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Expert Voices

Mary's Story: A Life Interrupted

Published April 2, 2019

The unfathomable pain of being separated from loved ones is widely felt among asylum seekers worldwide. Sometimes the separation occurs as soon as a survivor escapes, leaving everything and everyone behind. Others are torn apart from family members by the very governments whose protection they seek.

Because the majority of CVT’s U.S. clients are asylum seekers, separation and the trauma that results are all too familiar experiences. Flashbacks from fleeing home to survive are not uncommon. Neither is the constant confusion of navigating the U.S. immigration system.

Every day, torture survivors like Mary* must confront the pain of their past and the challenges that accompany rebuilding their lives—lives that have been forever changed, simply for identifying with a particular political party, religion or culture, or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Mary’s case, it was because she was unafraid to speak out.

When she noticed election fraud in her home country in Africa, Mary didn’t ignore it. She denounced it. “This fraud happens a lot,” Mary said. “But I protested. When I spoke about it, I was arrested. I was held and tortured for more than four weeks. They threatened my life; I thought I would die. Even after they let me go, I knew they would come back to kill me.”

Mary feared for her life. She needed to escape her home country. A young woman in her 40s with six children, she made the agonizing decision to leave her family. Such a predicament is not unique. Survivors of torture around the world are often forced to leave their families and homes behind, taking only the possessions they can carry. Some flee on foot, others find transportation. Sometimes survivors are at the mercy of strangers when they flee, and thus risk enduring additional abuses, like physical assault, human trafficking and robbery. Women like Mary are more susceptible to sexual assault and rape.

When survivors flee, it’s not unusual for their families to become targets. Perpetrators can identify loved ones through cell phone data, social media or mutual family and friends. They torture spouses and relatives for information about the escapee, or to make them pay for the individual’s alleged crimes. Mary’s husband faced similar consequences. After she fled, he too became fearful and was also forced to flee. He hasn’t been heard from since.

Mary found temporary safety in the U.S. but wonders how she’s expected to feel safe when her children are in danger so far away and the whereabouts of her husband is unknown. The pain of separation intensifies her symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. “I can’t concentrate. I am depressed and exhausted,” she said. “How can I stay in this situation? It’s hard to keep living a life interrupted like this. What is my life for, here without my kids?” Moreover, the U.S. has yet to determine if she’s eligible for permanent protection.

Initially, Mary found relief in the healing care she received from CVT. Then a five-year delay for her first asylum interview severely impacted her recovery. She now views the slow, ongoing asylum process as a threat, and a trigger of past traumas. “I experience it like punishment,” she said, “I want to ask immigration if I deserve punishment, but I have no power. They do. I must be quiet and wait.”

So Mary waits. And the longer she waits, the more helpless she feels. Few things bring her joy. She finds it difficult to work. Even though she held a highly technical job back in her country, she’s been prohibited from pursuing an education in the U.S. She learned English and began working, but the strain of the asylum delays weakened her motivation. She says she operates in survival mode on a daily basis, that it takes all her energy to get through the day.

Though Mary struggles to stay hopeful, CVT remains determined. We will continue to fight for the rights of all asylum seekers, because we understand that clients like Mary can be indispensable to our community—culturally, socially and economically. And CVT clients, many of whose stories are not unlike Mary’s, recognize the positive impact our care has had on their lives. So together we persevere, until each and every one of our clients can find safety and the peace of mind to effectively transform themselves and their lives.

*Name has been changed for confidentiality and privacy reasons

See additional facts on asylum here.

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