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Staff Insights

CVT Georgia: Caring for Refugees and Asylum Seekers during Challenging Times

By Adaobi Iheduru, Program Manager
Published September 29, 2020
A brick wall with barbed wire, painted with the American flag. Several silhouettes line the wall.

Dr. Adaobi Iheduru, LP, is clinic manager and psychologist at CVT Georgia.

When clients come to us at CVT here in Atlanta, they have been through an exhausting journey, but they are not yet at its end. They come to us because they have heard we can help them recover after torture and traumatic experiences. However, beyond mental health needs, many are looking for basic kinds of care – help with jobs, legal questions, health care and more. For this reason, we use a holistic approach with psychotherapy, clinical case management and professional interpretation. Today, as COVID-19 continues its devastating spread, our mental health care and support services are addressing critical needs.

Clients come to us from many, many different countries; we generally have 15-20 countries represented among our clients at a given time. A large number come from Central and South America – El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela – coming to the U.S. Southern border seeking asylum from persecution. In some cases clients are fleeing violence or conscription into gangs or militias. In those cases, oftentimes family members are threatened, kidnapped or killed, so those left behind must flee for their lives as a group.

Others seek asylum because they were persecuted because of their sexual orientation. Many clients tell us of being beaten, kidnapped and tortured because they are LGBTQ – we hear this from clients from countries in Central America and also Africa. And there are other cases where people’s lives are in danger because of their religion or political views.

And it is always hard to get here. Central American clients often pay guides known as “coyotes,” who claim they will help them get to the U.S. Southern border but sometimes take the money only to abandon them in remote areas. I hear over and over of situations where clients paid a coyote as a guide who then held them hostage and demanded money from their family, keeping them captive until they are paid. While being held, clients are sometimes forced to do labor, beaten, raped. Clients describe how they planned and then made harrowing, violent escapes from captivity.

Some regions south of the U.S. border are known as particularly dangerous; for example, we hear a lot about the jungles in Panama. In some countries, asylum seekers are arbitrarily thrown in prison as they attempt to pass through.

Then when clients arrive at the United States, they face new challenges and, for most of them, detention in a U.S. immigration center. Many clients are surprised to find themselves put into a prison; one client said to me, “I was treated like a criminal, like I did something bad.” And they report dreadful conditions in these prisons:  receiving inadequate food and water, as well as unresponsiveness to requests for medical care or worse. Recently, allegations have surfaced regarding lack of consent for medical procedures including hysterectomies at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Irwin, Georgia, a place where some of CVT Georgia clients have been held in the past, which is incredibly alarming.

And beyond detention, they face challenges with jobs and financial stability that have been compounded by new policies that severely limit their ability to work. In addition, ICE is used as a threat – some clients have shared situations where their boss refused to pay them and threatened to call ICE on them. In many situations, they are vulnerable or in outright danger and have no voice to say anything.

We step in to help wherever we can. We connect clients to many kinds of resources and advocate for them. And as we have faced the COVID pandemic, we help clients make transitions in many ways, including supplying or connecting them to food resources when employment was threatened, as well as helping them get the equipment and technology needed for children’s schooling and their CVT counseling sessions. Today, we are conducting all our care virtually, and clients have adapted to it well, once they were able to access stable internet and technology. We continue to talk with clients about many aspects of technology and we troubleshoot ways to help.

I am constantly amazed by the resilience and strength of our clients, which has become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Clients have shown tremendous courage during these times, continuing to focus on their healing and keeping their families safe. In response to my questions about how they were doing, one client said “We have been through a lot of pain already and we survived, we can get through this too.” Another client said “I am not worried about myself, I am worried about the impact of all of this on humanity.”

Even in the most challenging time in the world, despite their own difficulties, our clients are able to display incredible compassion for others and the world; that itself is very inspiring.

Adaobi Iheduru
About The Author
Dr. Adaobi Iheduru
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