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Eleven years ago, Survivors of Torture, International opened its doors. At that time, people were always surprised to find out there was a need for such services. Torture seemed like such a medieval and faraway concept — a horrific act that occurred in the dungeons of European castles. Our staff spent a lot of time explaining that yes, torture is a reality — politically motivated torture is practiced in at least 100 countries and yes, survivors live here. The federal government estimates that at least 400,000 survivors of torture live in the United States. We estimate that there are at least 11,000 just here in San Diego County.
Now, the idea of torture is much more prevalent in the media, probably due to the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but its portrayal remains less than accurate. The organization Human Rights First found that there were 123 scenes of torture on primetime network television in 2005. Pre 9/11 in 2000, there were just 42. These scenes usually depict the victims as worthless bad guys — serious criminals or people who have top-secret, life-threatening plans that they’re hiding.
Unfortunately the survivors are not just characters on television but real people like the individuals we serve in our office. They endured some of the most terrifying experiences imaginable and have come to San Diego for safety from this persecution. SURVIVORS’ clients have come from more than 50 countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Mexico and El Salvador. Repressive governments often use torture as a tool against democracy by targeting teachers, journalists, community leaders, or members of certain religious or ethnic groups. To save their lives, survivors often have no choice but to flee and continue their lives in a new country — even if it means that they have to leave their family, friends, careers, and homes behind.
I’m grateful when voiceofsandiego.org and other news outlets give our organization the opportunity to raise awareness about this invisible population that lives in our community. I’m happy to answer any questions you have about the work we do.
— KATHI ANDERSON