Survivors of Torture - two articles for teachers
by Denise Selleck
Most of us don't think much about torture at all because it doesn't touch our lives. Or does it?
According to the Amnesty International (AI) annual report of 2011, in the 4-year period from 2006 to 2010, 159 countries were cited for torture and human rights abuses. Over 120 one of these countries practice torture systematically; that is, almost routinely upon arrest. Among these countries are some familiar names: Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Ivory Coast, Korea, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
A victim of torture can be defined as someone who has been physically or psychologically tortured, has witnessed torture, discovered tortured bodies, was forced to engage in torture, had friends or loved ones tortured, or lived in an environment where torture was a real danger. Torture is used to intimidate, to silence dissent. It can be employed because of political affiliation, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or because of who you know or are related to.
Modern torture is designed to enhance pain--both physical and mental--while leaving a minimum of physical marks. Victims are commonly caged in excessively small places, beaten repeatedly on the soles of the feet (often resulting in permanent physical damage), or made to hear loved ones tortured. Their heads are put in plastic bags or submerged in liquid usually contaminated with vomit or feces. Their bodies are burned with cigarettes. It's estimated that 80% of women taken into custody are raped--often in front of other family members. Men frequently have electrodes attached to their penises.
Up to 35 percent of the world's refugees have been tortured if they come from a country that practices torture. Many Bay Area refugee immigrants are torture survivors from the countries listed above. Among the refugees from these countries in the Bay Area, it is estimated that 5 to 35% of them have been tortured, and up to 90% have witnessed torture or seen its effect upon others. Cambodian, Iraqi and Bosnian refugees report even higher torture statistics.
Other Bay Area torture survivors come from the countries listed above.
It should go without saying, then, that a substantial number of our students are survivors of torture. The fact that we don't hear about it from them is not surprising, according to Dr. Marcella Adamski, Executive Director of Survivor's International (SI), an organization dedicated to assisting torture survivors through individual psychotherapy, family counseling, medical consultations, support groups and psychological and medical evaluations for political asylum applications.
"Torture is a hidden problem," explains Dr. Adamski. "Most refugees don't like to talk about what happened to them. They feel humiliated, embarrassed and very fearful that word will get back to their country and their family would be endangered in some way. They are afraid that they won't be believed and may be deported." Complicating things further, according to Dr. Adamski, is that this population for the most part is not familiar with seeking psychological help and often resists doing so.
There is no typical torture victim profile that we as teachers can look for. How individuals fare depends on their personal experience, kind of torture, length of torture time in prison, age, pre-torture personality, as well as their refugee experience (if they are here alone or with family, finding adjusting hard, etc).
Because they are not easily identifiable, we can unwittingly cause torture survivors harm. Dr.Adamski recounts a story of an ESL teacher who confronted a student who had disagreed with her. "You seem to be a person who likes to protest and challenge other people's opinions," the teacher told him. Sounds innocuous, but for the next three days this student stayed at home, mostly in bed, feeling depressed and agitated and suffering from violent headaches. The teacher's words had triggered in his mind the memory of this experience of torture.
Survivors International, the only organization of its kind on the west coast, provides clinical mental health and social service support for refugees, asylees and asylum-seeking survivors of torture, war trauma, and gender-based violence. SI is a non-profit organization funded by the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, The San Francisco Foundations, and other foundations and individuals.
If you have a student that might benefit from their help or if you would like to help them by volunteering your time or giving a donation, contact:
2727 Mariposa Street, suite 100
San Francisco, CA 94110
Amnesty International also routinely works on behalf of victims of torture. For more information about them:
Amnesty International USA
350 Sansome Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
Many torture survivors suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the same disorder suffered by Vietnam veterans and by victims of rape and child abuse. Some of the symptoms of PTSD can contribute to learning difficulties. These symptoms include memory loss, difficulty concentrating, flashbacks, dissociative episodes (where a person imagines him or herself in the torture situation), substance abuse and paranoia. PTSD sufferers can also exhibit physiological reactions such as sweating and shaking in reaction to a stimulus that others can't see or a sound that others wouldn't pay attention to. Additionally, the children and partners of those tortured can be negatively affected by the symptoms of the survivor leading to disturbances in family relationships and child development.
If you notice one of your students exhibiting one or more of these symptoms, particularly if they come from a country where there is or was civil war, you may want to broach the subject with them, suggests Gerald Gray, founder, Board President and clinician of Survivors International (SI), a torture treatment center located in downtown San Francisco. "You might say something like,'you seem to be having certain problems and sometimes these problems can be caused by a strong, upsetting experience. I'm not asking whether you had such an experience, but if you want to talk to someone about that there are organizations to help you.'".
Gray suggests that you refer them to Survivors International or a mental helath facility that treats trauma. "If they go in cold to a place and people don't know what to do (the trauma staff) can call and consult with SI." Gray also suggests referring you students to an ethnic community organization that they trust, although such organizations are not always aware that these treatment centers exist.
Gray cautions that if you notice a person with increased aggression combined with paranoia you contact one of the treatment centers for advice on how to approach the student.
Survivors International is located at 2727 Mariposa Street, suite 100, San Francisco, CA 94110. Their telephone number is (415) 546-2080. All services are free.
Amnesty International Educator's Forum