|ESSAY: THE HEALING CLUB|
April 13, 2001
| ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING:
On a gray Saturday in this ordinary house in this ordinary Los Angeles
suburb, a group of people came together for a festive multicultural gathering.
They brought their children. They talked and sang and shared their potluck
dishes. Watching them, you would not guess what brought them here, not
just to this house, but to the city and this country. They are survivors
of torture, and this gathering is their so-called monthly healing club,
a time to hang out with others who carry the same singular kinds of scars,
visible and invisible - people who have been beaten, shocked, raped, people
like Cecilia, who fled Chile 17 years ago after being tortured herself,
after her best friend was raped by soldiers, after her boyfriend vanished
CECILIA: He was an anthropologist -- student. He was about to finish his career, and one day to the next he just vanished. One night we were studying together and singing songs, and the next morning he was gone and I never saw him again. I found one of my friends all beat up, black and blue. I mean, her face totally disfigured and she was beat up by the soldiers. And so I was, too, when I went to the university a couple times.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: The Healing Club is an off-shoot of the two-decade- old Los Angeles program for torture victims. One of the roughly 20 torture rehabilitation programs around the country that offer legal, psychological, and medical aid to the tens of thousands-- probably hundreds of thousands-- of torture victims that now live among us. These programs have recently received $7.2 million from the government, $500,000 of it earmarked for the Los Angeles one, allowing them to double their annual client load to 120. Today, the Healing Club is offering something new, a support group for those who want to join. Cecilia starts them off with a song. And then they share, often in a shy, elliptical way, as if the torture is still too awful to talk about, too weird, too somehow shaming. Shahid, in this country for two years, is from Pakistan and was tortured there for his political beliefs.
SHAHID: They beat me, like, three times. They beat me, like, very bad. I have a scar on my head. They beat me here. I wasn't feeling in Pakistan, I'm safe.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: There can be no words, there are simply tears. Mariana is from Sierra Leone, a country torn apart by war and rife with torture. She is here with her daughter and son. He was beaten over there and another son was killed. Her daughter, Zinob, translates and talks for her.
DAUGHTER: My mom said in Sierra Leone she witnessed an incident where they dig like a grave, like a little place and cut it and dig it, and then tell you like young guys, teenage guys, they tell you lie down and stretch really straight, whether you fit in that hole or not, and they shot you, with a gun.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: To listen to these people is to feel both rage at their torturers and admiration for their resilience. They have to start over, get asylum, get working permits, find places to live, even as they're often afflicted with nightmares and flashbacks of the torture, not to mention enduring physical problems. They have left family members behind, and they have lost their homelands. There is that pain, too.
DAUGHTER: It's like you don't have anywhere to go back to. You don't have where to return. For me it's very sad when I watch documentaries and tapes from Sierra Leone or Africa and see how... It's devastating.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: But they find their way here to this country like thousands before them, to this city, and to this extraordinary survivors group. Ours is a nation of fleers, not always, but often from torture. After World War II, the Holocaust survivors and victims from eastern Europe; in the '70s and '80s, refugees from Central and South America like Cecilia; and now from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, like Shahid and his friend Umar-- their gratitude is as real and contagious as their memories are searing.
MAN: This is what I call freedom-- freedom of speech, freedom of everything. While in this country... In these countries we cannot express anything about ourselves. And I was very, very happy to be here.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And it is that complex refrain one hears daily if one listens underneath all the hustle and noise of this vast city. The hum of exile, the memories of evil, and the breathtaking resilience that underscore the immigrant dream and drama that is America, all in recent evidence on one gray Saturday in this one small stucco house on a suburban Los Angeles street.
GROUP SINGING: Songs of freedom...
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.