“Are you missing something?” the young man asked Clarisse, then a Cameroonian undergraduate student, a day after police broke up a campus protest. “I think I have something that belongs to you.”
The young man looked like any other student at her West African state university, but Clarisse was suspicious. During the chaos, as police made arrests, she’d lost her student I.D. card, and she knew that if the police discovered it there, they would suspect she was involved in the protest.
“I didn’t move, but when he showed me the I.D., I took it from him—I was grateful to him for finding it,” Clarisse says. “Then he made a sign and three other police officers ran straight toward me—they’d been hiding nearby.”
Thrown into a prison cell with 20 other women, including criminals accused of serious crimes—“a little cage,” without a chair or toilet, she recounts—Clarisse received nothing to eat for three days and slept huddled against a wall. On a floor covered in feces and urine, she was forced to relieve herself in full view of the men in the next cell.
Police questioned her affiliation with a student association and opposition party—Clarisse had none with either—kicked, slapped, and beat her repeatedly with a baton. She missed a month of classes recovering.
Moving on to graduate school the next year and motivated by her incarceration, she joined the main opposition party in her new city. Her brother died after being arrested at a student protest in the early ’90s, so she dared not tell her parents of the decision.
During peaceful protests around fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2007, she was arrested again, waking up in jail, unable to recall if she’d succumbed to tear gas or had been knocked unconscious by water canons.
Six months later, police burst into her apartment after they saw her distributing flyers in protest of a constitutional amendment allowing President Paul Biya (in power since 1982) to seek another term. This time, along with the brutal conditions and beatings, as part of her torture, the 23-year-old was raped. Opposition party members got word of the arrest to her uncle, an officer in the military.
“He found me in the corner of the cell, covered with blood, my clothes torn, in shock,” Clarisse recalls quietly in an office of Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma (ASTT), based in the Govans neighborhood of North Baltimore. “It was the terrible experience of my life.”
According to the most commonly cited numbers, there are 500,000 torture survivors in the U.S., and ASTT estimates 40,000 torture and war-related trauma survivors live in the Baltimore-Washington area. Many are refugees from places like Rwanda and Bosnia, invited by the resettlement officers of the U.S. State Department. Others, like Clarisse, who fled in a daring escape, arrive alone with little more than the clothes on their backs. In all, ASTT, the only group of its kind in the region, treated more than 300 clients last year and has a waiting list of at least 100 more.
The nonprofit got its start in the early 1990s at the old Louie’s Bookstore Cafe in Mt. Vernon. There, over coffee, Karen Hanscom, a former schoolteacher who assisted victims of domestic abuse, Corinne Bowmaker, who worked with Cambodians following the terror of the Khmer Rouge, and Jim Sanders, a physician previously with Minneapolis’s Center for Victims of Torture, began to address what they considered an urgent need.
“It’s the true story of a Baltimore grassroots nonprofit,” says Hanscom, the group’s executive director. “There were five or six of us, bringing $5 or $10 each, stuffing it into an envelope and using it as seed money to start an organization.”
When the group was founded in 1994, Hanscom and Sanders treated patients through their private practices for free. Eventually, they found office space. Five years ago, ASTT bought a brick row house near Belvedere Square that had previously been an orthodontist’s office.
“We’ve had people from 58 different countries. It changes. We see people from where the hot spots are around the world,” Hanscom explains. “With the current Ethiopian elections, we see people from Ethiopia that are in trouble.” Before that, it was Afghanistan and Pakistan. For a while, Indonesia. They’ve seen Burmese and Mongolians. Falun Gong practitioners from China. Now, it’s Cameroonians, Eritreans, and Congolese.
For the most part, ASTT’s clients have been incarcerated and tortured for speaking out against their governments. They are bright and educated individuals, whose lives would be in jeopardy if they returned home.
ASTT is one of 25 care centers for torture survivors in the U.S. It offers individual and group psychotherapy and helps survivors access medical care, social service agencies, legal aid, and assistance from other nonprofits.
“Torture, unfortunately, is ordinary and commonplace,” says Christian Davenport, a former University of Maryland professor and author of State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace.
According to Davenport’s research, torture has been practiced in recent decades by more than 98 percent of nations that experience political violence—including Western democracies. He concluded that 80 percent of all countries torture at least one person in the government’s control in any given year.
“The horrifying physical and psychological trauma is designed to destroy self-confidence and any belief in a person’s ability to protect oneself,” he says. “People in their communities see they’ve been broken. That’s the message. They want to intimidate opposition.”
Some arrive at ASTT by word of mouth after meeting other survivors from their countries. Others are referred by University of Maryland and Georgetown University immigration law clinics and immigration attorneys, recognizing their client’s need for resources and healing from their psychological wounds.
Rarely do survivors tell anyone, including loved ones, what they have suffered, out of shame, stigma, and the fear of reliving those terrifying experiences.
“It is not uncommon for people to tell us things they have never told anyone,” says Hanscom, sitting in a wicker chair in a casual office filled with plants, art, fabrics, and knickknacks from clients’ homelands. Her warm, soft-spoken nature immediately puts visitors at ease. “They come here with the worst stories of anything that’s ever happened to anyone: Weights tied to their genitals and made to jump up and down. Electric shocks. Isolation underground for months. Hung by their extremities. Rape.”
Clinical director Mary Cogar, with ASTT since 1999, says clients typically present symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, including difficulty sleeping, nightmares, and intrusive memories. Years later, they often feel unsafe even in safe environments.
