Clients at the Center for Survivors of Torture often arrive with only the clothes on their backs.
Victims of torture in their homelands, sometimes through random government violence that keeps citizens scared and mindful of who's in control, they have sought political asylum and new, safer lives in the United States.
But the grant of asylum solves only part of such people's predicaments. The effects of torture may torment victims years after the physical horrors stop, and at mimum they need specialized counseling.
The Center for Survivors of Torture in Dallas was formed three years ago. One of only 16 such centers in the United States and among more than 200 in the world, its staff comprises three full-time employees and a group of clinical-psychologist volunteers. Demand far exceeds such scarce resources, and many of those coming to the Dallas center were granted asylum years ago but received no psychological help and are now coming to the agency to be counseled for latent emotional problems.
Just like the new arrivals, such individuals are prone to acute depression, flashbacks and feelings of guilt that they survived or left loved ones behind.
Both groups share "an absolute lack of trust in other humans," said the center's executive director, Manuel Balbona, who is also a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "They had the internal resources to survive what others couldn't but now suffer from anxiety or a blunting of the emotions ... like looking at the world from a distance."
Once they are able to talk about the unspeakable, recovery is relatively quick for new arrivals, although it takes longer for those who didn't receive therapy and whose unresolved emotional hurts are now spawning marital and other problems including alcoholism and substance abuse.
"The response is so remarkable; in two to three weeks they go from a frightened person to one who is relaxed and able to talk. That's if we can get to them early," Balbona said.
Of the estimated 400,000 torture victims now living in the United States, including 20,000 in North Texas, the majority are well educated and have been persecuted for their political views, said Betsy Leveno, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. Her agency sometimes refers new arrivals to Balbona for counseling because the asylum-seeking process, which is a years-long legal ordeal that bars applicants from holding jobs and requires them to document their torture, adds to their suffering.
"Most are completely alone, unable to work and in dire economic straits ... sleeping on a stranger's sofa. It's their job to tell their story or they can't get asylum. Some have been raped ... for men that's the most humiliating experience possible ... some break down crying or have buried their feelings so deep there is no emotion at all ... we send them to someone to talk about it," Leveno said.
The center is the embodiment of collaboration in its holistic assistance to asylum seekers. In addition to ensuring they get mental health counseling and referrals for free medical and legal assistance, the center cooperates with organizations ranging from universities and churches to nonprofit groups to provide primary living needs as well as job training and English language and American culture classes.
Well-heeled students from Southern Methodist University, a private college, chauffeur torture victims to medical appointments and wherever else they need to go as a 20-hour community service requirement in a human rights class taught by Professor Rick Halperin, former chairman of Amnesty International USA. He also requires his students to write an essay about it.
"To a person, they will say they got more out of it than the people they helped. It becomes more than driving someone to a doctor appointment. Some students, long after the class is over, still drive them around. They befriend these people ... and really have their eyes opened to what people around the world endure," Halperin said.
Some former students were so moved that they chose service careers and now have jobs ranging from working with gangs in St. Louis to becoming capital-defense and immigration-asylum attorneys. "The reward is way beyond the 20 hours; for some it is life-changing," Halperin said.
The Wilkinson Center, a local nonprofit group with an 18-year record of assisting low-income individuals, leases part of its quarters rent-free to the Center for Survivors of Torture. Wilkinson also opens its food pantry and clothing bank to asylum seekers, who typically arrive without money or a change of clothes due to the rapid departure from their countries.
"We are thrilled they are here," Wilkinson official Brian Burton said of the torture survivor center. "To be in close proximity to an agency with such a far-reaching mission has rejuvenated our board and staff. For me this is a whole new universe of human need. Even though you hear about torture on TV, it doesn't become personal until you bring it into your own reality. It's wonderful to see these people learn to trust again ... to begin to stabilize and move to recovery and self-sufficiency."
Indeed, the Wilkinson Center and the charity of other organizations ensured the very survival of the center, which was in question until recently, when it received a grant from the United Nations. Additional federal funding is pending.
The center ran into trouble earlier this year after its larger parent program lost its funding and closed down, forcing the agency to find other rent-free quarters. It survived only because of Balbona's dedication and that of two full-time staff members who accepted summertime monthly salaries of $600 until the grant money arrived.
"It's been a long summer for the staff, but things are looking better for us; it's essential that we survive," said Balbona, cognizant that without the Dallas-based center, the next-closest center for victims of torture is 900 miles away in Denver, Colo.
Facts about torture:
- Of the world's 192 countries, 123 use torture to control their citizens, according to the Torture Survivors Network.
- There are 200 centers for victims of torture worldwide -- 16 are in the United States.
- The United States has granted asylum to 400,000 victims of torture from around the world.
- The first American center for victims of torture was founded in 1985 in Minneapolis.
- U.S. cities with centers for torture victims include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Falls Church, Va., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego (three centers) and San Francisco (two centers).