In 1994, for the first time, Harvard University held an international conference on health and human rights. Two of the attendees, Corinne Bowmaker, who had worked for nine years in Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai border, and Jim Sanders, MD, who had provided medical assistance in Minnesota to survivors of torture, decided to found a center for survivors in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area: The large numbers of people seeking political asylum in the region led them to believe that there were many survivors going untreated. (At the time, there were only four or so centers nationwide treating torture survivors.) When they began looking for someone to head ASTT, Bowmaker mentioned their search to her acupuncturist, who introduced her to Hanscom.
"What was revolutionary was that Karen was one of the first to combine community-based therapy, which was developed to help primarily poor people with no access to counseling address everyday problems, with techniques to treat torture survivors," says Jose Quiroga, MD, a leading torture counselor in this country, who is medical director of the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles. Angeles.
Over the past decade, ASTT has grown from being a totally volunteer operation to having an annual budget of $500,000, thanks to the Torture Victims Relief Act, the UN, and private donors. (ASTT doesn't charge clients a penny.)
ASTT is now one of more than 25 centers in the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs, and Hanscom has begun writing a guide for others. "Here's what I really, really, really believe," she says. "You do not have to have training out the wazoo to be able to help somebody who's been tortured. It's really about one human being opening her heart to another human being, and being in her presence." Referring to our time with Meh Vivien, she added, "What an honor to be with someone who has shown that kind of strength in her life—choosing to live on and survive despite what has been done to her."
Beyond the little townhouse of ASTT, Hanscom is training other counselors around the country to work with torture survivors and advocates on behalf of survivors. With the tightening of immigration laws in the war on terror—including provisions in the Patriot Act that affect asylum seekers—Hanscom makes it a priority to put on a suit and head down to the capital to tell legislators that these new laws are making it harder for torture survivors to obtain asylum. On the last day I spent with Hanscom, we traveled together from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to meet with whoever would speak to her in the offices of Maryland's two senators.
She explained in detail just how the new legislation affects those who have survived torture while fighting for freedom in their home countries. One woman, she said, who had been forced by rebels to keep guns in the bolts of fabric she sold, was accused of giving material support to terrorists. Even though the government had arrested and tortured her and the rebels had threatened her with death, under the new legislation, she had to go back to her country, where she could be killed.