In June of 2016, CVT Georgia began extending care to refugee survivors of torture across the greater Atlanta area after many months of preparation. Andrea Northwood, Ph.D., LP, CVT director of client services, said “We knew from our decades of experience in Minnesota that it is important to reach refugee torture survivors who need treatment early in their arrival and resettlement to help them become successful. As the Atlanta area was resettling many refugees when we started, we focused on this group.” To do this, in the early days of the new center, CVT held a unique partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an international humanitarian and refugee resettlement agency which had been working with the refugee populations in the area for many years.
CVT Georgia began with, and today uses, a holistic model of care incorporating psychotherapy, mental health case management, and interpretation to address the unique needs of each client in a safe therapeutic space.”
CVT Georgia began with, and today uses, a holistic model of care incorporating psychotherapy, mental health case management, and interpretation to address the unique needs of each client in a safe therapeutic space. The IRC referred cases to CVT, which provided newly-resettled refugees the opportunity to get access to a wider range of services. The first CVT office was located next to the IRC’s office in Atlanta.
Adaobi Iheduru, Psy.D., LP, clinic manager and psychologist, noted at the time that torture treatment services in the area were non-existent but very much needed. And then she began to see that requests for care for asylum seekers quickly increased as word spread about the program. “The program has been able to expand its reach, so from the beginning it started as a service for refugees, specifically newly arrived refugees, but that has changed due to the growing need,” Dr. Iheduru said.
Partners agreed. “The services that CVT brings to the community are so critical,” said Justin Howell, IRC executive director for Atlanta, Tallahassee and Miami. “There’s such a lack of mental health services, broadly speaking. But when you add the additional cultural and linguistic barriers that often may preclude some of the clients that we serve from seeking some of those services—to have an organization that is sensitive to those needs is really important.”
In order to meet the greater needs and due to a more diverse funding source, the program expanded its eligibility criteria in early 2017. Clinicians began to reach more asylum seekers and other immigrants, and to learn about the needs of populations unique to the Atlanta area, which had long been known for its large communities of new Americans.
Dr. Heval Kelli, Emory cardiologist and member of CVT Georgia’s Advisory Council, said tht it’s “meaningful to have a place where people feel comfortable to come to get the necessary care – where they can’t get it many places.” Dr. Kelli explained that resources for mental health services and trauma care are extremely limited in the U.S. in general, and that compared with other populations “refugees and immigrants are even more underserved when it comes to receiving this care.” Dr. Kelli noted that as a former refugee himself and now a doctor, being active with CVT Georgia not only, “gives me a personal satisfaction, but also allows me to make a greater impact on the community at a larger level.”
Video: Listen to reflections from CVT Georgia staff and partners.
One of the foundations of the program has been the understanding that for people who survived torture, learning how to find one’s way and adapt as newcomers to the United States presents layers of challenges. As Isabel Flores, Portuguese interpreter at CVT Georgia explained, “When you leave a country – first of all as an immigrant myself – it’s the most difficult decision that you’re making in your life because you’re leaving behind your family, everything you know, your culture, your language. And the only reason why people do that is to get a better life.” Isabel commented that in the U.S., “It’s hard to see that people here can’t see that.” Isabel noted that refugees face obstacles and can feel that their hope is gone. That’s where CVT steps in. “So having CVT to help them to navigate this very, very hard path that they have in front of them, it’s unbelievable,” she said.
When you leave a country – first of all as an immigrant myself – it’s the most difficult decision that you’re making in your life because you’re leaving behind your family, everything you know, your culture, your language.”Isabel Flores, Portuguese interpreter, CVT Georgia
When you leave a country – first of all as an immigrant myself – it’s the most difficult decision that you’re making in your life because you’re leaving behind your family, everything you know, your culture, your language.”
Isabel Flores, Portuguese interpreter, CVT Georgia
Growth and Expansion for Policy Advocacy and Development
The program grew rapidly, and in 2017, the team extended care to 59 clients, representing 13 ethnicities and speaking 20 languages. As the program grew and focused on emerging client needs, changes were made. In February 2018, CVT introduced a new role focusing on advocacy and development initiatives to further support and empower clients, hiring Darlene Lynch as head of external relations for CVT Georgia. “I’m here to help clear the path for survivors of torture so they can focus on their healing,” Darlene said.
The team worked quickly to establish partnerships, which Darlene notes “we can draw on to make Georgia a more welcoming place for refugees and immigrants and to lift up human rights issues.” She mentioned partners including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Carter Center and the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA). “All partners we’re very glad and honored to be working with,” Darlene said. In addition, CVT’s Georgia Advisory Council was established, with experts in human rights, torture treatment, refugee rights and policy advocacy, all providing guidance and support.
