Categories: Sally Stephens

Bringing light to a dark world

I’ve been feeling depressed listening to all the bad news lately, but, ironically, all it took was a conversation about people who had been tortured to restore my sense of hope.

Pete Dross works every day to end torture and help survivors, and you would think he’d be the most depressed person in the world. But he brims with hope and positivity, and it’s infectious. We talked the other day about his work at the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, Minn. They take some of the worst human experiences possible and bring light to the darkness.

“Every single day, we witness the most extraordinary human transformations,” he said.

Jana, a 13-year-old Syrian girl, now lives in an apartment in Amman, Jordan. Two years ago, in her hometown in Syria, she was grabbed off the street by Syrian soldiers to force her father to turn himself in. She was held for three weeks with other children in an underground dungeon. All were repeatedly beaten and starved, and Jana watched as a younger boy died from his injuries. When she was finally released, she became withdrawn and anxious, suffering nightmares and guilt in part because her father was killed after finally turning himself in to secure her release.

At CVT’s healing center in Amman, Jana received counseling and support. She learned how to cope with her fears and deal with her trauma. Now, Jana acts like a child again, and her bond with her mother is strong. She helps other traumatized friends and encourages them to seek the same therapy that helped her. Jana now says nothing can frighten her because, in therapy, she realized she has an inner courage that helped her survive her ordeal. She is in school and wants to be a teacher. With CVT’s help, she reclaimed her life and now has hope for the future.

Successes like Jana’s are common wherever CVT operates. In addition to its center in Minnesota and a second facility about to open in Atlanta, CVT manages psychological counseling programs in refugee camps and post-conflict areas in Jordan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Dross sees success not only in specific metrics like less pain or fewer nightmares, but also in smaller but important ways — a mother who can experience joy watching her daughter take her first steps, a man who can enjoy a massage because he no longer associates being touched with pain. Without CVT’s help, neither could have experienced those emotions.

“We help survivors reclaim productive lives, “Dross said. “CVT restores dignity and hope.”

Dross and CVT also work to end the use of torture. The irony is that torture doesn’t work. “Our clients have said they would and did say anything to make it stop,” Dross explained. “This results in a lot of bad information that creates wild goose chases instead of useful intelligence.”

Yet as long as it is used, CVT will be there to help survivors rebuild their lives. Jean Baptiste, a torture survivor who fled to Kenya, once said, “When I met CVT, they brought me back to life.”

CVT was founded in 1985, when then-Governor of Minnesota Rudy Perpich’s son asked him, “What are you doing for human rights?” Perpich asked a committee of experts to look into what could be done, and chose the most ambitious option — create a center to rehabilitate survivors of torture. Despite its official origins, CVT was created as an independent nongovernmental organization, with its first treatment center in St. Paul. While Minnesotans remain its strongest supporters, the San Francisco Bay Area comes in second in donations to CVT.

There are beacons of hope that shine brightly in the darkness of bad news, bad words and bad deeds. The Center for Victims of Torture is one of those beacons, and just knowing they’re doing such good work so successfully makes the world less depressing. Hearing about it gives me hope for humanity and for the future.

Sally Stephens lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

Sally Stephens
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