NOTE: As of the spring of 2010, we have completed most, if not all, of the filming for our documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Surivors of Torture, and will be intensively focused on editing. That means there will not be as much news to report, until we get to the point where we're ready to start showing rough cuts of the video to our advisers and test audiences. We encourage our friends and supporters to follow our other work through our recently-launched blog: Caring for Survivors of Torture.

JUNE, 2010

Addressing Torture at Home and Abroad: Fighting to Preserve Human Dignity
Project Director Ben Achtenberg presented video excerpts from our forthcoming video documentary to an audience including many healthcare professionals and students at the Jamaica Plain Community Forum. Other speaking engagements during the past year have included:

Grand Rounds, Tufts University Medical School:
Presentation on caring for survivors to members of the American Medical Students Association and Physicians for Human Rights Student Chapters.

Stories from Survivors of Torture
Presentation at Boston University School of Public Health, to graduate students enrolled in course: "Immigrant and Refugee Health."

JUNE, 2009

Refuge Media Project creates award-winning
PSA for international anti-torture advocacy group

Spotting a last-minute notice on the internet gave Refuge Media Project Director, Ben Achtenberg, and son, Jesse, just enough time to pull together an award-winning 30-second Public Service Announcement for the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), based in Denmark. The IRCT jury, which included Danish documentary filmmaker Jørgen Flindt Pederson, said that the RMP’s winning spot “was uplifting, dignified, and presented the cause of our anti-torture movement very well.” The only winning entry from the United States, the PSA will be shown worldwide in conjunction with the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, June 26, 2009.

"This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable. It is long overdue that a day be dedicated to remembering and supporting the many victims and survivors of torture around the world." -- Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

The spot incorporates footage from the Project’s forthcoming documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture. Many of the images were filmed at the annual tree-planting ceremony sponsored by the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, and during the 24-hour vigil and day of solidarity held by the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition in Washington, DC.
           According to the IRCT, past spots have appeared on dozens of TV channels in more than twenty countries, reaching an estimated 300 million viewers. The three winning entries in this year’s competition can be seen on YouTube via links from the IRCT website. The Refuge Media Project’s spot is available on our site as well as our own YouTube channel.

Writer/producer: Ben Achtenberg
Camera: Jesse Achtenberg, Ben Achtenberg, Roger Schmitz
Editing & music: Jesse Achtenberg
Voice-over: Jeff Loeb, MusicTracks Audio

Project Director Ben Achtenberg is an Oscar-nominated documentary producer; his son, Jesse Achtenberg, is an independent producer specializing in environmental issues. He’s also a producer and editor with New Media Mill, in Washington, DC, where his clients include the Save Darfur Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union, and Environmental Defense Fund.

APRIL, 2009

Center for Torture and Trauma Survivors (Atlanta, Georgia). Our usual crew (Ben, Bruce, and Roz) were able to return to Atlanta this spring to revisit some of the folks we had met with and filmed a year ago, and to further observe and document the work of the Center for Torture and Trauma Survivors, which is a project of the DeKalb County Board of Health. CTTS’s new Director this year, Ibrahim Kira, is also a widely-published researcher on treatment for torture-related trauma. During a very intense five days of filming we had the opportunity to interview staff, volunteers, and survivors from Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Burma, and Nepal. (A more detailed report on this trip will follow – after we’ve had a chance to recover.)


Carmen, a Pediatrician, was
arrested and tortured in Guatemala

Torture Abolition and Survivors
Support Coalition
(Washington, DC)
In November we traveled to Washington to interview several torture survivors who are members of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, an organization founded by and for survivors of torture. We were also interested in profiling the work and philosophy of this group, which seeks to create a world-wide network of international communities of healing for torture survivors and their families.
       There are an estimated 50,000 torture survivors living in the DC metropolitan area, and TASSC's members represent countries and ethnic groups from around the world. Its "communities of healing" model emphasizes mutual support, but it also regularly refers and coordinates healthcare, mental health and social services for its DC-area members. We recorded interviews with the group’s director and program coordinator, both torture survivors themselves, about members’ challenges in adjusting to life in the United States and accessing  healthcare and other services.
        We also heard survivors from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Guatemala and the Philippines tell moving stories about  coming to terms with their traumatic experiences, overcoming fear, and  regaining enough trust in people — and themselves — to share what has  happened to them and ask for help. We were also inspired, as well, by the reflections of two young TASSC interns, working who described  meeting a torture survivor their own age — just 19:

“While we were celebrating at homecoming games in high school, this girl was  being tortured. The only way I ever knew about torture was by reading, but you can’t equate what you’ve read to meeting  survivors. The real work is completely different.”

