Podcast interview: Kolbassia Haoussou

26 Jan 2024 Interviews

Freedom from Torture’s director of survivor empowerment discusses his work alongside fellow survivors, his conversation with the late queen, and accepting the overall award for excellence at last year’s Charity Awards...

Kolbassia Haoussou, director of survivor empowerment at Freedom from Torture

Freedom from Torture

Civil Society Media has published its second-ever podcast episode. It is the first of two Charity Awards special interviews with last year’s overall winners for excellence, Freedom From Torture.

In the episode, Freedom From Torture’s director of survivor empowerment Kolbassia Haoussou discusses his work alongside fellow survivors, his conversation when collecting his MBE from the late Queen Elizabeth II, and his memories of addressing the audience when accepting the overall award for excellence at last year's Charity Awards.

You can listen to the interview here and on Spotify, along with the first podcast episode, with an AI-generated transcript below:


We are keen to hear listeners’ feedback or suggestions on topics listeners would like us to discuss in future episodes. Please contact us here: [email protected]


Rob Preston: Hello and welcome to the second podcast episode from Civil Society Media. Today’s show is the first of two Charity Awards special episodes both of which will be interviews with last year’s winner of the overall award for excellence, Freedom from Torture. 

Before we crack on with the first episode, remember that you have until 29 February to enter your charity for the Charity Awards 2024, which is set to take place in London this summer. Delivered with our overall awards partner, CCLA Investment Management, the Charity Awards provides charities of all shapes and sizes with a window to showcase their efforts and the impact they have made. To enter this year’s Charity Awards, go to charityawards.co.uk

Our first guest from last year’s overall award winner, Freedom from Torture, is the director of survivor empowerment, Kolbassia Haoussou. Kolbassia is a torture survivor who came to the UK in 2005 after fleeing persecution in Chad in central Africa. He experienced the challenges of being a refugee in Britain, which included immigration detention, homelessness, and mental health issues before receiving treatment at Freedom from Torture.

His career of campaigning and advocating began when he co-founded the Survivor Speak Out network in 2006, a group led by and campaigning for survivors of torture.

Kolbassia is now the department head for Freedom from Torture’s survivor empowerment directorate.

Away from charity, in 2019, he became a survivor champion for the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and in 2020, he received an MBE for his work with survivors.  

I found it very moving speaking to Kolbassia about his remarkable life and career. In this interview, he also offers some key insights for how charities and other organisations can meaningfully work with and empower people with lived experience. I hope you enjoy this one and I’ll speak to you again at the end.

Rob Preston: Kolbassia, thank you very much for doing this interview with us. We'd like to talk about your acceptance speech that you gave for freedom from torture at the charity awards last year. How did it feel to stand up there and accept that award? What are your memories from that evening?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Thank you. I think first and foremost, I want to say thank you very much for having me on the podcast. I mean, the feeling was surreal, really, and I think of the people that were in the room, so my reaction, I was really surprised. I wasn't expecting that. I think we all of us weren't expecting that, you know, Freedom from Torture’s name will be called, you know, for the honour. Because I think I was sitting, even I took off my shoes. Because I was just relaxing, enjoying just, you know, the moment, the vibe, everybody just happy really to be there.

Rob Preston: You put them back on quickly to go up to the stage?

Kolbassia Haoussou: My CEO was dragging me. I said: “Sonya, wait, I still need to put my shoes on.” Everybody was excited. We were and I think you know, the thing as well is that everybody else in the room was excited for us.

Rob Preston: it was a great reaction on the night from everyone else.

Kolbassia Haoussou: Everybody was excited. People were like, standing up clapping. And I was like, what is what is happening? Because you know, when I went to receive my MBE from the queen, I had a similar feeling. But the other feeling was more of my family, you know, the journey that I took, and where I am, and how my family or my dad, you know, somewhere that in heaven looking down must be proud of me, you know, that kind of thing. And this time it is all about the organisation. You know, my colleagues, all the torture survivors, people that come through Freedom from Torture, you know, the fight that we took on to the government and the stand that we want to create this country as a welcoming country. All those thinking emotions come in and I felt really, really proud that everybody that really put together, who voted for us to get that, you know, have a sense of recognising the work that has been done. And it was a moment for me.

