Torture survivor advocates call for change

Healing Center
The Center for Victims of Torture moved its healing center into this Minneapolis house in 1991. Since then, the center has helped hundreds of torture survivors rebuild their lives.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

In Minneapolis, Holly Ziemer stands outside a pink house with a garden and swing nearby. Ziemer works for the Center for Victims of Torture.

"This is the Minneapolis healing center, and we moved into this house in 1991," she says. "It's an old Victorian."

Center living room
The living room is designed to feel home-like and make torture survivors comfortable.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

She leads the way through the front door. Inside, it feels very cozy. This is deliberate -- to avoid any semblance of the prisons, police departments and other institutions where torture takes place.

"You can see it's very home-like. There are wood floors. Immediately to your right is what we call our living room. There are no bare bulbs anywhere in the house. There are sconces and coverings on all the lights, again, to avoid that institutional-like feeling," Ziemer says.

The idea is to humanize the space. The house is full of colorful art and the walls have been changed so the rooms are not square.

This is the kind of environment into which advocates would like to welcome torture survivors when they arrive in the U.S. But under federal policy, asylum seekers are often detained while their status is being determined. In Minnesota, that means they're placed in county jails.

Holly Ziemer
Holly Ziemer is communications director at the Center for Victims of Torture.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

Michele Garnett McKenzie works on refugee issues for Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. She says although the numbers aren't huge, the detention process is still unjust.

"Asylum seekers are not people who have been convicted of crimes. They are not serving a criminal sentence," says McKenzie. "They are supposed to be held in detention to ensure their appearance at their hearing, not as punishment. And yet, they're forced into a system that is designed around the criminal justice model."

At the Center for Victims of Torture, Holly Ziemer says the experience of being in jail is retraumatizing for torture survivors.

It can trigger memories of detention in their homeland, where they may have endured beatings, psychological torture and sexual abuse. Added to that is all the waiting --- often more than a year in the county jail.

"If you're riding the bus with a refugee, there's a decent chance they've experienced some serious violence, and maybe even torture."

"Torture survivors don't have great mental health in the first place. And then if they are in jail setting because they've applied for asylum, it just makes their mental health worse," Ziemer says.

The center likes to remind people that torture survivors once had a very different life. They're often highly educated and were leaders in their communities. Many worked hard to promote democratic principles.

By torturing community leaders, Ziemer says corrupt regimes send a message to everyone else. She says torture is rarely about getting information.

"We get that myth through popular culture. Hollywood movies and books perpetuate that. But that's not really how torture is used in the world today," says Ziemer. "Torture is a political weapon. It's really how corrupt regimes maintain control over societies."

This can all seem far away from everyday life in Minnesota. But in the Twin Cities, torture survivors work in places like the airport, in bakeries and grocery stores.

Eva Solomonson knows, because she's a social worker who works with center's clients.

"Even when you're riding the bus, if you're riding the bus with a refugee, there's a decent chance they've experienced some serious violence and maybe even torture," says Solomonson.

Center Garden
The healing garden at the Center for Victims of Torture is maintained by volunteers. It represents the survivor's experience -- a rocky start, but then a smooth path as they resettle in safer countries.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

Solomonson remembers a woman from central Africa who came to the center four years ago.

"When she sat down, she couldn't even speak because she was just crying and crying and crying and crying. So the first hour of our therapy basically, it was just consolation," recalls Solomonson.

In time, the woman revealed how she had fled Africa, and left her husband and five children.

"The way she described it was, she said, 'I've lost myself,'" says Solomonson. "A lot of people who are torture survivors have that internal experience of feeling like they've lost themselves, lost who they used to be, how they used to perceive their own self and their own place in the world."

Within a few years, the woman became a registered nurse, but Solomonson is pretty sure no one she works with would ever imagine what she's been through.

The Center for Victims of Torture estimates at least 30,000 torture survivors live in Minnesota.

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