Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this story in correctly identified psychologist Mary Cogar as a psychiatrist. This version has been corrected.

The Healing: After being jailed and beaten in his home country, he fled to the United States -- and sought refuge at a Maryland agency that helps torture victims rebuild their lives

By Phil Zabriskie
Sunday, February 21, 2010

This feels strange, Paul thought as he limped down the aisle in spring 2006. Looking at the other passengers, he imagined their reasons for being on this plane. A holiday, perhaps? A business trip? As they settled into their seats, Paul was practically quivering in his. He had made it to the airport without incident. The flight that would take him out of Cameroon was moments from liftoff. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being pursued, that at any minute someone might grab him, take him back to prison and resume the beatings. Only after the plane took off did those worries diminish. He wasn't free -- after being arrested and tortured, he'd carry certain memories and injuries wherever he went -- but he had gotten out.

In the air, he took deep breaths, prayed silently and tried to remember to stretch his aching leg. A whole new set of questions began cycling through his thoughts, he says now. What would become of him? Of his wife and children? What lay ahead in this new land, where he didn't know whom to trust, how to speak the language, how he'd earn money, or even if he'd be welcome?

There was a stopover in Belgium, and upon arrival at Dulles International Airport, Paul proceeded to customs, showed the tourist visa he'd gotten from the American Embassy in Cameroon and entered the United States.

A Cameroonian friend picked him up at the airport and gave him a place to stay. The drive, like the rest of the day, Paul says, was a blur, a fretful, dreamlike experience. The friend led Paul to a room and urged him to sleep. As soon as Paul was alone, however, he began weeping uncontrollably. He had no idea how, at the age of 52, he would start over in a foreign land. It didn't occur to Paul that there were others like him in America -- that there are an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people in this country who had survived torture in their homelands -- or that there were places he could go to get help.

Paul agreed to tell his story to The Washington Post Magazine, often relying on an interpreter, on the condition that his last name be withheld to protect his family from possible retribution; his account is consistent with reports by the State Department, the United Nations and Amnesty International regarding Cameroon's human rights record. The Post also reviewed affidavits from Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, which worked extensively with Paul once he arrived in the United States, and medical records to corroborate his story.

In a meeting with The Post, the U.S. ambassador of Cameroon, Joseph Bienvenu Charles Foe Atangana, stressed that Cameroon has made progress in its human rights records. "Cameroon is committed to come to the standards of human rights," he said. "That is fundamental. ... Cameroon is not a paradise. There is no paradise in the world. ... We are making our efforts." After receiving a broad outline of Paul's story, the ambassador questioned why Paul hadn't gone to the press or to government officials in Cameroon. Paul has said he believed that reporting what had happened would bring about more beatings, or that he would be killed.

***

More than two years after his arrival here, in August 2008, Paul boarded the train for Baltimore. He'd filed his asylum application and was awaiting his hearing. He'd moved from Northern Virginia to Takoma Park, renting a single room. He'd gotten his official work authorization and completed training to be an in-home medical aide. There were some trappings of a normal life, but at the same time, he says, because he didn't know whom he could trust, he had few friends and often felt isolated. His leg and hip ached. He was having trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, and he was frequently beset by headaches and anxiety. "I wanted someone to talk to," Paul recalls. "I had a lot of things in my head, and I needed someone to listen."

The lawyer helping him with his asylum case, Edward Neufville of Silver Spring, suggested an organization called Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Neufville, himself Liberian by birth, had sent people to ASTT before. He thought ASTT workers could counsel Paul, and explain what was happening to him and why. Additionally, they could provide a clinical diagnosis that Neufville could use for Paul's asylum hearing. "You have to be truthful with them," Neufville told Paul. "You have to be honest and tell them what happened."

Paul had been expecting something akin to a medical clinic, but when he arrived at the organization's office in north Baltimore, he saw a two-story, red-brick rowhouse. And he heard music coming from inside. He stepped through the doorway and saw that there was a reception underway. Other West Africans, people familiar to him in a way African Americans were not, were speaking French, as he did. There were Ethiopians, too, Eritreans, and people he'd later learn were from Southeast Asia and Central America. The room was bright and airy. The walls were festooned with multicolored dresses and fabrics from the nations that had spawned ASTT's clients. It felt like someone's home.

Paul was welcomed and served food and drink. He talked freely. People talked to him. For the first time in a long while, he relaxed a little. His case wasn't discussed, but he was nonetheless heartened by the realization that there were others like him, that he was not alone.

Weeks later, he returned to meet with Eylem Mudd, one of ASTT's three case managers. She guided him through the intake process, collecting information about his housing, his health and his medical history, and outlined the program's philosophy and services. ASTT advocates for people such as Paul, people who have endured trauma and torture and continue to feel the effects of it. Case managers, Mudd explained, look to provide logistical assistance if needed -- referrals to a food bank, for instance, or English classes. Soon, she explained, he'd talk to one of the program's psychotherapists about the troubles plaguing him.


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