Rob Preston: Excellent. Yeah. And I'll read a bit of your speech if that's okay, that you gave them the night. So you said: “This campaign is a testament to all because we can move mountains. When we put our hearts, we put our energy we put our humanity in front and above everything else. Now we are able to defend other refugees and make sure that this is a country which treats people with respect, dignity, and a country where above everything else, we are welcoming people.”

So it's quite a hopeful message there. Considering what the campaign was about, it was campaigning against a government policy which isn't that welcoming in itself, do you think the people of this country are more welcoming than the government has come across?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Definitely, that's my experience. And I say this, you know, many times. I came here, I had two types of different people, you know, let's call it the public and also the system, the government, and also the policies in the Home Office. And those two experiences are completely opposite, day and night. My experience with the Home Office in the beginning was really unwelcoming. And it was really opposing. And I felt unsafe, I was thinking: “Oh, I need to think about my plan B. I don't think that's a country that's going to be welcoming, I think this country is not safe.” So then I'm thinking about plan B but the thing was I was in an immigration detention centre. So I don't have a freedom that I can let me jump on another way, maybe cross you know, the channel, to find and go to a different country, I didn't have that option anymore. And it was so difficult moment in that immigration detention center, where I could not do anything, I could not save myself, basically, because I did manage to save myself when I was in a torture chamber. I was able to save myself. And I came here, but now I'm in the immigration detention centre, I cannot save myself this time. You're only option is you're going to be deported. But then, when I was released from the immigration detention centre, I was in the public. People just only show me love. They don't know me, they don't know who I am. But I’ve only just seen love. And the way the Freedom from Torture treated me, bringing me here and then trying to look after me and finding a solution for me to try to address you know, the trauma that I was experiencing. And I started having a little bit of hope and belief in humanity. There are great people, not everybody is going to torture you, there are other people. That's really nice. And since then, my love for this country has just grown from the way that I felt the love from people.

Rob Preston: And how important do you think it is that Freedom from Torture campaigns, as well as doing its primary services to offer treatments to people who've experienced torture. Is it important that the charity does this as well, that it tries to campaign on behalf of people?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Yeah, I think is key. Otherwise, torture survivors and refugees in general, we don't have a voice and we don't have anybody to stand up for us. First as asylum seekers, you're stateless you don’t have a country to back you, to support you and to protect you. And you are just going country to country and begging for protection. And if nobody's there talking, nobody that has power talking on your behalf, then you are absolutely nobody. You're nothing compared to the country, compared to the policy and so on and so on. I think that's how we find ourselves quite often vulnerable, devoid of any right and we can do nothing about it. And our country, you know, tortures us and we come to another country to try to find safety but nothing. That's also one of the main motivations after getting therapy from Freedom from Torture to get into advocacy and activism because I feel I have something that I can contribute to that and Freedom from Torture is doing quite a lot for us. Why do I have to stand by the side? I need to join too. That's how I started and that's how I founded this Survivor Speak Out network to get into supporting as well.

Rob Preston: Yeah, that's amazing because your first contact with freedom from torture was in 2005, when you were a recipient of the services, and it's very soon after that in 2006, when you co-founded the Survivor Speak Out network. So for those of people who don't know, what exactly is the network, and how did you decide to set it up?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Thank you. When I got into Freedom from Torture, when I was sitting in therapy, I understood what this torture had done to my brain. And one of them is the fear. And the fear created isolation for me and silencing, because I fear that I'm going to be tortured again. So, if I see something wrong, I just need to shut up, otherwise you're going to be tortured. So that's what torture has done to me. And when I was going through rehabilitation, and it kind of unlocked my thinking about torture and what torture wanted me to do, and I decided not to be what torture wanted me to do. And then I made a decision that if somebody needs to speak on my behalf, who the best person should be. It’s my story. I will be the best to tell my story.

