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Resilience of Spirit: Lessons Learned from 25 Years Treating Torture

Meet Kathi Anderson who co-founded Survivors of Torture, International in San Diego, USA, in 1997 and led the organisation for 25 years.

As STI prepares for new leadership, its founder reflects on a long career of care and commitment, and the lessons learned in the fight for healing and justice for torture survivors. 

San Diego’s location, just 30 kilometres from the border with Mexico, makes it a hub for refugees fleeing violence. But back in the 1990s, the city had little or no services for those many refugees left traumatised by torture. Anderson saw the need, and so with two co-founders set up a torture rehabilitation centre that has now helped thousands of survivors rebuild their lives. 

“People certainly have come to us from Latin America, but many more from Africa and the Middle East and right now from Eastern Europe, people who are fleeing and looking for safety,” says Anderson.

“And those people, on average, travel through ten countries to get to this border. And these very expensive, arduous, dangerous trips cannot be overstated. So I think one of my learnings in working with people 25 years ago or now is the resiliency of the human spirit and how determined they are and what survivors they are.”

Over the decades, torture became part of America’s national conversation in ways Anderson had not imagined possible, such as the questioning of the absolute prohibition in the wake of 9/11.

 Yet the difficulty of the work was always more than offset by learning from the resilience of the survivors themselves. 

“This has been very challenging work, no doubt about it and very rewarding, very inspiring work, all of the above,” says Anderson. “And just when you think that things are settling down, they aren’t. There’s another crisis in the world. But it’s rewarding work because it goes back to those individual lives where we can and do make a very real difference. It’s heartening to know that we have an impact not just on an individual but even generations. I don’t know how many jobs and careers are out there and where people can say that.”

More information

From Torture Journal

The importance of the “right to the truth” in El-Masri case: Lessons learned from the extraordinary rendition

Obstacles to torture rehabilitation at Guantánamo Bay

Descriptive, inferential, functional outcome data on 9,025 torture survivors over six years in the United States