For more than 20 years, HealthRight International’s Human Rights Clinic (HRC) has been dedicated to helping survivors of torture who are seeking asylum in the United States. As a founding member of the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs, HealthRight’s HRC provides a unique service in the torture treatment field. Our program has developed curricula and systems to train and support volunteer physicians and mental health professionals to perform forensic evaluations – objective medical and mental health exams that document the trauma experienced by immigrant survivors – and to offer case management services that connect survivors to follow-up care, including psychological, medical, social, and other services in their location communities. Working in 12 locations across the U.S, the HRC has provided more than 5,500 forensic evaluations to over 4,800 survivors of torture from more than 130 countries. On this International Day of Support for Victims of Torture, we share just a few of the many stories of clients whose lives have been impacted by the work of the HRC.*
Laithah: A young woman captured and tortured by ISIS because of her religion and ethnicity
Laithah is a Shia Muslim from Iraq. One day, during a routine crossing at a
checkpoint, Laithah was stopped and questionedabout her religious beliefs by ISIS militants. When Laithah failed to convince the militants that she was Sunni, she was kidnapped and imprisoned by the ISIS fighters. Holding her in captivity for weeks, Laithah’s captors repeatedly beat and sexually abused her, leaving her with extreme pain and psychological trauma. After eventually fleeing to the United States to reunite with extended family, Laithah was connected HRC volunteers who provided medical and psychological evaluations to document her past experiences and current symptoms – which included persistent nightmares and continuing intense distress was due to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – in support of her asylum case. HRC case managers also continue to work with Laithah to identify appropriate ongoing mental health and gynecological services to address her ongoing needs, as well as to help her find classes to improve her English. Today, though Laithah awaits the results of her asylum case, she continues to check in regularly with HRC case managers, who work to ensure she is supported at every step during her recovery.
Samba: A gay male fleeing persecution in Mauritania
Samba is young male who identifies as gay. In his home country of Mauritania, homosexual acts are considered criminal and are punishable by death. Though Samba was not “out” to his family, for many years, Samba’s father and brother, who suspected Samba’s sexual orientation, were physically and verbally abusive to him. The same brother regularly expressed the desire to kill anyone who was gay. While studying at university in Mauritania, Samba met his first real boyfriend. Though they tried to keep their relationship a secret, both men were routinely verbally harassed and alienated from their communities. In 2011, police officers broke into Samba’s apartment and arrested him on suspicions of being gay. The police physically abused and tortured Samba for two weeks before setting him free. Disowned by his family and fearing further persecution by the government, Samba fled his home and traveled to the United States, with the help of gay friends who had left before him. Once in the U.S., Samba was lucky to find an attorney who specializes in LGBT asylum claims, and that attorney referred him to HealthRight’s HRC so he could receive forensic evaluations to document the physical and psychological scars of his abuse, as well as to document Samba’s fears about what would happen if he was sent back to Mauritania. After a long and uncertain waiting period, Samba was granted asylum in the United States in December 2015. Since coming to the U.S., Samba has connected with the LGBT community in his new home town, and has become an advocate for LGBT asylum seekers.
Amanuel: A former engineer from Eritrea held captive by the military
Amanuel is an engineer from Eritrea who was enlisted into the military in 1997. The official policy of Eritrea, which has been referred to as “the worst place in the world to serve in the military,” is that mandatory active national service should last no more than 18 months except in wartime. Yet, though the country is at peace, those conscripted are often forced to stay in the military indefinitely, or until they escape. After 13 years of forced service, Amanuel was still in the military, during which time he had been imprisoned and tortured as a result of returning late from leave. In 2010, Amanuel tried to obtain his discharge, but was again imprisoned, this time in an overcrowded shipping container where he was beaten and threatened to sign an admission of treason. When Amanuel was finally released, he fled the country, like so many others from Eritrea have in recent years, though he was forced to leave his wife behind. Once in the U.S., Amamuel was connected with HealthRight, and volunteer clinicians provided evaluations to document the physical and psychological scars of his trauma, including infections, and PTSD. HealthRight is also working with him to address his ongoing medical, mental health, and social needs, including getting access to health insurance (Amanuel is lucky to live in NY, where he is eligible as an asylum seeker to access health insurance). Though his asylum case is still pending, today Amanuel has secured a job that offers steady income, for which he is very proud, and which allows him to send money back to his wife and family and home. He dreams of being able to bring his family to the U.S., if his asylum application is granted, and eventually getting work in the engineering field he was forced to leave behind.
The stories of these brave individuals remind us of the importance of International Day of Support for Victims of Torture and the need to put an end to torture. For more information on HealthRight’s services for survivors of torture, click here.
If you are an attorney representing a survivor seeking asylum and you’d like to request a forensic evaluation, you can find more information here: https://healthright.org/our-work/human-rights-clinic/attorneys/
To donate to the HRC, click here and indicate “HRC” in the notes section.
* Client names and some details have been changed to protect survivor confidentiality.
Linda Luu and Ellelan Degife, HealthRight Interns