Vermont's survivors of torture heal by confronting their painful pasts
As a girl, “Rita” couldn’t imagine her family’s small village in the African savannah knowing anything but peace. Today, she says, it’s hard to remember what life was like before the atrocities started.
Rita’s story begins in an elementary school where she, her family and scores of other civilians sought refuge from one of the many spasms of ethnic violence that gripped her west African homeland over the last two decades. (Because Vermont’s African immigrant population is so small, Rita asks, through an interpreter, that her name, ethnicity and country of origin be kept confidential.)
Foreign mercenaries working for the government learned that Rita’s people were hiding in the school and attacked it. Her husband and children escaped on foot, but Rita was captured by the soldiers. They raped her, beat her with their rifle butts, broke her nose and set her skin on fire. Lying bloody and unconscious in the dirt, she was left for dead.
Miraculously, Rita survived the attack and reconnected with her family members, who were hiding in the forest — except her son, who was separated in the melee. It would be years before Rita was reunited with her son, whom she long assumed had been killed in the war.
Their houses burned and all their food and possessions looted or destroyed, the family hid out in the forest for nearly seven years. Wounded, traumatized and living in constant fear of discovery, they were further plagued by malnutrition, dehydration, disease and ravenous insects.
With their situation dire, Rita says she was forced to venture out of the forest to scavenge for food. After digging some manioc, a tuberous root that’s a food staple in Africa, she was returning to her family when she crossed paths with another band of mercenaries. They asked Rita who she was and where her family was living. Terrified, she told them nothing: “I thought, This is the end of me.”
Later, Rita confesses, she often wished her captors had killed her. They brought her back to their camp at gunpoint, where she was raped and beaten repeatedly. They forced her to gather bundles of firewood, build their fires and cook their meals. When one band of soldiers left, another would take its place. She was fed very little and forced to sleep outside on the ground like an animal.
“These guys were really wild,” Rita says, with a vacant stare. “They’d take bullets, open the cartridges and mix the gunpowder in with tea and drink it.” Other times, she says, they’d mix gunpowder with drugs and smoke the concoction. All told, Rita estimates she was held hostage for two years, the only woman living among these ruthless men.
“I prayed to God to let me die and not suffer,” she says in a low, monotone voice. “It was the life of a slave.”
Midway through her story, Rita’s sad dark eyes suddenly look up, as though she’s awakened from a long and terrible nightmare. She’s no longer in Africa, but seated on a couch in Burlington’s Old North End.
Rita is a tall, thin woman with painted fingernails and blue eye shadow. A faint smile creases her face as she apologizes. She’s forgotten to mention an earlier incident when she was taken captive for six months by a different band of soldiers, who were equally brutal.
Anyone with half a heart would forgive Rita’s brief memory lapse. She’s forgotten, or repressed, more acts of wanton savagery than most people will ever endure. What she can remember, and is willing to share with a stranger who doesn’t even speak her language, is a testament to her incredible courage and inner strength.
Rita’s experiences, however ghastly, are more common than most Vermonters probably realize. She is one of the approximately 5000 refugees resettled in Vermont in the last 20 years. Their number doesn’t include the hundreds of other “asylees” — those who have been granted asylum by the U.S. government — also living here. Of these people, it’s estimated that between 5 and 35 percent are survivors of torture, rape, genocide or other atrocities. Rita’s stories, like theirs, offer a terrifying glimpse into the unspeakable horrors that humans inflict on one another.
The physical and emotional scars of war fade slowly, if at all, even after these individuals have made new lives for themselves in Vermont and become U.S. citizens. Some continue to suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD). Their symptoms often go untreated because many new immigrants are either unaware of the services available to them or afraid to seek psychological help. Sometimes this reluctance is due to a language barrier. Other times, it reflects a fear of being seen as “crazy” or, in the case of women who’ve been raped, of being labeled as “damaged” or “impure” by other members of their community.
As a result, torture and trauma victims can suffer for years in silence, often hiding the darkest aspects of their lives from their families and friends. In Rita’s case, her own husband and children know few, if any, details of her captivity.
Refugee advocates emphasize that the vast majority of Vermont’s torture and trauma survivors are highly functional members of the community — they work or attend school and try to live normal lives. However, a small percentage of them struggle with mental-health issues or substance-abuse problems. Others get into trouble with the law when they themselves become perpetrators of violent crimes, such as domestic or sexual assault.
Such cases, which have been on the rise in recent years, pose unique challenges to Vermont’s criminal justice system. Though prosecutors and judges are often cognizant of, and sympathetic to, immigrants’ traumatic pasts, the law frequently prevents them from amending criminal charges or reducing sentences. This is especially true in cases involving deportable offenses.
