Franciscan Brothers of Peace, other Catholics walk alongside victims of torture

| February 21, 2018 | 1 Comment

Franciscan Brothers of Peace Antonio Pagba, left, and Conrad Richardson, talk with “David” at the friary. The brothers have been helping victims of torture since the mid-1990s. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Throughout any given week, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace hear the rhythmic plucking of the krar — a lyre-like instrument from east Africa — in their St. Paul friary.

For “David,” playing the krar is just one aspect of his life at the friary that connects him to the east African country he fled to escape government persecution after a forced stint in the military. He asked that The Catholic Spirit omit his real name and other details to protect his identity. To help him feel more at home, the brothers converted a downstairs storage area into a music studio.

When David, who is Coptic Orthodox, arrived at the friary as a temporary resident almost two years ago, coordinated through the Twin Cities-based Center for Victims of Torture, his teeth were missing — evidence of the brutality he endured for 13 months in an African prison. He has since acquired dentures that fill his bright smile when he speaks of his family back home. He doesn’t disclose their names and ages because he fears for their lives.

With no official judiciary or free press, David likens the political climate of his home country to that of North Korea, but without a constitution. Each day, the brothers share in David’s prayers for asylum and reunification with his family. In the meantime, he works full time at a big-box store and attends a weekly Bible study at his church. He’s in the process of finding a place of his own, and he said he has found solace living with the brothers, who’ve given him advice.

“God bless the brothers,” he said, “and the Catholic Church.”

Road to recovery

The Center for Victims of Torture, a St. Paul nonprofit, is recognized internationally as a leader in helping victims of torture through an interdisciplinary approach of medical care, psychotherapy and social services with hopes they’ll become productive members of society, said Curt Goering, its executive director.

“When they come to us here, they have deep, physical and emotional wounds, having endured the worst that any human being can possibly endure,” he said, listing the types of torture CVT clients have undergone: being burned with cigarettes, hung upside down, electrically shocked, having their teeth and fingernails ripped out, sleep deprivation, subjection to hot and cold extremes, mock executions, forced to hear their loved ones being tortured and forced to torture their own family members.

Goering relates the story of a 24-year-old woman who was forced to be a child soldier. As a healing activity at the center, victims place stones — representing bad experiences — and flowers — representing good experiences — along a string. The woman decided to place stones on the string for every person she killed.

CVT’s work began in the 1980s when Rudy Perpich Jr., a volunteer with Amnesty International, asked his father, Rudy Perpich, then governor of Minnesota and a Catholic, how he was advocating for human rights. What followed was a rehabilitation center for survivors of torture in St. Paul. The center also does training, research and advocacy.

CVT’s outpatient clinic is a large Victorian home in a residential neighborhood. It was specially designed to help promote survivors’ healing: no bright lights that might trigger memories of interrogation rooms; only large windows with natural light. No square rooms or exits that aren’t immediately available; only rounded hallways.

With about 60,000 survivors of torture in Minnesota — about 44 percent of all refugees in the U.S. are survivors of torture — Goering said the center has a perpetual waiting list. Only a “tiny percentage” of torture victims are eligible for resettlement; most live in refugee camps. But the center’s high rehabilitation improvement rates among survivors give him hope. Last year, the center helped around 400 individuals of 40 different nationalities.

“They’re fleeing torture and terror and the atrocities of war,” Goering said, adding that people are most often persecuted because of their faith. “With the right kind of support, people can and do heal from their wounds, and they do become productive citizens and contribute to society again. At CVT, we see this happen all the time.”

‘Received as Christ’

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace have housed male international victims of torture since the 1990s — about 70 to date, said Brother Conrad Richardson, who serves as the brothers’ community leader. Describing their apostolate as “doing whatever needs to be done,” Brother Richardson said the 12 brothers provide room and board and fulfill other tangible needs — climate-appropriate clothing, food, monthly mass transit passes and phone cards. Multicultural artwork hangs on the walls of their friary, and their kitchen is stocked with ethnic foods to help give their guests a sense of home.

“All are received as Christ,” Brother Richardson said. “Residents who live here, they know that they’re welcome to join us for any meals we have and even to join us in prayer as they like.”

The men come to the U.S. through various means. A former resident, Brother Richardson said, was a stowaway on a ship and found enough food and water to survive the journey. Another man from Iraq had served in a high-ranking military position under Saddam Hussein. He escaped through bribery. The information the brothers garner about their guests is confidential; through the men’s social workers and lawyers, the brothers only know pertinent information and what the men are willing to share, per the Center for Victims of Torture’s policies.

Knowing at least some English, most of the men were well educated and held good jobs in their home countries, giving them the wherewithal to help mobilize people, thus making them targets of their oppressive governments.

“They might be emptying bed pans at Regions Hospital, and they’ve performed brain surgery before,” Brother Richardson said. “But they’re doing it because they know that there is opportunity here, and you do have to start somewhere, and they’re just grateful for the opportunity.”

In addition to David, the brothers are currently housing an Ethiopian and a Cameroonian, who help around the friary a few hours each week. Residents typically stay for about two years, but because obtaining a work permit takes more time now than when the brothers began their ministry, the men often stay longer. The brothers average about three men at a time; the most they’ve housed was seven at once.

