Mary DeMoss, Center for Survivors of Torture

I chose to complete an internship at Center for Survivors of Torture (CST), a nonprofit organization that works with international survivors of torture who have made their way to the United States.  Their clients are from over 35 different countries from across the world that are seeking or have been granted asylum or refugee status.  About 95% of the clients seen while I was in the North Texas office were originally from an African nation, while a small portion were from the Middle East or Latin America.

Among the required information needed in order for a client to get legal status is a reasonable argument, known as credible fear, that he or she is in physical or mortal danger if they return home. Most clients come to CST because they have basic physical and psychological needs that they cannot fulfill on their own.  These individuals or families are among the few who are able to escape the psychologically and physically brutal treatment in their countries

Clients at CST receive psychological, emotional, spiritual, and economic aid, which assist in their everyday needs and help them begin to adapt to life in the United States.  For the purposes of their mission and funding, CST defines torture as “a method to suppress dissent and obtain blind allegiance to tyrannical social and governmental systems. The goal is to psychologically, morally, and physically reduce the victim to a sub-human condition.”

The CST North Texas staff includes the Executive Director, Clinical Director, Client Care Coordinator, and three part time staff members who facilitate client documentation and accounting and donations from individuals and small groups. The Executive Director is responsible for grant writing and administrative duties, including managing the majority of the undergraduate interns and meets with clients to discuss spiritual needs. This summer the Clinical Director supervised my internship and the research done by  a legal anthropology doctoral candidate.  The Client Care Coordinator sees to the everyday needs of the client, such as housing, scheduling appointments with CST and other organizations, and helping clients understand the asylum process.

While each intern had specific duties and goals, we were all required to spend about half of our time helping the office and the clients with daily tasks.  Often this included picking clients up from their apartments or driving to meetings they might have at related offices. I also spent much of my time filing reports and organizing audit documents, making phone calls on behalf of the center, and editing a booklet in preparation for publication. Since I am studying forensic anthropology, I had the opportunity to observe the forensic evaluation of three clients, which included the retelling of his or her story and a medical examination.

For my internship, I initiated a project in which I took photographs of clients’ scars, both related and unrelated to the torture that they had experienced.  It is our hope that, in time, a database can be compiled that will allow professionals to compare scars with photographs with the same cause, in order to verify consistency. While this is a long-term project, I was able to complete much of the necessary research, create necessary documents, and begin compiling photographs. I began working on my project by researching the major types of torture used around the world, their short-term and long-term effects, scar types, and categories of physical trauma. For this research, I found much of my information from the sourcebooks for Physicians for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and Research Center for Torture Victims. I compiled a list of definitions as I went in order both to familiarize myself with the things I might see and to leave a resource for any researchers who may continue the project. I added to this list the medical terminology that is commonly used to refer to a client’s scarring, so that any reports that are sent can be written in the most appropriate manner possible.

I spent the final three days of my internship in San Antonio, meeting with the staff at RAICES, a nonprofit organization that works with immigrants in need of legal assistance.  We had three goals for our trip: to establish the clients’ need for services that CST could provide, to determine the need for photographic evidence in RAICES’ court cases, and to interview the senior lawyers about the asylum process.

This internship has given me considerable confidence in my abilities to work independently on a project and to analyze information that is put in front of me. I have had the opportunity to start a project that I hope to continue over the coming years and have had both the freedom and the guidance to ensure that it is a project that will be worthwhile.  I have also had the opportunity to further learn about a population that I had only general experience with.  I hope to continue working with RAICES and CST in the future, in order to keep the photographic documentation project going.
Read the full report here.