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Young recovering heroin addicts provide sanctuary for their peers

Around a dim-lit pool table tucked off the labyrinthine one-way streets of the crowded island capital of Male', young men shoot billiards and sway to Bob Marley. Starfish are printed on the walls and baby lobsters hide under rocks in a cloudy fish-tank. For Anil and 150 other young Maldivians recovering from heroin addiction, this is sanctuary.

“I joined Journey because I wanted to stay clean and sober. Even now this place is helping me recover, while I'm helping other addicts recover,” says Anil, 27, a former addict who started using heroin at 15 and now helps manage Journey and provides counseling to recovering addicts.
Set up by 10 recovering addicts in late 2005 to provide post-rehabilitation care and prevention services, Journey is staffed by 12 recovering addicts who provide daily group counseling, 12-step programmes, drug awareness, harm reduction and outreach for parents, school students, recovering addicts and those still using. Journey is the cornerstone of UNICEF's Drug Prevention and Recovery Project.

Teaming up to fight drug abuse

This relationship began in 2006, when UNICEF worked with Indonesia's leading drug recovery NGO, YAKITA, to train Journey staff in peer education, counseling, outreach and HIV prevention. In addition, UNICEF sponsored the first drug use self-survey, done by young people recovering from addiction. Official estimates put the number of heroin users at 3,000 – an alarming one percent of the populace – but many believe that the problem runs even deeper.

“We're working with young people at Journey as partners to reach children and adolescents, who normally remain well under the radar,” says Laura Fragiacomo, UNICEF's head of Child and Adolescent Protection in the Maldives. “Through Journey, peer educators will be trained for a month, then go into schools to share information with students on HIV, drugs and STDs. We're trying to develop a community-based intervention, so that children with drug problems can be identified at an early stage.”

Journey's founding members used to meet in coffee shops, until the National Narcotics Control Bureau (NCCB) agreed to house them in a courtyard on its premises. Journey staff spruced it up, installed a fish-pond and set up an office and recreation hall, and a local businessman donated the billiard table.

“In the Maldives, addicts are the butt of jokes and are blamed for every crime. Even when we go to one of the billiard halls outside, the other guys give us looks. It's better to hang out here, we don't get humiliated,” says Ubaid, who spends most of his day at Journey, joining discussion groups in the morning and playing pool in the afternoon.

“I know that people here are willing to help,” says Andu, 25. “We don't feel lonely here. We feel welcome. We feel secure. We feel wanted.”

Fear the spread of HIV

With injection of heroin increasing, there is fear that HIV/AIDS may enter this nation, which has thus far been largely spared from the epidemic. Syringes are not easy to come by; injection rates are rising; and many users end up sharing needles, as well as engaging in unsafe sexual behaviors. “Young people are idle and frustrated,” says Ms. Fragiacomo. “Drug addiction has a national impact, and to combat HIV we have to deal with addiction.”

Anil has been clean for 18 months. He is one of three Journey staff members whom UNICEF is sending to Indonesia for training by YAKITA in peer counseling. The plan is to make Journey the lever for a national push towards prevention, harm reduction, and recovery.  “Most of the addicts don't know what addiction is, so I am trying to teach them about it and how to recover,” he says. “From their feedback, I always learn something for myself. Journey gives me strength and help for my own recovery.”

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