Healing and Hope for Torture Survivors

Today is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It is a day to reaffirm our commitment to caring for those and their families who have endured and survived such brutality.

It is also a day to stand up to prevent torture from occurring. For years, I have been advocating for New York State legislation to prevent health professionals from participating in the torture and mistreatment of detainees. We know from the release of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Summary that U.S. health professionals played a central role in the design and implementation of the CIA's torture program, making this legislation timelier than ever.

Every day, my colleagues and I at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture care for survivors from all over the world, who now call New York City home. We provide them with outstanding medical, mental health, social and legal services regardless of ability to pay.

Sadly, demand for our services has never been higher. Our waiting list for a new appointment is the longest it's ever been- 5 months. But we always do our best to find more room at the table.

Recently, on a Friday afternoon around 5:30pm we did just that. An African couple and their children presented at our Program's door. They had heard about us from someone they met after recently arriving in the U.S. They were forced to flee their home because of peaceful political activities. Both were professionals in their country. "We came here because we didn't know where else to go" the husband told us.

My colleagues and I directed them to urgent housing, after their children were seen in Bellevue's Pediatric Emergency room. We provided them with some cash assistance to get through the weekend. When they returned to our program early the following week, we formally enrolled them in our program.

Since then, we helped this family obtain pro-bono legal assistance. We provided them with medical and psychological care. Our social services team helped them find temporary housing.

My colleagues and I know that there is nothing we can do to erase the horrible things that happened. But we know from the thousands of individuals we have cared for over the past 20 years, that healing is possible, that there is much we can do to help torture survivors rebuild their lives.

Here's what we know lies down the road. Each month we are able to help many of our patients reunite with their families. Given that we are in our 20th year of doing this, we are now seeing clients become U.S. citizens and making important contributions to their new country.

For example, one former patient of mine, who was a physician in his former country, came to our program nearly a decade ago after having been horribly persecuted, beaten, and abused in unspeakable ways in his former country. When I first saw him, he literally had not had a good night of sleep in years. Often he would sit in a chair at night, scared to go to sleep for fear of experiencing nightmares of the horrible things he had endured. He also had terrible muscle pain because he had been beaten all over his body.

Through our program he received medical care, went through physical therapy and his pain was alleviated. He participated in one of our many support groups that we use for clients from all over the world to help rebuild community. He was granted asylum, subsequently became a U.S. citizen, married and had children, and as he was working at any job he could find, he studied to become re-certified to practice medicine in this country. In addition to the joy of seeing a former patient of mine healed and recovered, I also have the privilege of calling him a colleague here in the U.S.

Across the U.S. there are programs like ours that help rebuild lives each and every day. The oldest is the Center for Victims of Torture. The National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs (NCTTP) is a U.S. based network of programs that care for survivors of torture. Internationally, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) is an umbrella organization that supports survivors of torture worldwide.