Fall 2007 Cover
SCAN"College of St. Catherine The College of St. Catherine

Fall 2007
 
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The Human Face of Torture

For Marianne Christiansen, volunteering to help victims of torture changed her life -- and the way she teaches.


YEARS ago, Marianne Christiansen wouldn't have thought anything about flicking off the lights before showing a video to her students. Now she knows it's best to warn them before plunging everyone into darkness.

These days, many students who hail from other countries are refugees who have fled their homes after experiencing untold suffering, including torture. For those students, says Christiansen, associate professor of occupational therapy at St. Kate's, simple things like a dark room can become an instant and vivid reminder of terrible times.

"We have a lot of classrooms without windows, and a torture survivor who has been in a cell may have a lot of trouble with that," Christiansen says. "Even a closed classroom door can make some students uncomfortable."

Helping people with daily life

Christiansen, director of the College's Occupational Therapy Assistant Program, knows a lot about how the pain of torture continues long past the time it was inflicted. During a 2001 sabbatical, she volunteered for six months at the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minneapolis-based organization that provides supportive care to torture survivors from around the world.

The decision to devote time to the Center came to Christiansen in a roundabout way. Realizing that so many of the students in her classes were immigrants and refugees, Christiansen wanted to find a volunteer opportunity where she could learn more about a particular ethnic group. She chose Somali. But then a guest speaker, a psychologist from the Center, came to the College to talk about how the Center works with torture survivors.

"She described the work that nurses and social workers do there," Christiansen recalls. "But she never mentioned occupational therapists. To me, torture survivors are a classic example of people who need occupational therapy."

Christiansen signed on to help, working directly with survivors to help them rebuild their self-esteem, accomplish daily tasks and connect with medical, educational and employment services.

She also spent a lot of time searching for information on working with people who had experienced torture. Again, she found little mention of occupational therapy. Part of the problem, she believes, is that occupational therapy is often misunderstood. "People tend to confuse OT with physical therapy," she says.

"But our role is to help people regain the ability to do the things they want and need to do in their daily lives like dressing themselves, taking care of others, working or going to school. If people can't do those things, it's our job to go in and help them find ways to be able to do them."

"Our role is to help people regain the ability to do the things they want and need to do in their daily lives."

Christiansen's occupational therapy background is primarily in mental health. This helped her in her work with victims of torture, who often struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder and cognitive impairments that diminish their memory and concentration skills. She specifically recalls one woman who had been a professional in her country but was having a lot of trouble working here. "She had tremendous concentration issues," Christiansen says. "She was trying to support her daughters, and it was just so hard."

Warmth and professional know-how

At the Center, Christiansen shared her knowledge of the role occupational therapy can play in the healing process. And from the staff and other volunteers, she gained a broader understanding of how to help survivors through the entire recovery process.

"Marianne is a firecracker, and working with her was definitely an educational process," recalls Eva Solomonson, a social worker at the Center. "She had a lot of professional know-how and warmth, and she went way beyond the basics when she worked with people."

Solomonson remembers two women with whom she and Christiansen worked. One had suffered a stroke as a result of torture and was paralyzed on one side of her body. The other had lost an arm to torture.

"Marianne worked really hard to help both women achieve their goals despite all they had been through," says Solomonson. "Both of them wanted to go to college, and Marianne went to all kinds of appointments with them, advocating and helping them understand how the system works. Her compassion really resonated with people."

Six years later, Christiansen still volunteers with the Center, taking referrals from nurses and social workers, though her busy schedule keeps her from helping as much as she would like. "That will have to wait until I retire," she says.

She has made presentations to peers at the Minnesota Occupational Therapy Association, telling them how her volunteer experience taught her the importance of being sensitive in the classroom to anything that could inspire fear. She stresses the vital role occupational therapy can play in the recovery of torture victims — who often receive ample care for their physical problems but need the expertise of an occupational therapist to help get their lives back on track.

As a member of the Center's speakers' bureau, she's given similar talks to students and professionals at St. Catherine's and the University of St. Thomas.

Sensitivity is the first step

Christensen is proud to say that society in general better understands the needs of victims of torture, but she knows there is still a long way to go.

"Systems we're all used to need to change," she says. "For example, we tell people that they have to have transcripts if they want to go to college, but refugees, particularly those who have fled because of torture, can't get their transcripts. If we want to help people, we have to find ways to be less rigid in our thinking. We have to ask ourselves how we can better accommodate these students."

In the classroom, Christiansen is ever mindful of cultural differences that keep all students, even those who have not experienced torture, from succeeding. "We tell students they can come and talk to us anytime, and we feel like we're being so great and open. But what if they aren't used to approaching authority figures in that way?" Christiansen asks.

Sometimes, she says, even asking some students to tell the class a bit about themselves can be traumatic. "Being sensitive is the first step. That's what is really going to help."

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

To learn more about the Center for Victims of Torture, visit www.cvt.org.

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Occupational therapist Marianne Christiansen has worked to bring the skills and sensitivity of her field to the healing process for torture victims.

BY MELEAH MAYNARD
PHOTOS BY TONY NELSON