But recently a group of Vermonters who work with refugees, asylum seekers and new immigrants have joined in a collaborative effort to ensure that Vermont’s torture survivors get access to all the medical, psychological, legal and social services they deserve. The group, called New England Survivors of Torture and Trauma, or NESTT, has been quietly working behind the scenes to develop a comprehensive and coordinated approach to providing those services.
In late September, NESTT will host a three-day training seminar for various social-service providers — educators, medical and mental-health professionals, lawyers, social workers and so on — who work with Vermont’s refugee population. Already, NESTT’s team of graduate psychology students at the University of Vermont is providing counseling to recent immigrants who’ve had trouble coming to grips with their painful pasts. Though it’s long and difficult work, those who offer such counseling all say they’re amazed by the resilience and courage of their clients and their ability to lead normal lives now.
Patrick Giantonio is executive director of Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates  (formerly Vermont Refugee Assistance), a small Burlington-based nonprofit that helps asylum seekers navigate the U.S. immigration system. Giantonio, one of the founders of NESTT, estimates that between 50 and 75 percent of his clients are torture survivors, most of whom have never sought treatment.
Although immigration officials routinely screen incoming refugees for various medical ailments, those screenings aren’t done for asylum seekers, nor do they ever include psychological evaluations that would reveal a traumatic past. As a result, Giantonio is often the first person to whom these people tell their stories.
“When I’m working on an asylum case, I have to go into the deepest, darkest moments of that person’s life,” Giantonio explains. “If there’s been torture, I need to know about it so I can effectively represent their asylum case.”
But winning such a case is a daunting task, especially in the post-9/11, anti-immigration climate. For years, one notoriously harsh judge in the Boston immigration court granted it in just 3 percent of his cases.
To win, a case must be rock solid. It’s not enough, Giantonio explains, to tell the immigration official or judge, “My client was tortured.” The government demands documentation: dates, times, locations and corroborating evidence, such as X-rays, eyewitness accounts and medical or psychiatric evaluations. How much gruesome detail do they expect? “Everything,” he says.
“It’s an arduous and often dehumanizing process,” Giantonio continues. “You can imagine a woman who’s suffered rape having to talk about the fact that she was raped — in front of her family members, in front of immigration court — and being confronted and questioned about it.”
Perversely, applicants are judged as much on their demeanor as on the merits of their case. For example, if a person appears stoic, laughs at an inappropriate moment, or avoids eye contact with the judge while telling his or her story — all normal reactions to a stressful situation, especially for someone who’s already traumatized — it can raise doubts about credibility.
And in asylum cases, Giantonio emphasizes, it’s all about credibility. Making errors, such as omitting crucial details or confusing the chronology or sequence of events, can be enough to get an application rejected. Had Rita been telling her story not to a reporter but to an immigration official, her momentary lapse of memory could have put her asylum petition in jeopardy.
“This is an extremely problematic issue, because trauma can have a serious impact on memory,” explains Dr. Kathleen Allden, a psychiatrist with Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Southern Vermont  in Hartford. Allden has more than 20 years of experience evaluating and treating survivors of atrocities, genocide, rape and torture. In the late 1990s, she was on the team of medical professionals who developed the Istanbul Protocol , a set of international guidelines adopted by the UN for documenting torture and its mental and physical consequences.
Allden, who often provides the psychiatric assessments Giantonio uses in his asylum cases, explains that, by its very nature, PTSD is a memory disorder. Symptoms can include repressed or intrusive memories, flashbacks, and difficulty with concentration or short-term recall.
“When people are severely traumatized, they try to avoid being reminded of what happened to them so they can avoid the symptoms,” Allden explains. “The problem with our asylum process is, it’s probably the most toxic thing you can do to somebody who’s experienced these things, to force them to tell their story over and over again in detail.”
In her work, Allden wears many hats — psychiatrist, medical doctor, political scientist and anthropologist — which gives her unique insights into the world’s trouble spots and the types of torture practiced there. Many of the most common ones — beatings to the head, starvation, dehydration, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, hooding or blindfolding for extended periods — are also the least conducive to the accurate recall of events.
That appears to be the case for “Aaron,” a Chittenden County resident and torture survivor. Aaron (who also asked that his real name and country of origin be kept confidential) speaks English with a thick African accent. At 50, he’s a warm, friendly and well-educated man who smiles easily and is fond of talking world politics.
Unlike Rita, who was persecuted for her ethnicity, Aaron endured imprisonment and abuse stemming primarily from his political activism. He is the son of a well-respected government official who was forced from office after a change in leadership.
Growing up in a political household, Aaron remembers that speaking critically about the government was strictly verboten. But after his father’s ouster, the family fled the capital and moved to a smaller city, where he attended college.
