Fear Turns to Friendship For Survivors of Torture
To the average Canadian, the words “torture” and “police” don’t really fit together.
But to many who have come to Canada as refugees, just seeing an officer in uniform can trigger horrendous memories of abuse in their homeland by agents of the state – including police.
So it was a tense time in November of 2005 when staff of the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture (VAST) learned that the new tenant moving into offices below them was the Hastings Sunrise Community Policing Centre.
For Frances McQueen, then executive director of VAST, the answer was clear. One of the two would have to move.
VAST clients would refuse to come in if they saw the centre’s portable sign out front, she told the HSCPC’s Clair MacGougan, or if they saw uniformed police using the walkway shared by the two offices.
She began a search for new premises in case she could not get the CPC evicted.
Meanwhile, Clair kept the sidewalk sign indoors during VAST’s hours of operation, and asked police and volunteers to not hang around in front of the office.
“It was really hurting us,” he said. “We were in a new offi ce that was hard to find.”
About six months later, the VAST director came downstairs to consult the CPC on a personal matter and received help. So did another staff member.
“Then a couple of their clients came in to volunteer,” said Clair. “VAST hadn’t been able to find other space, and finally they just started accepting the situation.”
Since then, the standoff has become a love-in.
“Now, I’m a member of their society,” said Clair. “We share stuff all the time. I go to many of their open houses, we share office space at times, we’ve worked together with many of their clients having crime or safety issues.”
Some VAST clients are volunteering to help with community clean-ups and outreach activities such as street hockey at the annual Sunrise Summer Kickoff. Others come in to seek assistance from CPC office volunteers.
“We’ve become quite good friends with some of their clients and staff,” said Clair. “I have to smile when I think of how much they didn’t want anything to do with us in the beginning.”
Since September 2008, Christine Thomas has been the executive director of VAST.
She said the proximity of the HSCPC office allows clients to access police services without having to approach police directly, ever since friendly relations were established between the two organizations.
“Prior to that there was just a complete and utter distrust of the people downstairs as well as uniformed police,” she said.
In some ways, her non-profit organization shares key values with those of the CPC. Both rely heavily on volunteers: they enable VAST to offer free English lessons, yoga and mindfulness meditation. There’s a food bank, and organic produce is donated and distributed weekly.
And both organizations seek to empower people, not just to help them.
“We try to assist people so they can make their own decisions about what is important to them, to meet the goals they want to meet,” said Christine.
The caseload has doubled since moving into its East Hastings Street location, to about 625 clients in any given year. The biggest source is Mexico where, said Christine, “it’s
not the government perpetrating torture, it’s drug cartels – but the government is incapable of protecting them.”
Rounding out the top 10 source countries are Colombia, Iran, Honduras, Iraq, Nigeria, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, El Salvador and Cuba.
VAST offers free clinical counseling and settlement services, as well as a drop-in centre, advocacy and referrals.
“People who survive or witness atrocities often suffer long term physical and psychological effects which can impede their ability to work, learn and resettle in a new country,” according to the VAST website.
“VAST is the only organization with the expertise to provide specialized trauma counseling and therapies for refugees and other newcomers in Western Canada.”
It isn’t just police uniforms that spook survivors of torture. “It’s actually uniforms of any sort – any uniform worn by agents of the state,” said Christine.
“That even extends to paramedics. When we have a medical emergency in the office, we have to make sure the client is near the entrance so paramedics don’t have to go through the office.”
She praised the HSCPC for its work in building community in the area – and appealed to the Hastings Sunrise community to welcome refugees into their midst, helping them find employment, for example, or coping with new and unfamiliar foods.
“We are always happy to have volunteers,” she said.
While it can be traumatizing on staff to hear some of the clients’ stories, the rewards of helping them can be equally great.
“My favourite part is when I hear people laughing and cooking in the kitchen just outside my door,” she said.
“There’s a lot of hope here. It can be quite powerful to see how far people are able to go with their lives.”
By Chester Grant