06/26/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Remembering the Reality of Torture

Torture is often described as 'unspeakable,' 'unimaginable,' and 'incomprehensible.' This description makes this despicable act seem unknowable, impenetrable -- so horrifying that we must avert our eyes. As today is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, I believe we owe these survivors compassion, care, understanding and a chance to believe that, just maybe, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Earlier this month, however, that light became a little dimmer as we took a step away from supporting the survivors of torture right here in our own backyards. The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission has announced that it's closing its doors, leaving Illinois with one less way to make reparations for the victims of police torture.

For those who claim to have been tortured under the watch of the Chicago police, this was an invaluable opportunity. Still today, more than a dozen people -- by and large African American men living in poverty -- languish behind bars for crimes due to confessions gained under torture. As Chicagoans, this case hits home more than most, but it's by no means unique.

We often think of torture as something that happened long ago and far away. To our western minds, the idea of someone raping and beating us, or sentencing us to slave labor in a concentration camp for something as simple as speaking our minds or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is so foreign that it's almost incomprehensible. That's exactly why it's such an important topic -- because right now, on this day, torture is still a common method of extracting information or silencing communities and each day this continues, it becomes more ingrained.

I can speak to how common torture is today personally because I see the scars it creates at the Marjorie Kovler Center, a torture treatment program of Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest. There, in a quiet unassuming building on a residential street, social workers, therapists and doctors team up to take on the complicated work of helping torture survivors rebuild their lives.

I say this is complicated work, but that's an understatement. Often, survivors come here as refugees or asylum seekers, fleeing their homelands and desperate for their lives and past their breaking point. Their experiences are varied. Some refuse to change their religion, others have fought back against corruption, still others have taught their communities to read. For that, they have been threatened, beaten, violated and starved within an inch of their lives.

It would be unfair to say any case or method of torture is typical -- each one is different and requires an individualized care plan. What is common, though, is that most survivors come to us with crises on all fronts -- nowhere to live, no way to work, physically ill, emotionally scarred, and living under the constant worry that, without help, they may be forced to return to their homeland -- a fate worse than death.

That's why we do the work we do at Heartland Alliance, and at the Marjorie Kovler Center. Because everyone deserves a chance to survive -- a chance to thrive. Some people need help finding a place to live, some need help to combat illness, others need help finding a job, and yet others need help obtaining legal protection. More often than not, torture survivors come to us with all these needs and more.

That's what makes them exceptional, though. They saw their life crumble under the hands of those who would oppress and silence them, and still, they held tight to the hope that somewhere, somehow, things could be better. Then they kept fighting to make that dream a reality -- to keep believing there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Today, on the International Day for the Survivors of Torture, let's remember the strength of these exceptional individuals both here and abroad. Let's remember that, sadly, they are not alone -- torture is alive and well, even here in our own back yards -- and knowing this fact is the first step to changing it.

For more information on Heartland Alliance's services for the survivors of torture, click here: