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Aid centers, overwhelmed by refugees who have been tortured, seek more funding

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The Torture Victims Relief Act is up for reauthorization in Congress. The bill funds many centers across the United States that rehabilitate refugee survivors of torture. (Chris Twarowski/CNS)

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The Torture Victims Relief Act, the bill that funds rehabilitation centers for survivors of torture, is currently up for reauthorization in Congress. (Chris Twarowski/CNS)

Each year thousands of refugees arrive in the United States seeking to build new lives. Up to one-quarter of them have been victims of torture.

There are around 30 programs across the United States that treat and rehabilitate these refugees and asylum seekers. About a half a million people now living in the United States have survived torture, according to federal and treatment center estimates.

The refugees, who come from Laos and Liberia and dozens of other countries, settle throughout the nation. There are Somalis in Minnesota, Iranians in Nebraska and a sizable population of Afghanis living in Virginia.

One congressional bill funds much of the centers’ work: the Torture Victims Relief Act (TVRA), which is once again up for reauthorization. Congress first passed the TVRA in 1997, with President Clinton signing it into law the following year. Its sponsor in the Senate was Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. Beginning a tradition of bipartisan cooperation on the bill, Wellstone's co-sponsor was his political opposite at the time, Rod Grams, R-Minn., who had one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate.

The bill is expected to pass again this year as it has five times before, but the amount budgeted--$10 million--hasn’t increased since the bill’s inception. This means that funding has not even kept pace with inflation, even as many centers report an increased demand for their services.

Refugee numbers fluctuate each year. In 2004, 73,851 refugees came to the United States. In 2003, the number hit a low of 39,201. But on average, using data from the last five years from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 70,000 refugees a year come to America, which means about 17,500 have been tortured. A portion of those find their way to the treatment centers.

“I can't say that there's more torture [today], but it's certainly as prevalent today as when we started,” said Holly Ziemer, a spokeswoman for the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) in Minnesota. The largest treatment center in the United States, the CVT provides social services to help new arrivals find work and housing, medical treatment for the physical effects of torture and psychotherapy for the invisible and lingering mental effects of torture.

At the CVT, social workers and registered nurses manage the long-term care of patients, which lasts an average of 18 months. The center never closes a patient's file, Ziemer said, in case a person needs to come back. The Minnesota center has been around longer than the congressional bill--since 1987--so it has many other sources of financing than federal funds.

But other centers rely solely on the government funding.

The CVT estimates the centers need at least $25 million, more than twice the budgeted amount. At the current rate of $10 million, some programs have lost their TVRA funding, and victims of torture are losing medical services.

One such program is the For Immigrant and Refugees Surviving Torture (FIRST) center in Lincoln, Neb. "Basically, the FIRST project relied on the grant. Without it we weren't able to function,” said Michael Scheel, a board member at the center.

Following a decision by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to consolidate the grants among fewer programs, many small centers have had to scale back services dramatically or even shut down, Scheel said.

The Office for Refugee Resettlement did not return calls for comment.

There is a great need for the FIRST project in Lincoln, Scheel said, as there are 35,000 immigrants and refugees in Nebraska and many of them were tortured in their home countries.

"There are flashbacks and nightmares," he said. "In addition to physical wounds from torture, all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are just so evident in these patients."

The federal grant provided the center with enough money for office space, therapists, case management, interpreters, training, supplies and general operations, according to the center’s still-active Web site. Without the grant, the center will probably have to shut down at the end of the year, Scheel said, meaning that all patients served by the center will be left to fend for themselves.

”The reality is we really need more money,” said Carol Prendergast, director of operations at the Bellevue/NYU program for Survivors of Torture, a rehabilitation center in New York City that treated more than 500 people last year. ”What we really want is Congress to increase the amount of money.”

The federal grant funds a program for three years, Prendergast said, meaning that with a TVRA grant, rehabilitation centers can establish themselves in the community much better than if they were to subsist on private grants alone. Private grants commonly last for one year, she said.

Though workers at the centers agree that rehabilitation for torture victims is not a political issue with broad appeal, they are adamant that it is a human duty to take care of those who have suffered from the trauma associated with torture. "The long-term psychological impact is the hardest to recover from," Ziemer said. "But they do."

E-mail: jg2645@columbia.edu