Healing After Oppressive Force: Center for Victims of Torture

Stories were shared at a recent Center for Victims of Torture conversation in Minneapolis — teenage girls regularly raped, people denied food and sleep, beatings. One young girl ran away from abduction with an injured friend, who died in her arms. The girl walked night and day to find a community that would help her.

There are as many as 1.3 million survivors of politically motivated torture living in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers come to Minnesota. Many of them come here “fleeing from situations in which their power has been stripped away and they can’t be full persons, can’t be part of civil society, can’t do what gives them dignity,” says Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.Minnesota can be a safe place where immigrants and refugees can rebuild lives and reclaim personal power. It is also a difficult place to recover, where the language, the ethnicities, the cultural and religious life is dramatically different.

Questions faced by these newcomers to Minnesota include: How do you find work in a culture that tends to rely on word of mouth and professional networking? How do you find the resources needed to be re-united with family after fleeing a dangerous situation? How do you find friends and a sense of belonging, to feel that your existence matters? Where do you regain a sense of dignity? How do the nightmares stop? How can you feel secure again?

The good news,” says McKenzie, “is that it is a chapter in somebody’s book. It’s not their whole life.”

Reclaiming self

Advocates for Human Rights was founded in Minnesota in 1983. From a legal stance, the organization of lawyers, advocates and volunteers push the U.S. government to provide asylum to those who are eligible for it. They also seek to make the asylum application process a more humane one, free of detention centers and de-humanizing procedures. Advocates work, McKenzie says “to restore power to communities whose stories are being swept under the rug.”

The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) spun off in 1985 to focus on helping individual victims of trauma reclaim a sense of personal power.

If the purpose of torture is to rob people of the ability to have human connection, it is the role of torture recovery services to give that ability back. A global team of therapists and volunteers helps victims of human rights violations recuperate and adjust in a new culture. The St. Paul Healing Center was consciously designed to help torture survivors feel safe — curved hallway, windows, soft light.

With CVT’s Community Guides program (formerly called Befrienders), a torture survivor and recent arrival to the United States is paired with a Minnesotan who “befriends” the survivor. Volunteers “help with practical things, like learning how to ride the bus and taking the client to the laundromat. There’s a huge network of volunteers solely dedicated to teaching clients how to ride a bike and providing and maintaining the bikes,” says Wickum. “Befrienders develop a genuine relationship with the clients, inviting them over to their homes, introducing them to their families. That’s what is most important.”

“One of the primary purposes of torture is to destroy people’s sense of human connection,” says Beth Wickum, director of volunteer services at CVT. 

Women everywhere are at risk of sexual violence. In some cultures, young girls who are raped are rejected by society for the abuse suffered. Discipline at the hands of a husband is acceptable. Suppression and resignation to the power imbalance leads to a loss of self. Nairobi-based clinic psychologist Elizabeth Mbatha Muli, who works on gender-based violence in Kenya, explained that the primary goal is to remind people that they are not broken. “You are still in control of your life,” she says, is the message.

Seeing daily abuses is depressing, Muli acknowledges. Yet she stays motivated because she sees clients thrive with thereapeutic programs such as CVT’s Community Guides. It motivates her to continue. “It works. We see results.”Survivors of trauma, and the women who work with them, know all too well that helping people to survive is just the first step. It is after you get them to safety that the real work — the work of reconnecting them to their humanity and helping them to build healthy, meaningful lives — begins.