Supporting survivors of torture

Imagine for a moment that you have been tortured. You have fled your country and have sought safety in Canada. Most often, when we hear stories about refugees, this is where they stop. The survivor finds refuge. The end. The reality is that for survivors of torture, refuge is just the beginning

By Clea Kahn

THE CANADIAN Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT) was formed twenty years ago to help survivors cope with the next step, the part we rarely hear about. For many, this is the hardest step of all. The process of adapting, of settling, of learning a new language requires a tremendous amount of energy and hope. But survivors arrive in Canada almost at the end of their energy. They have been through a process specifically engineered to destroy hope, to crush the soul. How do they find the will to carry on?

Survivors of torture do carry on. The resilience and strength that they show in doing so is awe-inspiring. Organizations like the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture exist to give survivors support, but the triumph remains theirs alone.

At the same time, there is much that the community can do to help. This is the spirit and philosophy that created the CCVT and which continues to drive it today. In 1977 a group of doctors, lawyers and social service professionals came together to create an agency that would meet the unique needs of survivors of torture, assisting them in their efforts to overcome the past and to begin planning a future. The founders, members of Amnesty International, had been seeing a growing number of Chilean refugees in their practices. It gradually became apparent that this was a group with very distinct needs that were not being met by existing agencies. The Canadian Centre for the Investigation and Prevention of Torture - as it was then called - was the result of their collaboration.

In 1983 the name of the agency was changed, and the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture was officially incorporated as a non-profit, charitable organization. Its official mandate was to provide services to survivors of torture and to increase public awareness of torture and its effects upon survivors and their families. In setting itself this goal, it became the second organization of its kind in the world. Although the CCVT has grown considerably over the years, this mandate remains essentially unchanged: to help survivors find hope after the horror.

What Kind Of Needs Do Survivors Of Torture Have?

Since its founding, the CCVT has seen more than 9000 survivors of torture from 99 different countries, and the range of issues that need to be addressed is as diverse as the people themselves. The role of the centre's five counsellors is to assess these needs and try to help survivors find solutions. They are assisted in this work by the other staff of the Centre, by a strong network of health and legal professionals, by social and community workers and by more than 200 volunteers.

Many of the difficulties faced by survivors of torture arriving in Canada are caused by the fact that they never expected to be coming in the first place. They arrive quite unprepared for the new culture and the challenges that it will present. Communication itself is a tremendous obstacle, since many of the CCVT's clients either speak only rudimentary English or none at all. It is an obstacle that must be overcome before survivors can hope to integrate into the community.

Many of the CCVT's clients suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is a medically recognized disorder which can result in a wide variety of symptoms. Among them are insomnia, nightmares, difficulty concentrating and difficulty in retaining information. Consequently, survivors of torture often arrive at language classes exhausted and are hindered in their ability to learn. In addition, survivors will sometimes experience flashbacks of their experiences, which can be triggered by an object as seemingly innocent as a pencil or a package of matches. Almost anything might have been used as an instrument of torture.

Classes at the Centre are designed to mitigate these difficulties as much as possible. The teachers are aware of potentially difficult subjects and proceed with caution. Vocabulary which deals with a trip to the doctor, for example, can be very traumatic for a person who has been tortured by a doctor using medical instruments. Classes are smaller than average and somewhat shorter. Students are given longer and more frequent breaks, and attendance is not as strictly monitored as is usual. But perhaps most important is the environment itself. Students know that their classmates and teachers understand their situation. They don't need to hide anxiety or depression as they might in another classroom. In case of a crisis, their counsellors are just down the hallway. In essence, they feel safe.

Linking To The Community

This element of safety is the key to most of the activities of the Centre. When survivors arrive they have a private session with a counsellor who carefully explains to them why the Centre exists and what services it has to offer. Once they are accepted as clients of the Centre, the counsellor will help to link them with the services they need. Many clients join the English classes. Some take advantage of the CCVT's unique Art Therapy Program. This allows them to safely express their pain, rage and depression in a way that is often difficult verbally. Most clients will be referred to a physician or psychiatrist for documentation and/or treatment purposes. These health professionals are members of the CCVT's network and have extensive experience in working with survivors of torture. The Centre tries, whenever possible, to act as a link to the community for its clients. This helps reduce the sense of alienation and intimidation that survivors often feel when confronted with the seemingly endless obstacles to housing, employment and security.

There are limits, however, to what CCVT counsellors can do for any one client. And this is where volunteers step in. As tutors, volunteers provide individual attention that teachers cannot provide in classes. As interpreters they help clients to bridge the language barriers that confront survivors in the community. As 'befrienders' - a program pioneered by the CCVT - they provide social support and ongoing assistance to clients in a personal way that counsellors simply can not.

It is impossible for anyone who has not experienced torture to fully grasp the extent of the losses that survivors cope with every day. The challenges of adapting to a new country and culture can seem like insurmountable obstacles to those who have so recently lost everything meaningful to them. Faced with intense pressure to adapt quickly, and pursued by the horrors of the past, it is easy for survivors to lose hope.

The Start Of Another Chapter

For most of us it is easier and more comfortable to believe that the horror ends when the victim escapes the torturer. When we hear the stories, we reflect complacently on the 'ending': the survivor's safe arrival in Canada. It is easy to forget that the end of one chapter merely signifies the beginning of the next. But it is essential that we not forget. Survivors of torture are members of our community. They are the neighbours in our apartment buildings. They are the people behind us in line at the grocery store. They are children that we see at school and in the playground.

The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture does what it can to provide the kind of support that survivors need, but it cannot do so alone. Every member of the community has a role to play. This can be a formal role as a volunteer or donor with an organization like the CCVT, or it can be a less formal role. Even taking the time to be patient with someone's stumbling English or extending a little warmth and kindness to a newcomer can make a tremendous difference. And after all, that's what community is all about.

In addition to providing services to survivors of torture, the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture has a commitment to increasing public awareness about torture and its effects. If your church, school or community organization would like to hear more about how to help survivors, please contact the CCVT at (416) 363-1066.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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