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Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi: For nearly 30 years, work with torture survivors has been a way of ‘giving back’

Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi
Courtesy of Center for Victims of Torture
Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi

In 1987, when Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi, Ph.D., called to volunteer her services, The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) was a 2-year-old independent nonprofit providing rehabilitative care to torture survivors in Minnesota.

Garcia-Peltoniemi, then a newly minted clinical psychologist, sought out CVT as a place where she could give back to the community while keeping her therapeutic skills sharp.  

“My dissertation research was very generously covered by a grant from the National Science Foundation,” she recalled, “and so I felt that as a new Ph.D., I needed to give back in some way that was meaningful.” The daughter of Cuban refugees, Garcia-Peltoniemi felt that CVT was a perfect fit. So did CVT staff.

“When I called and told them about my background,” she recalled, “they said, ‘Come right over.’ ”

She was hired almost right away, and has worked at the center ever since. “It’s been my privilege to work with clients from so early on,” she said. “As a young clinician, it was an invaluable learning experience, and it has continued to be a meaningful profession ever since.”

Today, Garcia-Peltoniemi is senior consulting clinician at CVT, which over the last three decades has grown into an internationally respected organization with offices in Washington, D.C.; Africa and the Middle East; and healing centers in St. Paul, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya and Uganda. She still works one-on-one with clients, at the St. Paul-based nonprofit’s Healing Center, and consults on torture issues worldwide with governments and NGOs. I spoke to Garcia-Peltoniemi earlier this week about her therapeutic approach and her firm belief that resilience can be learned.

MinnPost: Has your family history influenced your work?

Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi: Many folks in my life have been survivors of different sorts of persecution, including torture. My father was sent to a forced labor camp in Cuba.

I think this personal experience is helpful in my work in some ways. It gives me this view that others may not have as well as a certain understanding of what happens under conditions of repression and persecution, which is something that is very personal and not easily obtained otherwise. But every person’s experience is unique.

MP: When you started this work, where did your clients come from?

RG-P: At that time it was Africa, mainly the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia in particular. People were also coming from some West African countries, like Liberia. Then, a bit later, clients came from Central American countries. This was the late ’80s and early ’90s, the time of the Central American wars. There was also a refugee crisis on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and clients came from there.  

At the beginning, most of my clients were students at the University of Minnesota who had been tortured prior to coming to school here and who were not able to return to their home countries because the political situation had worsened and to go back would have been a death sentence.

Most of my clients were male.

MP: Why was that?

RG-P: Usually more males than females get imprisoned and tortured, but that has really changed over the years that I have been working in this area. Beyond the torture that happens in prison, there is also torture that comes out of the prison and happens in many chaotic situations of political repression and violence around the world. These types of violence and torture take many forms and affect men, women and children.

MP: How often to children experience torture?

RG-P: It’s not an exact number, but about 20 percent of our clients report having been tortured before age 21. Internationally, 24 percent were children 18 years or younger. In the years that I have been working here, our clientele has become much more diverse. We have seen people from over 75 countries. They are women, men and children. One thing our clients all have in common is that they are a very determined, very self-selected group of people.

MP: What do you mean by “self-selected?”

RG-P: To start with, they have to leave their home countries and somehow get to the United States. And then they have to get to Minnesota — and our wonderful weather. They also have to want our services. It is completely voluntary. They need to seek us out.

MP: How do clients learn about the CVT?

RG-P: Many are referred to us by people in their own communities. Others are referred to us by immigration attorneys, health professionals, social-service providers or religious leaders. There are a variety of referral sources.

MP: How often do you meet with clients?

RG-P: Usually one a week, sometimes twice a week if there is a need at times of high distress.

MP: What happens during your sessions? Are they similar to traditional therapy?

RG-P: Yes, but we also use some methods that have been specifically developed for torture survivors. Our staff has been trained in a variety of methods. One specific method is called Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET).  I have been trained in this method by its developers.

MP: How does NET work?

RG-P: It’s based in the “testimony method,” that was first invented during the Chilean dictatorship of [Augsto] Pinochet.

In NET, the client talks about what happened in a way that integrates normal, day-to-day memories with the traumatic memories. The traumatic memories often have certain psychological responses attached to them. The client goes through a process of bringing up these memories and narrating them to the therapist. During this process, the therapist has to be very attentive to what is happening to the person. The therapist has to assist them through the psychological process that goes with the emotions. He or she has to respond to the client’s emotions and any physical reactions.

As part of the process, the therapist also takes down the narrative. At the next session, the narrative is repeated, so the person has an opportunity to add or correct what has been recorded. After several sessions, the person is given this narrative and can do whatever he or she wants with this it.

MP: What usually happens to these narratives?

RG-P: In Chile, where this process was developed, many times people decided to use their narratives for political testimony about what they had gone through. Others choose to use their narratives for different purposes, such as a personal history of what happened, so their families know their story. It is their choice.

MP: This sounds like an emotionally exhausting process.

RG-P: It can be draining for both the client and the therapist as well. For the therapist, recording the information requires a lot of focused attention and note taking. For clients, reliving the experience is exhausting, but in the end it is usually a relief. Often, in the end, the relief is very apparent. It’s palpable in the room.

CVT's St. Paul Healing Center on Dayton Avenue.
Courtesy of Center for Victims of Torture
CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center on Dayton Avenue.

MP: Do you witness great resilience in your clients? 

RG-P: This gets back to my earlier comment about the self-selected nature of our clients. I’ve always thought that if our office were across form a notorious prison, we would see a very different clientele with a different set of characteristics. I would say that every client we see here at CVT is resilient to one degree or another. But I believe that resilience is not an internal quality as much as it is one that is influenced by environment.

MP: So you are saying that resilience is a learned quality, not something inborn?

RG-P: Yes. Resilience is not something that you are born with. There are environments that confer resilience. Even neighborhoods can confer resilience on a person who has certain risks.

I also look at our clients in terms of risks and protective factors. I also look at the physical injuries that they have suffered. Many of our clients have been very injured physically as a result of their torture. That’s a reality. Today I’ve seen two clients who were very physically injured. It is very important for us to think about that. You cannot ignore the way they’ve been injured both physically and psychologically. Both need to heal.

And the effects of torture bleed across generations. Many times we are dealing with repeated episodes of torture repeated across generations. We may have someone who saw his or her father being tortured and thrown in prison. That person has a secondary traumatization. Torture did not happen to him or her: It happened to a loved one, but they are still a torture survivor.   

MP: You hear so many stories of pain and cruelty. How does that make you feel about the state of humanity?

RG-P: I think human beings are capable of greatness — and also capable of terrible things, of terrible cruelty to others.

MP: In your personal life, how do you keep your focus away from the negative?

RG-P: I work hard at not losing my appreciation of beauty and the creativity of human beings. I think it is important to do that. It is part of the care of the self.

I have interests and activities that I do to feed my spirit, if you will. I like spending time with my loved ones and friends. I like artistic pursuits, and I garden and design gardens. I like music a lot and I make sure I’m exposed to music in my daily life. I take good care of myself. I practice yoga I practice really being alert to my feelings and also my thoughts about life in general.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/29/2015 - 11:18 am.

    Another great column !!

    I’m always confident of a good read when I see a new story or interview by Ms. Steiner !!

  2. Submitted by Coleen Dorman on 05/30/2015 - 10:51 am.

    Dr Garcia-Peltoniemi

    Wonderful interview with an amazing woman. Thanks,

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