But then, the more we are, the better and the louder the voice is going to be. And inspired by Freedom from Torture, action, advocacy, and campaigning, I said right I need to set something. And that's how I spoke to a few friends to say I have this idea of, you know, bringing us together so we can raise awareness, we can fight against torture, we can tell the UK government Home Office the way that we have been treated is not fair. And there is a better way of treating people, even if you don't give them refugee status, you can treat them with respect and dignity. And that's how we came together and since then, this has been growing from strength to strength and we've been working Freedom from Torture for all those years now, to create an importance that the voice of survivors is central to everything that we do if we need to take a decision that needs to impact the life of survivors. Therefore, the survivors need to be part of the decision. And it's really important. And, looking back, I feel proud. But I think that if I wasn't given an opportunity by this country, and also I wasn't shown love by the people of this country, I don't think I would be able to set up the Survivors Speak Out Network.

Rob Preston: Okay. So you needed some positive experience in order to enable you to do that. It's an amazing project to set up considering everything you've been through. I'm wondering what that's like for, I suppose, your mental health really considering the sort of traumatic experiences you've been through? Is there a part of you that just wanted to forget about everything and do something completely separate?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Yeah, I think it's a great question, because, I think I did have this experience when I was making a decision at Freedom from Torture. Because there was a moment of reckoning when I started having a capacity to think about myself. And so there's a moment that I asked myself, I asked three, three different questions, who I am? And the second question, who do I want to be? And the third question, how I'm going to live with the experience?

About who I am, you know, I just decided I have always been a kind person, no matter what happened to me, I should not change. If I change, I'm gonna be a different person. And the other question of how I'm going to live with the experience of torture, and I decided that no matter what I do, this is going to be part of my life going forward? I can't change it. I cannot go back and revamp myself. I cannot go back and find myself before torture, that’s impossible for me to do. But I have to live with it moving forward. But I should do everything not to allow it to define me. Whatever definition of me that the other question, who I am, should be based on that but more. I want to leave as a legacy, part of that experience, when I'm no more here, when I'm gone, what legacy, I want to leave, and I want to leave something that’s positive. I don't want to contribute negative into the world anymore. What happened to me happened, but I want to do something but opposite to that. And that's how I come to the decision that going back finding my old self does, I cannot do that, I don't have to do that. I cannot rewind the past to the point where I was not tortured. Yeah, that's the point I'm gonna start from, I can't do that I don't have to do that. So impossible for me.

Then the other option, I go find someplace quiet, have a quiet life and forget everything and forget the world itself. It’s only me, and me, and I nothing more. But then my upbringing and the thing that I've seen in the world, just I cannot, you know, marry those two together. So, I cannot do that. So I just decided, alright, I'm going to try to move forward. I'm going to be taking all the good that I know about me in the past, bringing, but making like a 2.0 really improve it and, and create a positive, positive legacy. And from that, I also learned some tools and tips from the therapy about when I'm struggling and what I need to do in refocusing myself and bringing myself back. So, you're not in the torture chamber anymore, wherever that's happening, is not real. You know, you have to bring yourself and it's real. Sometimes you see something you get triggered, I need to bring myself. But I’m here in London, this kind of thing, and that has quite helped me.

Rob Preston: Yeah. Well, it sounds like you made the right choice to try and build something from your experiences for other people who've also gone through a similar experience. How rewarding is it for you to provide a platform and a voice for other people who've experienced torture? 

Kolbassia Haoussou: Thank you for the question. I think it's very, very rewarding. On a personal level, it is that I defeated the purpose of torture. Because if the torturing me in a sense of silencing me and making me an example for others to be afraid, to be scared, then they just got the opposite of that. Now they're afraid of me. They know how powerful my voice is and they are afraid, they cannot touch me. They cannot touch me because I... There's some time ago I went back there just to face my demons, this experience I’m not advising people to do. But it was a tough moment where, after 10 years, I was having kind of deep, deep longing, absolutely longing. And I did struggle for very long to quieten. And at the end of the day, I just decided, let me just go on this, I'll be able to close the chapter. I come back at life, I'll be able to close the chapter and try to move on with life. So, I went and they tried to intimidate me and all those kind of things. But you know, at the end of the day, what they created, they created this monster against them, rather than silencing a vulnerable person and somebody that can’t even look at them in the eye.

