|Kate Porterfield of the Bellvue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture gives advice on how to talk to refugees about their experiences of trauma. The Tennessee Office of Refugees hosted a training session presented by the Refugee Services National Partnership for Community Training July 22-23 at the Catholic Pastoral Center. The training was designed to help people who work with refugees who are victims of torture or other forms of trauma. Photo by Andy Telli
For decades, Nashville has been a port to welcome refugees from around the world. Some were fleeing political or ethnic persecution. Some were tortured. Some lost members of their family. All have lost their home.
Whether they are coming to the United States directly from a country at war or they’ve spent years in a refugee camp, all refugees “have experienced the trauma of a disruption in their life,” said Kellye Branson, the director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Tennessee.
She and her staff joined others who work regularly with refugees at a two-day workshop to help them understand how to help refugees who have been victims of torture and trauma. The workshop, put on by the Refugee Services National Partnership for Community Training, was hosted by the Tennessee Office for Refugees at the Catholic Pastoral Center on July 22-23.
“I want to learn more about the trauma experienced by some of our clients and how to be more effective in helping them,” said Branson, whose staff expects to help resettle about 500 refugees this year and another 500 next year.
She encouraged all of her staff to attend the workshop, which drew more than 140 people from throughout Tennessee, Kentucky and even Florida, including the support staff who also interact with refugees regularly. It helps the support staff “to understand that with clients who are demanding and difficult, there are experiences behind that,” Branson said.
The U.S. government defines torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.”
“The nature of torture is really intended to destroy a person’s humanity,” said Melodie Kinet, executive director of the National Partnership for Community Training.
Studies have found that anywhere between 5 percent and 35 percent of refugees resettled in the United States are victims of torture, Kinet said. Their experiences can lead to a variety of mental and physical health problems, including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug and alcohol additions, chronic illnesses and physical limitations stemming from injuries suffered as a torture victim, she added.
A refugee’s traumatic experiences can affect more than the individual, Kinet said, but also how they interact with their family and the rest of the community.
“That person’s traumatic experience is in the room with you… particularly if it’s something they haven’t been able to get treatment for or to get past,” said Kate Porterfield of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, one of the presenters at the workshop.
The trauma experienced by refugees affects their ability to process information, talk about memories, relate to others, think about the future, and their feelings about the world and themselves, Porterfield said.
To help refugees heal, those who work with them first must build trust, Porterfield said.
In one of her presentations, Porterfield discussed strategies that case managers, counselors, therapists and others who work with refugees can use to build trust with their clients.
The most effective strategy for helping a traumatized person is to humanize them, Porterfield said.
The prevalence of chronic disease among people who have been traumatized is high, said James Lavelle, of the Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma, the other presenter for the workshop. Violence plants the seed of poor health that can blossom into debilitating diseases, he said.
“We need to think of patients and clients holistically,” Lavelle said. “It’s not just above the head or below the head. Health care providers can forget about mental health and mental health workers can forget about physical health.”
He discussed several methods of screening clients to help identify health issues they may be facing, including both mental and physical health, so treatment can be arranged, Lavelle said.
The clients aren’t the only ones that can be negatively affected by their trauma. Case workers and therapists who hear graphic stories of torture and violence repeatedly can suffer a secondary trauma, Lavelle said. “You have to take care of yourself,” he told the workshop participants. “Empathy demands self-care.”