Behind Closed Doors: Torture Victims and Recovery It is estimated that thousands of torture survivors are seeking asylum in the United States. Dr. Karen Hanscom of Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma talks about her group's efforts to help those who have experienced torture and war crimes put their lives back together.
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Behind Closed Doors: Torture Victims and Recovery

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Behind Closed Doors: Torture Victims and Recovery

Behind Closed Doors: Torture Victims and Recovery

Behind Closed Doors: Torture Victims and Recovery

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It is estimated that thousands of torture survivors are seeking asylum in the United States. Dr. Karen Hanscom of Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma talks about her group's efforts to help those who have experienced torture and war crimes put their lives back together.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, we'll hear about the drive it takes to become an extreme commuter. But first, earlier in today's program, we talked about the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor who's been charged with crimes against humanity, including torture. That caused us to think about victims of torture. It's estimated there are thousands of torture survivors seeking asylum in the U.S. When they do arrive here, many are alone, broke and emotionally scarred.

Today, in our Behind Closed Doors segment, we look at what it takes to recover from torture and the trauma of war. We're joined by Dr. Karen Hanscom. She is the executive director of Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Her organization, which is based in Baltimore, Maryland, provides mental health and social services for survivors of torture and war crimes. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. KAREN HANSCOM (Executive Director, Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma): Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: Dr. Hanscom, how did you get into this line of work, and how do they come to you?

Dr. HANSCOM: They come from various sources, sometimes from emergency rooms, sometimes from immigration lawyers. We are fortunate to even get some from -immigration judges will ask us to see clients. Sometimes, we get them from Physicians for Human Rights. And the best referrals - because it says something about the feeling of trust that our survivors have in us is - the best referrals are when other clients find somebody and refer them to us.

MARTIN: And forgive me for asking, and I don't want to be gratuitous, but I do think it is important for people to understand what some of the experiences these people have had.

Dr. HANSCOM: Sure. They're individuals that have fled their country. They fled for their lives because they were involved in either political movement, fighting for democracy somewhere or perhaps fighting for human rights - maybe women against female genital mutilation. Maybe they were persecuted and experienced torture because of their religion. The kind of persecution that our folks have experienced is exactly the worst that you would think of when you think of the word torture. Electric shock is used a lot, and it goes to the genitals. And there's forced tooth extractions without anesthetic that aren't necessary, amputations - some pretty awful things.

The worst form of torture that I think that there is, is when a good person like you or I - because that's who get tortured - is people who speak out and believe in their rights. It's when those individuals are tortured by being forced to torture somebody else. They have to torture a family member or a friend or just somebody that they don't even know. And I think that's the worst form of torture, because it just destroys who you are and who you think you are.

MARTIN: Is there such a thing as recovering from torture?

Dr. HANSCOM: Yeah. There really is. It's just like if you'd gotten a very deep scar on your body. It'll heal, but that scar is always going to be there. So anytime there's stress - good stress or bad stress, maybe they get into a university or they get married - they'll go back into the flashbacks and some of the horror of what they - re-experience them.

MARTIN: Why? Why? Especially if it's a happy thing like getting married or graduating, why?

Dr. HANSCOM: It's stress, you know. And any stress increases our adrenaline and has a biochemical reaction. It just seems to set off all of the other symptoms.

MARTIN: What do you think distinguishes those who are able to recover from those who are not? Is there something that just sets them apart?

Dr. HANSCOM: Yeah, good point. In terms of recovery, talking really works. For any of us, if we have fender-bender, first thing we do is tell the next five people what happened to us and we start to calm down. Well, if a survivor can find a safe place, very often telling their story and working through it is very, very healing.

MARTIN: Does it have to be a professional?

Dr. HANSCOM: I totally believe no. I think that certainly it helps to be trained, and it's very difficult work. And so you have to know what you're getting into and the emotional impact that it's going to have on you. However, I really believe that it's a heart connection. I believe that one person in the presence of another person just sitting and listening and opening their heart, I think that's where the healing happens. I think that's what helps the survivor get back to safety and a belief that they can once again impact the world which they lost when they were tortured. It's good, you know, to reach out and let the person have the choice of reaching back or not.

MARTIN: Do you encourage your clients to tell people to disclose this?

Dr. HANSCOM: No.

MARTIN: So how do they get out of the isolation if they never talk to anybody?

Dr. HANSCOM: Yeah. Well, one of the things that starts to bring them back to healing is work. If they're working toward the process of political asylum, at some point they can get a work permit. But unlike refugees, they don't get any help with food or housing or English classes or medical care.

So the folks we see have nothing. When they can get a work permit, that starts to get them back out with other people. And then, of course, churches, places where they can be with other individuals that care and coming to places like ASTT, where they can come and get treatment. But also just, perhaps, hang with another survivor that's here and teach each other the computer.

MARTIN: Is it hard for you sometimes to hear the stories of survivors yourself?

Dr. HANSCOM: Always. Not only to do we hear the worse that a human can do, but the other side is we hear at the very best of the human spirit. We're honored to be sitting with somebody that survived the worse that could happen to another human being. So there is a sense of just honor being in their presence.

MARTIN: You said that many survivors often refer other survivors…

Dr. HANSCOM: Right.

MARTIN: …to the center. Do you keep in touch with people after they pass through your doors? And is there anything you can tell us about, you know, how people are doing?

Dr. HANSCOM: It's fun. Sometimes, you'll hear it from someone that you haven't seen in 10 years, and they'll call. And perhaps things have gotten safer in their country and they're ready to going to return. Or they've come, and perhaps they've been able to bring their children here and maybe enrolled in school.

These folks are very hard workers and really struggle in trying to make their lives rich. And so we have folks that have gone into accounting. We have people that are doing some excellent civic work. They're working in non-profits. Some of them are speaking out about torture and the U.S.'s involvement in torture. So these people do heal after the torture.

MARTIN: You mentioned that sometimes, a form of torture is to force someone else to torture someone close to them…

Dr. HANSCOM: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: …a family member, a neighbor. But I wonder whether some of the people who engaged in torture, do they need - can you treat someone who has tortured other people?

Dr. HANSCOM: Yeah. We can't treat them here, because we have to keep our place safe for the people that have been tortured.

MARTIN: Unless that person was a torturer as a consequence of - that was her own form of humiliation and degradation.

Dr. HANSCOM: Yeah. Oh, that's true, that's different, yeah.

MARTIN: Okay.

Dr. HANSCOM: Yeah. But I believe that they need help. I spoke with the VA once about the need for any U.S. soldiers that have been involved in these kind of things that when they - in Iraq, that when they come home, they're going to need some help.

They're going to need somebody to talk with because when they come back, it's probable that that's going to settle in them as something that they really need to question and talk about and think about.

MARTIN: How do they hear you, or did they hear you? How do they respond to your comments?

Dr. HANSCOM: Well, very well.

MARTIN: Dr. Karen Hanscom is the executive director of Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. She joined us from her office in Baltimore. You can find out more about her organization at our Web site. npr.org/tellmemore. Dr. Hanscom, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. HANSCOM: Oh, thank you.

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