From the war to the ward

Just Regional
May 8, 2024 4 mins read

When John Kasensa came to Britain as a refugee, having lost his family in the war that ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo more than 20 years ago, he could not have dreamed of what life had in store for him here.

He said he was met by kindness, and that helped him go from being a frightened refugee to a ward manager at the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation.

“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 manages Glaven Ward, an adult acute inpatient unit at Hellesdon Hospital.

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

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

He also learned about compassion from the families who took him in and looked after him.

“They became my family,” said John (pictured), who now lives in Sprowston.

Six years later he was granted asylum in Britain, coming to Norwich in 2007 when he was 22.

“It was January and I just remember how very cold it was,” said John, who spoke fluent French and Swahili but no English.

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

He volunteered at a lunch club and 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,” he said.

“It taught me the importance of having strong support networks.”

While settling in he also worked at 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, in Thorpe St Andrew (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 healthcare.

In 2013, he joined NSFT as a clinical support worker, working his way up to becoming ward manager.

“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.”


John will be telling his story as one of the guests at an online event as part of International Nurses’ Day celebrations.

Cath Byford, deputy CEO, will join John and lead nurse Nicky Shaw in an online discussion about mental health

The event will be held on Microsoft Teams on Thursday, May 16, from 4.15pm until 5pm.

To submit a question, email nsft.communications@nsft.nhs.uk by May 12. To attend the event, you can click the Teams joining link at 4.15pm on the day.


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