Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Ethiopian Torture Survivor and life at TASSC (Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition) in Washington, D.C.

This paper originally started off as a class project, but I'm taking this opportunity, with the permission of the people whose stories I've used (some names have been changed), to help spread more information as to what it is that immigrants in general, and torture survivors in particular, encounter as they enter the U.S. to seek political asylum or an escape from a life that has become oppressive.  It has been my firm belief, and even more so since I've worked at TASSC this summer, that we hold a special responsibility in the United States due to our power, and more importantly, due to the role that we have played in directly contributing to the conditions that have led to torture throughout the world.  The majority of our survivors come from Africa or Latin America, and our foreign policy record in both regions of the world has been shameful at best.  No longer is this a mere academic opinion derived from an abstract intellectualism of the classroom and/or literature, but from hearing it first-hand from those whose lives have been affected by the policies of The United States and other Western powers in collaboration with the home governments of these survivors.  


     I was standing beside Tenna at the asylum office waiting right there at the sign that told us to do exactly that.  There was only one other woman in front of us, who also appeared to be Ethiopian.  After a couple of short minutes (but what Tenna later assured me felt like hours), the woman in front of us stepped away, and he was called to the window and asked for identification.  When he presented his Ethiopian passport, he was asked if he spoke English.  He answered yes, and the window attendant stamped a couple of forms.  Then she announced very stoically that he had been granted asylum, and would receive his work permit within three weeks.  Tenna’s response was a perfect example of the subjectivity involved in all areas of life, and in this case the ethnographical analysis:  He was jubilant.  He immediately turned to me and gave me a hug.  I was smiling and very happy as well, and we both ignored the woman behind the counter.  She said nothing more, and I doubt that she had anything other than an abstract academic idea of what her words must have meant to Tenna.  In this case, those basic words had different meanings for all of the parties involved. 

     For me, this was one of the primary reasons I decided to work with TASSC (Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition) at Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington Community Scholars Center Program:  I wanted to stand beside people and to the best of my abilities, empathize with them as they sought justice in the various areas of their lives.  The previous three years had brought about changes in me that made it possible for me to be with Tenna in that extraordinary moment in his life.  With my divorce in 2008, up through my near-fatal car accident in July of 2009, and the death of my ex-wife Sarah in early 2011, I experienced a complete re-orientation of what it was that was important to me.  I no longer wanted to work to entertain, or even simply to make money.  From those harsh awakenings, I realized that nothing else in life is more important than people, and the seemingly little things we can do that change lives. 

     That particular day involved a relatively easy assignment:  I escorted an Ethiopian torture survivor to the immigration office in order to obtain a decision on his initial asylum interview that had been held two weeks prior to that date.  My only requirement was to be there for Tenna, whatever the outcome of the decision might have been.  In his case, it was positive, and that was a cause for celebration; my being there allowed him to have someone with whom to share his joy.  Had the decision been negative, my role would have been different, but just as important, if not more so.  The potential range of emotions and feelings that could have resulted had to be thought through before I accompanied him to the office.  That day ended up being one of the highlights of my life, despite what may appear simple about it to many others.  However, this is the kind of work that I envision for myself during the time I have left on this earth:  work that involves direct interaction at the grassroots, direct contact with the people whose lives I hope to see change for the better.  No longer do I want to sit behind a computer or a microphone, unless it is for work that allows the kind of interaction that I had with Tenna on that day.  This is the mindset and path that led to my decision to work with TASSC (I wouldn’t have been there without these life changes), and that ultimately enabled me to receive a small idea of what it is like for the Ethiopian torture survivor community that is greatly represented at TASSC and in the greater Washington, DC metro area. 

