After months of waiting, I finally got to sit down this past Friday and take a training for forensic psychological evaluations for victims of torture. The training was held at Community Legal Services and Counseling Center where I volunteer supervising pre-licensed psychologists-in-training. Now that I've completed this training I'll be picking up a new role as a forensic evaluator for persons seeking asylum in the United States who may have been victims of torture.
A large part of my work as a psychologist involves going to places most people don't know about. On a daily basis I hear about people's deepest fears, darkest fantasies, and most damaging traumas. This training brought me into a few more of those places. What surprises me every time I enter into another experiences is how unsettling it is to realize what has been happening around me all the time without even being aware.
Here is some of what I learned in the training. According to the UNHRC, at the end of 2008 there were 12,599,900 refugees and asylum seekers. There were 8,177,800 individuals who were warehoused in refugee camps waiting for ten or more years to be resettled into a new home.
Who is a refugee? A refugee is a person who enters into the United States with legal status. They have already been processed by a UN agency and come to this country with legal status. A refugee doesn't get to pick where they are resettled: that is decided for them. What is an asylum seeker? Asylum seekers are people who somehow entered the United States and seek protection based on a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return to their country of origin.
What's a refugee camp like? They aren't comfortable and they aren't safe. Here are a few images to give you an idea of what a refugee camp is like. As bleak as these places are, they are in many ways, an improvement from the areas refugees and asylum seekers fled.
Why flee their home countries? Some flee because of war, genocide, human rights abuses, famine, or various environmental catastrophes. The official definition is that a refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, who is outside of his or her country of nationality and unable or unwilling to return.
Prior to arrival in their resettled countries, children and adults faced physical injury, assault, illness, and malnutrition; were subjected to chaos, instability, and unpredictability; witnessed death, dead bodies, and injury to others; separated from parents and other family members; were are of parents' fears, anxiety, and inability to protect and provide for them; forced prematurely into adult roles; deprived of school, health care, and social services; faced adults silence on what's happening and why; and faced multiple losses.
Many people who are refugees or are seeking asylum are victims of torture. Despite the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than sixty years ago, torture is still a frequent or even standard practice in many nations. In 2003, for example, torture was reported in over 150 countries. In over 70 countries it was widespread or persistent.
Torture is designed to destroy the victim psychologically, create an atmosphere of fear and horror, disempower the individual and community; take away control form the individual and community; and damage relationships of victims and communities. Torture might be physical (beating, falanga, hanging, sexual torture, electrocution, being forced into uncomfortable positions for long period of times; burns with acid, burns, or forced ingestion of feces or urine) or psychological (mock execution/threatened execution; threats to self and family members; forced to witness family members or others tortured or killed; being forced to participate in torture of others; food, water, sleep and bathroom facilities deprivation; solitary confinement; and constant interrogation).
So why go here? Why enter into these dark places with people seeking asylum? On reason is that I'm awfully curious. I like learning about people and their experiences: this is one way to learn about some powerful experiences that people have had that is about as far away from my own experience as possible. The other reason is something that I touched upon awhile back in a blog post about the bookmark that was given to me in my welcome packet in my doctoral program at Antioch. The quote was:
Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity--Horace Mann