Caring and Advocating for Torture Survivors

Not even some of the worst winter weather in New York City history deterred the stalwart from attending a riveting lecture by Dr. Allen Keller, Founder and Director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT), hosted by the Vilcek Foundation on January 26th at the Bohemian National Hall and Czech Center. Bundled up in scarves, hats, and coats, they braved sleet and snow to hear Dr. Keller explain the crucial role that mental health, medical, legal, and social services play in the treatment of torture survivors from around the world.

Founded in 1995, PSOT, whose services and staff Dr. Keller described as “second to none, ” is the first and largest such program in New York. In 2010 alone, the program served more than 680 people from 80 countries - approximately 140 of them new clients. PSOT takes a comprehensive approach to address the complex and interrelated needs of torture survivors and their families, as they learn to cope with the short- and long-term effects of physical and mental abuse while simultaneously facing the challenges of resettlement in the United States.

Bringing a personal face to the life-sustaining work of Dr. Keller and his colleagues were two participants in the program: Tibetan-born artist Samten Dakpa and Mauritanian-born mathematician Cheikhna Mahawa. Both torture survivors, they spoke poignantly about their experiences, and passionately about the central role that PSOT has played in their ongoing recovery. Following their remarks, Dr. Keller pointed out that, often, the “most long-lasting scars [of torture] are the emotional and psychological.”

In closing, Dr. Keller asked the audience to come away not only with “a profound sense of horror, but of hope,” as well. He added that the “work of the Vilcek Foundation is more important now than ever.”

Following the lecture, attendees were given a reprieve from the cold as they enjoyed light refreshments and deep conversations inspired by what they had learned.

We extend heartfelt thanks to Dr. Keller and his team at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture for the work they do each day to combat the persistent effects of torture. We also thank Mr. Dakpa and Mr. Mahawa for sharing their experiences with us.

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