Mentioning that I do volunteer work with torture victims can bring a conversation to a halt.
Torture is a hard word to hear, and harder to react to. It reminds us just how horribly human beings, including Americans, can treat other human beings.
It's a dose of reality that brings perspective to the "torture" we think we experience when we're stuck in traffic or the power fails on a hot day.
Not everyone responds with silence when I say I'm a volunteer at the Center for Victims of Torture. Some ask, with a mix of curiosity and concern: "So, what's it like?"
I tell them to imagine the upstairs hallway of a Victorian house in St. Paul. The walls are warm colors, the woodwork beautiful oak, and at each doorway along the carpet are white-noise machines.
The machines are there to provide a reliable shush so that those behind the doors can privately speak their pain, or cry it, or try to somehow let it out, in the hope that they can move toward the life that lies on the other side.
To me, the house is a holy place, a place of human miracles.
My main task as a volunteer has been a blue-collar one. I'm a guy with a car who stopped at houses and apartments around the Twin Cities and picked up people from Africa or Asia or Europe. I would drive them to appointments -- appointments they needed because someone back home tortured them.
It's seldom visible, the torture -- only one of the survivors I met had a symptom I could see. But the simple fact that a person is here in Minnesota, a native of the tropics trying to walk on ice in shoes that someone gave her, that is the sign of torture. The fact that home had to be fled -- cruel and dystopian, but still home -- is the surest sign.
But I didn't focus on the signs. Each passenger was a person, a soul I was asked to transport as carefully and kindly as possible. A person first, without the "t" word. A person, period.
As people do, these souls provided me with surprises. One woman opted for the back seat of my car. Because I was a driver? Because I was a man? I lacked the language to ask. We zoomed in silence along pavement smoother than any in the Horn of Africa.
A client who spoke English did not wish to listen to any news stations on my car radio. Did you know that country music is pretty popular in her country? I didn't, either, and I flipped between stations to find songs she liked.
Another passenger sung me a drinking song he learned in Latin America. He was heading to an appointment at a hospital, where his English received many shrugs from the people behind the counter. My role that day expanded to include interpreter, explainer, and advocate.
The most paradoxical thing to acknowledge about this work is how much fun it can be. There's joy in figuring out whatever the client and I might have in common, whether it's knowing the melody of a song by Alabama or sharing a dislike of snow. There is joy over the healing, and of simply being.
I don't know what is revealed in the psychotherapy rooms behind the shush -- I don't know that I'm strong enough to know. But I do know that, in my car, we laughed.
On days without rides to give, I would help out at the center's New Tactics in Human Rights project, which lets activists from all over the world share ways of making more people free. I learned about difficult, inspiring work from Liberia to Kyrgyzstan. It was amazing to one day listen to a Balkan activist describe a victory and the next day give a ride to a Balkan torture survivor.
Part three of my three-role volunteering gig has been tutoring English. There wasn't time for me to take the class on how to tutor, but off I went, figuring I couldn't make the clients' English worse.
My copy of the picture-book classic "Go, Dog. Go!" turned out to be an excellent tutoring tool. My student and I would sit in a bland room at a library and read and write a bit and work on conversation.
Every week, I would ask what he had for breakfast and whether he went to church the day before, and occasionally I would do things like jump to illustrate the word "jump."
It was an hour and a half of the kind of improv that all teachers do. My heart would break that we had to be there at all, and soar with every word he remembered.
And then one day, after weeks of the library, he told me (somehow): "Today we see flowers."
Flowers? This was a new kind of surprise. But I knew just where to go.
The Como Park Conservatory is perfect for reviewing the vocabulary of "Go, Dog. Go!" (big, little, red, blue, yellow) and for visiting the plants that bring you breakfast (banana, coffee). And the humid room with ferns reminded my student of his country. He was quiet there and spent a long time just staring at the green.
A few days later, I gave my last ride to the country music fan. We arrived a bit early at the Victorian house. I sat in my car, and she went up the steps, then off to her right -- not to the front door, but to the garden, where she paused before some daffodils.
Today, we see flowers.
Today, yes. And each and every sacred day.
Jim Foti, a former Star Tribune journalist, is studying to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. He lives in Minneapolis. Sunday, June 26, is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The Center for Victims of Torture will honor the day with events at its Twin Cities headquarters and at its project areas around the world.
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