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Freedom from Torture: Helping survivors rebuild their lives (United Kingdom)

Kolbassia Haoussou (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Freedom from Torture) Kolbassia Haoussou (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Freedom from Torture)

Torture causes long-lasting mental and physical pain, and it can take years for someone to recover. To help survivors rebuild their lives, Freedom from Torture offers a holistic approach – from legal support to horticulture therapy.

Jabuli* endured months of beatings in a torture chamber in a central African country. Once he gained his freedom, he rarely ventured out of his house for fear his captors would return to kidnap him. If he did, he would seek out crowded spaces. "We lost hope. We gave everything, every decision, to others, to decide for you,” said Jabuli in an interview with The Guardian. “Everything you want, you let the other person decide.”

Empowering survivors

Jabuli finally fled his country and found a home in Freedom from Torture, a human rights NGO dedicated to the rehabilitation and therapeutic care of survivors of torture. Based in the UK, Freedom from Torture has helped thousands of desperate men, women and children deal with trauma and loss, and to rebuild their lives.

Created in 1985 under the name the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the NGO expanded to provide assistance for depression, anxiety and pain management, as well as legal support and life counseling.

With support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, Freedom from Torture developed the Natural Growth Project, a therapeutic program that combines horticulture and psychotherapy to elicit healing conversations. The NGO also employs art and music therapy.

One of the most challenging aspects of Freedom from Torture’s work, however, is not necessarily relieving the trauma of survivors, but helping them live in a sometimes hostile environment in a new country. Under the Survivors Speak Out program, survivors speak to youth audiences at colleges and universities, governments, parliamentary bodies and other independent fora.

“We are a network of survivors working with and on behalf of other survivors,” said Kolbassia Haoussou, a survivor and activist. “Policy positions are developed based on our lived experience and insights of what meaningful change looks like.”

The NGO offers a weekly allowance while refugees wait for their asylum claims to be resolved.

“I feel strongly that there is more to be done to reach out, connect and empower survivors to be part of the solution,” Haoussou said. “But our communities, our societies, our leaders must help us by shifting the shame from the survivor to the perpetrator — it is their shame, not ours.”

Freedom from Torture received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 1985.

Building a Healing Home for Torture Victims

Program for Torture Victims (United States)

Dr. Quiroga (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by PTV) Dr. Quiroga (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by PTV)

When Caleb*, a medic in Uganda, refused a government order to deny political dissidents medical care, the government held him in detention and beat, tortured and electrocuted him for days.

Once freed, Caleb knew he had to leave his homeland. He fled and his family went into hiding, out of fear of government retaliation.

After arriving in Los Angeles, Caleb turned to PTV to help him obtain healthcare, legal assistance, and eventually asylum. His experience has made him an active PTV community member who assists new arrivals as they begin their recovery process. He also attained U.S. medic credentials and now works at a leading medical facility.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting immigration court slowdown have impeded getting Caleb’s family out of Uganda. Caleb anxiously awaits his family’s safe, legal passage to the United States.

Contributing to Society

Carol Gomez, the clinical director of Program for Torture Victims (PTV), says that many torture survivors who arrive in the United States encounter long waits in asylum courts during which they struggle with daily survival issues and acclimation challenges.

“Imagine, coupled with tackling the physical, emotional, and mental wounds of being tortured. This is compounded trauma that can be devastating to just about anyone.”

At PTV, they find a healing home that provides services and hope. Through its work, the organization has helped thousands of victims of torture rebuild their lives and contribute to society.

The first program in the country dedicated to treating torture survivors, PTV was founded by two professionals who witnessed the ravages of torture during the dictatorships that swept South America in the 1970s: Dr. José Quiroga, a torture survivor, sought refuge in the US from his native Chile following the start of the military dictatorship; and Ana Deutsch, a psychologist who fled Argentina’s so-called ‘Dirty War’. Together, they have made a decisive contribution to developing tailored psychological support and treatment methods for torture survivors used worldwide.

“There are many unknowns in the area of torture. It's a problem that we still don’t fully understand. Often, victims of torture are immersed in the population and are functioning in some way, so the chronic effect of the torture is not evident to the rest of the population,” says Dr. Quiroga.

