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Torture victims land at Elmhurst

Key figures from the Libertas Center for Human Rights, along with Elmhurst Hospital Center brass, accept an award from City Councilman Daniel Dromm (center l.) and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (center r.). Photo by Joe Anuta
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A surprising number of the immigrants in Queens have been tortured by oppressive regimes or police forces abroad, but a organization at Elmhurst Hospital Center that was honored by lawmakers Friday helps those victims put their lives back together.

Around 6 percent of patients who pass through the Elmhurst hospital’s emergency room have been tortured, according to Braden Hexom, a physician in the ER.

“Many of the people who come to Queens are fleeing turmoil in their own countries,” he said at Friday’s ceremony honoring the Libertas Center for Human Rights.

If those people are on the wrong side of the turmoil — whether it is due to their race, religion, political views or sexuality — it can have lifelong consequences.

Immigrants who visit the center have been beaten under doctor supervision, imprisoned in isolation, raped by police or forced to watch someone else rape a spouse, said Hexom, who started the center with a few other doctors.

Some of the work the center does is physical, like providing physical therapy for torture victims who may have broken bones in the past or have excessive scar tissue, according to Dinali Fernando, a doctor who also works in the ER and volunteers her time to the center that she helped start.

But most patients need psychiatrists and therapists to help them cope with the mental anguish brought on by the torture.

“I’m not sure you ever can get over it,” she said. “But it’s more about functioning like you were before the incident.”

About 35 percent of patients come from West Africa, about 25 percent from Central and South America, about 25 percent from South Asia and the Middle East and the remainder from all over the world, according to Leah Weinzimer, the program director of the center.

Many of the roughly 100 people who have passed through the center since April 2010 are seeking asylum in America so they do not have to return to their home countries.

Getting patients to open up about their experiences can allow the doctors at the center to write an affidavit to the government, which in turn helps the patients’ chances.

Without an affidavit, people stand a 25 percent chance of receiving asylum. With an affidavit, that chance more than triples, according to Weinzimer, who said 40 percent of patients have received an affidavit from the center.

Two former patients spoke at the ceremony, where City Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) presented the center with a proclamation.

Christian Ngalle sought asylum in America after he was tortured in his home country of Cameroon. Ngalle was a journalist, and after criticizing the government he and his whole family were rounded up and tortured. He still bears physical scars from the ordeal, but has now started his own French-language news magazine from his New Jersey home.

Alvin Gavin was a gay man living in Jamaica and was tortured due to his sexual orientation, but he said after receiving asylum with help from the center, he can finally express himself in America.

“No more hiding under a rock,” he said. “I’m out like a crab.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Posted 2:08 pm, October 6, 2011
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