     Therefore, I am approaching this ethnographic analysis of Ethiopian survivors with a viewpoint that is unapologetically subjective from the framework of how I view the people I work with.  Since I want to help them, since I believe that they are encountering many obstacles in their lives from exposure to a strange country/culture to leaving family members behind in Ethiopia or their last place of residence, to the fears and anxieties they encounter on a daily basis as they prepare for their cases as well as searching for the most basic of human needs, I am aware that my desire to help may unconsciously overlook personality traits, actions, and faults of the subjects and instances with which I address, and that furthermore, I may overlook faults of TASSC itself, not to mention some of my own biases.  I am aware of these factors going into this analysis, and I wanted to make you the reader aware as well. 


     The TASSC office, where the majority of my observations take place, can be difficult for newcomers to find as it is virtually in the basement of a Franciscan college close to The Catholic University of America at the T corner of Harewood Rd. and Taylor St. NE in Washington, DC.  There is a large sign with the letters TASSC close to the road on the Harewood side of the building, but no directions from the small parking lot next to the sign.  Upon examination of one’s surroundings, a sidewalk winding back and forth down a small hill gives a clue as to where the office entrance might be located.  On my first day, I happened to encounter a volunteer who was exiting his car at the same time I was arriving.  He paused at first, but then asked me if it was TASSC that I was looking for.  I answered yes, and he told me to follow him.  

     Upon entering the basement of the Franciscan college that serves as the DC TASSC office, one may be struck by the simplicity of the design.  There is no reception area per se, and the receptionist’s desk is immediately off to the right inside the first room which serves as a rather large office which she shares with the Advocacy Director.  The threadbare carpet and simple wood desks illustrate the low-budget environment (grassroots human rights efforts often have the distinction of being "controversial", and funding can be hard to come by.  Plus, TASSC has refused to accept any government money; which would mean a certain acceptance of a government agenda and federal monitoring of TASSC's actions).  On the opposite side of the receptionist’s office are several computer stations with full internet access that survivors are free to use at their leisure.

     Continuing to walk down the hall, several more doors are passed:  an office turned storage area is the first door on the left, the office of Demissie Abebe, the Director of TASSC is on the right, and caddy corner on the left is the Helping Hands office that houses social worker Kayla, working to provide services to the survivors.  The final two doors on the left and right respectively are the copy area and large restroom/dish washing facility. 

     After those final doors, a set of doors (always open) is directly in front, which leads into the very large main room that is an all purpose area:  There is a corner to the immediate left that has been outfitted with bookshelves, carpet, chairs, and a fish aquarium that serves as the local TASSC library.  To the right of the library is the interns’ desk area with around six high speed internet connections and computers.  The rest of the main room is filled with various items:  A refrigerator, coffee station, and water cooler are on the left, and there are tables, chairs, a couple of couches, and several large handmade wood partitions on wheels that feature painted maps, posters, messages of solidarity and encouraging phrases such as “Abolish Torture” that have become some of the themes of TASSC.  These partitions can be used to divide the large main room (I would estimate it to be around 3,000 sq ft) into smaller areas or private counseling/conversation locations.  Folding tables and metal chairs complete the furniture in the room, and these are used quite regularly for general conversation as well as at meal times. 

     In addition to the furniture, there are posters from international solidarity groups such as non-governmental organizations and other activist causes, and several handmade objects from both survivors and former employees/interns of TASSC that express messages of hope, and pictures of survivors of torture from around the world. 

     I spent such a great deal of time describing the physical setting at TASSC as I and the survivors I spoke with both feel that it creates a sense of openness, relaxation, a complete lack of pressure, informality, comfort, and freedom of expression that is crucial to this part of the Ethiopian torture survivor’s American cultural experience.  Speaking with the TASSC director Demissie Abebe, himself an Ethiopian survivor of torture, this was precisely the idea.  For many who come to TASSC for help, there is no area of their life that is lacking in need.  This includes the need for a place to which they can come and feel as if they are at home; relaxed, comfortable and free to express themselves either openly with TASSC employees/interns and other survivors or one on one if privacy is needed. 