And so I think that's part of which I really, you know, looking back I'm really proud of it. And on the wider level, when I see my friends, I mean people in Survivors Speak Out network. I'm powered using the voice standing up for what is right and it has humbled me. And sometimes I see myself in, you know, in those in those people. Yes, I started the idea, but at the end of the day, what it became is not me, is the members, members that bring their own different diverse experiences and doing the thing that is being done. I give them leadership and so on but something needs to be started and it's been carried, you know, by everybody, survivors and non-survivors, Freedom from Torture invests so much into it and so on. So, now, it's just, I mean, it's a child of everybody.

Rob Preston: We spoke to your CEO, Sonya Sceats, last year. And she talked about how the charity is trying to increase the number of survivors of torture whom the charity employs to do various roles related to the treatment services that it provides. Are you involved in this work to try and employ people in that way? And how important is it for charities to try and do that, try to involve people who've used their services in the services they provide? 

Kolbassia Haoussou: Thank you. I think it is important that a charity does that. Freedom from Torture, which working with torture survivors. And then if there are no torture survivors working in the organisation, you need to ask the question. Because at the end of the day, if you want to help people, how best to help people without those people helping you? You understand? So, it's really important. And I think it has been a journey at Freedom from Torture, because as soon as I finished receiving services from Freedom from Torture, around 2008, 2009. And after that, the year 2010, I started doing some volunteering at Freedom from Torture and I think 2012 that I had a staff role position at Freedom from Torture. And from there I was in this world of empowerment, I was the only person that was hired to drive Freedom from Torture. So, I was an empowerment system and set up something.

Rob Preston: That's difficult when you're the only person who's actually been through that situation.

Kolbassia Haoussou: Yeah, exactly. It was really challenging. And at that moment, Freedom from Torture as well, the willingness is there, but the know-how is not there too. So we all jump in that water, when not knowing how to swim properly. Freedom from Torture has five centres across the UK, and I have to coordinate all the centres, and try to bring survivors to understand that survivors can shape the organisation, they can shape the services that have been delivered to them. And I was doing that part time, two days a week. So I have every month I need to be at least once in, in Glasgow, once in Newcastle, once in Manchester, once in Birmingham, and also then in London. And here, but what I, what I appreciate about that time, is the willingness of Freedom from Torture, in terms of, you know, the leadership in really insisting with that objective, we want to bring the organisation to that we need to, you know, support, support that work.

And fast forward now. We have even a directory, a whole department, on survivors’ empowerment. And in that department, I think 75% of people in that went through freedom from torture services, now they're working. I am the director, I'm one of the senior managers. And also then we have managers as well that have the lived experience of the service or Freedom from Torture and then we have rolling coordination. Yeah, there are quite a lot of people we now employ that you know, come through to the organisation and then you know, we have other colleagues that have lived experience of torture. But that is the step that you know we took to that and now we even want to go further than that. Creating space and creating systems and support in place so that other areas of the organisation as well can have torture survivors working with them. And one element is really, really important, I think for us, I think for me is making me so proud is that we will have, you know, a roll, of torture survivors that have been through the system service of Freedom from Torture, will be delivering part of therapy for other survivors. I think for me, that is the cherry on top. I think for me that I'm very, very pleased and proud of that. And also, that's, that's the feedback that we receive from, you know, client service users who say I want to see a therapy delivered by somebody that also been through that, so then they understand my situation, and then you know, we can have a better connection. And so, again, we're gonna be now we're recruiting, people that will be, you know, delivering that to, you know, along the line of we're creating a pathway for employment at Freedom from Torture. I'm really hopeful and positive for our future.