It was there that Aaron began participating in rallies and street demonstrations in support of a more democratic society. He still bears a scar from the shrapnel that hit him when the military violently dispersed a peaceful march led by religious leaders.
During his college years, Aaron says, he was arrested “many times.” Usually he was just questioned and held overnight before being released. But one day in 2000, shortly after assuming a leadership role in a political organization, Aaron was arrested, thrown in the back of a truck and taken to a secret military prison.
When asked about the conditions inside, Aaron’s voice drops. He strokes his head, bends forward and looks away, as though he’s having a visceral reaction to returning to that dark place in his mind. When he speaks, his head moves side to side, as though he’s unconsciously shaking his head no. I learn later that Aaron has told his story only once before to anyone but his wife, and that was to his immigration attorney.
“I really don’t like to talk about that whole situation, but I’ll explain it to you,” he says quietly. “Last time I was talking to a friend, I was saying, ‘Things don’t change in Africa because we don’t do enough for these people who’ve been through a lot of bad things.’
“I was taken there for, I think, about eight or nine weeks,” he continues. “It was really bad … When they took us, it was like, we’re not human.”
Aaron describes being thrown into a dark cell with a concrete floor. There was no food, water or toilet. “You cannot see. There was no daytime or nighttime. It was just dark. It was completely dark.”
Every day, Aaron was dragged outside, hosed down with cold water, and hung upside down by his feet. A bag was placed over his head and he was severely beaten.
“Your head was just heavy, and you feel like you’re going to die,” he says. “You see that stuff in the movies, but you don’t believe that a place like that can exist … And no one knows where you are.”
Aaron’s memories are jumbled and incomplete. Sometimes, he says, “it plays like a movie” in his head. Other times, it’s more like a rush of images or sensations — hunger, darkness, uncontrollable shaking. But always, it was punctuated by one feeling: powerlessness.
“You pretty much see you’re going to die,” he says. “It’s just the process of dying.”
What got him through his experience? Faith, he says.
“I really feel I was going to be freed by God,” Aaron says. “You realize you don’t have any control of what’s happening in your life … For me, it was just a matter of time, and then it’s just going to be the end.”
One day — Aaron doesn’t know when — he was taken from the prison by a family friend and brought to a hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. Luckily, someone bribed a medical worker to smuggle him out of the hospital and then, later, out of the country.
Aaron arrived in the United States in July 2001. He now works for a large Vermont company, where none of his coworkers know anything about his traumatic past.
Aaron only reluctantly agreed to share his story. After he informed a friend that he was going to tell it to a reporter, she said to him, “Oh, you need to forget this stuff!”
“But this stuff you cannot forget,” Aaron insists. “For me, if I can testify for a thousand people who’ve been through bad things we don’t know about, I can help make people aware.”
Though Aaron has adjusted well to his new life in Vermont, other torture survivors haven’t been as fortunate. Jon Bourgo, patient special services coordinator at the Community Health Center of Burlington , says he’s seen a need for coordinated services for torture and trauma survivors “ever since the first day I got involved with refugees” five years ago.
New immigrants, Bourgo says, face many difficulties in coping with their traumatic pasts, most of which don’t reveal themselves right away. Instead, he says, they tend to arise a year or two after immigrants’ arrival, “when the honeymoon period is over. That’s when the reality sets in.”
Stress is a major trigger. Immigrants may have trouble finding or keeping jobs, or coming to grips with the realization that they may never regain the level of wealth or status they had in their home countries. Other times, he explains, immigrants are confused by or resistant to the values prevalent in American society.
Jacob Bogre is executive director of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont , a group that represents about 3000 immigrants from 29 different African countries. Bogre is seeing firsthand how that untreated stress plays out in his own community.
“This past month I had six adults and two kids that are showing serious signs of mental-health issues,” Bogre says. “Most of them are coming from areas of war — Sudan, Congo, Somalia.”
As Bogre explains, mental-health problems are often compounded by the heightened uncertainty that comes with legal or immigration woes, as well as by the immigrants’ fear of losing custody of their children.
“I don’t know how far this can go,” Bogre adds. “For now, the person may not be violent, but you don’t know what’s going to happen down the road.”
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan  says he’s well aware of the problem. Over the years, he’s seen immigrants from many different parts of the world come through the court system. Most recently, he says, the largest group, by far, has been the African refugees. (Advocates attribute this predominance to the relatively recent nature of African political conflicts and their duration, compounded by their unrelenting savagery.)
Donovan acknowledges that an offender’s cultural differences and traumatic past are sometimes mitigating factors that justify amending or reducing criminal charges. “We look at each one on a case-by-case basis,” he says.
