For a refugee who is a survivor of torture, traumatic reminders of the past can be found anywhere at any time.
This is even true on what should be a joyous day--interviewing for U.S. citizenship. For refugees, gaining citizenship can be a source of great pride and a way to mark a new beginning. Walking past a uniformed guard at the entrance of the Robert A. Young Federal Building and entering a small, windowless room where the interview occurs can make the experience feel more like an interrogation than a test.
Places for People (PfP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently worked together to decrease the chance of re-traumatizing survivors of torture who are interviewing for U.S. citizenship.
“Trauma has a lasting effect on people,” Places for People Immigration Attorney Courtney Manus said.
The Places for People Faith Team works with survivors of torture who are living with major depressive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and/or various anxiety disorders. Not only have they lived through traumatic experiences in their homeland, but the resettlement process can also be difficult. The Faith Team works with survivors of torture for as long as necessary to promote a successful transition.
On Tuesday, April 16, the USCIS conducted interviews for eight PfP clients who are survivors of torture at the Places for People Recovery Center Campus. All eight clients passed their citizenship exams.
Unlike the Robert A. Young Federal Building in downtown St. Louis, where citizenship interviews are typically held, the interviews at PfP were held in a less intimidating environment – a spacious conference room in the same building as the Faith Team offices.
PfP Faith Team leader Ron Klutho praised USCIS for trying the interviews in the new location. “They are so understanding,” he said of the USCIS.
The PfP Faith Team has worked with the USCIS to raise awareness of the experiences refugees have endured, including providing training to USCIS employees in February 2012 about survivors of torture and trauma-informed care.
The training highlighted how trauma can affect survivors of torture long after they have left their home countries and steps that can be taken to avoid re-traumatization as they work to assimilate to their new country. Whereas most people filing for citizenship chose to live in the U.S., refugees “didn’t plan to come here,” Klutho said. The eight people who were interviewed at PfP were survivors of torture who lived through genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Klutho explained that for refugees who are survivors of torture even a simple question such as “what is your name?” can trigger a flood of emotions. The answer to that basic question, which happens to be the first question in the citizenship interview, “literally could be grounds for life or death” in their homeland.
Countless times when PfP clients have been asked to state their name in the citizenship interview, “we’ve had clients melt down,” Manus said, remembering one time when an individual became catatonic after the question and did not speak again during the remainder of the interview.
Two of the eight people who were tested had that experience in the past. Manus said conducting the interviews downtown would not have been a positive experience for any of the individuals who were interviewed.
The primary components of the citizenship test are an English section and a civics section. The interview at PfP was still stressful, but Klutho and Manus are hoping that the environment will not add to that tension. Through specialized, trauma-informed services, the Faith Team has helped approximately 400 refugees who survived various forms of torture in their home countries successfully gain U.S. citizenship over the years.Citizenship for refugees is important for many reasons—to feel like a full-fledged member of U.S. society, to eliminate the fear of deportation and to be able to travel freely between countries without problems. Also citizenship is vital to “obtain many basic benefits,” Manus said.
It can also be very therapeutic to pass the citizenship test, Manus said. It provides a sense of accomplishment and pride that they might not have felt for a long time.
Klutho is proud of the work the PfP Faith Team has accomplished to help refugees become U.S. citizens.
“It’s wonderful,” Klutho said. “I think we’ve changed people’s lives.”
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