Rob Preston: It's amazing work. Are there challenges about employing people who've had experiences like that? You must have to provide lots of support, particularly in this sort of role, where, as you've said, it can be triggering sometimes. Yeah, do you have to invest in that as an employer of people who've experienced torture?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah, there's so much, there's so many challenges that you need to address. When I think one challenge is skill building, you need to skill people in order to be able to do that, and I think, for me, the most that we have done, that, for me, is really very important. I have seen that, you know, through for me, and also for, you know, other survivors that were employed here, that is the methodology of empowerment that we have. And that methodology is, you nurture people into the role. You nurture people, you provide the space for people to learn, step by step, in order to be completely, you know, up to. We do a competitive, you know, recruitment, to all this, and the one that performed very well, during the recruitment process will be selected. And then we'll work with that entity journey in supporting and bringing and upgrading the skills that they need in order to do their job. And the challenge, also, the other challenge is that, in order for you to do that, you need to have resources. Yeah, you need to have resources, and you need to think about the long term, it's not just short term, you need to think about the long game, it's always about the long game. And if you don't have proper resources behind it, I think, you know, that's why you know, the cracks going to be and you know, the failures are going to appear. Because in the beginning, you may not see the result that you want, because, you know, you do think about the nurturing and empowerment, but at the end of the day, you know, you will get to that point.

Rob Preston: Yes, it's a long term way to get there. Aside from your work with Freedom from Torture, so in 2019, you became the survivor champion for the government's preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. How was your experience working with the government? And how did you become involved with that initiative in the first place?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Thank you. I think that's another journey, as well, for me. In 2012, we were contacted by the Foreign Office to provide testimony for an event that you know, the organizing in relationship to the preventing sexual violence initiative at that moment started by Angelina Jolie and Lord Hague, and they wanted the survivors as well to gain that platform. And what they wanted was someone to come and talk about testimony of sexual violence. Me as a survivor, I thought, yes, we can do that but we can do even better than that. Because we should not be just defined by our testimony. Because if we do that, what we are embedding in people’s minds is worthlessness when somebody doesn't have anything. But we need to we need to embed another ideology. Yeah, it happened to me, but no. And so, forth and back with the Foreign Office we said we can really contribute with the initiative but we can advise you how to do it so that the benefit will be reaped widely by survivors. And forth and back, forth and back, at the time they did not understand how those centres operate as much. But at the end of the day, we agreed, okay, then we're going to give you a testimony but the person is going to be on a panel, they're not going to talk about this. I mean, they're going to, they're going to give you recommendations on how you can overcome sexual violence, that if you agree with that, we're going to do a video of testimony. But the person I'm going to be on the panel will not be speaking that as expert survivors.

It was really important for me too because I feel that male survivors, we don't speak, don't speak about sexual violence against men. And so, and I felt it was really important that I also going to provide an example so other male survivors don't feel ashamed to speak about, you know, the experience of sexual violence. And then at that moment, I was constantly advising the Foreign Office about how survivors can be central to the initiative. And that's how I, you know, continually with the Survivors Speak Out, continually supporting the preventing sexual violence initiative by centring survivors. And this was not just as a testimony but an expert, you know, helping you prevent sexual violence.

Excellent. Yes. It sounds like you managed to do it on your own terms, and have your voices heard and as part of the whole process in designing everything as well. Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. And in 2020, you mentioned this earlier, you're receiving your MBE? How did that feel to get that recognition? You did talk about it briefly but what more can you say about that?

Kolbassia Haoussou: I think, even now, when I think about it, I have an emotional drive and, you know, goosebumps. Meeting the late queen in person, that's another level of experience. It was amazing. But I think that for me the most important thing is at that moment, I kind of looked back at my life. And my challenges in life didn't start just when I arrived here, but much, much earlier on. I was very young when I experienced sexual violence, when I experienced torture. You know, I lived in a refugee camp and at times I just think, what is the purpose of my life? Why, you know, so much suffering at a very young age? You know, my mum left, she just abandoned me at a very young age. I didn't know my mum. Why, why? I had so many questions on the suffering, suffering, suffering. There's one moment I didn't have anything to eat, you know, for days. So, my life was just full of suffering, challenges.

