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L.A., a refuge from the unspeakable

Torture survivors have seen us as a haven. Let's keep it that way.

June 24, 2010|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.

In July 1947, the greatest play ever to have its premiere in Los Angeles opened at the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard: Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo." The play, with Charles Laughton in the title role, dramatized the great scientist's running battle with the Roman Catholic Church over his telescopic discovery that the Earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around.

At the climax of the play, Galileo -- threatened with torture by his inquisitors, who fear that the church's cosmology and authority will be destroyed by Galileo's revelations -- recants. His students reel at the news. "Unhappy the land that has no heroes," says one. At which point, Galileo -- "completely altered by his trial, almost to the point of being unrecognizable," writes Brecht -- enters. "Unhappy the land," he replies, "that is in need of heroes."

Brecht was no stranger to unhappy lands in which heroic, prosaic or even inadvertent acts of defiance came at the price of torture, death or both. Like so many artists from Germany and elsewhere in Europe -- Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jean Renoir and hundreds more -- Brecht had fled the Nazis to live and work in Los Angeles.

Then as now, Los Angeles was the port of entry -- and more than that, the new home, the city of second chances -- for refugees from regimes that would have tortured and killed them for their beliefs, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their faith or their lack of faith. Which is why "Galileo," by a German playwright and set in 17th century Italy, speaks to and for the Los Angeles that is a great city of immigrants, refugees and seekers of asylum. It spoke to that city in 1947. It speaks to that city today.

Los Angeles is home to more torture survivors than any other U.S. city. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, some 18% of asylum applicants in the United States from 2002 to 2008 had their cases adjudicated in Los Angeles-area federal immigration courts -- 71,767 in all. Up to 35% of the asylum seekers, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are victims of state-sponsored torture. They come here because they are fleeing for their lives, because they live in agony and fear that will not abate if they stay where they are. They come here because Los Angeles has a history of taking people in and helping them rebuild their lives. But simply by virtue of the reason they are coming, they do not come here in good shape. Like Brecht's Galileo, many of them have been "completely altered" by their experiences.

The Program for Torture Victims, which marks its 30th anniversary this year as the only center in Greater Los Angeles offering medical, psychological and legal services to victims of state-sponsored torture, calculates that 71% of its clients suffer from chronic pain and 96% from major depression. Unfortunately, torture survivors are often among the Angelenos least able to afford treatment: Fully 85% of the program's patients have no medical insurance, and 62% are unemployed.

Founded in 1980 by two asylum-seekers -- Jose Quiroga, a physician who'd been beaten and detained by the troops who overthrew the government of Chilean President Salvador Allende, and Ana Deutsch, a psychoanalyst whose family had been threatened with arrest by the then-military government of Argentina -- the Program for Torture Victims has helped thousands of torture survivors piece together their shattered lives. One such survivor is Kyaw Atey Oo, who was imprisoned and tortured by the Burmese junta before escaping, ultimately, to Los Angeles, where, with the program's help, he put his life together. Today, he is a new U.S. citizen and an agriculture inspector for L.A. County. Rossana Perez, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1983 with nothing but the trauma she had experienced after being beaten and raped by Salvadoran death squads, turned her life around with the program's help as well. Perez co-founded El Rescate, a community health center for immigrants and refugees.

On Friday, the day before the United Nations' International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Los Angeles City Council will salute the Program for Torture Victims. By so doing, it will also affirm L.A.'s historic role as a city of refuge, at a time when the current anti-immigrant hysteria makes a mockery of the United States' reputation as a nation of refuge. Even when the nation has lost its way, Los Angeles has continued -- and must continue -- not just to house but to heal the survivors who have come here, as they have always come here, for the haven it offers from unhappy lands.

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