“Though unseen, the needs of torture victims are many. They have symptoms that are persistent throughout life, and need specialized and holistic care.”

PTV staff have supported clients with their immigration proceedings and served as expert witnesses for war crimes and human rights trials in international courts. The psycho-social care the organization provides includes in-house psychotherapy and partnerships with local organizations that provide massage therapy, acupuncture, and art therapy. With support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, the nonprofit organization also helps survivors with basic needs such as emergency cash assistance, food and clothing, as well as assisting them in their search for housing and employment.

The Program for Torture Victims (PTV) received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 1990.

Fostering Rehabilitation Through Treatment and Documentation

Human Rights Foundation of Türkiye (Türkiye)

Şebnem Korur Fincancı (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by HRFT) Şebnem Korur Fincancı (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by HRFT)

Şebnem Korur Fincancı has been at the forefront of a human rights campaign to end torture and other abuses in her native Turkey for years. A forensic doctor by training, Fincancı has helped author the influential United Nations guidelines for investigating and documenting torture known as the “Istanbul Protocol”, whose title alludes to the organizations’ hosting the drafting process. She has also provided direct assistance to more than 18,000 Turkish torture survivors and their relatives through the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation of Türkiye (HRFT). “Arrests and detentions have become standard procedure rather than last resorts,” says Fincancı, who has been in prison herself under Turkey´s anti-terror legislation. “The majority of public protests result in detention, followed by torture and ill-treatment.”

With support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, HRFT focuses its work on the treatment and rehabilitation of victims of torture and other ill treatment. The group is also battling to eradicate the practice.


HRFT adopts a holistic treatment approach, which includes the physical, psychological and social well-being of a person. The organization has treatment centers in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara and Diyarbakir, in addition to a wide advocacy network.

The group is planning to expand its reach with a rehabilitation center in Adana and with outreach work to obtain procedural guarantees, such as access to a lawyer and proper documentation to help survivors obtain visas and asylum.

In 2021, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture found that despite Türkiye’s commitment to “zero tolerance on torture,” abuses continue. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders urged Türkiye last year to stop using anti-terrorism laws to silence Turkish human rights defenders and disrupt their legitimate work defending human rights.

“Treatment alone will never achieve complete rehabilitation of torture survivors,” Fincancı says. “Treatment needs to be accompanied by other restorative mechanisms — access to justice, prosecution of the perpetrators, compensation and apology.”

Human Rights Foundation of Türkiye (HRFT) received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 1987.


A Torture Victim’s Dream Come True

Circle Green Community Legal (Australia)

Samuel* and his family (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Circle Green) Samuel* and his family (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Circle Green)

Circle Green Community Legal, an NGO based in Western Australia, chose this name and the corresponding logo to evoke the wraparound and targeted support it offers to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers — vulnerable groups whose access to legal services is otherwise limited.

“In terms of visibility for people that may have difficulty reading, writing or speaking English just seeing the circle and the colour green, they know they are in the right place,” Circle Green’s Chief Executive, Sara Kane, explained in an interview with Shelter WA.

In 2020, three NGOs merged to form Circle Green. One of these was The Humanitarian Group which had a long standing commitment to supporting victims of torture through legal processes. The circle also highlights that they are part of a larger community that wants to help.

One person who experienced the compassion inherent in Circle Green’s branding is Samuel*. An online activist from Southern Cameroon, he was tortured for opposing the policies of the government. Fortunately, he was able to flee and was assisted by The Humanitarian Group and granted refugee status in Australia in 2017.

Samuel could then sponsor his family to join him. With the Australian government issuing only 13,750 family reunification visas each year under the humanitarian program, according to UNHCR, he had a mere one-in-ten chance of success.

Despite being a refugee and his family being registered as refugees in Nigeria, he was helped to apply for his family under Australia’s “family stream” which has a high application fee and long waiting times. For five years, Samuel didn’t see his wife and children. “Every day I felt as though I would never see my family,” says Samuel.

Samuel credits Circle Green with making his “dream come true.” On 9 February 2022, he picked up his family from the airport. “Only God almighty can reward [Circle Green] and all her staff for the incredible support they gave me and my family and made it possible for us to be together again,” he says.

