Photography by Candace diCarlo

As founder and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, alumnus Allen Keller works to mend the bodies, minds, and spirits of people who have suffered the worst evils humans can inflict on each other.

Abdoulaye,* a lanky young man with a shy smile, walks into the clinic of Dr. Allen Keller C’81 at the Bellevue/New York University School of Medicine Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City. The doctor greets him warmly, and the two men shake hands. The patient sits down, casually draping his jacket over his left hand. With the help of an interpreter, they chat for a few minutes.

Then Abdoulaye begins to speak of his current health complaint, stomach pains. After a few questions, the doctor learns that the man has been eating meagerly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, causing problems to his digestive system—a common complaint among his Muslim patients at this time of year, Keller says.

A bit later, he glances at Abdoulaye’s covered left hand. “Let’s see how you’re doing,” he says. The patient pulls away the jacket to reveal a disfigured hand.

Rebels poured gasoline on Abdoulaye’s arm and set it on fire when they attacked his village during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. When he first came to the Bellevue/NYU Program, all of his fingers were encased in flesh from a rudimentary skin graft performed in his country.

Now, after several hand surgeries and physical therapy at Bellevue Hospital, Abdoulaye has regained the use of several fingers. “It’s looking much better,” comments Keller. “The last surgery made a real difference.” Abdoulaye smiles and nods; almost as an afterthought, he bends down to tie his shoes.

Keller is pleased with the continuing progress of the refugee from Sierra Leone. When Abdoulaye first came to the program, he was despondent. He could not sleep, and when he did, he had nightmares about his abuse. Following the interdisciplinary philosophy of the Bellevue/NYU Program to deal with such trauma, in addition to his hand surgeries and other medical care, he has been given individual and group counseling and assistance with his application for political asylum.

“His entire affect has changed,” says Keller. “His nightmares, finally, are gone. He’s hopeful about his future.”

Other refugees patiently wait their turn to be seen by Keller during the Monday-night clinic. Naresh and his wife, Konica, do not need an interpreter, and their greetings to the doctor are warm and informal. The two have been in the United States for a while, and they speak easily to hospital staff members.

While Naresh has recovered from the severe torture he suffered in Bangladesh, he worries about his wife, who has headaches and stomach aches—the reason for this day’s visit. Keller recommends a gynecological check-up and prescribes medicines for her head and stomach pains, and the couple smiles with relief as they leave the tiny examining room, making way for others who have brought their physical and emotional problems to the place where they have learned to trust those in charge.

The clinic waiting room is a microcosm of life at Bellevue Hospital, which Keller refers to as a “big village, a real community,” adding, “We experience every known disease and condition here. As they say, if you don’t see it at Bellevue, it doesn’t exist!” Children and adults, chattering in more than a dozen languages, mill around the first-floor lobby off 27th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan, the center of a labyrinth of clinics and offices that make up the oldest public hospital in the country.

The multicultural face of Bellevue/NYU makes it an ideal setting for the Program for Survivors of Torture and the more than 1,500 patients, or clients as they are often called, who have been cared for since the program started in 1995—men, women, and children from all parts of the world, whose lives have been turned upside down, jailed and tortured for all kinds of reasons, from striving peacefully for their nation’s independence to their own sexual orientation. People who have survived the worst evils humans can do to each other and have begun to put their lives back together.

A few examples:

Boubacar, a young Guinean law student, was jailed for mobilizing his friends against the totalitarian government. He was beaten so severely that his gangrene-infected leg had to be amputated at the hip when he was finally released. Finding his way to the United States, and then to the Program for Survivors of Torture, Boubacar was fitted for a prosthesis. He discovered the Achilles Track Club, which links disabled with able-bodied runners, and he has won several races. He says he “plans to be part of American sports history—even world history.”

Samten’s family had been persecuted for peaceful political activism since the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet. The talented artist, who ignored the government’s prohibition on illustrating Tibetan history, was jailed and tortured, his hands severely burned. He managed to escape, hiking over the Himalayan mountains into Nepal, then India, where he was able to obtain a visa to the United States. Finding the Torture Survivors Program, he received medical and mental health care and social services. He is once again able to paint unique Tibetan murals to help pay his living expenses.

A photojournalist who does not want even her first name published exemplifies some clients’ hidden scars. As she was visiting this country with other photographic exhibitors, war broke out in her native Ivory Coast. The woman was not allowed to return because of her husband’s political activities, and she has been only in phone contact with her young children for years. She worries constantly about them, but she has been heartened by the help she has received from the Survivors Program—medical, psychological, and vocational.

The job of helping people rebuild their lives is handled by what Keller calls an “amazingly caring, committed staff.” Primary-care physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other health professionals, as well as volunteers who teach English, have worked with more than 600 clients in the past year alone—providing medical care to mend their shattered bodies and psychiatric and psychological treatment to ease their persistent nightmares, as well as helping them learn to live in this country by finding apartments and jobs to give them a feeling of independence.

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

The Rebuilder
By Margot F. Horwitz

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*Clients have requested that only their first names be printed, to protect loved ones in their countries of origin.