The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

December 9, 2013

Helping immigrant victims of torture heal


“I see my kids have a future here. I see meaning to life that wasn’t there before.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement established the torture survivor program to bring emotional care to refugees, asylees and other immigrants arriving in the U.S. with psychological and physical scars. Each year, it distributes $11 million to agencies across the country working to help make them whole.

The program is new to Seattle, which received its first round of funding a year ago and where some 250 victims from nearly 40 countries are being helped.

“All of a sudden, we were hearing more torture-survival stories coming out of the Middle East — people who had been kidnapped and held in captivity,” said Beth Farmer, program director of International Counseling and Community Services, the grant applicant.

“We knew about the violence, the war ... so we started asking our clients.”

And the stories they would tell.

Refugees, immigrants and asylees, men and women, they speak of being starved, raped, hacked, humiliated, beaten, deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shock, simulated drowning, confined to impossibly small spaces, forced to watch their own children die.

For many, the idea of talking to strangers about what happened to them is foreign. In some cultures, Farmer said, “mental health means the same as crazy. There’s no mind map for it.”

While the three agencies over the years had been referring torture patients among them, the project formalized that relationship and got practitioners to go deeper to ask patients questions they weren’t asking before.

Even doctors at Harborview’s International Medicine Clinic, which for decades had been treating some of these patients — including the first wave of refugees from Southeast Asia — didn’t always know about the torture in their past.

At Harborview, “We are used to thinking of gunshot victims, of life on the streets, and not necessarily of this kind of trauma,” said clinic director Carey Jackson.

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