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Statement on Torture and U.S. Foreign Policy by Lavinia Limon
Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement
Administration for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Before the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
June 29, 1999

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to testify at today’s hearing on U.S. policy toward victims of torture. As Director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), I am pleased to talk about the activities we have funded to support torture victims and to speak to the President’s FY 2000 budget request of $7.5 million for services and rehabilitation for victims of torture.

Shockingly, torture victims come from around the world, but we are most aware of those who come from Kosovo, Bosnia, African nations, the Middle East and Central and South America. Today, you will hear from individuals who have been tortured, and they will speak more directly than I can about their experiences. However, through ORR’s programs we have learned about and have become sensitized to the experiences of torture victims.

For the purposes of our program, torture is the deliberate mental and physical damage caused by governments to individuals to destroy individual personality and terrorize society. Torture results in physical disabilities, sometimes permanent. It also results in psychological wounds such as extreme guilt, fear, and a persistent state of shock. Torture victims have been silenced by their torture. Governments that use torture intend to intimidate their citizens in order to maintain control; those who are tortured become examples of the consequences of dissent.

Once released, torture victims often attempt to flee to countries such as the United States to become invisible and safe, and to survive. But they retain the impact of the torture: they are not able to speak of their experiences for fear officials will not believe them or understand them or will regard them as criminals. They often cannot express themselves effectively in asylum interviews because they cannot speak articulately of their experiences and they feel vulnerable to all officials. They have learned to fear government and the police and they do not trust any government officials and authorities to help them. They have been weakened and disabled psychologically from the torture. Many times the victims must flee alone, enduring long periods of separation from their families who might otherwise provide emotional support. When victims are reunited with families, we have learned that the impact of torture affects the spouse and the children as well.

For three years, ORR has been awarding funds to assist torture victims. Beginning in 1996, we have gradually increased support and currently fund 10 organizations for a total of $1.5 million in Denver, San Francisco, San Jose, Dallas, Boston, Minneapolis, and New York City. These programs identify torture survivors among refugee communities and help to make the survivors comfortable with obtaining help.

The activities funded by ORR include:

    • training refugee resettlement staff, English language teachers, volunteers, and all community services’ staff so that the torture survivors can be identified and be referred to the services they need;
    • orienting refugees to the help available from mental health services; and
    • orienting mental health professionals to effectively serve refugees across language and cultural divides.

The services needed by torture survivors are a unique combination of medical care, spiritual healing, psychological help, and other social services. Some examples are:

    • Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) in Minnesota established a training program for school teachers with students in their classrooms who were themselves victims of torture or whose family members had been tortured;
    • Survivors International of San Francisco has established peer support groups and a community center to offer the survivors a path out of isolation; and
    • International Institute of Boston is training mental health organizations throughout New England to treat torture survivors; and
    • Solace in New York City helps survivors of torture reunite with their families and obtain services such as employment and housing.

We have come to know the network of non-profit organizations around the country whose mission is to serve torture victims. They are dedicated and hard working, and they provide services to victims of torture without regard to their nationality, politics, socio-economic class or immigration status. They solicit funds from private sources and a few have been funded by the United Nations Fund for Victims of Torture. Several years ago, the Minnesota legislature provided seed money that launched CVT. But the prevalence of torture has only recently become recognized and support for services has not kept pace with the need. Many of these agencies have far more clients than the current funding can serve.

As I mentioned at the outset, the President’s Budget for FY 2000 specifically requests $7.5 million to provide services and rehabilitation for victims of torture under the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998. The President’s request, under this new authority, would enable us to provide a higher level of support to domestic centers and programs for victims of torture. We would be able to provide direct services to victims of torture, including social and legal services. And we would be able to extend the understanding of how torture has affected those who survive and which services and treatments are most effective.

Last week, a young woman who had been tortured spoke with me about her experiences. She said, "The torture experience traumatized and intimidated me. As a result, after I left my country, I hid from everyone. Please remember we need time and space to put distance between the torture and our next steps. But we don’t need this help forever. Most importantly, we need each other. We need to be together. Being together brings support and a safe place to begin to discuss and understand what we have experienced by being tortured and what that means in this world. Then we can once again take charge of our lives. Then we can begin again; we can raise our voices; we can be proud of what we endured for our human rights."

After working 24 years in refugee work, I have come to understand that for refugees, building a new life is not just about establishing a home, learning a new language, and accessing health care. The most important accomplishment for refugees and torture survivors is the healing of the spirit. For survivors of torture, their tasks are the same, but the pain is greater and the challenge is deeper. The people these funds are intended to serve are SURVIVORS. They will help themselves, but they need a helping hand and a caring heart.

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