Making a safe haven in Dublin


Abdul didn't always speak with a stammer. The speech impediment is one of the many legacies of the torture he endured at the hands of former colleagues in the state authorities of a north-African country.

So ashamed and embarrassed was he of the degrading treatment he suffered that when he fled to the Republic he did not initially reveal his past in his application for refugee status.

"I was tortured because I didn't agree with the method they were using to interrogate people. They were giving me a lesson," says the 37-year-old former administrator, his stilted speech punctuated with deep intakes of breath.

"I didn't mention it when I applied for refugee status. I was so ashamed of it. It's in my private parts and it's done in so horrific a way. I told them about torture in my country, but I didn't tell them why I have been tortured."

For most of his four years in the Republic, Abdul has been depressed and suicidal. He has been haunted by the taunts of his torturers and gripped by severe panic attacks that have left him claustrophobic and breathless.

At one particularly low point, he signed himself in to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital's psychiatric ward for a fortnight. "One doctor in accident and emergency told me I was playing crazy so I can get refugee status in Ireland," he says. "Make sure you write that in red so everyone can see it. That's what made my situation worse."

Abdul felt aggrieved and misunderstood by the medical profession until he started attending a torture-survivors' programme, run by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit as part of its Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative (Spirasi). That was almost a year ago, and today Abdul is proud of the progress he has made in regaining control over his life. He will soon begin attending a speech therapist, to work on his stammer.

Seated in an armchair in a pastel-painted room in Spirasi House, a large Georgian building on the North Circular Road in Dublin, Abdul says that at last he feels secure.

"If I feel depressed I come here, if I feel happy I come here, because in this place they accept me. I come, I feel here free."

He acknowledges that his recovery will take time and effort, but he is at least moving forward. "It's a long process and I have to practise," he says. "When I have panic attacks, I have to take deep breaths four times and lie down on the floor. It would be hard if you are on O'Connell Street, but I have to do it because I have the will to overcome my illness."

Abdul is one of some 80 torture survivors, mostly men aged between 20 and 30, to attend the programme since it started on a pilot basis last October. He has been referred to a psychologist who speaks his native language, and receives private computer lessons at Spirasi House, as he cannot tolerate being in a class with others.

Father Michael Begley, a Spiritan priest and psychologist, is the director of the torture-survivors' programme, one of the many services for asylum-seekers and refugees offered at Spirasi House. These include classes in English and computers, support groups for women with children and varied social events. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming in the rambling house, which has become a home from home for many.

On a recent rainy weekday, young African men played pool at a well-worn table in a downstairs kitchen, while in the corridor, Maurice, a torture survivor from central Africa, gestured to a map on the wall and offered an impromptu lesson on the gold and diamond resources of his continent.

Like many of those involved in Spirasi House as staff or volunteers, Father Begley has overseas experience, having worked for 15 years in primary health care in Gambia, Kenya and Tanzania. He says the programme was set up because a gap in support for torture survivors was identified. Between 5 and 30 per cent of refugee applicants worldwide have fled torture.

The programme aims to complement existing State services and refers people to specialists as well as receiving referrals from health boards, refugee reception centres and GPs. There is a strong ethos of respect and an emphasis on intercultural sensitivity. The programme is run by a full-time co-ordinator with 17 volunteers, including seven clinicians, ranging from a Chinese doctor who does therapeutic massage to a counselling psychologist who speaks Arabic and a physiotherapist with a background in human rights.

An outreach service is available for torture survivors who need a sympathetic companion when they attend stressful events such as interviews. On requests from solicitors, staff also prepare medico-legal reports for people going through the asylum determination process.

The programme started with no official funding and remains heavily reliant on volunteers. From January, it will have a part-time in-house paid physician and psychologist and will be recruiting physicians in September. It has been approved for funding from the European Refugee Fund, administered by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. A funding application has also been made to the Eastern Regional Health Authority.

Richard Tomkin, the programme's co-ordinator, says many clients experience an instant sense of relief that they have escaped their persecutors and are at last able to talk about their torture in a safe environment. "Then there are the day-to-day realities, when they realise we don't have a magic wand, and they then start to bring up longer-term issues," he adds.

Maurice is one such client, who arrived in the Republic more than four months ago. He had been imprisoned repeatedly in his troubled central-African state and endured severe beatings and torture with electric currents. The 39-year-old former civil servant winces as he recalls his experience of fleeing to the forest, where he lived "like an animal" for 20 months before learning that his parents and son had been killed.

"When I came here, my whole life was broken," he says in a low voice, his fist clenched. "Imagine when you get a car and the engine is broken. The engine is like its heart. For me, my heart was broken, but the Spirasi programme is helping me to repair my heart."

The programme's independence from the authorities is crucial in building the trust of asylum-seekers, many of whom, like Maurice and Abdul, have suffered at the hands of officials. At its core is a recognition that torture survivors "are very ordinary people who have endured extraordinarily grotesque experiences," says Father Begley.

"The medical programme can't be seen in isolation from other services. People have language needs, they want to work on computers, to socialise. Whatever we offer on the level of psychosocial support is equally as important as the therapeutic work. So it's a total-person approach we are trying to emphasise.

"We are conscious that people will always have to live with the psychological scars of torture. It's a question of how well they will be able to cope and whether the layers of support they require to participate fully in Irish society can be made available."

Abdul and Maurice's full names and other details have been withheld because they fear for their safety and that of their families

For further information contact The Irish Centre for the Care of Torture Survivors, Spirasi House, 231 North Circular Road, Phibsboro, Dublin 7 (01-8389664)