A Holistic Approach

Katy Welch, the Principal Lawyer at Circle Green, highlights the importance of family reunification to refugees’ recovery from the trauma that forced them to flee their homes. Visas are only part of this process. She echoes the sentiment behind the green circle: “providing legal assistance to the victims of torture is complex and requires a holistic approach, which is not always readily available in the legal sphere.”

The legal assistance that Circle Green offers includes everything from advice to representation. They also conduct community education, law reform and advocacy on behalf of their vulnerable clients. In the past year, Circle Green was able to help 451 other victims of torture like Samuel, which Katy Welch says was possible due to the financial support of the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.

Circle Green Community Legal received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2021.

The Humanitarian Group received its first grant the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2011.

Caring for vulnerable migrants who arrive by sea

Medici per i Diritti Umani (Italy)

Alberto Barbieri (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by MEDU) 
Alberto Barbieri (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by MEDU)

M.* arrived to the island of Sicily on a crowded boat along with other migrants after a grueling journey through Africa and the Mediterranean. “I wouldn't recommend this trip even to my enemies,” says M., who endured extortionists, human traffickers and high sea waves during her ordeal.

Once safely at port, M. was assisted by a representative from Medici per i Diritti Umani (MEDU), a nonprofit organization that provides medical and humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees, many of whom have suffered torture or cruel and inhuman treatment before arriving on the coasts of southern Italy.

Through its Sea Arrivals project, MEDU provides psychological first aid and makes sure they are well-treated at the reception centers. This work is key for migrants´rehabilitation.

“Migrants arriving in Italy are fleeing serious violence,” says Alberto Barbieri, co-founder and general coordinator of MEDU. “Since there are no humanitarian corridors, the only way for migrants to reach Europe is to put themselves in the hands of human smugglers and traffickers.”

Right to health of migrants

Barbieri says 90% of the migrants helped by MEDU in the last four years had been victims of torture or ill-treatment. MEDU focuses on the right to health of migrants, including medical and psychological support.

With support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, MEDU started a program, which guarantees medical and psychological assistance to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have been victim of tortures or ill-treatment.MEDU works with public authorities and local organizations on the early identification of the most vulnerable migrants

MEDU also collects testimonies in order to carry out information and advocacy campaigns on the torture endured by migrants. The organization’s mobile units in Florence and Rome bring healthcare to informal settlements, railway stations and other places where refugees gather. The Psychè Center for Transcultural Mental Health, in Rome provides medical and psychological assistance,twhile the  Persephone clinic in Florence provides gynecological, psychiatric and pediatric services, as well as social and health care.

MEDU received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2017.

Using Universal Jurisdictions to End Torture

European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (Germany)

Wassim Mukdad (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Duco Tellegen)
Wassim Mukdad (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Duco Tellegen)

Wassim Mukdad knew the protocol.

Every five or so days, he would be taken from the tiny cell he shared with more than 80 other Syrian men and blindfolded. After being marched into a room, Mukdad would lie on a table and prepare for the strikes. But Mukdad always tucked his hands underneath his chest. He wouldn’t allow anyone to take away the sense of self his hands represent.

“I am a musician, but I didn't tell them. I told them that I am a doctor, which is also true,” Mukdad recalled. “I used to put my hands under my chest, to keep them from being hit. And by this, they didn't know they [could be] hurting the most valuable part of my body.” Now based in Berlin, Mukdad plays the Oud — the Arab lute.

Leveraging universal jurisdiction to obtain justice

In 2020, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria concluded that the cases of enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, and deaths in custody by Syrian government forces amounted to crimes against humanity.

Mukdad is part of a group of Syrian refugees in Germany that secured a life sentence against Anwar Raslan, the highest-ranking Syrian military officer to be convicted of crimes against humanity to date in the German court, in January 2022.

Over the previous two years and 108 trial days, three higher court judges found the Mukhabarat colonel — a top-serving official in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military intelligence service — guilty of overseeing the murder of at least 27 people, as well as the torture of at least 4,000 prisoners, at the al-Khatib jail near Damascus. The sentence was achieved using a little-used, legal principle called universal jurisdiction

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a human rights organization based in Berlin, assisted 29 Syrian torture survivors in the proceedings, with support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture.

