Pacific Groundbreaking Research On Torture Survivors
Reaching the Invisible: Pacific Alumna Advocates for Survivors of Torture
By Rhashad Pittman
(Adapted from Pacific Review, vol 94 #2, Fall 2007)
When Kathi Anderson was a sophomore at Pacific in the late 1970s, she took a bus trip through Central America with a couple of college friends. She was not aware that government-sponsored torture was on the verge of being practiced throughout the region on a grand scale. She was just a young college student who wanted to see the world.
Shortly after her trip, paramilitary and military groups committed mass murder and torture on an unconscionable scale in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as in numerous other countries throughout the world. Thousands of people suffered from brutality committed by men in military uniforms. Over the years, many victims who survived that brutality fled to America in search of protection and freedom, bringing with them deep physical and emotional scars. The US government estimates that approximately 500,000 victims of torture reside in the country. Now, more than twenty five years after graduating from Pacific, Anderson travels throughout the nation to advocate for this “invisible population.”
Kathi Anderson ’81 is celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Survivors of Torture, International, a San Diego based nonprofit organization she started in her living room. The organization provides treatment to survivors of politically motivated torture living in the San Diego area. To date, it has helped more than 700 people from over 55 countries by providing medical, dental, psychiatric, psychological, legal and social services. With the help of local community agencies, the organization also provides emergency care in the form of food, shelter, hygiene items and clothing.
Anderson lives with her husband Jesse Rivera and their 12-year-old-son Zachary in the San Diego area where she has seen the obstacles survivors face once they cross the U.S. border — from applying for asylum to adjusting to an unfamiliar environment without money, food, adequate job skills or healthcare. “I feel very blessed and very, very honored to be able do this work,” Anderson said. “We’re privileged to live in this country. With privilege comes responsibility.”
As executive director and cofounder of Survivors of Torture, International, Anderson oversees a staff of ten, three volunteers and more than 100 independent contractors, including therapists, interpreters and psychiatrists. The organization has an annual budget of nearly $1 million funded by grants and donations from the government, foundations, corporations and organizations. Before Survivors of Torture, International, no other torture treatment organization existed in the San Diego area, which encompasses one of the busiest border crossings in the world. The organization estimates that 11,000 survivors reside in San Diego County alone. Although more than 30 torture treatment centers exist in the US, survivors remain under the radar of many, Anderson said. “This is an invisible population which is underserved by professional communities,” she said, “and is often times misunderstood or not even recognized by the public at large.”
Path to Advocacy
Born in Oakland and raised in San Leandro, Calif., Anderson said she never set out to be an advocate for torture survivors. Various international experiences, starting at Pacific, set her on a course that led in that direction. While at Pacific, she met students from across the world and learned about their cultures from conversations and cultural events. She met students from the Middle East and remembers listening to them talk about their homelands and how some of them were still affected by wars that took place when they were children. “It just gives you a different perspective,” Anderson said. “You can never really walk in other people’s shoes but you can kind of walk side by side.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations, Anderson earned a master’s degree in counseling from San Jose State University in 1985. While in San Jose, she worked as a refugee resettlement caseworker for the International Rescue Committee. She then moved to Idaho where she worked as an administrator at a local hospital and taught graduate counseling courses. She also started a nonprofit organization for underprivileged youth called Lutheran Social Services of Idaho and volunteered for the human rights organization Amnesty International. After relocating to San Diego, friends from Amnesty International encouraged her to start Survivors of Torture, International.
In the beginning, Anderson and cofounders Bill Radatz and George Falk struggled to get support and funding for their organization. Government leaders at the local and state level were not eager to address the issue. It was too “political” or too “international,” she was told. It took years of networking, meetings and presentations to get local city council members and state legislators to support their cause. “It was hard,” she said, “getting people to listen, to believe, to understand.”
Anderson and the Survivors of Torture, International staff are constantly working to garner support, and they have made significant progress. On June 26, the California State Assembly issued a resolution in honor of the tenth anniversary of the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which was signed by Assemblywoman Lori Saldana (D-San Diego). Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also issued a proclamation in support of torture victims and called for an end to the “current-day horrors that exist throughout the world, such as the genocide in Darfur.”
Gerald Gray, founder and board president of Survivors International, a San Francisco-based torture treatment center, said he asked Anderson to start a treatment center 12 years ago because she came well recommended. “She’s really been a leader in the California coalition,” Gray said. “She’s widely known and trusted. I don’t think we would be in Sacramento today without her leadership.”
Survivors of Torture, International is also conducting groundbreaking research with Pacific’s School of International Studies that will track the number of torture survivors living in California. Pacific visiting professor Jean-Marie Stratigos and Cheri Kramer ’07, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, are participating in the research project, which is the first of its kind in the country. Anderson hopes other states will follow California’s lead. Once the research is complete, the organization will use the data to make government leaders, law enforcement officials and healthcare workers more aware of the survivors living in the state. “Most people don’t believe that they have survivors of torture in their own communities,” Anderson said. “This research will raise awareness and cause doctors to better respond to patient needs, and in turn make survivors healthier.”
Therapist Nicola Ranson, who conducts psychological assessments for survivors who face asylum hearings, said her clients often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Once they arrive at the border, many of them are put in immigration detention centers, “which are essentially prisons,” she said. Many times they have left their families behind, do not speak English and are still suffering from the memories of being imprisoned and tortured. “They’re going through hell basically,” Ranson said. Once they reach America, they are constantly on guard and have to learn how to trust again. Often times, they are scared to leave their apartments out of fear of being recaptured.
Ranson said she knows when survivors are starting to heal when they occasionally smile. “There are people who are so grateful to be here and so appreciative of the United States,” Ranson said. “It just warms my heart to be part of something that’s making the world a better place.”