What I learned from torture survivors and their healers on my recent trip to Kenya

November 27, 2013


I was moved to see that refugees exhibited strength and joy despite having suffered so greatly

I was very fortunate to make another “once-in-a-lifetime” trip this year.  Like my trip to Vietnam in February, this trip — to Kenya — combined volunteer effort in support of a great cause with an amazing tourist experience.

Staff members of the Center for Victims of Torture in Nairobi welcome visiting CVT board members, including UCare President and CEO Nancy Feldman (at right). The center’s international headquarters is in Minneapolis.

This trip was sponsored by the Center for Victims of Torture, which is headquartered in Minneapolis and which has provided life-affirming care and support for torture survivors in Minnesota and overseas for more than 30 years.  I have been a strong supporter of CVT’s work and have been a board member for many years.  CVT works to “restore the dignity of the human spirit, one survivor at a time.”  CVT also trains other healers, does research, and advocates on behalf of torture survivors and their families.

Mary, a Congolese refugee, shows off her two daughters.

One CVT international program is located in Kenya in Eastern Africa (map). In early September, CVT’s executive director, six other board members, and I traveled to Nairobi to see the program in action and to meet the staff in person.  In the vicinity of Nairobi, we spent time with staff who treat Somali survivors who have fled their homeland, including staff who are refugees themselves.  The Somalis live with 460,000 others in the massive Dadaab refugee camp, which is close to the Somali border. The CVT staff’s work can be very dangerous, and yet the need and demand for their services is overwhelming.  We felt humbled as we learned about the challenges of their work and their continuing commitment to their clients.

At another CVT site in a very poor area of Nairobi, we were greeted with cheers and applause by a group of Congolese survivors who have fled some of the worst violence in the world.  We were honored to be welcomed so warmly with joyous dancing and songs created specifically to thank us for CVT’s work.  The support and affection of the staff for their clients and for each other was immediately obvious as they joined in the celebration and encouraged us to join in too.  And then we were saddened beyond words as we listened to the heart-rending, horrific stories of what these survivors had been through, and of the long journey they made to get to CVT from the Congo.  The Congolese refugees are very grateful for the support and care they have received from CVT, but they are also so anxious about their futures and where they will be able to find a permanent home.

Three staff members of CVT Nairobi greet their visitors.

The next morning we visited a nonprofit partner of CVT’s in Nairobi, Heshima (Swahili for “respect,” “honor,” or “dignity”).  The program supports girls and young women who are refugees so that they can learn a trade, take care of their children (often born as a result of rape), and have some income that can keep them from being forced into prostitution to survive.  Once again, we heard wrenching stories from these young women.  And yet their spirit and sense of hope was obvious in their joyful singing and dancing, accompanied only by a pail drum and a flip-flop.  And once again we were pulled into their celebration.

Girls and young women from the Heshima organization sing and dance for their guests. A woman at left uses an upside-down pail and a flip-flop shoe as an improvised drum and drumstick. Heshima helps the young people learn a trade to support themselves.


We had many more adventures on our journey, but I will save those for another time.  What was so awe-inspiring to me about the survivors and the CVT staff we met in Kenya was their amazing ability to have experienced some of the worst abuses of humanity and to still be able to laugh and sing and dance…and show the very best of what it means to be human.  It’s a lesson I am grateful for and one that I will always remember.

Note: See my Nov. 9, 2012 Health Smarts blog that discusses my involvement with the Center for Victims of Torture.



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About Nancy Feldman

Nancy Feldman was President and Chief Executive Officer of UCare from September 1995 to June 2015. Before that role, she was Director of State Public Programs for Medica, another Minnesota-based health plan. Nancy also served three years as Assistant Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, where she was responsible for long-term care and managed care policy and regulation; community health services; and maternal and child health.

View all posts by Nancy Feldman

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