And when I was there, and while we're waiting, I think I was passing and then I saw a mirror and I glanced in the mirror and I looked at myself there. I broke, crying, but crying internally. And for a very long time, I have not felt sorry for myself. And in that moment, I felt sorry for myself and when I looked at the mirror, so looking at me, the age that I am, I was looking at me in a younger age, I found that I was much more vulnerable at that age than here. Because now I can defend myself and protect myself. When I was really younger, how, how did I manage? And I felt really, really, really sorry, you know, for, for myself.

And when I came up, and then I was there, you know, speaking with the late queen. And I felt a sense of is it just really happening to me? Is it just really me that’s standing here or am I dreaming or something? I started thinking about all the people that helped me, thinking about my family, and especially my grandmother supporting me so much. And I hope that she's, you know, sitting there somewhere in heaven and looking down and saying: “My son, I'm proud of you.” And also, I was thinking that I hope that Freedom from Torture is proud of me. And because Freedom from Torture gave me so much. And also at that moment, I was thinking I am so grateful for this country. My country rejected me. My country tortured me. And this country adopted me and gave me the platform. And now among many billion people in the world, I am here standing in front of the queen. Honestly, I cannot describe it. Even today, I was struggling to find a word really to describe it. But I think that's memory, which I think that I'm gonna take, you know, in my career.

Rob Preston: Yeah, absolutely. Um, do you remember what the queen sent to you?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Yeah.

Rob Preston: Was that a private conversation?

Kolbassia Haoussou: I mean, certain people briefed her, I guess. But she was really knowledgeable about me. Because I said to her, as the queen, I am really thankful, and grateful of the opportunity I was given in this country. And I really want to use the opportunity, I mean, to show gratitude. She said: “No, don’t be silly. You have come through and as humanity, we should be doing what we need to do in order for people like you to have a chance in life again. And that's why we need to stand, otherwise who are we? And, third, you need to take credit for all the work that you've done to be to be who you are today.” And I think then she spoke to me about my country of origin. And how was my family, are they okay? And talking to them I said, yes, family is really important. Yeah. Because those are the things that I still remember.

Rob Preston: It's great that she'd done some research, and she'd been briefed, and you had a proper conversation with her.

Kolbassia Haoussou: Definitely.

Rob Preston: Kolbassia, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. It's been amazing speaking to you. As a final question, we're linking into the Charity Awards this year now, so looking ahead to 2024, what advice would you give to anyone, any other charities who are thinking about entering the awards this year?

Kolbassia Haoussou: Yeah. I think, for me, really, you know, enjoy the moment, you know, just suck it in. And I think it's, you know, sometimes we feel like it's one of a million of that you know… And the recognition, those types of recognition. Because sometimes you wake up in the morning and work is so difficult and those recognitions they give you the energy and the motivation to go again. Because after that, my goodness, my energy and my motivation went through the roof.

Rob Preston: I'm glad it had a positive effect.

Kolbassia Haoussou: And I hope that, you know, people will consider the injection of a drive that you can get to go okay, let’s go again.

Rob Preston: Thank you so much, Kolbassia. It’s been a pleasure to meet you.

Kolbassia Haoussou: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

Rob Preston: Thank you for listening to our second-ever podcast episode and thank you to Kolbassia for being such a great guest. Our second Charity Awards special podcast episode will be with Freedom from Torture’s digital campaigns manager Agustina Oliveri, in which we chat more about the charity’s award-winning Stop the Flights campaign. Until then, I hope you stay safe and well and thanks again for listening.

The Charity Awards 2024, delivered in partnership with CCLA Investment Management, are free to enter and your charity gets four free places to attend. To find out more, visit: charityawards.co.uk