Chapter 2: The Effects of Torture on Families and Communities

Because of traumatic events, torture gives rise to discord and conflict within ethnic groups and community support structures. As trust is lost among family members, neighbors, and friends, entire communities can become polarized and fragmented. Under prolonged political repression, feelings on community hopelessness and resignation surface, leaving members with an overwhelming sense of despair because of the unspeakable atrocities they endured in their homelands. The practical need to focus considerable effort and attention on learning a new way of life reinforces these norms. That new life includes the American cultural norm of working longer hours and spending less time in social or family relationships, in contrast to the more communal orientation of many survivors’ original cultures.

Because most torture survivors rarely flee as intact families, survivors go through a lengthy separation and the fear of retaliation against loved ones still living abroad. Once the “honeymoon” period of reunification ends, the effects of trauma begin to surface in complex manners. Such effects interact with the stresses of cultural adjustment, loss of economic and/or social status, events back home (e.g., war, destruction of property, deaths and torture of friends or extended family), and other ongoing trauma the family may be experiencing in their new community (such as racism, neighborhood violence, etc.). Resolving conflicts between traditional and newer values is difficult without trauma. When one or more family members is coping with effects of torture, these issues become even more daunting.

The family of torture survivors may also be affected, either through torture to themselves or indirectly, by the torture of a loved one. As young people in highly traumatized and isolated families view attempts to reach out to others as a betrayal of their parents or they have internalized the fears of their parents. They fear getting their parents into trouble with authorities by bringing attention to the family. They fear a reoccurrence of what happened back home.The thoughtful provider considers the individual torture survivor not in isolation but as a part of a larger support system of family and community.