Imagine your little girl being raped right before your very eyes because you refused to join a rebel group. Now imagine watching her being murdered and having to watch your wife endure that same shame and you having to stay there as she and your daughter lie still in a pool of blood.
How would that make you feel? How would you ever sleep again, knowing you were unable to stop it? What would you do? How would you go on?
Up to 44 percent of refugees who arrive in this country, in this city arrive carrying that kind of baggage.
The temptation is to tack on the phrase “or worse,” but I can’t imagine what that might be or how anyone is left to tell it.
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But here on a forlorn stretch of Ponce de Leon Avenue in Clarkston, Adaobi Iheduru hears such stories a lot.
She is the resident psychologist and program manager of the Center for Victims of Torture, a little old house on Ponce where men, women and children come seeking peace from life’s nightmares.
The center, which opened here in March 2016, is part of one of the oldest and largest torture rehabilitation programs in the world, providing care and counseling to refugees and asylum-seeking survivors and their families.
We hear a lot about immigrants and refugees. Each year in Georgia, between 2,500 and 3,000 refugees are resettled here, many having arrived from countries known for having high rates of torture. They have been beaten near death or raped or verbally abused by someone in authority acting under the color of law.
How does that manifest itself?
Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder that is characterized by nightmares and flashbacks or intrusive memory of the torture, Iheduru said. Often, clients experience fear of others or fear of being in public, which can lead people to isolate themselves.
“When people come to us, their lives have been completely shattered,” Iheduru said. “We simply walk alongside them as they rebuild their lives.”
Most people are surprised to learn that there are torture survivors living in Georgia, but that is precisely why Minnesota-based CVT chose the state as its second U.S. location.
According to Iheduru, nearly 44 percent of all refugees in the U.S. are torture survivors.
At any given time, as many as 60 survivors, ages 5-64, come here, where in addition to free individual psychotherapy with professional interpretation, they can receive help accessing other badly needed services such as medical care, English classes, food, clothing and transportation.
Seldom do we get a glimpse of the horror they’ve endured, and even when we do, it doesn’t seem real.
The family described earlier might not but they are.
They arrived, Iheduru said, from war-torn East Africa. The little girl and her mother were brutally raped, in the presence of other family members, because the father refused to join a rebel group.
The family had to stay there until a neighbor came and took them to a hospital, Iheduru said. Before they could get there, the child was dead, and her mother and father were left with the guilt that they didn’t protect their young child.
After nearly two years of counseling, the father is doing well. The dead child’s mother, though, is still struggling.
“She has a long way to go rebuilding her life and restoring trust in other people,” Iheduru said.
There’s no telling how long that might take, but what we know for sure is the CVT staff will be there for her. It’s what they do.
At a ceremony in New York City early last month, CVT received the prestigious Dr. Guislain “Breaking the Chains of Stigma” Award.
Siri Hustvedt, the noted essayist, novelist, poet and member of the Guislain Award jury, noted that victims of torture do not always show outward signs of what they endured.
And yet to suffer lasting effects from torture is normal.
“Trauma alters time. Sometimes it stops time,” she said. “For the traumatized person, past and future may disappear and leave only the vivid horror of unspeakable events that remain stubbornly in the present.”
Hustvedt said she found this quote from a victim on the CVT’s website: “They told me, ‘You’ll be alone with this for the rest of your life. You’ll die with this alone.’ But when I heard about the Center for Victims of Torture, I knew the torturers had lied.”
“The Center for Victims of Torture exposes that lie of loneliness, day in and day out, one human story at a time,” she said.
Even though you didn’t get to hear their voices or see their faces, remember that when you think about the family I described here. They are still too afraid to reveal their identity, but they are not alone.
Their torturers lied, too.