Imagine for a moment that you are the Honduran mother of two teenage girls, told to surrender your daughters to a drug cartel or face their execution by the weekend. Or a Congolese family burned out of your home by rebels and threatened with death. Or a young Nigerian girl escaping from Boko Haram. Imagine that you run for your life, penniless and terrified. And somehow you survive a harrowing, dangerous journey over land and sea to the U.S. border, cross it, and turn yourself in to authorities to plead for safe haven. That’s what it means to be an asylum-seeker, the most vulnerable class of immigrant. The right to petition for asylum is encoded in both domestic and international law. But who can help you? How do you prove your case and win an asylum designation in court?
For desperate asylum seekers in our area, Refugees Northwest can be a lifeline. We locate and train both physicians and mental health professionals who volunteer to evaluate asylum-seekers so that impartial clinical evidence exists for a judge to consider.
One of the partner organizations that has distinguished itself in this work is the Washington State Psychological Foundation (the nonprofit arm of the Washington State Psychological Association), chaired by Spokane native Jennifer Rough Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.
During her Ph.D. studies at the University of Vermont in 2012-2014, Dr. Rough worked with the New England Survivors of Torture and Trauma program, one of 31 national refugee programs providing specialized services for people who have survived political, gender, or other kinds of torture in their home countries.
“As part of the mental health team, we provided trauma-focused therapy for refugees from around the world. I worked with a group of women from Africa who had survived sexual torture. The work is incredibly intense, but more rewarding than I could begin to express. Their resilience alone was astounding, as they were coping with PTSD, depression and anxiety, learning English, working to support their families, and rebuilding their sense of safety and community in a culture very distinct from their own, all at one time.”
After moving to Seattle, she looked for ways to make a similar impact. When she learned that Refugees Northwest is part of the only torture survivor treatment program in the state of Washington, Dr. Rough felt it was a great match.
So, last year, WSPF reached out to Refugees Northwest. The foundation helped sponsor three trainings to recruit volunteer licensed mental health professionals to provide clinical interviews for asylum evaluations.
“We had a great response from our membership,” Dr. Rough said. “It was so motivating. We are tapping into the interests of our professionals and seeing people step up in such a profound way to make a difference.”
Refugees Northwest Director Beth Farmer explained, “Jennifer’s organization ended up providing twenty new ongoing volunteers for asylum evaluations. It’s an invaluable service.” And then they went further. “WSPF collected more than $15,000 worth of in-kind donations for our clients including clothing distributed at our Winter Warmth event for families in need, grocery cards, and emergency food supplies. It was truly incredible!”
And with deep gratitude, we note that WSPF will be undertaking the same activities with us again for a new Winter Warmth event on January 13, 2018!
Dr. Rough notes that the evaluations and donations are not just a charitable one-way street. The professionals who deploy their skills for asylum-seekers find great fulfillment both as clinicians and as individuals.
One of those volunteers is Ivan Molton Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Washington.
“Like many people, I had become concerned about the ways immigrants were being talked about and treated, in anger and fear. It was and is so dispiriting. As it happens, my wife has worked in refugee resettlement for many years, so these issues weren’t entirely new to me,” Dr. Molton said. “But after seeing the rise of anger and blaming against these people in desperate need, I felt a real calling to pitch in somewhere. I was willing to do whatever small things I could to help, but I really wanted to find a way to put my background as a clinical psychologist to use. So, this program was a good fit for me.”
Dr. Molton has completed several psychological evaluations of asylum-seekers at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which he calls an “eye opening experience,” hearing the personal histories of people from across the globe. “They are really incredible stories of survival and resilience. The things some of these people have experienced and endured to get here are just incredible. I’ve also learned that asylum seekers come from all different social groups, all different levels of education and backgrounds. No two evaluations are the same.”
He continued, “It’s been incredibly rewarding. When you know that your evaluation can help someone get needed psychological treatment for the first time, or make a difference in court proceedings, it feels very real and substantial. It’s very satisfying.”
The plight of people who simply seek survival, safety, and a new life is “a cause with an increasing need to be addressed,” said Dr. Rough. “It’s important for us as professionals to respond.”
She added, “Sometimes people believe that we are protected by similarity, by staying in a homogeneous group or society. But it isn’t true, and we can provide compelling change to that attitude through relationships with diverse groups of people. And when we reach out to people in great need, we can create change and build community across the state as a whole, and that is a benefit to everyone.”
At Refugees Northwest, we are so grateful for Washington State Psychological Foundation and their dedication to the well-being of the most vulnerable amongst us. These professionals make a tangible difference for the people they serve, and they give us all hope for a more just and equitable world.