“The first thing we do, really, is make a connection with them,” says Cogar, a psychologist with 35 years’ experience. “They’ve lost all their most important relationships, and any sense of trust with other people has been ruptured, any sense of trust in the world has been ruptured.”
ASTT staff educates survivors about the symptoms they are feeling, why they are processing things the way they do, and teaches breathing and relaxation techniques as well.
“They are overwhelmed with symptoms and don’t understand what is going on psychologically,” Cogar says. Therapists sometimes encourage clients to find a safe place as a starting point, be it real—a church or mosque perhaps—or imaginary, like a calming image or memory, where they can begin to regain a sense of physical safety.
“This is a place where everything is confidential,” Hanscom says of ASTT. “Part of the healing is to hold onto those memories and be able to access them when they want to and not when they do not want to.”
One innovative ASTT program is its ongoing photography workshop. Initiated through an Open Society Institute grant, “Healing Images” encourages clients to express themselves through photography, while exploring their physical environments and inner thoughts.
Founding instructor, photojournalist Steven Rubin, notes the workshop enables clients—often lacking control over their asylum status, employment situation, and other critical aspects of their lives—“to select, frame, and represent various aspects of their world.”
ASTT also opened its “Healing Garden,” on its property this spring. Transforming an ordinary backyard with flowers, plants, bamboo, lattice, water, and a rear patio, the new space is a place to talk, read, or meditate on benches and “sitting stones.” Six dozen ASTT supporters, volunteers, staff, and clients turned out for the garden’s unveiling.
Three refugee women—a Cameroonian, and two Rwandans—spoke at the dedication, including Gloria, who fled Rwanda with her husband and three children in the mid-’90s for the Congo, ultimately finding a refugee camp. Gloria and her family witnessed war atrocities and her husband was killed after they were forced to flee the camp.
In 2006, she was invited to the U.S. as part of a resettlement effort, and in 2008, she was referred to ASTT by a psychologist.
Her oldest children, grown men now, live abroad, one in Europe, one in Africa. Both struggle to find work, she says. She lives in Baltimore with her daughter, who has severe developmental disabilities.
Planting last-minute marigold and tomato plants in the Healing Garden, Gloria says she cannot express everything the nearly yearlong project has meant to her.
“In this garden, I can see myself and everyone here,” Gloria says. “I see my husband, too, in this passion flower,” she continues, lifting a purple flower on a vine growing against a waist-high fence. “I see the passion fruit juice factory where he worked, and it helps me remember him.”
Betty, an attractive but reticent Rwandan refugee, takes the microphone after prompting.
“I think everything is said in this wonderful garden,” she says. “Each plant here is different, and they are living proof that we can live in peace with our differences on this same land.”
Although Cameroon’s human rights record is hardly the worst in Africa, repression and torture have been used to stifle dissent since Biya outlasted two early coup attempts after being installed in power. Clarisse’s account of her arrests, prison conditions, and abuse are consistent with U.S. State Department and Amnesty International reports on Cameroon.
When Clarisse’s uncle found her post-rape in jail, he promised to get her out. Days later, on National Youth Day, an annual Cameroonian holiday, he bribed a police officer to take Clarisse from her cell. Walking past the interrogation room, she says, “I was scared he wanted to abuse me again,” but instead the officer took her outside, to her uncle waiting in his military uniform. He whisked her to a safe house, where a private nurse treated her.
Her uncle located a Cameroonian businessman with permanent residence status in a European country, willing to pose as Clarisse’s husband—for a price. Together they traveled to the U.S. Embassy, where they received one-year travel visas here, although Clarisse never saw him again. Like the nurse, he was never told the reason she required his assistance. With her uniformed uncle escorting her, she made it through airport security. Luckily, Clarisse’s mother had made her get a passport after her first arrest.
“If you don’t have freedom of expression, if you don’t have freedom of association, you don’t have democracy,” Clarisse says. “People in my country need to speak up and fight for what is right.”
Rushed from the country, she arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in March 2008, wearing sandals, slacks, and a blouse. In her backpack, she had two pairs of pants, but no sweaters. She had $120 U.S. dollars in her pocket and did not know anyone in the U.S. to call. She slept in the airport for two nights until her family found a Cameroonian family in Washington, D.C., that would take her in, providing a room in return for babysitting duties.
Severely depressed, suffering from headaches, nightmares, and memory flashbacks, and able to do little but cry, Clarisse moved from family to family and eventually met another Cameroonian refugee who introduced her to ASTT. There, she met Sheetal Patel, a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, and Laurel Smith-Raut, her current casemanager.
“I needed someone to talk to, and Sheetal listened to me talk the very first day,” says Clarisse, adding that her family in Cameroon is still questioned about her whereabouts. “She became someone who I could trust, and she gave me her cell phone number. We spoke on the phone. She was my confidante.”
Along with counseling services, ASTT introduced her to the Center for Applied Legal Studies at Georgetown University Law Center.
After being rejected in her initial interview for asylum a year ago, she was granted asylum in May and permanent legal residence. She has applied for a security card and is now having her college transcript reviewed, hoping to finish graduate school. She wants to teach and is considering pursuing a Ph.D.
“I’m so happy. Why not?” she says, wiping away a tear. “Life in the U.S. is not yet okay, but I know it will be someday. In the beginning, I was lost, but I am on the right track.”