After his 1988 medical-school graduation, Keller did his internship and residency at NYU/Bellevue, working in primary-care internal medicine, then returned to Cambodia to practice basic public health and help set up community-health programs. He also developed a United Nations-sponsored curriculum for Cambodian health-professionals in documenting human-rights abuses. The medical and psychological consequences of land-mind injuries were particularly critical to his work. “Land mines impose an unfair burden of suffering on civilians,” Keller notes. “They can’t tell the difference between the footsteps of a soldier or a child.”
While in Cambodia, Keller conducted a study documenting the health impact of land mines on civilians and subsequently co-authored one of the first articles in medical literature on the medical and social consequences of land mines. He became actively involved in the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. He notes that 100 countries have signed a treaty banning land mines, though the United States has not.
In 1993, he returned to Bellevue Hospital as an attending physician. He had become involved with Physicians for Human Rights, a network of physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists that assists immigrants applying for asylum by documenting the physical and psychological health consequences of the trauma they have suffered.
An estimated 5 percent to 25 percent of refugees and asylum seekers are victims of torture. When they arrive in this country with refugee status, they are entitled to a variety of benefits. But for an undocumented immigrant fleeing persecution, the asylum process is the opportunity for safety, and the first step toward a new life. Without asylum, they cannot get work papers to earn money for subsistence. It can take months, even years, for it to come through.
(The process has become even more difficult since 9/11, according to Survivors of Torture co-clinical directors Kate Porterfield and Hawthorne Smith. Smith relates a story of one judge who, before finally granting asylum to a dark-skinned Muslim from North Africa, shook his finger at him and warned, “You had better not be a terrorist!”)
It became clear to Keller that patients seeking asylum had unmet needspsychological and social as well as medical. As he was also aware, a large proportion of refugees fleeing persecution who land in the United States come to New York City.
With the support of the Bellevue and NYU School of Medicine, the Program for Survivors of Torture was set up over the next few years, with Keller as its founder and director. People from 70 countries have been treated there, and there are many who want to join the program. The group works hard to raise funds, but with a decrease in federal grants, money has become a serious issue.
“We want to help as many people as we canwe get 5 to 10 new referrals a week, and we have a long waiting list. It would be great if our services would no longer be needed, but right now we’re more in demand than ever, and it’s tough,” says Keller. “Fund-raising is definitely the most difficult part of my job. Working with the clients, even those with heart-rending stories, is deeply satisfying. Worrying about whether we’ll be able to keep the lights on is truly stressful!”
(For more information, or to offer financial support, visit the website at www.survivorsoftorture.org or call 212-994-7158.)
Keller and his wife Suzanne Groisser live in Montclair, New Jersey, with their two children, 7-year-old Rachel and 4-year-old Jake. They were married in 1993, the same year he returned to Bellevue from Cambodia. They’d been introduced a few years earlier by a Penn friend who described Suzy to Keller as having “a social conscience like yours.” A Harvard Law School graduate, Suzy is an advocate in the field of domestic violence and formerly worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
One of Keller’s greatest joys is spending time with his wife and children, which he calls his “touchstone.” But juggling the growing demands on his time is not easy. Besides seeing clients and administering the program at Bellevue, he is assistant professor of medicine at NYU and society master for the May Chinn Society for Bioethics and Human Rights of the medical school’s Master Scholars Program. He also teaches seminars at Princeton and NYU on health and human rights. Recently, as a Soros Advocacy Fellow, he completed a study examining the health of asylum-seekers detained in the United States. Then there is the international travel, including being part of a Physicians for Human Rights team conducting an epidemiological survey of more than 1,200 Kosovar refugees in camps in Albania and Macedonia.
One of his most memorable forays overseas was a stay in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. Keller’s mission was to document reports of torture in Tibet among refugees who had fled into exile. Having heard of Keller’s work with refugees, the Dalai Lama invited him for an audience in the Buddhist equivalent of the Oval Office. It was a special moment for Keller, who asked for and received a blessing for his seriously ill father. Several years later, Keller brought some of the program’s clients to see the Dalai Lama when the Buddhist leader appeared at a Humanitarian Award ceremony in New York for the International Council for Torture Victims.Keller’s companion on the trip to Dharamsala was Dr. Glen Kim EAS’94. Keller had advised Kim at NYU School of Medicine, encouraging him to look beyond his studies and work in disadvantaged areas when he voiced discontent with the day-to-day grind. Working together in Dharamsala gave Kim the opportunity to see Keller in his hands-on work with refugees. Keller is “wholly committed to human-rights work and to his patients,” Kim says. “His guiding principle is the relationship between health and human rights.”
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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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