Story by CVT volunteer Patricia Busse
Because of its name, many people assume that the Asian Americans for Community Involvement Center for Survivors of Torture (CST) in San Jose, Calif., serves only people of Asian descent, said program manager Armina Husic.
Their assumption is wrong, she said.
"If you want to know who we're seeing in CST in terms of ethnic background, just turn on the news," she said. "Whatever the current political crisis is in the world, that's who we're seeing." In 2010, the countries with the highest representation among their clients were Iraq, Iran and Eritrea, she said.
Although the broader organization started 37 years ago to help the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees arriving in the bay area, it became known over the years as a place where a refugee from any country could get help meeting basic needs and settling into society, she said. So after seeing refugees coming to the area with the physical and mental scars of torture, it was a natural progression for the organization to start the Center for Survivors of Torture in 2000.
Government statistics show that somewhere between 5 and 35 percent of refugees are torture survivors, she said. Because Santa Clara County, where CST is located, draws so many refugees, the organization estimates there could be 30,000 torture survivors in that one county.
Because the demand is great, CST works in concert with a variety of local organizations to help meet the needs of its clients. They collaborate with nearby law schools for legal help, and with resettlement agencies for help with employment. They work directly with schools and centers that provide vocational training for higher-level jobs like nursing assistant, she said.
Being part of a collaborative team has also helped the organization fight the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues that's in many of the communities they serve, Husic said. Santa Clara County implemented a pilot project in 2005, using state money for mental health, that makes CST mental health therapists part of the initial physical exam that incoming refugees get, she said. Any new arrivals must have a physical exam to apply for medical benefits, she said, and as part of that exam, they now get a mental health screening.
"The majority of refugees or torture survivors will hesitate if you approach them and offer mental health services," she said. "However, while they're doing the physical exam at the health clinic, they would be a little more open to that."
CST receives federal funding, and the state lays out for the organization the specific communities it should target. Currently, that list includes the Iraqi, Iranian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Afghan, Burmese, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese communities.
One approach they've used to engage the different groups is using interpreters that are refugees within those communities themselves, Husic said, providing them with training on how to serve in a health setting. The center is very careful in its selection of staff and interns, she said, making sure hires possess the right characteristics to provide comprehensive and culturally sensitive services.
"When those ethnic communities are identified, we look for partners, they could be either individuals or agencies that have direct access to those ethnic communities," Husic said. "The majority of our partners are individuals who have been helped and supported by us themselves."
CST also has an extremely diverse staff including a case manager from Iraq who speaks Arabic, another from Iran who speaks Farsi, engagement workers from Eritrea and Ethiopia, case workers from Honduras and the former Yugoslavia, a psychologist from Indonesia and a social worker with Chinese background who speaks Cantonese.
Quoting Jesse Jackson, Husic said, "America is not a blanket woven from one thread, one color, one cloth. Center for Survivors of Torture is a blanket made of many threads, colors and cloths."