This issue is an important link to Austrian expectations on integration because this is such a large obstacle to integration. A young Afghan I met recently summed up his experience: “In order to learn, I need peace in my mind.” He stopped school because his head wasn’t calm enough. We need to do something about this as a society.

What is intercultural health? How would you define it?

Intercultural health ensures that the different backgrounds of people are taken into consideration in the provision of health care. It tries to bridge the gap between people’s needs, concepts, and perceptions, and the existing health service. Concerning mental health, this means that we allow different cultural explanations of what is wrong without judging these ways of dealing with psychological issues as long as they are not harmful. We build on the respective understanding and we offer information and solutions based on medical evidence. It’s about mobilizing people’s own resources and capacities to deal with trauma first.

What’s wrong with the current health system with regards to mental health?

Let’s be clear, the Austrian health system is very good, but it’s a specialized health system; it’s very focused on curative and hospitalized care. Right now, there is psychotherapy and psychiatric care, but the entry level to access these services is very high. You have to have very serious problems before you get support. Organisations such as Hemayat do excellent work offering psychotherapy with cultural mediators, but their waiting lists are long and many people don’t get there in the first place. Our approach is to complement this with primary support and ensuring that the entry level is low. Our work is not therapeutic but aims at strengthening coping mechanisms. We go to the homes where unaccompanied minors live and teach them “recovery techniques”. We try to make their difficulties easy to understand. We want to prevent very serious problems before they happen.

How has your work with MSF and the work you do now affected you?

The work I did with MSF has definitely made me very humble. There are many things in life that we often take for granted such as security and the freedom to move and speak that I have learned to appreciate. It was such an exciting experience to see so many different ways of livings and so many different dreams and experiences. It’s only fed into my curiosity to find out more about other people’s history and stories. I have also learned that a culture of reflection is important. Humanitarian work is becoming more complex and with the increase in complexity, we need to be more agile, make use of what we’ve learned, and think of how can we improve going forward.

What are some of the difficulties you’re facing?

The biggest challenge is funding, of course, especially as a new organization. It’s very difficult to get into the appropriate channels, but we’re working on it.

Have you encountered any resistance to the work that you do?

This is a new field and it could be seen as competition to traditional psychotherapy even if what we do is not therapy. Even though we clearly make that distinction, I’m anticipating a level of questioning concerning whether we are all qualified to do the work that we do. The program is designed to largely run with trained native speakers under good supervision. Our aim is to enable kids and adolescents to use the tools that we teach them to take control of their stress reactions. We don’t delve into trauma or what happened. It’s about teaching and practicing techniques to take charge of your own emotions.

Why do you do this kind of work?

I was always curious about other countries and cultures. As a child, I was inspired by an uncle of mine who was a development worker. My most exciting childhood memories were him coming back and talking about the work he did in Papua New Guinea and Africa. I simply like to work on improving things and making things better. I think mental health is one of the big challenges in our society today. I find it exciting that we have a much more diverse people here today in Austria, and it’s full of opportunities. I don’t want to interpret this diversity as a problem–it’s an opportunity. And if we want to utilize this opportunity, we need to overcome obstacles.

What would you like to see AFYA become?

I want AFYA to be the leading organization when it comes to intercultural health issues. I want us to develop lots of new programs and be a very agile organization that really contributes to the health and well-being of refugees and migrants in Austria.

What impact would you like to see AFYA have?

I really want to see that we’ve enabled a few hundred kids, adolescents and adults to gain control over their post-traumatic stress in the next few years. I believe that’s doable. On a more political level, I would like to see the issue of mental health higher on the agenda so we can mobilize additional attention and resources towards it.

How can members of Impact Hub help?

Contribute ideas! What we need now are connections to groups and communities who are in need of our services. This is already happening but we welcome more connections. There are some practical things as well: setting up the organization and translation among other things. I’ll be asking for help!