History of TASSC

An Interview with Sister Dianna Ortiz, Founder

By Suzanne Trimel, Human Rights Advocate & Communications Consultant

Sister Dianna Ortiz was serving as a missionary in Guatemala when she was captured and tortured by the country’s security forces.

Ortiz, a Roman Catholic Ursuline nun, founded TASSC in 1998 and served as its first executive director for the following 10 years. Before launching TASSC, through her work with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (USA), she came into contact with other survivors of torture and was struck by the common language she and other survivors used to describe the trauma and emotions they experienced. This shared understanding helped her gain the insight she needed to start the first organization led by torture survivors to support other survivors.

In the years after she was released, Ortiz began to speak to torture survivors from across the world—Armenia, Ethiopia, Honduras, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Finally, this visionary advocate took the first step by bringing together a small group in Washington, DC—torture survivors along with individuals committed to human rights—to explore the idea of starting a nonprofit that would be dedicated to advocacy to end torture and to support the full range of survivors’ needs. Though Ortiz is often identified as TASSC’s founder, she insists that the organization never would have gotten off the ground without the support of this core dedicated group of survivors and donors, many of whom continue their support for TASSC today.

Ortiz said: “We turned to the larger community for both guidance and assistance--from lawyers to psychologists, from doctors to teachers to artists; from fundraisers to directors of NGOs. I think of Antonio Machado’s words: ‘Traveler, there is no path, the path must be forged as you walk.’ That’s exactly what we did. We forged forward with the support of the community.”

TASSC is unique in the United States as the only organization led by torture survivors themselves, operating from the core belief that survivors understand their needs best and must be at the core of decisions about the healing process. And it is the only organization that takes a holistic approach—offering the full range of services to meet survivors needs, from medical and psychological to legal, employment mentoring and spiritual.

What inspired you to start TASSC? What was the moment when you realized you had to do this?

Well, I remember survivors I met and talked to would ask: ‘Why don’t you start an organization for people like us?’ And though I was quiet when asked, my thinking was always: ‘What do I know about starting an organization!’ At the time, like many of them, I was also trying to make sense of my own experience with torture. What astounded me was that I shared so many similar feelings with those I spoke to—feelings of fear, feelings of aloneness, a desire to want to end the practice of torture to prevent others from experiencing the trauma. It was as if we were speaking a common language. It was during that process that I recognized that the practice of torture was widespread across the world and we needed an organization of torture survivors, led by survivors, that could speak about their experiences as they found healing through community.

You must remember at that time, we (as survivors) were still thinking that if we told anyone what had happened to us, we wouldn’t be believed.

Many of us still carry that with us today. So starting an organization of torture survivors represented a revolution in our thinking. And from the moment TASSC opened its doors, it became a home for survivors—a community in the fullest sense. We never turned anyone away.”

What were some early challenges that you faced?

In the early days, when people [who had survived torture] were being interviewed for political asylum by INS (the U.S. agency was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service), many shared that they did not feel they were believed. This reminded them of the interrogation by their torturers. We realized we needed to schedule visits with the INS to talk to officials about torture. One of our key themes in these meetings was preventing re-traumatization. We emphasized the need for survivors to be treated with care, dignity and respect throughout the process.

There were some survivors who shared they were dehumanized during torture, and described during the immigration interviews, they were not believed because they could not remember dates or details about their torture. Similarly, people who could not make eye contact, were not believed and often that was because of their cultural background. The meetings we had with the INS changed thinking within the agency.

We were often called upon to meet with INS officials to provide training, which was something new for us. It was a definitely a challenge. But offered enormous opportunity to have an impact. For survivors to be able to sit down at the table and say: ‘This was how I was treated’ was an epiphany for many. It was a learning experience for the agency to hear from survivors themselves: ‘This is the right way to have a conversation with a torture survivor.’ I remember some INS officials coming up to me afterward and saying: ‘We had no idea.’ These conversations were pivotal—for us and the agency, I believe.

As survivors we realized we could come to the table and be heard. We could bridge our differences and make a difference for others who came later.”

Did you see a gap in services and support for torture survivors that you were trying to fill?

We recognized very early on that the road to healing for survivors came in many forms. That was crucial from day one. For instance, we started one program [called Helping Hands] that was purely aimed at helping survivors with their basic needs. We found torture survivors living in abject poverty. Many had acquired legal and medical expenses. Some had turned to lawyers for political asylum who charged outrageous fees and their cases remained in limbo. We also operated from day one in the belief that the survivors must take the reins in their healing. This was crucial. So, for example, some survivors felt psychotherapy wouldn’t help them and we honored that.

We started the ‘Communities of Healing’ program as a way to be supportive of the healing process while building a community among those we served. We wanted to create a ‘healing bond’ that transcended race, gender and national origin. We wanted to create a safe space and build a connection, where survivors’ voices mattered. Sometimes we had drumming or dance. We learned about other peoples’ cultures. Our lives were enriched.. I recall one survivor saying that for her, just being able to come and sit with other survivors who had had the same experience was a form of healing. She didn’t have to say anything. It was the connection that mattered. And these ‘Communities of Healing’ spread to other cities where other survivors lived—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston that I’m aware of.

