When Freedom from Fear is a Fantasy | The Center for Victims of Torture

When Freedom from Fear is a Fantasy

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Curt Goering, CVT's executive director

Rights and freedoms are the focus of this year’s Human Rights Day, according to the UN. Those rights and freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – are the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which applies to all human beings. But this year in particular, that last one, “freedom from fear,” gets stuck in my throat. Because we’re not all free from fear these days. Not by a long shot. Not while ISIS perpetrates indiscriminate attacks. Not while Bashar al-Assad wages terror on his own people. Not while Iraqis in the religious minorities are targeted for kidnappings and extortion. And not while young Eritreans must either flee their country or face a lifetime of military conscription. And people cannot be free from fear when political leaders in the United States—a country that prides itself upon being a beacon of hope and freedom—threaten to close their doors to refugees fleeing unspeakable cruelty and atrocity. Not while longtime refugees in the United States are targeted, shunned and attacked.

We at CVT have worked for 30 years to help survivors of torture secure basic human rights – to be free from torture and to have access to rehabilitative care. Refugees flee their homes because of persecution and war, but they come to the United States because of a deeply-held belief in the promise that is America: the promise of freedom, safe harbor and opportunity. Upon arrival in the United States, refugees speak of the exhilaration they feel in breathing air of optimism and hope. But given the current climate of heinous backlash against refugees in this country, the ground feels like it’s shifting beneath our feet. How on earth did we get here?

Recently, our Minnesota-based clinical staff participated in a community education event for a nearby Somali refugee population, to get the word out about resources including CVT’s rehabilitative care for torture survivors: in many refugee communities, word of mouth is by far the best way to learn about available resources like ours. This particular city has struggled with public demonstrations of hatred directed toward refugees, to the point that police protection has been necessary at some events with refugees in attendance, including this one.

On this day at the event, some of the Somali women, who are Muslim and wear hijabs, asked if there was a back door they could use to come and go, “so we don’t upset the white people.” They had been told by their community leaders not to attend religious services at their place of worship, not to go outdoors if it can be avoided, to lay low. Imagine what it took for them to come to this educational event, despite fear of being targeted. These women certainly aren’t free from fear.

Our clinical staff know all too well the obstacles—psychological, cultural, emotional, and social—that our refugee clients must overcome to even consider seeking our help. Often, our clients at CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center have long been resettled in Minnesota: they are not new to the state. But securing shelter does not bring with it readiness to begin healing from the devastation of torture. In many cases, survivors of torture have been told repeatedly that their families back home will be slaughtered if they dare to speak out about the torture they’ve endured, so taking a chance on rehabilitation takes a great deal of courage. Years may pass, even decades, before a survivor is ready to begin the healing journey.

And then something happens that terrifies them: from the deliberate, indiscriminate killing of civilians in Paris; to the constant information about states refusing refugees, which even though Minnesota is not among them is horrifying for local refugees hoping to reunite with family members who have yet to make the journey to the U.S.; to rumors of “being sent back.” All happening in a new home they thought of as a refuge, as a safe place.

Our clients are frightened. We’re hearing our clients say there is no safe place anymore: that the “only safe place left is the moon.” Even a recent, sickening attack on a woman speaking Swahili while at a Minnesota restaurant shook all of us, but no one more than the Swahili-speaking men and women we care for.

The United States has a tradition of welcoming refugees to our shores. Because of that tradition, many refugees arriving here feel hope, sometimes for the first time in a long time. While the government should always seek to improve the intake system, there are already multiple and thorough screenings in place when refugees seek to resettle here, a process which can take up to two years. This is not the time to give in to the darker sides of ourselves. This is the time, more than ever, to extend a hand and say, “I’m here to help.”

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