What is the Refuge Media Project?

Throughout the world, millions of men, women, and children are subjected to physical and psychological torture, disappearances, and other forms of politically motivated violence and abuse. Resolutions by the international community are ignored with impunity. Public debate in the United States following the revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo focused not on if torture should be permitted, but on how much torture, and when. The Refuge Media Project is producing a hour-long documentary on treatment and support programs for immigrant torture survivors in the United States. In future projects we will continue to explore the impact of torture not only on its victims, but on its perpetrators, and on societies that tolerate or encourage torture as well.

Caring for Survivors of Torture

An African woman leans wearily on a table, looking directly at the viewer; a young child is leaning against her back, with his or her arms around her neck.Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture will be an hour-long video documentary — plus several shorter ancillary films — on the identification, treatment, and support of immigrant torture survivors living in the United States. The film will be a powerful tool for educating, engaging, and motivating healthcare, mental health and social service providers and students, as well as community organizers and groups serving immigrant communities.

The goals of the film are:

  • to increase public awareness and understanding of the situations of torture survivors and their families in our communities;
  • to help providers recognize torture survivors among their immigrant clients;
  • to demonstrate ways that providers can effectively confront the issues that are unique to immigrant torture survivors;
  • to motivate, inspire and empower clinicians and students to meet the needs of this growing and increasingly vulnerable population.

An estimated 500,000 immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the United States have been victims of politically motivated torture. They come here from Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia — some legally, some undocumented, some with families and some very much alone. They live in major cities and in small towns. Some survivors bear visible scars, but many more have been wounded in ways that remain hidden.

Some survivors may visit clinics, primary healthcare providers or hospital emergency rooms seeking relief from their suffering — though many will do so only in emergencies — but they may not receive appropriate care. Survivors have told us that too often care providers treat only their obvious symptoms without addressing their histories or the underlying causes of the physical and psychological trauma they have experienced.

Refuge will enable torture survivors to speak to the healthcare community about their experiences as patients. What are the healthcare needs of this population? What have been the obstacles to their receiving appropriate and competent care? Have there been times when they have felt “re-victimized” by their healthcare encounters? How have they used their own healing traditions to relieve suffering and pain? What recommendations do they have for their providers?

For those who are in the process of applying for political asylum in the United States, how does their legal status affect their access to healthcare? What are the particular obstacles to health-care for asylum seekers? What are the obstacles to care for immigrants who, for one reason or another, are in government detention? How can clinicians help and support asylum seekers and detainees?

Refuge will also examine the experiences of healthcare and social service providers who work with survivors who have trauma-related conditions. What are the challenges to providing care, and what have been the barriers to effective intervention? What are the personal and professional factors that may sometimes prevent otherwise caring clinicians from responding appropriately? What is possible in a primary-care setting? What do specialists offer? It will also profile physicians and mental health professionals who examine survivors seeking political asylum in the United States, in order to provide expert testimony for asylum hearings. What are the practical and ethical issues they face? What are the special challenges confronted by those seeking to help refugees who are in federal detention? What kind of communication is there among the care providers dealing with each case? How do refugees’ own beliefs and healing traditions fit into the picture?

Refuge is working with some of the country’s major centers providing treatment and other forms of support to torture survivors, as well as with local refugee organizations, health centers, and other groups working on these issues. The film will include extensive interviews with healthcare providers as well as interviews with torture survivors, along with their own art work, writing and storytelling about their experiences of trauma and recovery. It will also incorporate verité footage of provider training sessions, real patient-provider encounters, and a wide variety of other documentary material.

Producers Ben Achtenberg and Roz Dzelzitis have track records of working effectively around difficult and sensitive issues and, in this project, will be particularly responsive to the needs for privacy and compassion toward those who participate in the film, both on and off camera. Further information on project staff, advisors, and outreach partners…

Fiscal Sponsor:  Our fiscal sponsor is The Center for Independent Documentary, a 501(c)3 organization which collaborates with independent filmmakers, offering assistance and support in bringing their films to completion. All contributions made to The Refuge Media Project via The Center for Independent Documentary are tax deductible. Donate Now!



When making your donation, please be sure to select The Refuge Media Project from the drop-down menu for “Purpose of Your Donation.”