     “Selam” became a ritualistic Amharic morning greeting around the TASSC office when one Ethiopian encountered another.  This word, as anyone familiar with Arabic will recognize, is very close to the Arabic “Salaam” which means “peace to you”, as both are Semitic languages.  I recognized this greeting more than any other around TASSC as I’ve met only a couple of torture survivors who’ve not been Ethiopian.  Almost 70% of the survivors who come through the doors at TASSC are from Ethiopia, and this, according to Demissie, is due to a number of reasons, some of which include the fact that Washington, DC has the largest Ethiopian immigrant population of any major American city, with around 200,000 Ethiopians, and that many government offices and services are based in DC, which makes the city an attractive choice for Ethiopians.  Dianna Ortiz, the founder of TASSC had all of these numbers in mind, according to our director, when she chose him (an Ethiopian) as the TASSC director. 


     In order to receive someone at TASSC, it is necessary for them to be the victim of torture of a foreign government.  That is the way that the organization’s legal status is set, and it is for this reason that all of the survivors I’ve observed for this ethnography are quite politically astute, if for no other reason than they have a great deal of knowledge of the political situation in their own country.  Tenna, for example, was involved with an opposition political organization that led to his torture and ultimate flight from Ethiopia.  I will take this time to state that for purposes of safety and privacy, I will not expand on the details of the torture regarding the individuals whom I mention.  Even though at times it might be easier to understand their perspectives had the reader been aware of the circumstances around their torture, this is not only the request and policy of TASSC, but it is one that I would have chosen regardless of any other factor as it seems to me to be disrespectful to publicly discuss something so personally traumatic to an individual.  Also, the names of the survivors (excluding Demissie Abebe) have been changed.

     Amare was an entrepreneur and businessman in both Ethiopia and South Africa before moving to America.  He originally fled Ethiopia for political/ethnic reasons that led to difficulties with his business, and moved to South Africa.  However, he soon found a new kind of problem in South Africa, what he refers to as “xenophobia”.  The blacks indigenous to South Africa have a great disdain for foreigners who come from other parts of the continent, particularly foreigners who set up businesses and become successful.  Amare mentioned that he interprets this xenophobia as resulting from the native South African’s desire to keep the social services flowing freely.  In other words, Amare believes that the natives view outsiders as a threat to their comfortable way of life; a life which does not require much work as the new system after apartheid has provided many services to the black majority free of charge.  Therefore, Amare was persecuted greatly as a businessman, and South Africa is where some of his greatest traumatic experiences occurred. 

     I remember asking Amare how he felt as an Ethiopian, a black man, in America, a country that I believe is quite racist in many ways.  I asked him if he felt a sort of “double-racism”; meaning that he’s black first, and second, that he’s a foreigner.  These very questions served, in hindsight, to illustrate what I thought was important when interviewing and talking with the survivors for this project.  Later, I will put forward my modality of survival as a cultural explanation for the interactions of the Ethiopians with the environment and amongst themselves.  That hindsight and modality showed me some of my errors in field method, but those errors in turn served to illustrate more clearly a model of explanation.  Amare responded that there may be some racism in America, but it didn’t seem to bother him to the extent that the xenophobia did in South Africa.  In fact, his tone of voice appeared slightly frustrated as he attempted to explain to me that life was livable in America.  That was not the case in the other places he’d been.  Sure, he had some fear at times of people in the neighborhood where he stays here in Washington, (the TASSC home for survivors), but it is not at the same level as the fear he had in Ethiopia or South Africa.  Racism simply wasn’t a primary concern for him.  I will expand on this below. 

