It is difficult enough for healthy people who have chosen to do so to move to a new country. Torture survivors are often thrust into entirely new cultures and languages, and must cope with these changes while experiencing symptoms of trauma and loss of identity, even many years after the abuse. As CVT has reported, survivors are haunted by the experience of torture. Many find they are unable to stop thinking about the torture and must reckon with intrusive memories. They have frequent thoughts of suicide, deep depression and anxiety. Sleep rarely provides relief; nightmares are vivid, regular and terrifying. Survivors cross many triggers in their daily lives, such as the sight of armed personnel or something as simple as the sound of laughter, which can repeatedly bring back to life past traumas. Many also live with the chronic pain that results from having been beaten, bound, hung and any number of injuries inflicted by a torturer. All these affect survivors’ abilities to adapt to life in new countries and to begin rebuilding their lives.
Sadly, since 2017 far fewer refugees and asylum seekers have even had a chance at a new life in the United States, once a beacon of hope for those fleeing persecution. Through Fiscal Year 2020, the Trump administration had cut annual refugee admissions by more than 80 percent, from the historic average goal of 95,000 to just 18,000—an all-time low. The administration’s deterrence-based asylum policies resulted in similarly dramatic exclusions.
For those refugees and asylum seekers residing in the United States, the assistance available to them varies. Refugees at least have access to work and to some basic benefits and assistance that help them adjust to often drastic cultural and language changes. These include modest levels of cash assistance, medical assistance and social services, as well as work authorization upon arrival. Asylum seekers have limited access to some of these and face additional significant challenges associated with the U.S. legal process.
Due to a new rule imposed by the Trump administration at the end of August 2020, asylum seekers must wait 365 days – the wait was previously 150 days – after filing their asylum applications before they can submit their request for work authorization. This is particularly problematic for asylum-seeking clients, as Alison Beckman, MSW, LICSW, CVT senior clinician for external relations, explains:
“Most of our clients have pro bono attorneys, most have no money. Our social workers brainstorm ways for clients to pay for $3 prescription co-pays. They help clients figure out how to access food shelves and get donated winter clothing. Needing to wait a full year after applying for asylum to apply for a work permit will be devastating to our clients, most of whom go on to receive asylum with legitimate claims.”
Because the immigration system is so complex, most clients are unable to submit applications without the help of immigration attorneys. Thus, their ability to work also depends on their ability to secure legal help which is very expensive, and pro bono assistance is in incredibly high demand. As a result of lack of services, CVT client, Thomas*, found himself homeless in Minnesota after escaping from his home country in Africa.
Refugees and asylum seekers were especially at risk during the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 disproportionately affected communities of color – some of the most vulnerable being refugees and asylum seekers – due to discrimination, differing access to health care, occupation and wealth gaps.
Despite these hardships, CVT clients are amazingly resilient and regularly go on to heal and prosper in their new communities. Indeed, they include home and daycare staff, personal care attendants, delivery drivers, grocery store and other food supply chain employees, and poultry plant workers — many of the roles needed on the front lines of the pandemic to keep everyone healthy and safe.
*Names and some details have been changed for security and confidentiality.