Oct. 6, 2004
|A UMNS photo by John Gordon
Anita (center) talks with the Rev. Sharmin DeMoss and Manuel Balbona at the Center for Survivors of Torture.
By John Gordon*
(UMNS)—After being arrested repeatedly and tortured for drawing
political cartoons for an underground newspaper, Willy knew he had to
leave his home and family in the African country of Cameroon.
“It wasn’t a matter of choice. It was, should I say, a matter of need,” Willy said.
is one of an estimated 500,000 torture survivors now living in the
United States after fleeing their home countries. He asked that his last
name not be used because he fears retaliation against his family.
I remained over there, only God knows what would have happened,” he
said. “They’d be singing my ‘Candles in the Wind.’ I would be
dead, probably, by now.”
received a visa to travel to the United States for a conference.
Instead of returning home, he applied for and was granted asylum. He
received counseling and other assistance from the Center for Survivors
of Torture, a nonprofit agency in Dallas.
is not like in America, where you can make a caricature of the
president and nobody does anything about it,” Willy said. “Well, in
Cameroon, if you do that, you better be ready to run.”
survivors seeking political asylum invariably describe a deep feeling
of loneliness, with no family or friends in the United States. The
center has a small staff, with three employees, and depends on
volunteers like Pat Henderson to help torture victims adjust to American
big part of it is just to try to help them feel comfortable,” Henderson
said, “because I can’t imagine what it would be like to just leave your
culture, your family, and just come to such a totally foreign
environment. If I can make that a little easier by making them a little
more comfortable, that’s very rewarding.”
She has taken groups on field trips, taught them arts and crafts, and helped them navigate public transportation.
learned about the center’s need for volunteers through her church,
First United Methodist in Quinlan. The center is in a former duplex
apartment on the grounds of Grace United Methodist Church in downtown
“I see an awful lot of pain,” she said. “It’s just hard to imagine what they have gone through.”
has also helped ease the transition for Anita, who said she was
imprisoned and tortured because she was an AIDS and women’s rights
activist in Zimbabwe. Anita, like Willy, sought asylum after being
allowed into the United States to attend a conference.
lot is happening (in Zimbabwe)—people beaten, kidnapped, disappearing,
torture,” she said. “There is poverty; there is no food.”
was referred to the center after stress landed her in a hospital.
Counselors say many of the victims suffer the symptoms of post-traumatic
stress disorder. Those symptoms include depression, feelings of
hopelessness and nightmares.
all things go well, and things change and improve back home, I’ll have
to go back,” Anita said. “I’m the breadwinner for my family. If things
don’t change, I won’t be able to come back home.”
Balbona, executive director of the Dallas center, said torture is
widespread internationally. The center typically deals with up to 60
clients at a time.
two-thirds of all the nations in the United Nations use torture, more
or less openly,” Balbona said. “They find a very effective way to
control general dissent by selectively attacking and torturing
individuals that could be an influence.”
Many of those seeking asylum are students. The center has also assisted doctors, lawyers and judges.
people with the right ideas, the democratic ideas, that they were
willing to risk their lives for them in their countries,” Balbona said.
U.S. Justice Department is “not particularly friendly” to those seeking
asylum, he said, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks. Asylum seekers must convince a judge they have been
Balbona said physical scars are the easiest to heal.
“Even if you lose a hand or a finger, well, you adapt to it,” he said. “The psychological scars last a lifetime.”
goal of the center is to help torture survivors begin new lives and, if
possible, bring their families to live with them. Much of the center’s
funding has come from United Nations grants.
think it’s a great benefit to the United States to have these very
capable people coming with proven strength and loyalty to our principles
that we stress so much,” he said.
is working on his master’s degree and would like to become a graphic
designer. He said he will likely return to Cameroon if the government
“Sometimes I feel happy I got out. Sometimes I feel guilty that I did,” he said. “If you get out, what about those who did not?”
*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer in Marshall, Texas.
News media contact: Ginny Underwood, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.