Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the
opportunity to testify at todays 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
Presidents 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 ORRs 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
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
As I mentioned at the outset, the Presidents 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 Presidents 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 dont 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.