November 2, 2010
Tembeni Fazo: Peer Counseling African Immigrants Living With HIV
by Willette Francis
Since her HIV-positive diagnosis in 2001, Tembeni Fazo has counseled and educated other African and Caribbean immigrants living with the virus. But her work with the African Services Committee (ASC), a Harlem, New York-based nonprofit organization, also includes reaching out to the community to reduce the stigma and discrimination facing those with HIV/AIDS. Here, Fazo talks about the challenges and rewards of her work—and the hopes she holds for the future of HIV.
How did you begin your HIV/AIDS work with African Services Committee?
Originally, I came to ASC as a client. A friend told me about the organization, so I went there to get assistance. They were able to provide housing, legal assistance (for refugee status and asylum for my son [who was] brought to the United States in August 2010). There was a job ad at ASC, and I applied. I had been attending the support group at the organization, and ASC thought it was a good fit. Prior to being a peer counselor at ASC, I was working as a peer counselor for Population Services International (PSI), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Zimbabwe. I also did post-test counseling and adherence counseling at the Parirenyatwa Hospital Opportunistic Clinic. Before that, I was working as a nurse assistant at a private clinic.
You were diagnosed as HIV positive in 2001 in Zimbabwe and became the face of your country’s first national anti-stigma campaign in 2006. What feedback did you receive from the community?
At first most people didn’t believe I was HIV positive, except maybe those who lived in my community. Many Africans don’t think that you can live with HIV, so people didn’t believe me because I looked so healthy. After that campaign, some people asked me my status and started sharing their status with me. They wanted to know how to move forward. As a result, they formed a support group in my community. It really opened a dialogue about HIV. But some thought I was a puppet for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and that I was being paid to say those things about living with HIV.
Then, in 2008, you attended a U.S. HIV/AIDS conference and was unable to return to Zimbabwe because of political circumstances so you came to live in New York City. Why was it so important for you to become a peer counselor for other African and Caribbean immigrants living with HIV?
I think that the stigma I experienced within my family and community at large, even the stigma directed at my son [because of my status], made me realize that people were uneducated about HIV/AIDS. They didn’t know what the virus was about. I felt motivated to educate people so that these thoughts and feelings about [people living with HIV] could be corrected.
I know that being diagnosed with HIV isn’t something everyone instantly accepts. I feel that at ASC, I can help people who have no family and friends—nothing. I think by helping those in the African community and being a peer counselor to other Africans, it gives people hope because we are “talking the same language.” We are both African and dealing with the same issues.
I also realized that my work is a part of my life. It’s not a job. This work helps me as much as the people I counsel. For me, what’s helpful is being around people and talking about HIV with them, or other times not even talking about that but just routinely interacting with each other.
What challenges do you face educating African and Caribbean immigrants about the virus?
In Zimbabwe, it was difficult talking about HIV because people didn’t understand the basics, such as modes of transmission. They also didn’t understand that there was life after an HIV-positive diagnosis, so it was difficult to change the perception that HIV was a death sentence. They would ask me questions such as, “So I get a test and then what? I’m going to die anyway.” In the African immigrant community, it’s very difficult to have HIV discussions because no one believes in counseling. That kind of dialogue is not supported.
And it’s the same here in the United States. People [in our communities] won’t admit they need help. No one wants to talk about HIV. The stigma is huge. Even when you mention it, they don’t want to be associated with an HIV-positive person or HIV in general. In New York those challenges exist. I think stigma is worse here because back home we talk about it and are bombarded by advertisements. I have educated so many people back home—including churches and businesses. Here, mentioning the word HIV changes people. They don’t want to hear it.
As a peer counselor for ASC, what are your responsibilities?
As an Independent Living Skills counselor, I assist clients to help them realize they are capable of doing many things. They are very talented, but because of their HIV-positive status they tend to look down on themselves. I encourage them to have confidence and empower them to take control of their lives. I also socialize with, and offer counseling to, anyone who wants to speak with me.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
What I enjoy most and find most rewarding is when someone who has just received positive results comes to me. When I talk to that person, I give them my testimony. They usually return to ASC with smiles on their faces. It makes me feel like I have saved a soul when they come in so down and suicidal. By sharing my story, it gives them hope.
You are also involved in ASC's anti-stigma initiative, "Would You Do It?" How does it reduce HIV stigma and discrimination?
It opens a dialogue where there is none. Then, once people start talking about HIV, there is a way forward. Once people are quiet, we’re dead in our tracks. No communication equals no progress. At least when people start talking you can hear their fears and thoughts and address them. For the initiative, I appeared as a spokesperson and disclosed my status to the community. The goal was to empower other HIV-positive people to also speak up.
What are your future plans for HIV/AIDS work in the Caribbean and African communities?
I feel that the sky is the limit. I’m not stopping at any point. I would love to have my own consultancy and continue to educate and empower HIV-positive women. I also want to start working with youth because that is where the future is. If we have an HIV-free youth population, that’s a dream realized.
Search: Tembeni Fazo, African Services Committee's anti-stigma campaign, HIV/ADS, stigma among African and Caribbean immigrants, Zimbabwe nongovernmental organizations
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