Have the needs of survivors changed over time?

The basic needs are the same—safety, stabilization, the legal, the medical, the psychological. Being alone is very difficult. Finding a community with a common language is important. And today, because there is a growing and worrisome tendency by the U.S. to defer applications for asylum, there is a greater need to help those who are vulnerable and in crisis find the stability and safety they need. The needs are not shrinking. They are growing.

Do you stay in touch with the survivors that you engaged with 20 years ago? In general, how have their lives evolved?

I do and I find that many are leading fulfilling and rich lives. I tend to hear from people when they experience the memory of torture or at moments of joy in their lives. We will always carry the memories of being tortured. That experience is etched in your soul and other experiences can trigger the memory. For instance, I take the metro to work and sometimes I’ll see officers in uniform with dogs—that’s a trigger for me. But I remind myself that I am not in danger. I am in a different situation, and hopefully there are people around me who would help me if needed.

So while our experiences of torture are part of our memory, torture itself doesn’t necessarily define our lives.

When I hear from survivors, it’s often joyful—the birth of a child, a marriage, a graduation. Many have used their experience to promote justice and have a strong commitment to preventing others from experiencing torture. Many have become human rights lawyers or are working in peace and justice organizations!

What can people do to support torture survivors or advocate against torture?

I would encourage ordinary people to make an effort to get to know survivors. Listen to their stories. Feel their grief, pain and anguish of being separated from their homelands and families. Celebrate their daring spirit, their resilience to survive.

Sometimes when I’m traveling I’ll meet someone who is an immigrant from another country where I may be aware that torture exists under a repressive regime. I’ll ask: ‘What brought you to the United States?’ I recently met a taxi driver in Washington who told me he had to flee his homeland and I am hoping we can help with his needs. Many people are willing to share the story of why they had to leave their countries.

We are all called to speak out against torture wherever it is practiced. We cannot be bystanders to this evil. Given everything we are living through today—I’m speaking of the refugee crisis—we need to stand in solidarity with those who are in peril and suffering.

Beyond this, I would urge people to donate to groups that support torture survivors, to talk to their Senators and members of Congress about how the United States can apply pressure to stop the practice and to reach out to those in need through organizations like TASSC that has a network of volunteer professionals—lawyers and others—who do pro-bono work to help survivors.

There are an estimated 1.3 million torture survivors in the United States, a number that had been underestimated until a few years ago. The worldwide refugee crisis is increasing these numbers. How do you react to this?

The migrant crisis has reached epidemic proportions, and we know many of the migrants have suffered torture in their home countries, in transit and in their host countries. The current U.S. administration has and continues to  put up barriers that prevent refugees from coming to the U.S. But there will come a time, when they will make their way here and we will need an urgent effort to provide rehabilitation and redress for the injustice they suffered. Social service providers including non-specialists (on the needs of torture survivors) will need to be trained to identify torture survivors within the community of migrants by detecting early warning signs of trauma. The rising fear faced by migrants who are discriminated against will magnify the trauma of torture survivors. We’re in crisis mode already but it’s going to expand. I’d note that the climate crisis will create more refugees forced to flee their countries and they are vulnerable to torture and trafficking. Torture has become a mental health issue throughout our world.

What final thought would you communicate to the world about torture?

My message today is similar as the message I conveyed nearly twenty years ago: torture is rampant in today’s world and we all have a role to play to change the course of history and create a torture-free world.  We’re three decades away from the U.N. Convention Against Torture (1987) but torture is still carried out in 141 countries [according to Amnesty International’s latest annual report]. We have a moral responsibility to speak out and to create a world where the next generation will be spared… where the dignity of all people is respected and where the human rights of all people are protected. We cannot ever lose sight of the reality that we are our sisters and brothers keepers.

Sr. Dianna Ortiz, Founder, TASSC International

Sr. Dianna Ortiz, Founder, TASSC International

I heard the same message echoed again and again. Shock and outrage over torture. The difficulties of living a normal life after torture; how ordinary events triggered memories that took them back to the experience of being tortured. Some also talked about how their families had been affected by their experience. And they expressed feelings of ‘aloneness.’ Many also had difficulty trusting people because of their experience. And many were living in abject poverty, forced to leave behind their loved ones and livelihoods for a new country, where they had trouble finding a place to live or a job to sustain them. Many didn’t have work permits.

Biographical note

Ortiz now serves as the editor of Education for Justice, a project of the Catholic Center of Concern. The organization produces resources for schools, universities, faith communities and health care organizations focused on poverty, violence against women, trafficking, torture, migrant justice and other social justice concerns. Ortiz has received many honors for her human rights work, including three honorary doctorates, the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Award, and the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award, with Patricia Davis. She is the author of the memoir “The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Trauma to Truth” (2004) and producer of the film “I am Miriam” about torture and human trafficking.