TASSC Director Demissie Abebe 
     Demissie Abebe, the director of TASSC, first came to America in 2004.  His vocation in Ethiopia was as an accountant, and he received a degree from The London School of Economics.  It was in his capacity as an accountant that he ran into trouble with the Ethiopian government, and was eventually forced to come to America.  Demissie came from a successful family in Ethiopia, and he mentioned to me that he always admired his mother for the way she would take in people in need.  He described a home scenario that offered an open door to those without a home, and he was exposed to many different people with many viewpoints and backgrounds from a young age.  Perhaps it is this upbringing that is responsible in part for the dedication and genuine concern I have observed him showing to every survivor who comes through the door at TASSC.  Demissie is an authentic person, and is very committed to every part of his job.  It is my observation, and his statement as well, that one has to be dedicated.  The work of the TASSC director involves long hours, and a great deal of emotional energy.  The pay is not high compared to the average American salary, and the love of people must be there if the director is to effectively fulfill his duties.  Demissie refers to his position as a calling, and that the experience of trauma that he’s gone through has helped mold his own life as to what truly matters.
     Tenna is the most recent Washington and U.S. resident of the survivors I’ve profiled in this report, having arrived in The United States in March of 2011.  When I was first introduced to Tenna, I didn’t know how to understand him.  He appeared to not want to talk, and seemed guarded, slow to speak about topics other than courteous greetings.  I later realized that it wasn’t just Tenna, but it was the others as well.  The difference was that Tenna was still relatively early in his process of both asylum and of adjusting to life in America.  All of the survivors must be guarded in many ways, but the longer they’ve been in this country, the more open I’ve found them to be.  This may appear obvious to many, but the modality that I’ve chosen will help explain more specifically why I say this. 

     Tenna was politically active in his home country, and has witnessed trauma not only to himself, but to his family as well, having lost several family members to political violence.  He is a very intelligent man, but has always struggled for work in the ethnically divided country of Ethiopia, where the location and ethnicity of one’s birth often has more to do with the work one is able to find than the actual skills one has to offer.  Tenna is concerned first and foremost for his wife and children, who are still back in Ethiopia.  It was only on the insistence of his wife that he reluctantly left the country.  They both knew that if he stayed, his life was in great danger, but as any good family man, the thought of leaving his family behind still devastates him.  Tenna communicated to me shortly after receiving his asylum that not only was he a “new man”, but that he could now focus on what is most important to him:  the safety of his family, and their arrival by his side in America. 


     Very early on in my observations of the people who come through TASSC, and particularly the people who I’ve mentioned in this report, day to day survival is or has been their primary concern.  This has been mentioned to me on more than one occasion.  When one is concerned for their very life, not to mention the next meal or a place to sleep for the night, they tell me, priorities are quickly re-aligned.  Local American political issues, racism, and cultural concerns are not as important to them at this time.  They know for now that they’re in a country that will not cause them immediate state-sanctioned physical harm, and that is enough.  These survivors have all mentioned that concern for family members, and other loved ones becomes primary, right alongside or even superseding their concern for self-preservation.  For many, in fact, (Tenna being an example), they have left Ethiopia for the sake and at the request of their immediate family members.  Tenna may still be in Ethiopia today if he had no immediate family, still fighting for the rights and freedoms he would like to see enacted there. 

     I have observed at TASSC that day to day survival as a modality for the actions and thoughts of the Ethiopian survivors helps gives a context that furthers understanding of their lives.   Many, if not most of the Ethiopian survivors come by TASSC on a daily basis simply because it has become a familiar place.  They know that they will encounter other Amharic speakers there, and that it is a place where someone who is from and familiar with their home country can be found.  The more familiar they become with others, the more open they are to conversing and sharing their experiences.  They are longing for someone to talk to, as Tenna and others have communicated to me, but it is difficult, due to their trauma, for them to talk.  Demissie has often mentioned to me that ethnic tensions, which are still high in Ethiopia, are a concern when looking for jobs among Ethiopians in the Diaspora community here in Washington DC.  However, from my observations, ethnic concerns are not as important inside the office at TASSC.  Demissie has confirmed this.  In the day to day survival mode with which these survivors find themselves, the ethnicity of their fellow Ethiopians does not have priority in their interactions.  This seems to confirm my observations (both in my own life and the lives of others) that people gravitate towards the familiar when in day to day survival mode.  This is one of the reasons I placed my personal context at the beginning of this ethnography.  My own periods of time where day to day survival has been of primary concern (if none other than for mental sanity and psychological survival), has shown me that the familiar, and most importantly people, have become my top priority.  That this is perhaps to an extent true of all humanity is further supported by my observations at TASSC.

