Putting a man back together: Beirut centre heals mental wounds of torture

News Stories, 7 December 2009

© UNHCR/A.Jungrova
Torture victim Karim in Beirut, where he received vital treatment at the Restart Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, December 7 (UNHCR) Surrounded by strangers in a foreign land, Iraqi refugee Karim* quickly became paranoid, convinced everyone he saw was spying on him, plotting to turn him over to his enemies. Fear may haunt many refugees, but Karim's terror was especially justified he had fled to Lebanon after escaping unimaginable torture at the hands of militiamen in his homeland.

"They destroyed me; they devastated me. That's what they did," the 39-year-old man says, staring fixedly at one spot on a window.

"It was like a horror movie," he adds haltingly, telling his story with as many pauses as words. In fact, his memories might make a Hollywood horror movie producer squeamish.

"There were beheaded men with me in the same room. They made me sleep next to dead bodies. They brought a man and slaughtered him in front of me. 'This is what will happen to you as well,' they said. I heard the sound of the knife slitting his neck. Why did they slaughter him? Why did they slaughter him?"

The only reason Karim can manage to talk about his experiences today is the healing he received when UNHCR sent him to the Restart Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Violence in Beirut.

The centre, one of the very few in the Middle East, providing specialized psychological and mental health care since 1996, has been funded by UNHCR since 2007. UNHCR money allowed the centre, already operating in Tripoli, to expand to Beirut. With 22 psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, physiotherapists, and social workers, the centre now cares for more than 800 refugees.

"The agreement with UNHCR was a turning point in our work," said Suzanne Jabbour, head of Restart. "It has widened the scope of our specialized care, given us exposure on the international front, and shed light on the expertise and professionalism of our services."

It was certainly a turning point for Karim, who had originally fled to Lebanon in 2005, married a Lebanese woman and had a daughter. He then returned to Iraq to look for a kidnapped brother, but found his house had been occupied by militiamen who took him prisoner, strung him up from the ceiling and burned his back with a hot steel rod. To this day he can't recall how he escaped and made his way to Beirut once again.

"They have erased a lot of my memory," Karim says now in the safety of the Restart centre. This is, he says, "the only place where I find safety. Do you know that I used to be afraid every time I see a knife or a balustrade or a steel rod?"

Sanaa Hamzeh, a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and one of the founders of Restart says refugees who are victims of torture need regular help to deal not only with the past, but also the present. For Karim, this means trembling even at the sight of policmen on Beirut's streets.

"They feel that everyone is against them," says Dr. Hamzeh. "Living in a different society further alienates them. At Restart they feel that they found a refuge and people who can take them out of their pain."

These days Karim marvels at the improvements he's made. "Now, I go out, I laugh and I live in society. I used to live in the corner. I was afraid to move. I was afraid that they take me back to that horrible place. The centre made a new man out of me. When I first came here, I was like scattered pieces, and they repaired the puzzle of my mind. They gave me my life back."

He has been accepted for resettlement in the US and hopes that will be the real start of his new life.

"When I go to the US, I want to be a new person," Karim says. "I want to wake up in the morning, open the window of my room, let the light in and breathe. I want to be born again."

*Name changed for protection reasons.

By Laure Chedrawi in Beirut