Tamales, hummus, sardines with plantains: the food at the party was almost as diverse as the revelers–nearly 100 former clients and friends of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture.
On June 26, the Inspiration Cafe in Uptown was packed with survivors, who recited poetry, played music, and prepared food for a celebration marking the third anniversary of United Nations International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture. According to Amnesty International, 150 countries practiced torture in 2001 (including the U.S.).
When the Kovler Center was founded in 1987, the majority of its clients were Cambodian refugees and political-asylum seekers from Central America. Currently it assists about 200 people each year from more than 40 countries (three-quarters of them come from Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa). Most are in the process of applying for asylum in the U.S. and have been referred to the center by various immigrant social-service and advocacy groups. A lot are walk-ins who’ve found the place through word of mouth. There is a three- to six-month waiting list.
After filing for asylum, petitioners are prohibited from working or receiving government aid for six months. Though U.S. law forbids the return of people to countries where they might be tortured, torture victims are not necessarily guaranteed asylum. The Kovler Center offers torture survivors a range of free services, including medical and psychological treatment, translation and legal assistance, and arrangements for food and housing. Kovler representatives, often volunteers, accompany clients to court and medical appointments. The goal is to help torture survivors reconnect with society as they adapt to life in a new country.
At the party, an Iraqi man read his poetry in a melodic mix of Arabic and English. A woman from Guatemala sang songs of strength and resistance; her Spanish lyrics were translated into English by her partner. Even with asylum, many survivors remain fearful of reprisals–against themsleves or their families back home–and refuse to identify themselves in print. “If survivors of torture want to make their stories public, that’s fine, but it’s not for us to tell their stories for them,” says program coordinator Scott Portman. “We have a legal and ethical responsibility to maintain their confidentiality.”
One man had recently come from Cameroon. He approached the microphone in traditional dress, and after praying to his ancestors he spoke of his pain. He wanted to forgive his torturers, but his anger lingered on. He sang a song asking for guidance. The room was silent.
Alderman Joe Moore read a City Council resolution praising the Kovler Center. When he was done, he handed the framed parchment to “K,” the founder and head of a women’s rights group in Somaliland. A breakaway country from Somalia, Somaliland has an independent government, but is not recognized by the U.N.
As a result of agitating for the rights of women to work and to be educated, K had been arrested, beaten, and threatened with death. She had been told her family would be killed if she didn’t close down her organization and leave. Finally she fled to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1995. Through family connections, she arrived at the Kovler Center, where she was given food coupons, CTA passes, and an introduction to an immigration attorney who represented her (successfully) when she applied for asylum. Kovler helped K find her first apartment and her first job. Now, six years later, she proclaimed her appreciation. In a broad smile, she thanked the Kovler Center, its staff, and all Americans. “Allah,” she said, “bless America!”