Embracing Torture Survivors, Refugees And Immigrants

TASSC held its largest June Survivors Week ever from June 21-June 24, with more than 160 survivors and supporters attending the Conference, Advocacy Day, the Vigil, Community of Healing and the celebration at the Busboys and Poets restaurant.  Survivors came from Ethiopia, Liberia, Eritrea, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Balochistan (Pakistan) and West Papua (Indonesia).  June Survivors Week coincides with the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture observed on June 26, the day the UN Convention against Torture entered into force.

Conference Highlights

Keynote speakers were Ted Kim, Deputy Chief of the Asylum Division in USCIS (US Citizenship and  Immigration Services); Adotei Akwei, Managing Director for Government Relations at Amnesty International; and Gregory Simpkins, Staff Director for the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

Ted Kim explained how the asylum process works, and why there is such a huge backlog in scheduling asylum interviews for survivors. TASSC survivors now have to wait as long as three years for an interview with the Arlington asylum office, compared to only six months several years ago. Many asylum officers are assigned to interview migrants crossing the US-Mexican border, or are diverted to the Refugee Affairs Division of USCIS. There are just not enough asylum officers to interview survivors and other asylum applicants in a timely manner.

“Since it was founded in 1961, Amnesty members have fought for ‘prisoners of conscience’ and human rights throughout the world,” said Adotei Akwei.  He pointed out that Amnesty’s successes prove how the power of ordinary people can make a difference. That is exactly what TASSC and its supporters can do in their ongoing struggle against torture.

Gregory Simpkins discussed the role that TASSC and survivors have played in supporting House Resolutions 861 and 128 on Ethiopia sponsored by Republican Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey. These Resolutions condemn Ethiopia for killing peaceful protestors; arresting journalists, students, and other political activists and for abusing the anti-terrorism proclamation (accusing anyone who criticizes the government of beinga ”terrorist.”)  It says the U.S. should “improve oversight and accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia” and apply sanctions to Ethiopians guilty of gross human rights violations according to the Magnitsky Human Rights Act.

“TASSC survivors are having a real impact when they talk about the human rights violations they have suffered from. Their testimonies at news conferences, congressional offices and before the Africa Subcommittee make these abuses become real to Members of Congress and staff who listen to them.”

— Gregory Simpkins, Staff Director of House Subcommittee on Africa

Other Conference speakers were Nii Akuetteh, a Ghanaian-born analyst of African affairs; Dr. Sami Baloch Badini, a human rights defender from Balochistan (Pakistan); Josh Rigney, Legal Services Program Manager from TASSC; Jason Dzubow, immigration attorney and author of The Asylumistblog; Liz Sweet from HIAS, the oldest refugee resettlement agency in the U.S.; and Linda Rabben, author of the Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History (2016).

Advocacy Day

Over 80 people—more than 50 survivors and 26 TASSC staff/interns/volunteers and supporters participated in almost 50 meetings in Congress on June 22-- Advocacy Day.  The key “Talking Points” were: why the U.S. should continue to be a leader on human rights around the world; contributions  refugees and immigrants make to America; and support for House and Senate  Resolutions on human rights and governance in Ethiopia. TASSC survivors produced REAL RESULTS—eight Members of Congress, including Senator Dianne Feinstein from California, decided to co-sponsor one of these Resolutions after their staff spoke to survivors!

“I felt so proud being a Member of TASSC and getting the chance to speak with people in Congress about the mass killings in my country, especially how the government has taken land from the Oromo ethnic group.”

— Sintayehu (a pseudonym), former lawyer from Ethiopia

Tigist, a survivor who was a lecturer in psychology before coming to the United States, said “The aides we spoke with told us it was an honor to listen to our experiences, and they promised to help us open up democratic space in Ethiopia and fight for human rights.”

Vigil and Community of Healing

TASSC held its annual vigil in Lafayette Park opposite the White House, where the TASSC community called attention to the ongoing existence of torture throughout the world. The next day was the Community of Healing, where survivors and TASSC community supporters were invited to spend time with each other through crafts and a delicious lunch catered by Mary Jo DeMatteis Catering.

Survivor Meskerem opened the event by reading a poem called “My Umbrella is TASSC” where she highlighted in poetry the impact that TASSC has had on the lives of survivors. Then everyone recreated the TASSC logo, making a magnificent mosaic installation out of cloth, pottery pieces, coffee beans, colored paper and other scraps to build a multimedia rendering of the symbolic drawing. 

ElShafei Dafalla, an award-winning artist originally from the Sudan who is on TASSC’s Board of Directors designed the TASSC logo. He explained that the logo symbolizes love, peace and freedom. The long T stretching out across the logo represents an umbrella, and the A that follows is a person rising under the umbrella.  Just like an umbrella shields and protects and individual from the rain, TASSC helps survivors get back on their feet and find their way in the United States.  Four canvasses were pieced together to form the logo.  Here is what the top part looked like.

 

Caitlin Tromiczak, TASSC’s Health and Psychological Wellness Program Manager, who organized the art project, said:  “The mosaic represents the unity that comes from the individual survivors and staff working together to make something whole again."

After the Community of Healing, TASSC members participated in a General Assembly, where they voted on the Board of Directors. Then everyone walked to the Busboys and Poets restaurant for dinner, dancing and to celebrate the end of another successful Survivors Week.