Not long ago, a young Eritrean man came to CVT’s healing center in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He had been through a living hell that had left him alone, physically wrecked and mentally untethered. His story of torture, hardship, resilience and new life is one I would like to share as an example of the many lives that CVT and the global human rights community are honoring today, June 26 - the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
“After I settled into the refugee camp, I began having a difficult time,” Yonas* told us at CVT. “I was struggling with everything I had been through. It was too much. There were times when I was hurting myself. I wanted to kill myself. I had no person to talk to.” Without a mental health resource in the camp, everything he had been through might have proved too overwhelming. Yonas’ story is a story many people could share arriving in refugee camps. Upon arrival, they receive food, shelter and first aid, but the mental health resources available to refugees remain woefully inadequate. The mental scars left by violence and torture often linger much longer than physical pain. CVT extends counseling and community mental health care to thousands of people just like Yonas, but it cannot meet the needs of all who need it, people who have endured torture and war trauma.
Last year, CVT extended healing to nearly 5,000 victims of torture. They find us through word of mouth, public announcements, healthcare referrals or social media. The demand is great. At our healing center in St. Paul, there is a six-month waiting period for care. We estimate that of the refugees living in the United States, 1.3 million have experienced torture. That is nearly half of all refugees in America. Globally, the number of survivors is countless and the need for rehabilitation care is immense. Through advocacy and healing services for survivors, CVT and other torture rehabilitation organizations play a role in building a future vision for trauma care, creating bridges between torture victims, the local community and the whole of society. Despite the current political climate, CVT and our colleagues the world over persist in seeing a future free from torture. And yet this vision has been troubled by certain messages coming out of Washington.
Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has gone on record saying that promoting human rights values is an obstacle in the pursuit of U.S. economic or security interests. In a mere matter of months, the Trump administration has overturned decades of human rights progress, progress painstakingly built with bipartisan consensus. Human rights, human dignity and democracy are vital components of U.S. national security and economic policy, but the message in Tillerson’s words is unmistakable: the U.S. does not much care about human rights, whether its own human rights obligations, or promoting respect for human rights in other countries. Previously unthinkable situations, such as the U.S. president as an outspoken advocate for torture, or his enthusiastic endorsement of regimes characterized by massive human rights violations have already become part of the “new normal.” If these views are allowed to prevail, the implications for survivors like Yonas are terrible. He and so many others just like him will be caught between incomprehensible violence on one side and U.S. disregard on the other. We cannot let this happen.
We must use the occasion of June 26 to speak on behalf of torture survivors around the world. Torture has been used to silence them, to break them and instill fear in their communities. But what we’ve learned at CVT is that their torture does not define them and often does not silence them for long. The setbacks created by the Trump administration are merely that: setbacks. And the human rights community has faced setbacks before. Unthinkable situations have occurred in the past. The unimaginable has arisen at other times in history. Yonas survived many setbacks in his journey, faced the unthinkable throughout, but found a return to hope and not only hope, but a renewed sense of purpose. “Now, I help people to come to CVT,” he describes his efforts in the refugee camp to convince others to seek help. “I tell them there is life in CVT.”
Yonas is right. This June 26, as we honor and support the survivors of torture, we should also bear in mind that today is also in honor of overcoming setbacks, of not succumbing to hopelessness, of choosing life and rejecting torture.