Local organization helps torture victims rebuild shattered health

SEATTLE – The federal government has funded a Washington-based coalition so it can continue to heal victims of torture.

Wasif Rabaa started working as a police officer with the American military during the Iraq War in 2004. Some called him a traitor, Rabaa said, and he was kidnapped and tortured. Rabaa’s captors blind-folded him, electrically shocked him and kept him in a tiny box. Thankfully, one of the kidnappers helped Rabaa escape.

“I was extremely exhausted, mentally and physically,” he said. “My body had a lot of damage.”

Rabaa fled to Syria with his wife and four children, leaving all of their possessions behind. But, Rabaa said life in Syria was difficult because refugees were not permitted to work. After a year, he decided to return his family to Iraq.

“I honestly thought they had forgotten about me,” he said.

But the day Rabaa’s family returned, a militia broke into their home. The men force Rabaa to watch as they beat and sexually assaulted his wife. They warned him to leave Iraq and never return, saying they would burn his family alive. Rabaa’s wife was pregnant at the time of the attack and suffered a miscarriage.

“I was lost about what to do,” Rabaa said. “We returned to Syria the same evening.”

For five years, Rabaa and his family lived in extreme financial hardship, hoping to come to the United States. Finally, in 2010 their application was approved, and they moved to Seattle. While they may have felt safer in the United States, the family’s health had been deteriorating for years.

“We had been beaten down,” he said. “Medical treatment in Syria costs lots of money that we didn’t have.”

But, Rabaa and his family were able to find medical care thanks to the Northwest Health and Human Rights Project, a coalition formed by Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Harborview Medical Center and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to provide medical, mental and legal services to torture victims from around the world.

Rabaa’s wife was first treated at Lutheran for severe nerve damage before Rabaa began his own physical and mental health care.

“It’s really helped stabilize our lives,” he said.

Rabaa is one of many torture victims who came to the Northwest Health and Human Rights Project for help. The coalition formed in 2012 with funding from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to address the needs of refugees who were suffering the effects of torture. Funding was renewed this fall.

Beth Farmer, director of the coalition, was working for the International Counseling and Community Services program at Lutheran Community Services Northwest in 2005 when said she began noticing more and more refugees reporting incidents of torture and considered designing mental health treatment specifically for torture victims.

Meanwhile, Dr. Carey Jackson was treating refugees as director at Harborview’s International Medicine Clinic. After 24 years working with this population, Jackson had exceptional expertise. He knew the historical context of various cultures and how to work with interpreters. But, refugees who did not yet have asylum did not have access to his care.

Together, Farmer and Jackson formed the Northwest Health and Human Rights Project in 2012, offering refugees a comprehensive model of treatment specifically for torture victims.

In the past year, the coalition has served clients who survived horrific experiences – electric shock, rape, traumatic brain injuries, positional torture and falanga (beating the soles of the feet). Farmer has worked with patients who were kept in tiny boxes, blindfolded and forced to listen to assassinations, covered in feces or forced to eat food off the floor.

“Torture is designed to dehumanize, to make them feel like nothing,” Farmer said. “That impacts people in a very deep and profound way, and they have trouble putting their lives back together.”

Victims of torture can suffer from long-term physical impacts, extreme nightmares and disassociation, Farmer said. But, giving them an opportunity to share their story can be healing.

“You help to restore their humanity, get them to claim a part of themselves they were too scared to tell anyone about,” she said.

Jackson said these patients require special understanding during their medical care, to avoid unintentionally re-traumatizing them. For example, a woman who previously had a forced abortion would be uncomfortable with a pelvic exam, and a man who’d been trapped in a small space could panic during an MRI.

“Most people don’t understand the political context of different ethnic groups,” Jackson said. “Part of it is educating physicians.”

Still, Farmer said what is most amazing about working with victims of torture is their resiliency.

“The people we see here are motivated enough to get out and find freedom,” she said. “One reason we’re such a strong country is the people who choose this place are future-oriented people. They have dreams for their children. They want to build and start over.”

The United States will receive an estimated 70,000 refugees this year from war-torn countries such as Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia. Many of them will come to Washington state, ranking it ninth in the nation for refugee populations.