At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq a decade ago, Wasfi Rabaa was a high-ranking police official in Baghdad, enjoying a comfortable life with his family on the outskirts of that city.
The Rabaas are Mandeans, a religious minority and followers of John the Baptist whose members have been the targets of widespread sectarian violence during the war and have sought refuge in countries around the world.
Three years ago, they were admitted to the U.S. as refugees and resettled in the Seattle area, where they receive counseling to help cope with the torture they endured during the months and years after the invasion.
Through a joint effort, Harborview Medical Center, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and the International Counseling & Community Services, a program of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, are seeing to the physical, psychological and immigration needs of torture victims like them throughout the Puget Sound region.
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As a way of coming to terms, Rabaa has repeatedly told his story.
In the living room of the modest home the family rents in Covington, his wife, Azhar Khissaf at his side, the 54-year-old father of four describes through an interpreter what happened to him after being kidnapped by religious extremists in 2004.
For 16 days, he said, he was held captive — hanged, subjected to electric shock and for periods at a time kept in a 3-foot by 3-foot box.
“There was a point where I felt it would have been better if they killed me,” he said.
A serious man with a rare smile, Rabaa explains that an important part of the help he receives as part of the Northwest Health and Human Rights Project isn’t tangible. “It’s brought me stability and peace of mind and the ability to sort through things in my life,” he said through an interpreter.
“I see my kids have a future here. I see meaning to life that wasn’t there before.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement established the torture survivor program to bring emotional care to refugees, asylees and other immigrants arriving in the U.S. with psychological and physical scars. Each year, it distributes $11 million to agencies across the country working to help make them whole.
The program is new to Seattle, which received its first round of funding a year ago and where some 250 victims from nearly 40 countries are being helped.
“All of a sudden, we were hearing more torture-survival stories coming out of the Middle East — people who had been kidnapped and held in captivity,” said Beth Farmer, program director of International Counseling and Community Services, the grant applicant.
“We knew about the violence, the war … so we started asking our clients.”
And the stories they would tell.
Refugees, immigrants and asylees, men and women, they speak of being starved, raped, hacked, humiliated, beaten, deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shock, simulated drowning, confined to impossibly small spaces, forced to watch their own children die.
For many, the idea of talking to strangers about what happened to them is foreign. In some cultures, Farmer said, “mental health means the same as crazy. There’s no mind map for it.”
While the three agencies over the years had been referring torture patients among them, the project formalized that relationship and got practitioners to go deeper to ask patients questions they weren’t asking before.
Even doctors at Harborview’s International Medicine Clinic, which for decades had been treating some of these patients — including the first wave of refugees from Southeast Asia — didn’t always know about the torture in their past.
At Harborview, “We are used to thinking of gunshot victims, of life on the streets, and not necessarily of this kind of trauma,” said clinic director Carey Jackson.
As primary-care physicians, he said, doctors had been treating patients with chronic pain and other illnesses for years, even decades, without making the connection to the torture they may have endured.
Under the program, “There’s now a whole new level of record-keeping and awareness with how torture interacts with different diseases,” Jackson said.
“A lot of torture could have a medical component, and if you don’t keep that in mind, you could end up retraumatizing people by sending them into a setting where that experience is reawakened in them,” Jackson said.
Through the grant, the organizations are serving more people who lack health insurance or the ability to pay an immigration attorney to work on their asylum cases. They’ve hired and trained staff to work specifically with torture victims and are doing outreach to physicians and counselors at other organizations across the region and the state.
“People have lives outside their legal cases,” said Maggie Cheng, staff attorney with NWIRP.
What’s more, the medical evaluations — as well as the mental evaluations that are sometimes necessary for victims with no scars — are crucial in helping to prove an asylum applicant’s claims of torture in immigration court.
A life spared
Rabaa, the Iraqi, said he had joined the police force in Baghdad in the 1980s and worked his way up in rank to senior officer. By the time of the invasion in 2003, he was answering to U.S. military personnel.
He said he cooperated with the Americans, and those relationships not only ostracized him but also made him a target of religious extremists flooding into Iraq from neighboring countries to fight the occupation.
One day in 2004, he said, he was jumped by a group of men and taken to a place where other professionals, all religious minorities, were also being held.
Each day of his 16 days in captivity, the kidnappers executed one person, seemingly at random.
At one point Rabaa said they blindfolded him and began beating children they told him were his own.
Eventually he learned their demands: Convert to Islam, quit working with the Americans and leave Iraq.
The day it was his turn to be shot, Rabaa said one of his captors, whom he didn’t know but for whom he’d apparently done a favor in the past, advocated for him.
They spared his life and he agreed to leave Iraq.
He went home, packed up his wife and children and fled to Syria, where, as a foreigner, he couldn’t work nor could his children attend school.
After a year there, and thinking it was safe, the family returned to Iraq and moved into the house of a relative, only to be attacked by militias not long after.
He said he could hear his children screaming from a room where the men had taken them. “They tied me up, hit with a rifle and I bleeding from the head,” he said. His wife, pregnant at the time, was assaulted.
They spent the night in a hospital and the next morning drove to Syria, where they spent the next five years — unable to work, the children unable to go to school — until gaining refugee status to reach the U.S.
Here in Washington, Rabaa said they’ve discovered a few other Mandeans, whose ancient religion predates all three Abrahamic faiths and who are facing worldwide extinction.
In recent years, the U.S. has admitted about 1,200 as refugees, but there are ongoing petitions urging the government to allow more, giving their predicament.
“This is my story, but it’s also the experience of millions of Iraqis whose homes have been destroyed and who have had to flee their home country,” Rabaa said.
Asked whether he feels at home in this new country, he reflects on all he left behind and the potential for citizenship within sight.
He said, “I have a year and half before I can wake up in this country as an American.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.