“One of the most urgent needs is shelter, and the Franciscans have just been phenomenal in helping out and translating their beliefs into action in ways that make an incredible difference in the lives of survivors,” Goering said.

While searching for employment, the men are encouraged to volunteer, which gives them skills and experience working with people in another culture, Brother Richardson explained, adding that the men are eager to do so. Once they find employment, they begin saving money to send to their families back home, he added, noting that the men’s families are often targeted. They also start saving money for housing, with the brothers helping them find affordable rent. Benefactors provide furniture and household items that the brothers give to the men to furnish their new residences. The brothers also operate an emergency food shelf that the residents may use after they leave the friary.

“The bonds that have been made with these men that have been with us have just been beautiful, and long-lasting friendships … that even after they move on and are established and are reunited with their families, that the connection keeps going,” Brother Richardson said, adding that many of their former residents return for holiday celebrations.

He said a “beautiful aspect” of sharing their home with people of different faiths has been the unity they’ve found through common respect, pointing to their Muslim guests’ admiration of Mary and Jesus. The brothers try to reciprocate that respect. Brother Richardson recalled the time a Muslim guest asked one of the brothers about getting a prayer rug to use for his required prayer times throughout the day. When the brother supplied one, the man held it to his chest and tried to keep his composure.

“He said to us, ‘I have experienced peace here that I have hardly experienced even among my people,’” Brother Richardson recalled, “and that he would be buried with this rug, the gift that was given.”

Complementing the brothers’ ministry, Sarah’s Oasis, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, serves female victims of torture.

Care and concern

Last year, more than two dozen Karenni refugees joined the Church at St. Bernard in St. Paul. The first Karenni refugees came to the parish around 2010, said Hsawreh Sharpoehtay, 31, the parish’s refugee liaison. And all the adult refugees are victims of torture.

“We all came to this country as a refugee because we were all victims from Burma where we lived in our own village … all of our houses were burned down and we had to flee from our homeland in 1996,” said Sharpoehtay, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009 after living in a refugee camp.

In the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, he remembers hiding in the jungle. He was too young to be a victim, but his dad and his brother were tortured. His father was forced to be a porter for the military. All adult villagers were tortured in some way, even women, he said.

However, Sharpoehtay said, “In this country, we don’t have to worry about our safety. Back there, we had to run. Anytime when we hear a dog bark, we had to be prepared to run, because the military would come to our village looking for something.”

Sharpoehtay, who helps Karenni parishioners navigate social service agencies and understand American culture in his role at St. Bernard, said the adults see hope in their children, who can go to school and get an education.

“The hope is in the new generation,” he said.

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace also provide pastoral care to the Karenni at St. Bernard and to the Karen people at St. Casimir in St. Paul, and have tutored adults and children.

The brothers have also partnered with the Missionaries of Charity in Minneapolis to teach catechism classes and host vacation Bible school and summer camps at St. Casimir. The brothers visit different homes to pray the rosary with refugee families.

“On the weekends, the families might gather at one apartment home, and there may be up to 30 or 40 individuals in a two-bedroom apartment with all the living room furniture all cleared out except for a couple chairs for the brothers to sit in while everyone else is on the floor,” Brother Richardson explained. “Some of the young adults in the community … have really grown in roles of leadership in their community, bridging the cultures of our western American culture with theirs, and with their beautiful traditions of devotion and catholicity.”

In their ministry, Brother Richardson cites the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus calls his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. He wants to dispel misperceptions and labels affixed to migrants who find their way to the U.S.

“Any human being who wishes to, first of all, be free from tyranny and oppression … how can one be illegal? How can that be illegal?” he said.

Pointing to the persecution in Myanmar, he said when refugees come to the U.S., many citizens are equipped to share their resources, but instead, people often turn their backs on them.

“Our true homeland is heaven,” he said, “and we’re on this earth. And what we do according to the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus told us is what helps us reach that true home. So, we really need to have hearts open to receiving Christ in our brothers and sisters who are treated unjustly.”

Brother Richardson encourages Catholics to become aware of why refugees are leaving their countries, which should give Americans a sense of pride and gratitude, he said.

“Try to put yourself in their shoes as an American with what we have,” he said. “Could we imagine wanting to go to another country? But what if we lived in one where we couldn’t go to Mass?

“We are so blessed,” he continued. “And if we are to be a people that close ourselves off from others who are treated inhumanely, then what a travesty.”

Pope’s Share the Journey campaign encourages solidarity with refugees

Last July, Aid to the Church in Need, an international pastoral aid organization, issued a report identifying nations with

pervasive hostility against Christians in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Catholic News Service reported.

“Persecuted and Forgotten?” — covering August 2015 to July 2017 — lists “a contiguous line of nations … starting in Sudan, going to Eritrea and north to Egypt, then working its way through Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India and China before winding up in North Korea.” Nigeria in West Africa also was included. As a result of violence and oppression, “the situation for Christians has declined,” the report said. The U.S. bishops heard the report’s findings last November during their annual fall general meeting in Baltimore.

To heighten Catholics’ awareness of migrants’ and refugees’ plight, Pope Francis launched “Share the Journey” in September 2017. The two-year initiative encourages Catholics to encounter migrants and refugees through prayer, reflection and action.

Share the Journey is an initiative of Caritas Internationalis, the global network of Catholic charitable agencies. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Migration and Refugee Services, Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA are American partners.

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