Daily life at TASSC
TASSC founder and torture survivor Sister Dianna Ortiz
     Everyone needs someone to talk to, to hear them, and to trust.  Kayla, TASSC’s Helping Hands director, and the holder of an MA in social work, has confirmed this in our discussions.  This last element, trust, is an element that is lacking in many of the survivors I’ve encountered.  All of the people I’ve mentioned above have opened up to my questions the longer that time has gone on.  Due to the trauma they’ve been through, they aren’t sure who to trust.  This is combined with the fact that they are in a strange country.  This does not, however, diminish their need for trust, or their need for someone to talk to.  As one anonymous survivor told me, it is hard for them to find ways to communicate for two main reasons:  1. They have been through intense trauma that has had deep psychological impacts and 2. They don’t know the all of the customary niceties and ways of communication in this new foreign country where they’ve found themselves. 

     With this knowledge, it is easy to understand why TASSC has attempted, to the best of their abilities and resources, to set up a welcoming environment, and to communicate to the survivors that they are welcome.  In turn, the survivors, who are continuing the struggle for survival, although without the most harmful impediment, the trauma and torture, come to TASSC to associate and be around others.  Demissie communicated to me from the start that it is most important for me as a worker at TASSC to be there for the survivors when there is anything they need; even something as simple as a cup of coffee or a glass of water.  If someone wants or needs to talk, then that is the top priority.  The little acts of caring make the biggest differences in all of life, but particularly at TASSC. 

     Tenna, Amare and the other Ethiopian survivors will often come to TASSC on a daily basis, and can usually be found sitting around the folding table and chairs in the kitchen area.  No doubt one of the main reasons they come to TASSC is for the free basic food staples supplied to them, and obviously food is necessary for someone to live.  However, the survivors in this report have also mentioned to me that it is just as important to “not feel alone”.  They spend their days conversing with one another, in between surfing the internet for news, e-mails and information from their home countries and preparing whatever legal matters they need to attend to.  This small “community” of fellow survivors at TASSC is truly a support group and strength for them.  They have all expressed that not only their fellow survivors, but the care and openness of all the employees, volunteers and interns at TASSC has given them mental strength and has helped give them hope. 

     Sometimes, I will notice one of the survivors simply relaxing, and seemingly not doing anything.  But I have been through enough myself to know that humans in crisis are quite often doing “something” when it seems that they’re doing nothing.  The ability to relax is a luxury to victims of torture, as many have expressed and described when referring to the events that prompted them to embark on the journey to America, as well as the traumatic events of the journey itself (often involving many countries and the necessity of trusting on complete strangers to get them where they’re going).  It has been so long since many of them have been able to relax, and simply allowing them to have time alone is often one of the best things we can do.  It is possible to do too much in the work at TASSC, and survivors do not need to be kept busy at all times.  They have communicated to my early frequent requests if there was anything they needed or that I could do for them that “no, there was not”.  That can be a challenge for the staff at TASSC, but through many experiences of communication with survivors, Demissie and others have assured me that simply knowing that someone who cares is close by is enough for them. 

     When I casually question these Ethiopian survivors, their concern for food and shelter is an almost daily event.  They do not have the ability and/or luxury to look too far into the future.  I do not know what it is like for them before and after they leave the building, and due to the inability to get inside someone’s head, I do not truly know what it is like for them while they’re at TASSC.  I do not know what it feels like to know that the office door closes at five pm, and that then they are on their own until nine the following morning, or until the weekend ends.  They are on their own for the majority of the time in their days for both food and shelter. 

