“Center for what? Oh.”
“So you work with tortured people… How is it?
“Isn’t it hard for you, listening to bad stories all the time?”
These are just a few of the reactions I’ve received when I’ve told people I work for the Center for Victims of Torture, where I’ve served in multiple capacities for the past five years. People with careers in a humanitarian setting, as well as international expats in Jordan, are generally aware of what we do. Others have no idea. Once, an officer at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection office said to me, “So, you torture people, or help them?” He was trying to be funny, but it turned into a teachable moment. Once I explained that CVT helps survivors from all over the world heal from the trauma of unimaginable human suffering and hopes to eradicate torture worldwide, he seemed moved. In fact, he smiled. In most cases, people don’t know exactly what we do, but they’re often intrigued and curious.
I’ve actually crafted several “scripts” for myself when discussing CVT, which vary according to the audience: other humanitarian workers, other psychologists, the general public, fellow Italians and people of other nationalities. In each case I tend to adjust the script based on what I assume the person will understand. For instance, the title Clinical Advisor doesn’t make a lot of sense in Italian so I’ll often say, “I am working for an American-based organization called the Center for Victims of Torture, where I am responsible for developing psychological services. CVT works with survivors of trauma and torture in war and post-war zones around the world. In my capacity I provide training on a variety of topics related to trauma and torture, and provide clinical supervision of local and expat staff involved with our projects. In some cases CVT works directly with our own staff; in other cases we support local organizations.” Then I’ll give some examples.
In Italy, CVT is not known as an organization, but when I explain who we are and what we do, people are usually supportive. Of course, I still get responses like, “Oh wow, it must be tough,” and the word “torture” in particular makes people grimace or behave as though they’d just heard something very ugly or disgusting.
I may sometimes encounter negativity from others, but that’s not true to how I view my work. On the contrary! Even though I work directly with survivors of trauma and torture, most of my memories are positive. I remember the complicated cases but most of the time I remember moments of joy, people’s smiles (from both clients and staff members, particularly in the field), as well as the moment when people say, ”Thanks. CVT made me feel human again,” or “Thanks for listening to me,” or “Thanks for helping me, your suggestions are helping me with the clients I see.”
I’ve also encountered what I can only refer to as the “human touch.” Sometimes it is just a moment of looking into each other’s eyes, a kind of mutual understanding. Sometimes it’s just a pat on the shoulder, or a smile, or the happiness that comes from meeting one another. As a person and a professional, I tend to show my emotions, using instinct and body language as my communication style. I’ve found this way of communicating particularly helpful in cross-cultural contexts. I’ve been working in the humanitarian sector for 15 years, so I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling and working in painful and unsecure places. Still, I’ve always found people ready to talk—people who feel joy, and try hard.