The Kingdom

March 8, 2005

This is a digest of an article from the Wesleyan University alumni magazine: “Healing Torture's Wounds” by William Holder.

There are an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. Each year, 150,000 obtain official refugee status from the UN. This status qualifies them for resettlement in another country. The U.S. currently takes in about half of them. (In the year after 9/11, we accepted fewer than 20,000.) An estimated 10 to 30 percent of refugees have been tortured at the hands of their governments. (You know some of the more notorious offenders: Bosnia under the Serbs, Tibet, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Iraq under Hussein.)

In the early 70s, a rehab/research center for torture victims was established in Copenhagen. The first American institution with a similar mission started in 1985 in Minneapolis. Today there are 30 groups in the U.S., large and small, that specialize in treating the victims of torture. “They all have long waiting lists,” writes Holder. “No one knows the full extent of the need among refugees.”

Dr. Cynthia Willard is the focus of the article. Her rotation at the Refugee Health Center (during her residency in San Francisco) brought her into contact with people who had fled Vietnam, Afghanistan, Haiti and other places. During the summer of 1999, she worked with Kosovan refugees, providing medical care on helicopter and cargo flights. That same year, her husband had got a job in Utah, and they moved to Salt Lake City. As it turns out, Salt Lake City is a pretty favorable city for refugees. For one thing, the ubiquity of Mormon missionaries who have lived abroad and experienced different cultures. For another, the low unemployment and cost of living. The State Dept. saw it as a suitable area for the resettlement of refugees, and 6000 have arrived there since '94.

Dr. Willard became a staff physician at the U. of Utah Community Clinics. As she saw refugees, she would ask them if they had been tortured. Those who had, as it turned out, had never been asked before. So she saw a need for raising the awareness of the healthcare community. She also encountered a patient named Kemal Mehinovic, a Bosnian refugee who had been imprisoned, beaten (ribs cracked, etc.), fed filth, made to venture out under fire to retrieve the bodies of Serb soldiers, and so forth. One of his torturers was later indicted for war crimes. When Dr. Willard tried to treat him, it pushed her a little further. “His experience in the concentration camp was worse than any I had heard,” she said, “and I did not have anywhere to send him for specialized care.”

So she took a year and got a master's in public health, sought funding from a foundation called Echoing Green, and in 2003 opened the Utah Health and Human Rights Project. It employs six part-time staff and another twenty-five volunteer professionals in medicine, psychology, nursing, social work and massage. They saw twenty clients their first year, of whom Mehinovic was their first.

What fascinated me about this article is the amazing power of God. Here's a world under a reign of darkness. People are treated in ways we literally cannot imagine, and are basically expected by their tormentors to die. If they don't die, there is a good chance they will be so crippled, physically and emotionally, as to live the rest of their lives as a mute testimony to the indifference of the cosmos. Without denying the terrible evil that has been done and can never be undone, without denying that what we have here are a million Jobs on a million ashheaps, seemingly cursed by God, we should stop and acknowledge how strange it is that the story does not end there, not for every Job. From those meant by men to die, a remnant live. From those meant by men to flicker out as mere statistics, a remnant are resettled. And while they were meant by men to be forgotten, God sends this woman who not only takes notice of them, but knows what questions to ask, and has the commitment deep in her heart to take concrete action. She starts a ministry of mercy where people who have known more hate than we can grasp are treated lovingly. Think of how radical and profoundly disturbing it must be for a survivor of torture to receive a massage, or any other kind of loving attention. I am stymied, trying to understand it.

Dr. Willard herself says, “I've gone through dark moments in the last couple of years. We feel we're helping our clients, but you can't give them back the person they once were. My worldview is a little darker from being immersed in the worst possible stories of human existence.” She would know better than I would. But I can't help but feel that her forays into the darkness are evidences that the light is stronger yet.