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For torture survivors, 100 days of fear and anxiety

Courtesy of Center for Victims of Torture/Mikael Damkier

Saturday marks President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. As he took early steps to fulfill campaign promises, the president set in motion policies and practices that profoundly threaten long-held and fundamental human rights protections and that have created deep fear and anxiety among torture survivors in the U.S. and abroad.

Curt Goering

First, there was the blatant discrimination of the executive order that attempted to suspend the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program. Thwarted by the courts, the administration replied with a second travel ban, revealing a deep and persistent desire to shut the door and turn our backs on the worst refugee crisis since World War II. It was difficult to watch these repeated efforts to deny refuge to those fleeing war, and to note Trump’s particular insistence on banning Syrians, knowing all we have learned at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) through our work with Syrian refugees. After making this chilling comment about Syrian child-refugees during his campaign (“I can look in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come here.’ “), it became hard to reconcile the president’s military response to the child victims of the Syrian chemical attacks.

‘A kind of continuous trauma’

These travel bans created fear and anxiety among torture survivors accessing the rehabilitative care we extend at centers in the U.S., Africa and the Middle East. CVT’s clinical teams in Nairobi and the Dadaab refugee camp were compelled to offer emergency counseling after these travel bans. Some of CVT’s clients were in the middle of the years-long process of being vetted for resettlement in the United States when they saw their hopes dashed. “This is creating a kind of continuous trauma for our clients,” Pablo Traspas, country director, CVT Kenya, told Devex. “That means the trauma is not healing.”

Then, after President Trump’s call for an uptick in raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), refugee clients came to the counselors at our St. Paul Healing Center with new questions and worries: “My family back home keeps asking if I’m going to go to jail and will be deported because I’m an immigrant. What can I tell them?” “If immigration comes to my house, I have to let them in, right?” New to our country, these individuals and their families feel the stress and stigma of the executive orders and of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threats to defund sanctuary cities (now blocked by a federal court), publish weekly reports on crimes committed by immigrants and create further barriers to asylum.

U.S. image tarnished

In a few short chaotic weeks, Donald Trump has tarnished the image of the U.S. built over two centuries as a place, although imperfect and inconsistent in our practices, to which refugees fled to escape persecution in other countries. The U.S., once a safe and welcoming refuge to the survivors of violence and warfare, is quickly becoming a place from which hundreds of refugees are now fleeing, feeling safe no longer. This upheaval causes great worry amongst survivors as well as staff at CVT.

In worrisome times like these, it is our clients — survivors of torture, warfare and tremendous atrocities — who teach us about deep human resilience and hope. These brave individuals and their families have looked fear and anxiety in the face and overcome the worst circumstances imaginable. The lives they led in their home countries were upset — destroyed, even — by enormous forces beyond their control. And yet they continue to persevere even if the safety and freedom they sought in the United States may continue to remain just out of their grasp. Their resilience is a source of awe and inspiration when we are confronted with setbacks and threats.

As I look back on the past 100 days, I’m reminded of one of the techniques used in our clinical sessions. In CVT’s 10-week counseling cycle, clients encounter The River of Life exercise. They are asked to draw the river of their life, beginning with birth, sketching symbols and labels for traumatic events as well as for the calm, happy times along the way. Dotted lines are drawn to represent the future, and clients are encouraged to place a symbol of hope on their river.

‘There is another day’

Trauma tends to cause people to focus only on the difficult, chaotic moments, but of course lives are a combination of difficult as well as joyful times. A former CVT client at our Ethiopia program recently said, “The River of Life exercise showed me that there is the past, but it’s good to start from where you are now. It makes a difference in my life.” He added, “I have been going from hopelessness to hope. Hopelessness comes from you when you worry too much. Now I’m thinking: There is another day.”

This is a message we can all take to heart during times of trouble. There is another day to hope. There is another day to heal. There is another day to advocate for fundamental human rights. There is another day to resist the deep fear and anxiety incited by President Trump.

Curt Goering is the executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture.

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