*the client’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Survivors of Torture, International (SURVIVORS) is the only accredited torture treatment center in San Diego, California and is one of the 18 IRCT-accredited torture treatment centers in the U.S. and Canada. Since its inception 20 years ago, SURVIVORS has served over 2,000 clients from over 80 countries. Torture survivors who go to San Diego become part of the SURVIVORS’ family, and many keep in touch long after they stop receiving treatment. Today, SURVIVORS’ current and former clients are going to school, starting their own businesses, working full-time, and becoming U.S. citizens. Here is a Q&A with a former client who shares his story and his successes that many other SURVIVORS’ clients ultimately achieve.
Question: Where are you from and why did you leave your home country?
Abebe: I am from Ethiopia. I fled because I was active in a political party against the corrupt government in power that was oppressing people and violating human rights. They imprisoned and tortured me and they killed many people. That’s why I left Ethiopia.
Q: What was it like when you first arrived here?
A: At the beginning it was very difficult because I didn’t have any documents and I was not able to work or study. I didn’t have a community and I only knew a few people. I was not stable financially. It was stressful. Q: How did you hear about SURVIVORS? A: I heard about SURVIVORS from my lawyer. She told me they could help me with some basic needs including a psychological and medical evaluation that would support my asylum case.
Q: What was it like being at SURVIVORS for the first time?
A: I just liked the place. It’s very peaceful and everyone was very nice and welcoming to me. I felt at home. I knew that I would be helped.
Q: What services did you participate in?
A: Besides the documentation for my case I went to counseling for three years; it was, of course, free of charge. I also went to group therapy where we painted, told stories, and learned to write. I was matched with a volunteer family. It was very nice for me. We used to go hiking and go to the beach. SURVIVORS also helped me get a scholarship to take a GRE preparatory course and pay for the test. Most importantly, they helped with basic needs like hygiene products and even food.
Q: Are you still in touch with the people you met at SURVIVORS?
A: Yes. My befriender and I exchange emails. And I constantly see SURVIVORS. When I became a U.S. citizen, even though I gave short notice, SURVIVORS came. Even my friends couldn’t come, but SURVIVORS was there for that big moment of my life.
Q: How long was it before you started to feel better and to feel like a part of the community?
A: At the beginning I felt very alone. After about a year and a half I got my work permit which made me more productive and helped me meet people. SURVIVORS helped me meet people too, so I became more relaxed and more focused. Now I’m studying to get my master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership and SURVIVORS helped me find the program and information on how to apply.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: I worked as a case manager for three years assisting refugees and asylees. Right now I am focusing on school and I will graduate in May. I work part-time as an interpreter. I also volunteer for Casa Cornelia [a local public interest law firm] with interpretation to help other Ethiopians those who are asylum seekers.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
A: Of course, I want to finish my education and find a job in my field in the United States. One day I plan to go back to Ethiopia to open a nonprofit because there is a lot of need for that. Otherwise, I’d like to work for the United Nations or an international organization.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: I’d like people to know that the work SURVIVORS does is really amazing and a person like me has been helped to become productive. They are open-minded, trusting, and friendly, but also professional and help us and guide us to become the people we want to be. I still continue to feel like a part of the SURVIVORS’ community and I really enjoy it. Whenever I think about SURVIVORS I always feel safe. I hope and pray that the mission of SURVIVORS will spread all over the world so that they can help more people – people like me.
This blog is a re-print of the interview originally printed in SURVIVORS’ Newsletter, “The Survivor”, Volume 19, Issue 2 (November 2016). Learn more about the work of SURVIVORS and support their work at http://www.notorture.org.