Photography by
Candace diCarlo

This engagement guides Keller and keeps him and his staff going during particularly trying periods. Sometimes there are unexpected set-backs, events which cause indirect but nonetheless devastating consequences. One such event was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which profoundly affected the survivors, according to co-clinical director Porterfield. “Their feeling of security was shaken,” she explains. “They had secondary trauma in what they considered a safe place when their new city was violated. This trauma was up close and personal, with our clients being very concerned about us. After all, we had not experienced anything like this before, and they helped us deal with it.”

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was similarly unnerving. Program clients had strong reactions to the images of tortured prisoners in Iraq, including re-experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. It was particularly upsetting and confusing because the torturers were Americans. The staff and volunteers worked hard to re-establish community among the survivors, and renew their sense of safety. As with 9/ll, the clients and the staff drew strength from each other.

Porterfield and Smith both credit Keller as an energetic, empathetic, principled leader, who is not only a gifted clinician, but also an extremely compassionate human being. The program’s clients are people who “have been through hell, often abused by people in authority,” says Porterfield. “But Allen makes them feel safe, able to open up and share their deepest problems.”

“When he meets with clients,” adds Smith, “he makes them feel that their well-being is important, valued—that is no small feat to the disempowered!”

Last year, Keller received the Barbara Chester Award, an international award given to a clinician in recognition of outstanding care provided to victims of torture. He was also honored in 1999 and again in 2001 with the NYU School of Medicine Humanism in Medicine Award. Keller believes that awards are useful for getting the name of the organization into the news, but it is the courage of the clients, the survivors of horror, who keep him focused as he works to help them recover and rebuild their lives.

Others involved with the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture echo these sentiments, saying that what keeps them going is the incredible resilience of the human spirit demonstrated by clients, many of whom have moved on to full and rewarding lives in their new country.

One of these success stories is Shiekh, who would allow neither severe torture in his native Liberia nor bureaucratic obstacles in the United States to keep him from a better life. The first member of the Mandingo tribe to be executive director of a major human-rights organization in Liberia, he was thrown into jail without being charged, enduring solitary confinement and extensive torture. Finally released through the efforts of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, he made his way to this country.

But his challenges continued here, and for some time he was unable to get the right papers to remain; he was considered a “political case,” although he was anything but political. After many difficult months he came to New York and heard about the Program for Survivors. As a result, Shiekh says, “the program has made me feel as if I’m really in the United States. The people here have taken care of my medical problems and have built me up psychologically—something I needed from my post-traumatic stress. And they’ve make me independent by helping me find a job!”

A new concern for Keller is to ensure that the United States neither practices nor condones torture—even with regard to the War on Terror. Prior to the hearings to confirm Alberto Gonzalez as attorney general, he briefed the staff and lawyers of the Senate Judiciary Committee, telling them that the “stress and duress” techniques being used too often cross the line from interrogation to torture.

In Keller’s view, the United States must continue to embrace the moral values on which this country is founded. “When the United States in any way practices or condones torture, it cheapens who we are,” he says. “I also fear it puts innocent civilians around the world living under oppressive regimes at greater risk of being tortured—by validating torture—thus increasing an already worldwide public-health epidemic of torture.”

Health professionals have an important role to play in caring and advocating for torture victims, observes Keller. “In my work with torture survivors, I am reminded of the darker side of humanity and the potential for cruelty in the world. But I am also reminded by the survivors I have been privileged to care for of the hope, strength, and potential to help rebuild lives,” he says.

“It is for the sake of all of those who have suffered from torture or continue to face the risk of being tortured that we must commit ourselves to aiding torture victims, to speaking out against torture, and to ending this assault on human dignity.”

Margot F. Horwitz CW’58 ASC’62 is a freelance writer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/05/05

The Rebuilder
By Margot F. Horwitz

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