Speaking of the importance of facing his abusers in court and speaking out against the crimes committed in Syria, Mukdad said: “Mine was an act of defiance, resistance. I did it for myself but also for the world, so it would know of the atrocities committed by the regime.”

For him, the conviction not only showed that justice could be served, but that this could be done while still giving all sides a modicum of respect. This, he said, made him feel proud of and thankful for the trial’s outcome.

“One of the most valuable aspects of this trial against Anwar Raslan, for me, was that his dignity was preserved. This is very essential,” Mukdad said. “Yeah, he took my dignity away, but I want to treat him still with dignity; I'm not going let him take my humanity away.”

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2018.

Healing through Craft

Kuchinate (Israel)

Diddy Mymin Kahn (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Kuchinate)
Diddy Mymin Kahn (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Kuchinate)

Over an industrial warehouse in Tel Aviv, Isreal the smell of coffee wafts from a window while delivery trucks rumble across the street. In a colorful building marked Kuchinate (which means “crochet” in Tigrinya) the day’s business unfolds during a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony — a demonstration conducted by female African asylum seekers for a group of Israeli students.

The women are members of a frequently cast-aside group of asylum seekers, survivors of human trafficking, torture, and sexual abuse, while the students are citizens of a highly protective country. Yet both have taken the journey to transcend stereotypes and learn a bit more about each other.

"They're not doing the traditional work of asylum seekers, cleaning or things like that," said Diddy Mymin Kahn, the founder of Kuchinate, in a recent Times of Israel article. "This increases empathy and decreases the gap between asylum seekers and the rest of society. For the first time, Israelis… are able to relate to them as people on an equal level.”

There are currently about 30,000 asylum seekers in Israel. According to UNHCR, many of them, particularly those from Eritrea and Sudan, have few rights beyond a general policy of non-deportation, despite their long stay in Israel.

Creating Change a Stitch at a Time

The studio, filled with beautiful handcrafted goods, began in 2011 as a project for African women who were unable to work as a result of the trauma they had suffered, including torture. The program was founded by Diddy Mymin Kahn, a psychologist and artist, and Sister Azezet Kidane, an Eritrean nun living in Jerusalem. Mymin Kahn and Sister Aziza, as she is known among the women, sought a mechanism through which  asylum seekers could collectively heal and earn a bit of income from the sale of their items.  They found it in a uniquely designed model of art resilience.

The act of sitting together in a supportive, communal environment whilst making creations rooted in African culture helps Kuchinate’s participants cope with their difficult realities, according to Ashok Akowak, one of the organization’s managers.“This place gives me strength and patience. Here, I am not alone. I am with my sisters,” she said.

With grants from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, Kuchinate currently supports more than 300 registered African refugee women, Kuchinate’s integrated model of healing also includes private and group therapy, childcare, traditional African meals, in addition to practical lessons in converting art into income.

“When I started working with East African asylum seekers who had suffered through horrific experiences in the Sinai, I understood that a traditional Western approach to treating trauma would not suffice,” Mymin Kahn said on the website. “I am so proud of our 300 women who face immense challenges each day… Through growth, strength and resilience, Kuchinate women evolve themselves, as well as empower others to grow.”

Kuchinate received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2020.

Responding to Tortured Refugees’ Urgent Needs

METAdrasi-Action for Migration and Development (Greece)

Lora Pappa (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Fill in the Gap / Vasilis Kouroupis)
Lora Pappa (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Fill in the Gap / Vasilis Kouroupis)

A good interpreter can mean the difference between war and peace, compassion and hostility, chaos and solution. For a refugee, a good interpreter on the ground can mean the difference between life and death.

But often, Lora Pappa, with over 25 years of experience in the reception and integration of refugees in Greece, could see the gap in the provision of interpretation. Interpreters were hard to find. Or, in some cases, they had questionable motives — a situation that puts refugees at risk of harm.

Together with the interpretation service-gap, Pappa saw other critical needs: getting children out of detention, identifying and protecting victims of torture, providing education and integration support. This led Pappa to found METAdrasi in 2009 to help find innovative ways to successfully integrate refugees landing on nearby islands into European society.