American Public Health Association
At the invitation of Dabney Evans, Director of Emory University’s Institute for Human Rights, Ben participated in a panel on migration at the APHA’s National Conference in October, presenting 11-minutes of clips from the film-in-progress and talking about the need for more awareness and better training for healthcare professionals. About 30 nurses, physicians and public health workers attended, and were very enthusiastic about the project. We received a number of requests to screen the film as soon as it is available, as well as offers to assist with our outreach efforts. Ben had time to discuss only the key issues in our PowerPoint presentation, but most attendees took away the handout version.

The Anita L. Mishler Education Fund recently awarded a generous contribution to the Refuge Media Project, and we will receive additional support from the Carmenta Foundation for Health Education. Needless to say, we still have a long way to go.

APRIL, 2008

Photo of torture survivor Richard Oketch.
Survivor and CVT Board
Member Richard Oketch

Center for Victims of Torture (Minnesota)
Ben, Roz, and cameraman Bruce Petschek visited Minneapolis and St. Paul, home of the Center for Victims of Torture, one of the first and best known survivor treatment programs in the United States. We recorded extensive interviews with CVT’s long-time Director, Douglas A. Johnson, and with many of the organization’s exceptional staffers and consultants. Their interviews touched on a variety of issues central to our documentary, including the need for more comprehensive training of clinicians on cultural issues and torture-related trauma, learning to speak with clients about traumatic experiences, creating “healing communities,” and the importance of “normalizing” torture-related symptoms.
       With CVT’s assistance, we had the privilege of speaking with torture survivors from Liberia, Uganda, and Southeast Asia; and of visiting two community organizations that interface with CVT: the Bosnian Women’s Network, and Minnesota Liberian Women’s Initiatives, where we filmed some of the group’s tutoring work with refugee Liberian teenagers. An extra bonus was the opportunity to get the perspectives of physician and bioethicist (and now CVT Board Member) Steven Miles, author of the recent Oath Betrayed: Military Medicine and the War on Terror.
       While in the Twin Cities we were invited to attend and document a conference convened by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, a major supporter of these and other health-focused community groups, as well as of CVT itself. The focus of the conference was on ways to talk about mental health in communities where this may be an unfamiliar or taboo subject.

Revere Counseling Center (Massachusetts)
A project of the North Suffolk Mental Health Association, the Revere Counseling Center is a valued resource for the area’s Cambodian Community – a fact reflected in the big turnout for the Center’s celebration of Cambodian New Year. Ben filmed this community-wide event as an illustration of the positive role of healthcare and mental health services in immigrant communities.

Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Project Director Ben Achtenberg participated in a panel discussion on "The Role of Documentary Film & Alternative Media in Policy and Politics," and presented a preview of some of the material from the Refuge Media Project.

Photo of torture survivor Richard Oketch.
Physician Jeremy Hess and client

MARCH, 2008

The Atlanta Asylum Network (Georgia)
We’ve been consulting for some time with the Asylum Network of Physicians for Human Rights here in Boston. At a national meeting of PHR’s student chapters, we learned about the Atlanta Asylum Network. and, this March, we traveled to Atlanta to document the work of this unique project, which was founded – and is still run – by students from Emory University. Though they can’t yet appear in court or conduct medical/psychiatric examinations, student participants act as case managers, coordinating the work of licensed attorneys and physicians. They also do intake interviews with asylum seekers. Learn more…
       We taped interviews with the project’s founders as well as current student participants, and we also spoke with Dabney Evans, who supervises the project in her role as Director of the Emory Institute for Human Rights.  

Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network
Exploring the legal side of the asylum issue, we met with Monica Khant, Project Director of the Georgia Asylum & Immigration Network, which is supported by a number of Atlanta’s leading law firms. GAIN recruits, trains, and coordinates pro-bono attorneys to work on asylum cases. We also spoke with Susan Colussy, Program Director for Immigration Services of Catholic Charities of Atlanta. Catholic Charities has long been a leader in providing resettlement assistance to immigrants throughout the country.

Center for Torture & Trauma Survivors
Kitty Kelley, recent Director of the Center for Torture & Trauma Survivors of the DeKalb County Board of Health, told us about the Center’s work, and gave us invaluable insights into some of the issues involved in working with survivors, including the “secondary trauma” which healthcare and social service workers can experience. She also discussed strategies that CTTS has developed for dealing with this problem.