Moving to Clarkston!
In 2018, the center moved to a new location in Clarkston, a city known as the most diverse square mile in America. This move made CVT much more accessible to the refugee populations and survivors among them. The team set up the operation in a house that was adapted to meet clients’ needs, with comfortable surroundings that feel welcoming and rooms full of warm, natural light.
The team appreciated that this move helped eliminate some of the transportation barriers many clients experienced with the previous location. In addition, this opportunity to work within the community and share the daily experiences of clients gave the team a valuable window into the lives and needs of clients. The clinical team was able to focus on individual as well as community healing.
Focus on Community and Cultural Competency
CVT Georgia’s therapeutic approach is centered on community and cultural competency. Each client’s needs and preferences are respected, including differing approaches to medical care, to traditional forms of healing, to mental health. The focus on cultural competency was a surprise to Leticia Carvajal, CVT Georgia Spanish interpreter. She commented that on joining CVT she noticed “how important it is to take into consideration how people feel about so many things: about gender, about their culture, the way they approach medicine.”
And over the years, the team has introduced a number of community-based programs. Dr. Iheduru noted the importance of the impact the team has had on the community with programs like psycho-education groups. “There was a time we ran psycho-education groups in middle schools for refugee children and that was really impactful,” she said. “We also ran a support group for refugee women in the community, in collaboration with our partner, Refugee Women’s Network. And just the reach and the non-traditional approach we used for those groups and the feedback we got from that from the community is something that I still hold dear to my heart.”
“I loved working with Adaobi. I have seen her changing people’s lives,” Leticia said. “For example, there was this client that was always looking down. You know that kind of look in people’s eyes when they’ve been through so much that their eyes are lost? They don’t look anywhere. They’re lost. You can see that the soul was taken – in a certain way.” Leticia noticed how much this person changed after coming for care. “This person got a job. This person learned English,” she said. “This person said at the beginning, no, I will never learn. This person thought they weren’t going to be able to do anything in the U.S. And they’re thriving.”
In addition, partnerships have continued to grow, bringing new benefits for clients. “I’ve come to know the team at CVT Georgia through the work of the Coalition of Refugee Service agencies,” said Jim Neal, director of operations at Friends of Refugees. “They joined the coalition as they moved into Clarkston and have been very, very active.” CRSA is the state’s leading coalition advocating on behalf of Georgia refugees and immigrants, so this partnership has been effective in building strong relationships with elected officials and making progress.
In addition, CVT Georgia worked to develop and introduce the Business & Immigration for Georgia (BIG) Partnership. This is a first-of-its-kind partnership of Georgia business and civic leaders, all working together to expand economic opportunities for Georgia refugees and immigrants. Launched in 2020, BIG logged its first success with the unanimous passage of legislation to create a legislative study committee that will help remove the barriers that keep too many New Americans from using the skills and talents they bring to Georgia and participating fully in the state’s economy. CVT Georgia also formed partnerships to support Georgia asylum-seekers and give them a better chance of success on their claims in a state where the odds are stacked against them. Not least, CVT works every day to expand access to quality mental health care for all Georgians, regardless of the country they came from or the language they speak.
The CVT Georgia team continued to reach out to organizations serving refugees and to build supportive and collaborative relationships. “We decided to partner with CVT Atlanta and work on a support group because we were in the community and we heard time and again from the women, the refugee women especially, that they were isolated,” said Sushma Barakoti, who is executive director of the Refugee Women’s Network. She said that the women regularly spoke up about mental health symptoms. “So that’s what we talked about with Dr. Adaobi. And then we decided to go in partnership with a close group, a support group, curriculum-based. And it went really well. Women came every week and learned and shared.” Alpa Amin, executive director of the Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network (GAIN), noted that “GAIN and CVT share a mutual understanding of how complex our clients’ needs can be. CVT serves not only as a resource for our clients but also for our staff as well through their training, advocacy and resources.”
Growth continued. In 2020, CVT Georgia extended care to 78 clients from 25 countries, even as the pandemic required a swift change to begin remote care for clients and new forms of outreach.”
Growth continued. In 2020, CVT Georgia extended care to 78 clients from 25 countries, even as the pandemic required a swift change to begin remote care for clients and new forms of outreach. This was the largest number of clients seen in a single year. In 2021, CVT Georgia joined Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM)’s National COVID-19 Resiliency Network (NCRN) of strategic partners, helping to inform community-driven response, recovery and resiliency strategies for addressing the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable and underserved communities. The complexity of cases CVT Georgia has been managing during the pandemic remains a factor, but research shows strong levels of effectiveness of care, and clients talk about how they are able to rebuild their lives after coming to CVT.
