Understanding the benefits that immigrant survivors of torture experience through community life may advance efforts for healing and rehabilitation. This may be especially true of a community created by immigrant survivors of torture themselves. Yet there are challenges to creating community life. Survivors of torture come from all countries and cultures; the experience of their torture inhibits the trust-building necessary to build community life; and the sharing of stories can be traumatic for some.
A framework developed by McMillan and Chavis provides a structure to examine the psychological sense of community that can be experienced by immigrant survivors of torture. The framework offered four elements to explore community life: membership boundaries, the exchange of mutual influence, how needs are fulfilled and emotional connections shared. The framework also helped identify the opportunities and challenges to creating community life, particularly when comparing the experiences of women and men. This presentation relies on a qualitative phenomenological study that included seven women and eight male survivors of torture. Participants interviewed were from Albania, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Congo, Eritrea, Gabon, Guatemala, Philippines, Rwanda and Uganda. This study was done with the assistance of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, a program of the Heartland Alliance, and the torture survivor-led organization Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, International. The community partners helped publicize the study to potential participants, and provided meetings space for interviews. Interviews lasted from 45 minutes to three and a half hours. The researcher conducted all interviews. Staff, volunteers, clients and members assisted in analyzing data. This required ongoing consultations that facilitated social-constructivist methods of finding meaning of the data.
Participants in this study used the understanding of torture and the unequivocal condemnation of it as a boundary within which they could develop connections with others. Among those who share this value, members influenced each other's new narratives about what it means to have been tortured, and about what it means to become survivors. This influence toward survivorship filled an important psychological need. The new narrative and the fulfilled needs also became the basis for the emotional bonds that strengthened the connections of individuals to the community. Participants also identified challenges that includes exposure to retraumatization accompanied by group norms to disclose; stigma associated with their torture; apprehension about others from their countries; and whether they identify as victim or survivor.
Funding & No Conflicts Declaration
This study received support from a research grant from the Society for Community Research and Action, Division 27 of the American Psychological Association.