Would U.S. Medical Students Participate in Torture?
Check out our In the News section for a report on our interview with Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, lead author of a startling study on medical students’ knowledge and understanding of the Geneva convention and of physicians’ responsibilities when serving in the military.

Visiting the Florence Project
Producer Ben Achtenberg made an exploratory trip to Tucson, Arizona, in mid-November, starting with an informational meeting with staff at the nearby Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. The Florence Project, considered a national model, provides free legal services to immigrants, refugees, and citizens detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security (ICE). It’s located in the small town of Florence, about an hour and a half North of Tucson, where prisons – six of them – are the the major local industry.

Witness Against Torture
Ben also took the opportunity to document the Southwest Weekend of Witness Against Torture. A well-attended all-day teach-in on Saturday included a moving presentation on the psychological damage done by torture by Dr. Kathy Norgard, a psychologist who has worked for many years with victims of torture from Latin American and Africa. Norgard works with Tucson’s Center for Prevention and Resolution of Violence,which is supported by The Hopi Foundation, a project of the Hopi Nation.

Sketch: An African woman holds a baby in her arms.Children’s Writing Project
Also presenting were staff members from the Center’s Owl and Panther Writing Project, a unique program designed to help children affected by trauma – especially trauma associated with torture, dislocation, refugee status, or family problems – through creative writing and counseling.

Fort Huachuca…Where Interrogators are Trained
The next day, an estimated 300 people braved noisy counter-demonstrators (and repeated drive-bys by flag-waving motorcyclists) to demonstrate across from the gates of Fort Huachuca, site of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School, where armed forces interrogators are trained.

Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma
Ben and cameraman Bruce Petschek filmed extensive interviews with our project advisors Richard Mollica, MD, and Jim Lavelle, LICSW, co-founders of Cambridge’s Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, which works with refugee populations in the Boston area and throughout the world. Some of the insights they have developed in over twenty years of working with trauma survivors from Cambodia, Bosnia, and other areas, are detailed in Mollica’s recently-published Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World.

The Role of Forensic Nursing in Work with Torture Survivors
Rachel Boersma, PhD, RN, a national leader in Forensic Nursing, often works in collaboration with the Asylum Network of Physicians for Human Rights. She teaches at Fitchburg State College and, in her private practice, has examined more than 100 torture survivors in connection with asylum cases. Ben and Bruce filmed Boersma presenting a series of cases to graduate and undergraduate nursing students, and interviewed her both about her experiences and about ways that nurses can aid refugee survivors. Note: for information about the general role of forensics in human rights work, check out PHR's International Forensic Program.

International Human Rights Day...
The Refuge Media Project website was launched on December 10, 2007, recognized throughout the world as International Human Rights Day. On this day in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5 of the Declaration states, for the first time in an internationally recognized agreement, that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”


Surviving the Killing Fields
Working with cinematographer Bruce Petschek, Ben Achtenberg and Kim Kronenberg filmed a powerful interview with Vongsaranak (Vong) Ros about his family’s experiences under the murderous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia – and about his own not always successful efforts to initiate discussion of the refugee trauma issues within the community he now serves. Vong is the Director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, Massachusetts, which has the second largest Cambodian population in the United States. Because his father was an engineer, Vong’s family was forcibly removed from their home in Phnom Penh and sent to do agricultural work in the infamous killing fields of rural Cambodia.

Staff Training for Working with Torture Survivors
Ben & Lynn Weissman also taped a training session on working with torture survivors for a diverse group of clinicians at Great Brook Health Care Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. The training session and resource materials were provided  by Dr. Richard Mollica and colleagues from the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Father Roy Bourgeois
Taking advantage of an appearance at Clark University in Worcester, Ben was able to tape a moving discussion between Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, and Clark students, about the School’s role in teaching military intelligence and interrogation tactics to Latin American militaries. Ben and Associate Producer Roz Dzelzitis also were able to squeeze in a short interview with Father Roy before he had to leave for another workshop at Harvard. (Note: the SOA is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC.)

Stop Impunity
A few weeks later, Ben and Roz also had the opportunity to meet with Salvadoran torture survivor Carlos Mauricio, who had recently returned from traveling in Central and South America with Father Roy in an effort to persuade Latin American governments to stop sending their troops to the SOA. Mauricio was abducted from the University of El Salvador in June of 1983, and repeatedly tortured by the military. He has since established the Stop Impunity Project (Alto a La Impunidad) and was one of three plaintiffs who successfully sued two Salvadoran government officials for responsibility in their abuse. The suit was brought by The Center for Justice and Accountability.



When making your donation, please be sure to select The Refuge Media Project from the drop-down menu for “Purpose of Your Donation.”