I went early to church on Sunday morning because a journalist friend from Europe said he wanted to introduce me to someone. I struggled to get up (and was late to church) and dashed out to Brooklyn.
We met up at the Dumbo Art Festival on the 10th floor of one those industrial buildings spruced up as higher rent art buildings.
I discovered several religious sites on the way. A Tibetan Buddhist temple, Dorje Ling Buddhist Center, is on Gold and Front Streets. Going up to the third floor, I passed an art studio with a poster entitled “Face Faith,” a shamanistic exhibit by a Hungarian artist and a search for meaning by a Polish artist. On the tenth floor one guy had painted himself with a crown of thorns but he barked at me to shut up when asked about religion. I wondered about his anger against religion since he used a lot of Biblical images with himself as the central figure. Was he just an old god bemoaning his loss of preeminence to Jesus? I didn’t get a chance to ask as he told me I had to leave if I wanted to ask more about religion. He was one of those tolerant Richard Dawkins’ types.
At the end of the hall I came upon C.M. Rien Kuntari, the journalist that I was supposed to meet. She was standing beside her book display from which I gathered that she was from Indonesia. I was surprised that she talked about her pilgrimage for God as a truth-telling journalist. Her pilgrimage landed her in New York City as a safe-haven from military assassins.
She didn’t seem so tough or dangerous; she didn’t bark at me as did the guy down the hall. She talked rather low, but intensely. I discovered that indeed I had come upon a religious site in Room 1014 of 20 Jay Street, just one of the many hallways that we have traveled down on our Journey through NYC religions.
Kuntari is one of number of immigrants who are refugees fleeing to the safety of New York City. Many of these refugees are fleeing religious persecution or punishment for practicing some aspect of their faith’s values. Christian refugees have come to New York City to escaped forced abortion in China.
Immigrants who are refugees are caught in a different dynamic social process from that of the normal immigrant Typically, they were violently abused and uprooted from their homeland and arrive in the U.S. with fragmented personalities and social networks. They may arrive with a tragic sense of loss and be highly traumatized. That was the case of Kuntari.
For a long time Kuntari didn’t want to even get out of bed. She would just lay there. But some secular and Christian groups helped her to resume a normal life.
Rien was a noted war reporter for the mega-sized daily newspaper Kompas in Jakarta, Indonesia. She started with the first Iraq war in 1991, traveled through the Rwanda genocide as it was happening, and visited Iraq a couple of more times. She noted, “My faith was never affected by the situations. It only got stronger.” She is Roman Catholic. She has reported in more than fifty countries.
“In Iraq I went as a young inexperience reporter. I feel God touched me in those assignments.”
Her life today has been turned upside down from the fall-out of her coverage of a brutal civil war in Indonesia over an area called East Timor, now an independent country called “Timor-Leste.” It was a site of genocide, but we don’t hear much about it anymore. However, in Indonesia the war is still a white hot topic, particularly among the military. Kuntari wrapped up her experiences into a memoir that she published in 2008. In it she names some officers responsible for atrocities.
From the day she started covering the civil war, death threats littered her life. One rebel held a gun to her head. Another warned her that there was a death order out for
her and that her body would be terribly mutilated so she couldn’t be identified. When Kuntari went to cover the war, she took a route that surprised both the Indonesian government and the rebels. “As an Indonesian, I was expected to have already taken a side…My decision to be professional, neutral, and impartial brought to me a death threat” she wrote in the online site The Media Project.
With her memoir the danger of assassination escalated. She was fired from her job and the military said that they could not protect her. One night she came back to her home to smell a strong ordor of kerosene—a warning of things to come. She went into hiding and arrived in New York City on July 4th, 2009. She celebrated that she had told the truth and that God had brought her to safety. For her New York City was the promised land of the Exodus.
She wrote, “I am not afraid. God never leaves us alone. And it is true God sends lots of angels as soon as I arrived at the United States…In New York God sent his angels…I am really blessed.”
A note on the special case of torture victims
Experts estimate that as many as 12 million people have been subject to torture worldwide. Some estimate that more than 200,000 torture victims have fled to the United States. After examining the problem in 1998, Congress passed the Torture Victims Relief Act and allocated $31 million for 1999. By 2004 there were 14 torture-victim treatment centers in the United States and at least 150 around the world.
The largest proportion of a refugee torture victims in New York City are Southeast Asian, Central American, Africans and Chinese. However, there are significant populations from around the world.
Most victims have prolonged suffering, but never receive treatment or counseling. Allen Keller of the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture says that for every patient his program treats, two more seek help.
Escaping from torture and abuse is only the first step of a very traumatic process. Before being allowed to stay in America, many refugees tortured or abused for their faith have to relive their nightmare by detailing their stories during the application process for asylum.
Lawyers revictimize them by making them relive the memories. But there isn’t much choice if they want to win asylum. Lawyers need a special sensitivity and skill in helping victims tortured or abused for their faith. It is very painful for the victims, and they don’t like to talk about it. Then, when they do, they talk only generally.
Bellevue’s Keller says his patients have undergone beatings, burns, electrical shocks, cuts with sharp objects, asphyxiation, foreign objects forced into their genitals, rape and sexual assault, mock executions, deprivation of food and water, exposure to heat and cold, forced labor, imprisonment under inhuman conditions, and witnessing the torture and murder of others. “Not surprisingly,” Keller observes dryly, “our clients suffer significant physical and psychological results.”
Keller notes that some torture victims don’t have scars or nightmares. “It’s not that simple. Tragically, torturers around the world are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the methods they use.” One West African was locked for more than a year in a closet with 500-watt light bulbs that were never turned off. He has no visible scars, but now experiences chronic uneasiness, fatigue, and numbness.
The origin of the well-known Bellevue/NYU program goes back to the time Kina Kagama (a pseudonym) of Togo dazedly stumbled into the emergency room with a Bible under an arm deeply marked by shackles. Keller couldn’t figure out what was ailing Kagama because the marks on his arms were not severe enough for his bad state.
“It struck me: the guy had suffered a severe psychological trauma,” Keller says. “As I went over his history, it came out that his symptoms resulted from his torture in Togo.”
Kagama’s case also illustrates how religious, ethnic and political conflicts often overlap in torture and abuse cases. Kagama was an active Christian and a defender of democratic freedoms based on his Christian convictions. But the government tortured him first for his politics, then for being a member of the wrong tribe, and finally as a warning to other Christians and missionaries to stay away from human-rights concerns. In a few cases, missionaries avoid publicly helping torture victims for fear of getting kicked out of the country.
Meredith Hawkins at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, New York says one of her biggest challenges is getting immigrant religious groups to put torture victims on their agendas. “The Bellevue/New York University program is one of the largest in the country and treats many religious torture victims, but they are uneasy with religious victims because of their secular outlook,” she says. “Volunteers from immigrant religious organizations could really help.” [Some of the preceeding material is adapted from Tony Carnes, "The Torture Victim Next Door," Christianity Today, March 4, 2002.]