27 June 2018

Natalia Torrent serves as one of MSF´s Heads of Mission in the Middle East, where she has helped launch a new centre that treats survivors of torture and of ill-treatment.  Here, she describes how patients receive care from a team of doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists to help them cope with past and present traumas. The Centre receives patients from a number of different countries.

What are some of the experiences these patients have endured?

The patients we receive in the centre have fled their countries for different reasons. The main one is conflict. The traumas they’ve endured are not only those associated with living in a conflict, being detained, being persecuted, or being tortured. They’ve also endured mistreatment by those on their journey to escape.

Some of our patients have been detained in state prisons and sexually abused. Some have been left hanging for days in small, confined spaces. Some have been electrocuted on all parts of their body. In some cases, when our patients they fled their countries, they put themselves in the hands of smugglers who, instead of helping them, took advantage.

What are some of the misconceptions about their experiences?

Some of their wounds may be invisible, even if the physical scars have healed. This doesn´t mean they are less vulnerable. Each patient is an individual with different ways of coping. They experience events in a different way due to their backgrounds, their social networks, their culture, or even their own perceptions of themselves. You have to approach every patient differently.

How do these victims of torture begin to recover?

The journey towards recovery may differ from one person to another. We cannot assume that the patterns are similar for everyone. For one person it may begin with a feeling of being secure in one place or a conscious effort to regain their trust in humanity.

For some of them, the journey may start with the recovery of, for example, lost mobility in their arm which allows them to resume their traditional role as breadwinner for their family again. For some, recovery can start from the day they enter the centre. For others, it can take time.

What are some of the most difficult issues Survivors of Torture deal with on the road to recovery, beyond dealing with the trauma of that experience itself? Can you share with us some personal stories?

Their difficulties are not only the difficulties of their status as migrants in a new country but on top of that their personal living conditions. As with any other migrant in a different country, basic issues such as unemployment, how to feed their family, how to relate to the host community, are relevant.

There are also issues associated with stigma that prevents survivors from disclosing details of what has happened to them, either in their country of origin or on their journey.

For example, the main problem for one of our patients was that he was not able to play the role of breadwinner for his family. For him, the fact of not being able to work because of physical dysfunction was marking him and was holding him back on the road to recovery.

This is a new centre for MSF. What are we learning as an organization about how we can help Victims of Torture?

Supporting survivors of torture is a complex endeavour. It requires the collaboration of different actors. It’s not the job of only one practitioner, one doctor or one psychologist. It’s a group effort. The most important thing in this effort is to give autonomy and voice back to the patient.

What are some of the concrete improvements that we’ve seen in some of the lives of the patients following their treatment at the centre?

It´s very complicated to assess when someone has ‘recovered’. Each has a different marker for their healing process, so we need a customised approach. For some, it may be a case of recovering lost functionality to be able to deal with their life. For others, it´s a more abstract process about regaining lost dignity. It’s a complex matter – there is not a simple equation of one plus one equals two.

Read testimonies from the victims of torture here