That said, Donovan emphasizes that his first priority must be to ensure the safety of the victims and the public, while holding perpetrators accountable. Within the refugee communities, he adds, there’s often enormous pressure on victims not to testify, especially in cases of domestic violence — raising additional concerns about victims’ safety.
“The challenge is, we need to think outside the box for these people because of the unique experiences they’ve had in their lives, which drives some of their behavior,” Donovan says. “What needs to be done is a lot more education and outreach. But when we’re doing it through the criminal justice system, it’s too late.”
That outreach has already begun. Karen Fondacaro is director of the Behavior Therapy and Psychotherapy Center , a nonprofit within the University of Vermont’s psychology department. Two years ago, as part of a program called “Connecting Cultures,”  she was asked to provide parenting classes on “alternative discipline strategies” for members of the refugee community. To be blunt, some refugees were beating their kids. Though that’s acceptable in many parts of the world, in Vermont it can cost parents custody of their children.
Fondacaro, one of the founders of NESTT, has more than 20 years’ experience as a clinical psychologist working on interpersonal violence issues. Still, she says, she felt like “a relative fledgling” on matters of international health. She remembers being warned by members of one refugee community, “No one is going to come to your classes.”
So Fondacaro dug deep into her Italian roots for a solution: She cooked them a meal. That summer, she and several of her grad students organized a community breakfast at a local church. Forty-five African men showed up, and the Center’s presentation was simultaneously translated into French, Swahili and Lingala.
Fondacaro was hooked. “I remember thinking, Oh, my God! I want to do this work!”
Shortly thereafter, she organized an all-women’s breakfast, and 26 African women showed up. Next came a series of dinners and intimate talks about child rearing.
Soon Fondacaro and her students were visiting the Old North End on a weekly basis, meeting with refugees and talking about whatever issues were troubling them: depression, stress, loneliness and longing for their home countries.
Fondacaro, who worked years earlier with members of Vermont’s Vietnamese and Bosnian populations, quickly recognized among some of them the telltale signs of past trauma. She and her students began scheduling more formal counseling sessions and, in the process, developed research protocols so they could learn from their work and improve upon it.
Erin Marshall, a 27-year-old UVM doctoral student in psychology, describes some of the challenges she has faced in counseling people from different cultures, who not only speak different languages but often place their experiences in different frames of reference.
“While somebody from the U.S. may go to their doctor or mental-health professional and say, ‘I’m feeling depressed,’” Marshall says, “what we were seeing was people describing a phenomenon in a different way, such as ‘I’m having headaches,’ ‘My stomach hurts,’ or ‘I don’t want to go outside,’ when there was no real physical cause.”
Using a treatment technique known as “narrative exposure,” the clinicians allow their clients to tell their own stories in as much or as little detail as they are comfortable with, all the while giving them control over the storytelling process. Over time, Fondacaro explains, the clients develop a tolerance to the emotions associated with their traumas. Although the memories will never fade entirely, the goal, she says, is to help them assign those memories new meanings in their lives.
Understandably, the work can get very intense, both for client and clinician. Katherine Ryan, a 28-year-old UVM doctoral student in psychology, explains how the students kept an eye on each other for signs of “vicarious trauma,” or the emotional distress that comes from repeated exposure to other people’s horrific stories.
“You can watch movies with extreme violence, but it’s just not the same when you’re in the same room with someone who’s been through those things,” Ryan says. “When they’re recalling it, they’re right back in it, like it’s playing before them. Yeah, that was intense.”
But out of that intensity can come some remarkable results.
“As much as there are always hard things to hear, you’re also hearing the resilience and strength and courage they’ve had,” Ryan adds. “Here they are, taking care of themselves in a new country and learning English. It’s inspiring, really.”
In fact, nearly everyone associated with NESTT emphasizes that the substance abuse issues and criminal problems represent only a small fraction of the torture survivors’ experiences in Vermont. More often, the advocates speak about being humbled and awed by the survivors’ ability to overcome such insurmountable odds, to cope with their experiences and even forgive their former captors.
“Without knowing it, we’re welcoming into our community some of the strongest spirits and personalities on the planet because of what they’ve been though,” Giantonio says. “I couldn’t keep doing this work if I didn’t see the healing.”
For his part, Aaron doesn’t want Vermonters’ pity, and he’d rather people not dwell on the negative side of the immigrant experience. That said, he believes there’s absolutely no place for torture in civilized society, no matter what euphemisms — such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — are used to describe it.
“When you’re somebody like me watching TV and see this case of waterboarding, and some of the people say, ‘This is not torture,’ when you’ve been through bad things like me, you say, ‘What is the reason for this?’” he says. “If that’s not torture, do you want someone to do that to you?”