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Friendly house rehabilitates torture victims.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The big tawny house at 717 East River Road is welcoming with its wide front porch and, inside, its greenery, bookcases and Hmong tapestry. The house is a haven for victims of torture, and its look is intended to express the reality that here, in a community that cares, broken bodies and spirits can find safety and healing.

About 420 people have done so since the Center for the Victims of Torture, one of the few institutions of its kind in the United States, opened in 1985.

The center was started by then-Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, but it has always been a nongovernmental organization.

Because the center is working with victims of governments, said Douglas A. Johnson, executive director, it needs to assure them it will protect the privacy of their stories and medical records.

Refugees have come from 29 nations.

"Half of our clients are victims of the left and half are victims of the right," which indicates that torture is a weapon used by all types of people and nations, Johnson said.

Those who suffer torture suffer the most acute form of trauma, worse than war, rape, accidents, fire or earthquakes, Johnson said. Torture is well-planned and designed, he said, and it strategically destroys the victim's personality.

However, torture is intended to destroy more than its victims, he said. Broken people who are released into society become "the most effective weapon against democracy."

Each torture survivor who enters the center determines the extent and pace of her or his treatment.

The average survivor undergoes 14 months of treatment. Professionals from five disciplines examine each patient. Psychiatrists check for emotional problems, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, and physicians look for the physical effects of torture.

At first, short-term counseling is used to reduce symptoms such as panic attacks and nightmares, Johnson said. Once those are under control, long-term psychotherapy helps survivors "grapple with some of the specific destructions of torture."

Because patients control their treatment progress, some may drop out for a while, then return when they're prepared to deal with something deep within them, Johnson said.

The Persian Gulf War in 1991 prompted a surge of old clients to return to the center, he said, because outside conditions -- photographs of tortured people, for instance -- "can restimulate symptoms. So we had a series of short-term interventions."

Because trust is a casualty of torture, treatment begins with whatever the client identifies as his or her primary symptom, Johnson said.

One young university student felt he was becoming increasingly isolated because his eardrums had been broken, Johnson recalled. Many torture victims experience isolation, but the student ascribed his feeling to his lost hearing. So the staff verified his eardrum problem and arranged surgery for him, he said. After the young man regained his hearing, he returned for more comprehensive treatment.

The physician can "limit survivors' fear about how badly damaged they are physically," Johnson said. That fear is always greater than reality, he said, because "that is what torturers want you to believe -- that they've broken you and you'll never recover."

In contrast, the physician can tell the survivor he or she was damaged in one way but not another, then can plan for whatever rehabilitation is needed.

The center employs part-time physicians to assure a range of personalities, gender and age, and thus the best possible match between client and staff.

It also employs three social workers and two nurses. The social workers also coordinate volunteers who, for example, might give people rides or simply befriend them. Volunteers "are a very, very important part of our message to clients" that the community supports them, Johnson said.

Nurses, besides being case managers, train 10 University of Minnesota nursing students each semester in a practicum on working with torture victims and refugees.

The center's Washington representative, John F. Salzberg, lobbies for major funding for treatment of torture, Johnson said, including aid programs for torture rehabilitation centers abroad. These centers need major grants to survive and they need "the legitimacy that comes from major support from outside. That protects them from being targets of repression," he said.

Federal funding also would signal U.S. disapproval of torture by governments where those centers are located, he said.

The Minnesota center has benefited from some federal grants. One last year helped Vietnamese reeducation camp survivors. Some years most of the center's budget has come from foundation funds, other years from individual contributions. Private money was appropriate as the center developed treatment models, Johnson said, but now it is time to seek funding from governments. "After all, this work is generated by government action, whether it's ours or someone else's," Johnson said. The center treats only survivors of torture by foreign governments.

As center staff have learned how victims heal, they have become consultants to health care personnel and programs treating survivors elsewhere in the United States. They have reached out internationally, too, helping torture victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and working with the American Refugee Committee to develop a proposal for a Cambodian treatment center.

Overseas or locally, survivors become members of communities in which they live. In St. Paul, Minn., public schools, about 25 percent of all students are refugee children, Johnson said. It's important to help these children or their parents who have been tortured to overcome their traumas, he said, "so they can become full members of society."

Besides, he said, refugees settle where voluntary agencies can find sponsors for them. Minnesota churches have welcomed refugees, one reason the state has one of the nation's highest per capita refugee populations.
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Title Annotation:Center for Victims of Torture, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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