Listening to clients and working with partners has allowed CVT Georgia to become an integral part of a strong community. “To think that you can be an island and you can serve all the needs of all the community members is just not reality,” said Justin Howell of IRC. “Because ultimately the success of us as organizations means the success of community members who can again find safe, welcoming communities to call their own; that they themselves, their family, their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, can be contributors to these communities.”
For people who have survived torture and atrocities, it’s critical that their needs and individuality are centered and respected. “When you are subjected to violence, to torture, you are a victim at that moment, but then when you come here and you start the healing process, you’re no longer a victim, you’re a survivor,” said Fernando Reati, Ph.D., professor at Georgia State University and CVT board and advisory council member. Dr. Reati speaks from experience, as he is a survivor of torture himself. “And to me it’s very important that people understand that when they contribute to CVT and they contribute to the healing of these individuals that we’re helping them regain their humanity, their dignity, their identity, all of the things that were taken away from them when they were tortured.”
As CVT Georgia looks back on five years of growth and care, the clients’ ability to change their lives and take on healing is inspiring to staff. “We are always looking for new ways to bring support for clients,” Darlene said. And Dr. Iheduru attributes much of CVT Georgia’s success to the clients. “It takes courage to trust in an organization and people that you don’t really know and to share your stories with them,” she said. “So I would also like to honor, celebrate and acknowledge our clients because they’re the reason why the program has been successful for the past five years.”
“There’s a lot of compassion at the center,” said Leticia Carvajal.
Read 2020 client statistics here.
As CVT Georgia recognizes our 5th Anniversary, many partners and staff shared memories and congratulations with us.
“Five years is a big milestone and we hope that we can continue to collaborate and we hope that CVT Georgia will continue to thrive and that it can grow so that our clients can also take part in the services you guys provide.” –Dr. Esther Kim, Ethne Health family physician
“Thank you, thank you for the work that you’re doing here in Georgia!” -Jim Neal, chair, Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies
“As we celebrate five years, it’s our clients that helped us get this far.” –Dr. Adaobi Iheduru, clinic manager and psychologist, CVT Georgia
“CVT Georgia has established significant linkages with key players such as the State legislature and the business community. Its leadership is highly respected among refugee-serving organizations in the state. I am proud to have contributed to this success in a small way.” -Kathleen Parker, CVT Georgia Advisory Council member.
“I loved working with Adaobi. I have seen her changing people’s lives.” -Leticia Carvajal, CVT Georgia Spanish interpreter
“Congratulations! This is awesome and CVT has been such a great additional asset to the refugees and immigrant community in Atlanta, especially in Clarkston.” -Sushma Barakoti, executive director, Refugee Women’s Network
“I would like to salute, to appreciate all workers with CVT, all the staff. I would like to be involved more with CVT. I feel this is a great help.” -Sahar Hashem, CVT Georgia Arabic interpreter
“Thank you for what you are doing in our community to support survivors and for all the ways that you’ve helped us become better stronger advocates for our clients.” -Alpa Amin, executive director, Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network
“I wish CVT was everywhere. I wish it was more spread out, all over the United States. I wish that CVT could be found everywhere that immigrants are gathered.” -Leticia Carvajal, CVT Georgia Spanish interpreter
“Darlene Lynch is definitely one of the most amazing people in our community in Georgia—we are very blessed to have her—she’s a driving force within CVT, beyond CVT and making a huge difference.” –Dr. Heval Kelli, cardiologist and CVT Georgia Advisory Council member
“ . . .of all the things that the Center for Victims of Torture offers, the most important thing is that it helps people regain that humanity, identity and dignity that were taken away from them and hopefully to no longer see themselves as victims but as survivors, recovering survivors.” –Dr. Fernando Reati, Georgia State University professor and CVT board & advisory council member
“Ultimately our collective success is the success of countless individuals whose lives we touch . . . I think that’s a huge calling and I think it’s also something that we all share as a community. And so I just am extremely grateful to have CVT as a member of that community.” – Justin Howell, executive director, International Rescue Committee
“I’d like to say congratulations to the Clarkston community and to Adaobi and our staff in Atlanta for continuing to do great work. I’m excited for the next five years and I’m excited to see where the relationships we’ve built over the past five years go.” – Stanton Wood, CVT head of institutional development