I don’t recall ever seeing someone so tired. The red-eyed man could barely raise his head to meet my gaze as he handed me the explanatory papers. His wife slept uneasily with her head on their tattered suitcase, as their children scurried about our hallway; poking into things, exploring and being suitably naughty as kids can be when their parents are too overwhelmed to manage them.
With no English, limited French, and only being proficient in his native tongue; the father struggled to make us understand his complex tale. His family was forced to flee their homeland and undertake a harrowing journey across countries in Central Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Central America, only to be detained in Texas at the US/Mexico border. Suddenly, and without explanation, they were paroled from detention and given their new official address: 462 First Avenue, New York, NY. With no further guidance and nowhere else to go, the family eventually arrived in PSOT’s hallway, exhausted, confused, and harboring one single question: Can you help us?
After more than 20 years at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, I will readily admit that this family’s plight struck me in a profound way. Not only was it unique in its complexity and severity, but their arrival also occurred just days after I was officially named PSOT’s Program Director. My heart tightened as I asked myself the question: Can we help them?
Our recent programmatic challenges have been myriad. Decreasing resources and increasing need. Movement between administrative homes within the Bellevue/NYU systems. Transitions in staffing and leadership. Although PSOT still faces logistical obstacles, our humanistic and healing imperative remains paramount. We needed to help this family.
PSOT’s staff sprang into action. We were able to navigate the shelter system and make sure that the family would have somewhere secure to lay their heads that night. We gave them appropriate clothes for the wintry weather. We gave some cash to buy food. We facilitated medical screenings. We provided legal support for their very complex asylum situation. After attending to their immediate needs, we conducted in-depth interviews so that a deeper understanding of their experiences, functioning and needs could be ascertained and attended to. I am astounded (but not surprised) by what my colleagues accomplished in such short time period.
The image that sticks with me, though, is the plaintive look on the father’s face when he asked “Can you help us?” I am proud of what PSOT has been able to do with this family, and what we’ve accomplished these past 23 years. My great concern, however, is the next knock on the door; the next displaced family; the next tearful widow; the next wounded spirit. How will we answer them?
Among the things I’ve learned these past years is that it is better to promise less and do more. We cannot always promise the results, but we can certainly promise the effort. I also feel confident in promising our clients is that they are not alone. They are not alone because of the beautiful community to which we belong. They are not alone because we are not alone – and all of that is because of you.
We respect and appreciate you. We also ask for your continued support at this historically fraught time for asylum seekers and people seeking refuge from human rights abuses. I want to channel your presence the next time a survivor asks, “Can you help us?” I want to conjure the strength of our community, and respond simply, “That is what we are here to do.”