The Human Rights Clinic: Doctors Helping Asylum Seekers

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Today’s guest post comes from Greg Bloom at Bread for the City, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that serves the city’s low-income residents. Cross posted at the Sanctuary.

Bread for the City is best known here in Washington DC for our food pantry (which is the largest in the city). But in addition to food assistance, we also offer a comprehensive range of services to all kinds of poor and vulnerable people in our community.

As of this year, that includes victims of torture who have fled to America to escape persecution.

For years, many such people have turned to us for food and medical care. But for those who are undertaking the complicated legal process of seeking asylum in America, there is great and special need- and it isn’t currently being met in many places.  

Asylum-seekers must essentially prove their claims of persecution - often times through the physical evidence present on their own bodies. This process can entail a lengthy and resource-intensive medical examination, requires extensive, legally-appropriate write-ups, and the doctors might even need to provide testimony in court. Furthermore, the doctors must have the psychological capacity to engage with deep trauma.

As a result, it can be very difficult to find doctors who are willing to play this critical role in the asylum process.

With the help of some volunteer doctors and engaged board members, we’ve recently opened our medical clinic on a special monthly basis for this purpose. It’s hard work, and this week the Washington Post profiled the clinic in a special feature, profiling our Medical Clinic director, Randi Abramson, among others:

Abramson drops onto a stool, composing her thoughts before entering on a laptop the horrifying story of her most recent patient at the District nonprofit organization’s new monthly clinic for political asylum-seekers: a 24-year-old Kenyan woman who recently fled Mexico and is petitioning to stay in the United States. Raised by abusive grandparents who beat her and, at 10, subjected her to genital mutilation. Cast out by her family for choosing school over marriage, she was tricked into a prostitution ring couched as a scholarship opportunity. She ended up in a Mexican brothel, where she was held captive, beaten and knifed by a customer.

Such shocking tales of cruelty can take a toll, said Abramson, one of three doctors who have volunteered to lend expert medical credence to clients’ allegations of torture and abuse. It has been difficult to find doctors willing to take on these cases. But those who have stepped forward say they find powerful satisfaction in the opportunity to boost wrecked lives onto a path toward salvation.

“The scars, everything I found in the physical exam completely support the history she related,” Abramson said. “It’s just very rewarding to know that I will document what I heard and saw this evening and that will have a huge impact on her life.”

One important aspect that the article doesn’t touch upon is that refugees are typically not legally allowed to have a job while applying for asylum. So these traumatized individuals - who must rebuild a new life from scratch - are often essentially trapped in or near poverty for an extended period of time.

That means our clinic is all the more important in too many of these cases: we’re able to connect these clients into our network of comprehensive services - including food, medical care, legal counsel, social workers, etc - that can sustain them while they work to get back on their feet.

For our community at large, this is valuable work: our doctors say that many refugees are skilled, educated, and eager to be productive members of free society. (These traits tend to characterize those who become targets of persecution.)

The good news is that we’re currently planning to increase our capacity to provide these services. And you can help! You can join our capital campaign in support of our upcoming Northwest Center expansion, which will double the size of our medical clinic. You can donate here.  

You can learn more about our medical clinic and our other services at our blog. And if you are (or you know) a physician with interest in volunteering at the clinic, please contact Aviva Bellman.


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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on September 30, 2009 12:24 AM.

Progressive Politicians Selling Out Migrants for No Good Reason was the previous entry in this blog.

On Detention Reform and Endorsing the Restore Fairness Campaign is the next entry in this blog.

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