     I can guess at the fear and anxiety that they must feel, and they have communicated that in fact there is a great deal of both, but I do not truly know what it is like.  I remember one day in particular that Tenna came to the office with all of his belongings in a bag, prepared to go to a new residence that evening, only to find out that his position was meant for another.  This is excruciatingly mentally painful to the survivor.  As a staffer, I want to do all I can to help, but the resources at TASSC are limited, and this makes it tough on all involved.  Fortunately, Tenna found a location to stay that night, but not all are that lucky.  Sometimes a homeless shelter, or even in extreme cases, the street are the only options for a bed.  Never once though, have I heard one of these survivors complain about TASSC.  This illustrates another hypothesis I have that gratitude towards anyone who has shown any level of help, no matter how little, only increases when people are in day to day survival mode.   Although I do not know what they say about TASSC when they are alone with only the other survivors, it is my guess from their actions that they are grateful for anything given to them. 


     As can be seen from the above descriptions and explanations from survivors, some of the most important concerns for them are first, basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and the opportunity to find work (TASSC helps to provide them with resources for employment), second, people with which to interact and to whom they can communicate with out of a sense of shared experiences and finally, concern for reunification of their family members if they have any, and/or concerns for their future existence in America once they obtain their asylum. 

     I have further shown that with these concerns in mind, the structure of the “society” at TASSC is one that is quite informal and relaxed.  This is intentional and is something that the staff consistently keeps in mind.  We are even encouraged to dress casually and to talk with the survivors when and if they need it, setting all other work aside while we do so. 

     The feeling of support is very important to the survivors.  Nothing has made this clearer to me than my experience and developing friendship with Tenna.  It has been my privilege to accompany Tenna throughout his entire asylum process, which in his case was extremely short.  I accompanied him to his initial interview with (what I perceived to be) a rather rude asylum officer.  It was my interpretation that this particular officer was not sensitive to the emotional trauma of torture, and was being quite aggressive during Tenna’s emotional testimony of the events of his torture.  To illustrate the difference between the mind of the ethnographer and the subject, Tenna did not notice this.  He expressed after the interview that his primary concern at the time was simply to relay the information in a manner that was consistent, and that the officer would accept as truth.  I assured him that I felt he did a great job answering the questions, although that was my first experience attending such an interview.  The feeling of relief once Tenna exited that initial interview was palpable in his very demeanor and posture. 

     It was only later that I heard from Demissie how happy Tenna was to have me alongside him during his interview process.  When I’d first told Tenna that I would accompany him to the interview a couple of weeks prior to that date, he appeared pleasantly surprised in a way that it is hard for me now to objectively describe.  The emotion and surprise that he showed was visible in his face, and was a testimony to how much his trust in people had been harmed from the trauma he’d gone through, and how grateful he was to have someone who truly cared. 

     Demissie further told me that Tenna’s receipt of asylum after his initial interview was not what happens in the majority of cases; most asylum seekers are referred on to the U.S. immigration court system, which often is a two-year process.  Again, the feeling of being blessed to witness this and to emotionally share in the joy that Tenna experienced is a personal privilege to me. 

     The sharing of joy and sorrow, of feeling the emotions along with the survivors is very much a part of this ethnographic examination and analysis.  The day to day survival mode of the survivor requires that I not take a position of authority, or that anyone at TASSC appears to want to have authority over the survivors.  We are to treat them with respect, empathy and equanimity.  A hierarchical structure would not have been adequate to explain the environment of Ethiopian survivors at TASSC or to understand the lives that I’ve examined in this report.  Day to day survival seemed to me to be the best explanation of why things are set up the way they are at TASSC, and why the survivors behave in the way they do.  It is hard to say what their actions may look like down the road as they become more financially and physically secure and are possibly reunited with their families.  My guess from personal experience would be that the major life events they’ve gone through will change them forever, and will cultivate feelings of love and compassion for others around them.  Tenna in particular has been quite open in confirming this in his own life.  I hope for the sake of all survivors that they too will derive similar priorities from their various experiences. 

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