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Meeting the Needs of Torture Survivors

2012 August 30

(Today’s post is the first from our new guest writer, Jane McPherson, LCSW. Jane is a social services consultant with the Torture Abolition & Survivor Support Coalition in Washington, DC.  She represented TASSC at the meeting described here.)

In today’s climate, strengthening
community connections may be critical…

On the evening of  Tuesday, August 21st, about 30 social workers, case managers and therapists took a stroll through Ruby Garden in Chicago, Illinois, munching on sorrel and sage (and harvesting salad greens and basil for dinner).  Ruby Garden—the community garden where the Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center, one of the oldest torture treatment centers in North America, maintains plots alongside other community organizations—was the source of our evening’s lesson, as well as our supper.
            The current US climate of suspicion and hostility toward immigration poses a significant threat to the most vulnerable of new arrivals: survivors of torture. Negative feelings towards immigrants are not shared by all Americans, of course, but they are widespread, and may undermine efforts to integrate immigrants into our communities, as well as to maintain funding for the organizations that serve survivors and other immigrants. These are the concerns that brought us to Chicago from torture treatment centers across the country—Maine, Maryland, California, Connecticut, Michigan, Utah, Florida, Minnesota, DC, Texas, Maryland, Vermont, New York, Missouri, Virginia, Massachusetts—to share our experiences and to strategize about Meeting Social Service Needs of Torture Survivors in the Current Climate.  
Tuesday night – which culminated in an international dinner at Kovler with food from Bosnia, Haiti, Togo and Ethiopia – was the highlight of 2-1/2 days of group work and skill building. The meeting was organized by the National Capacity Building Project (NCB) of the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, Minnesota.  NCB, with funding from Office of Refugee Resettlement, provides technical assistance to torture treatment programs across the USA.  Among NCB’s many excellent services is their informative HealTorture website.
            According to Carol White, NCB’s manager, the need for the meeting arose from current events: the combination of the severe recession and the anti-immigrant legislation that has been proposed or enacted in several states.  Responding to these trends, a major focus of our meeting was creating connections between our clients and our communities. Susan Downs-Karkos of Welcoming America gave our Keynote Address, presenting her work “involving mainstream Americans in immigrant integration” and invited all of us to be involved.
            Using Kim Snyder’s thoughtful film, “Welcome to Shelbyville,” Downs-Karkos gave us the example of Shelbyville, Tennessee, where bridges are being built between the town’s traditional white and African-American citizens and Hispanic and Somali newcomers.  The bridges, however, don’t build themselves.  If we want to make our communities more welcoming to immigrants, we must engage what Welcoming America calls “the receiving community” and reach out to people who may have fears.  Welcoming America offers a variety of materials supporting their goals, including their “Receiving Communities Toolkit.” (To download or purchase a copy of “Welcome to Shelbyville,” visit the filmmaker’s website.)
            Other torture treatment centers shared their strategies to reach out. The Center for Survivors of Torture in San Jose, CA, Survivors of Torture International in San Diego, CA, and Utah Health and Human Rights all invite community members in regularly to tour their facilities and meet survivors; the Torture Abolition & Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) in Washington, DC, brings survivors into the community with its “Truth Speakers” program; and Minnesota’s Center for Victims of Torture provides training in the community for potential employers, neighbors, etc.
            Dinner at Kovler was actually an immersion experience in one of their very successful strategies to connect survivors to each other and to the community at large.  Led by staff occupational therapist Mary Black, Kovler hosts twice-monthly Friday night Cooking Groups. On lovely summer afternoons, these cooking groups begin in the garden and proceed to Kovler’s kitchen, where survivors, friends, volunteers and staff members create mountains of food for all comers.  According to Sebastien Davis-VanGelder, a Kovler case manager, dinner is usually ready by 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., and folks sometimes stay late in the evening dancing and sharing in multiple languages.  Davis-VanGelder says that a bit of case-management can often be accomplished over dinner, too.  I expect that several of us came home from Chicago planning suppers in our own communities.

Post by Jane McPherson, LCSW



2 comments on “Meeting the Needs of Torture Survivors

  1. Paula Kiger on said:

    Fascinating, Jane! Maybe planning a dinner here in Tallahassee?!

  2. Haitham Jasim on said:

    Fabulous, Jane! I like the fact that this article captured our amazing, and my first ever, survivors of torture’s case workers conference/meeting and recorded it for the history. Jane your article was fascinating in the way that when I’m done I felt it like it was a very good sandwich yet a very healthy one! You started nicely with Ruby Garden of the Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center then detoured to talk about the conference and challenges facing our centers and jobs in addition to the communities that are receiving survivors of tortures. By the end of the article, Jane; again; drove the reader back to Chicago to taste what’s that garden produced and what Kovler’s client made as a feast for our eyes and souls.
    well done, Jane! And by the way, I need to send you those photos as I promised.

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