We often watch news reports about a place where horrible human rights violations are occurring--Congo, Burma, Iran--and wish there was something we could do to help others so far away. But in the city of Los Angeles, there are many ways that individuals--whether you're a physician, an attorney, a social worker or simply a Good Samaritan--can in fact make a positive impact on the lives of foreign refugees and torture victims.
Donated dentistry, psychotherapy, legal services, and sometimes even surgery is what's needed to help rehabilitate the hundreds of torture survivors that arrive yearly in Los Angeles--the "Ellis Island of the West Coast," according to Program for Torture Victims (PTV) executive director Julie B. Gutman. The Los Angeles Times reports that the city
"...is home to more torture survivors than any other U.S. city. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, some 18% of asylum applicants in the United States from 2002 to 2008 had their cases adjudicated in Los Angeles-area federal immigration courts -- 71,767 in all. Up to 35% of the asylum seekers, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are victims of state-sponsored torture."
Over the 30 years that PTV has been in existence, Gutman estimates that the organization has helped thousands (all at no cost to the clients), at a rate of about 300 people per year. "It's amazing to see people who have suffered so much and arrive here with nothing--no money, no family, no housing, no hope--rebuild their lives," she says.
Leontine Lanza, a torture survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was one of PTV's clients. In 1997, when the Rwandan Army invaded Congo, she was raped and tortured for her close ties to the Congolese president (she served as a beautician to his wife). When Lanza arrived in Los Angeles, PTV provided counseling and medical services to heal the physical and emotional scars that rape left behind, and now she's a spokesperson on behalf of women in Congo. In many ways, her story mirrors that of PTV founder Dr. Jose Quiroga, once a personal physician to former Chilean President Salvador Allende. He fled Chile after being beaten and detained, and moved to Santa Monica in 1977. PTV started as an outgrowth of the work that Dr. Quiroga and co-founder Ana Deutsch were doing with the Los Angeles Amnesty International Medical Group, tending to torture victims."
For Angelenos looking to get involved, Gutman says, "a great way is to come to our inaugural Human Dignity Awards Dinner on April 12, 2011, where we'll be celebrating 30 years of rebuilding lives." PTV also welcomes volunteers with professional skills in the areas of medical and psychological care, as well as legal and case management services.
The organization's 30th anniversary celebration will honor labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, restaurateur (and activist) Susan Feniger of STREET Restaurant and Border Grill, former federal judge and human rights activist Bruce Einhorn, and the Venice Family Clinic. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California State Assembly John A. Pérez join PTV as honorary co-chairs.
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