“We often had to take a plunge into deep waters, making the impossible possible” Pappa said. “Refugees are not just faceless and nameless numbers, they want to be treated as human beings that deserve a handshake, a smile, a touch on the shoulder so they can stand on their feet again and move on. We need to understand that the best way to feel safe and secure is to build security and protection for all.”

Escaping Torture with Limited Options

Greece serves as one of the main gateways to the European Union (EU). On its shores, refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria, many of whom are children or young adults, arrive daily. At least sixty percent of them have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war, or violence, often in the form of torture.

When a refugee walks through METAdrasi, which translates roughly into “Take Action,” one of the first services they receive is interpretation. Without this basic link, Pappa said, newcomers cannot communicate with Greek authorities, doctors, lawyers, case workers and anyone else who might help them through an asylum claim.

With support   from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, METAdrasi has been operating the Hope and Memory program, which identifies and certifies victims of torture and helps them receive international protection. “At METAdrasi, for the first time, after so many years in Greece, I felt like a human being again," said S., a beneficiary of the Identification and Certification of Victims of Torture project.

METAdrasi’s motto “No children in detention” has led Pappa and her colleagues to innovate and push harder to secure a better, stable place for migrants where they are already as close to full integration as possible.

“Forty percent of the METAdrasi team are refugees and migrants trying to give the best of themselves to help others,” Pappa said. “We became the national organization that from the start tried to bring innovative solutions to respond quickly to urgent needs of refugees, especially children. But we urgently need to create a global mechanism of response. It is absurd to think we can sweep away our little part of the problem under the carpet.”

METAdrasi received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2021.

Exonerating people who have been wrongly convicted

Witness to Innocence (United States of America)

Kirk Bloodsworth (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Witness to Innocence)
Kirk Bloodsworth (illustration by Vérane Cottin, photograph by Witness to Innocence)

Kirk Bloodsworth lived to tell the tale of his time on death row in the United States, but one memory still haunts him. When the judge read his sentence aloud, the courtroom erupted into applause.

That day, Bloodsworth was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a 9-year-old. It took nine years in prison, two of which he spent on death row, before Bloodsworth was able to use DNA evidence to prove his innocence.

“Even to this day, [I] can't liken it to anything other than… you know you're on a clock, and you don't know what time it is yet… until they walk you into that gas chamber,” he said. “We shouldn't have an ultimate sentence like the death penalty if one innocent man could go to the gas chamber.

Bloodsworth, the first person in the United States to be exonerated from death row based on DNA evidence, is now the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence. The nonprofit is the first social service and financial assistance program devoted exclusively to exonerated death row survivors in the United States. Witness to Innocence works with Congress, state legislatures, and local leaders to pass laws and policies that prevent wrongful convictions. They also provide basic services to those who leave death row after years and require a helping hand to get back on their feet.

Victims Become Activists

The high number of wrongful convictions are not the result of accidents, but violations of human rights, including official misconduct by police and prosecutors, perjury, and racial bias, says Bloodsworth.

Several UN human rights experts believe that the conditions under which capital punishment is applied render it tantamount to torture. In 2021, UN experts called on US President Biden to end the death penalty citing among other things that “the death penalty continues to be imposed following violations of due process guarantees, such as lack of access to an effective legal defense, and in ignorance of essential facts.”  

When people are freed after years of wrongful incarceration, they’re faced with the task of rebuilding their lives and navigating the transition back into a changed world. Social workers of Witness to Innocence offer emotional assistance and help exonerees with obtaining financial and health insurance benefits, accessing legal assistance, and maintaining housing stability.

With support from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, the group established the DREAMS (Death Row Exonerated Assistance, Mentoring, and Support) Project, a social and financial assistance program devoted to supporting the needs of exonerated death row survivors for whom no local, state, or federal government agency is assigned responsibility. The NGO has also launched a Justice After Exoneration committee to win compensation for all exonerees.

“I wish I could say that it is rare for innocent people to be convicted and sentenced to death,” said Witness to Innocence exoneree Sabrina Butler-Smith, who spent over six years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. “But it’s not.”

Witness to Innocence received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in 2014.