Torture victims endure beatings, assaults, the slaughter of loved ones at the hands of government agents. For many, the physical and psychological pain has overtaken their memories and threatened their chance at resuming a normal life.
But a St. Paul-based nonprofit, the Center for Victims of Torture, offers a path for healing. Now in its 33rd year, the center has helped develop and lead the international torture rehabilitation movement with support from the federal government and the United Nations.
As the world grapples with more displaced people, regimes and groups including ISIL practice torture on a massive scale, and the U.S. debates its responsibility to immigrants and refugees, the nonprofit's work has become even more urgent, Executive Director Curt Goering said.
"Our advocacy role takes on new significance and new importance at a time like this," he said.
The center is the second-oldest of its kind in the world and the largest torture rehab organization in the U.S., with a $20.7 million annual budget. It helps more than 5,000 survivors and 20,000 family members each year.
In the past five years, the center has doubled its budget and nearly tripled its number of clients around the world, including survivors and families. It relies on $12 million in federal money; remaining funding comes from the U.N., foundations and the generosity of 17,000 individual donors.
The Center runs clinics in the Twin Cities and Atlanta, serving immigrant and refugee populations, and conducts operations in Ethiopia, Uganda, Jordan and Kenya. Survivors work with psychotherapists, social workers, nurses and doctors. The nonprofit's policy team, with offices on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., is an advocate for human rights before Congress and the U.N.
One client, an immigrant from a French-speaking country in Africa, agreed to speak with the Star Tribune on condition that his name not be used for fear of retribution against his relatives back home.
The man, neatly dressed in a dark suit and sweater, said he first sought help at the center two years ago. He did not speak of the abuses he endured, but said they left him unable to sleep or eat much. The simple conversation starter "Where are you from?" triggered uncontrollable crying, he said.
"I was traumatized. I could not focus," he said. "I lost my dignity."
His therapist at the center, who he describes as "wise and good," has helped him feel comfortable in his own skin again. Once a professional in Africa, he said he is now working again — and smiling.
"This place is a gift for many people," he said.
The center zealously guards patients' identities and privacy. Officials said it's critical to creating a sense of safety and control for survivors who have been betrayed by people in authority.
To heal and move forward
Despite the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, torture has remained a common practice of oppressive regimes. For many years, survivors were left to cope on their own.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the concept of torture rehabilitation really took hold, Goering said. Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, urged on by his son who volunteered for Amnesty International, planted the seeds for the center.
"They have not only done amazing work, they have mentored and trained other organizations to meet this overwhelming need in the world," said Robin Phillips, executive director of Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.
Phillips, citing a 2009 report listing atrocities witnessed in Liberia, said that the stories of refugees are traumatic to those who simply hear them, let alone experience them.
"They have experiences of unspeakable harm, things the average Minnesotan could not imagine. It's just essential they get the appropriate treatment so they can heal, move forward and adjust to life here," Phillips said.
'Humans are amazing'
Staffers at the St. Paul clinic in 2015 treated 269 survivors from 35 countries. These days they most often see refugees and asylum seekers from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Congo, Liberia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The struggle to function in daily life is what often brings people to the center, said Jean Choe, a psychologist and lead clinician. Clients talk of insomnia, intense nightmares, thoughts of suicide, claustrophobia, fear of leaving the house and panic when seeing police and others in uniform.
After the intake and acceptance process, clients start intensive therapy and medical care. The center is a warmly decorated home in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood that's specially designed with ample windows and doors so people never feel trapped. It feels homey, not institutional.
Choe said she helps clients process their traumatic experiences. "Their experiences have not been digested in their system. You are sort of frozen or stuck," she said.
Choe said she also teaches clients ways they can find comfort and calm on their own, including meditation.
Doctors and nurses work to alleviate physical pain that still lingers. Some survivors had the bottoms of their feet flogged, a torture that results in years of chronic pain.
Choe, who has worked at the center for nearly two decades, said time and again she has seen people arrive there hunched over, eyes down, nearly crippled by trauma. When they complete treatment, she said, they often leave with heads high and a renewed sense of hope.
"Human beings are amazing. They are so resilient. I am often left speechless by that," she said.
"It's ultimately a very hopeful story," Goering said. "It's a place where miracles happen and lives are transformed. We have the privilege to participate in that."