Like any refugee, Amer Kuba was supposed to find a safe haven in the United States.
By the time he arrived in Seattle four years ago from the Middle East, he had already endured the unthinkable.
In 2003, after an innocuous transaction with American troops at his Baghdad electronics store, a sequence of events followed that would haunt Kuba well into the future. Accused of being a spy and collaborating with the U.S. military, Kuba’s store was bombed, his father and brother killed by terrorists.
Later, he was kidnapped at gunpoint, and kept in a single room with 60 or 70 others without bathrooms, food, or water, watching others murdered and fearing for his life.
Though he was eventually able to flee from Iraq to Syria as a refugee, his journey was far from over. As Iraqi outsiders, Kuba and his family were ostracized, and their son teased in school. They waited in Syria for three years without healthcare, unable to work because of their refugee status. Fear continued to permeate their everyday lives — and Kuba even tried to end his own.
Even as they got the miraculous news that they would be resettled as refugees in the United States, in a peaceful, green city known for its coffee and the strangely pointed building on its skyline, Kuba continued to be wracked by fear.
He knew little of the United States, and nothing of Seattle. He wondered if his new home would be safe, if he would sleep in a tent, if he would drink water from a river, if the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime would still be able to find him.
“You see movies, you see what is happening in the United States,” Kuba said, “[but] I feel as a Muslim, I am the enemy. I feel they will be happy to kill me.”
After being in the U.S. for just under a month, Kuba devised a plan to take his own life by jumping from a building in downtown Seattle, where we had come to get immunization shots. In the high-rise building, a fellow Arab man caught wind of his intention, and convinced him to seek the help of a newly formed coalition to provide services to survivors of torture in Washington.
Northwest Health and Human Rights (NWHHR) is the first recipient of national funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement intended for victims of torture in Washington. The three-year project brings together experts in the medical, legal, and mental health fields to provide services to refugee survivors of torture. In the future, there is the hope that the relationships established under the grant will set a framework for a permanent network of integrated services for refugees.
Working with NWHHR, Kuba began to see a counselor regularly, where he processed his experiences in his native language. His post-traumatic stress had caused him to sleep only a few hours at night. In his mind, he says, fourth of July fireworks he heard were bombs, and Halloween costumes at his children’s school were deeply frightening.
His case manager, social worker Christie Schmid, helped Kuba to navigate his new environment. She aided with every aspect of getting settled, from acquiring household items, to determining what medication he needed.
Lutheran Community Services, one of the NWHHR partner organizations, also provides an emergency phone line where clients can call if they are distressed and time of day or night.
“I feel she is with me,” says Kuba of Schmid. He recalls being extremely shy and reserved at the start of his sessions, but now he says he approaches them fearlessly. “Sometimes I feel scared, sometimes, I feel I’m not safe, but without Christie I am a dead man… she pushes me.”
The coalition — now into its second year — brings together specialists from Lutheran Community Services, Harborview Medical Center, and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to take on clients with a deeper understanding of their situation, and the special kinds of support they might need.
According to Program Manager Beth Farmer, the program mostly aids victims of political torture, as in Kuba’s case, or those fleeing rebel groups in the Horn of Africa or cartels in Latin America. Even after they’ve made it to relative safety here in the Northwest, those experiences still invoke fear, anxiety and lack of trust that inevitably bleed into life in the United States.
The collaborative project focuses on a holistic understanding of torture and treatment that expands beyond the period immediately following resettlement (while most government-sponsored financial aid and services stop after three months).
With large numbers of refugees being resettled in our region every year, and a foreign-born population in Washington has more than doubled since 1990, there is proverbial line around the block for NWHHR services.
Programs do their best to incorporate the clients’ religious community as a part of the counseling plan, and examine both physical and mental symptoms.
“There’s what happened in the incident, and the psychiatric consequences, and then what you carry with you for years as you go through other situations that make you feel vulnerable,” explains Dr. Carey Jackson of Harborview’s International Medical Clinic, which coordinates medical evaluation and care for clients. “This was a kind of trauma that previously escaped our attention.”
These different organizations have traditionally been siloed, but according to Farmer, under this grant they’re working together to inform each others’ understanding of the client’s situation.
“The wounds they are carrying are much deeper and more complex than just a western medical system can deal with,” said Zoe Bermet, a licensed massage therapist who works with Somali women in the Daryel program, which translates to ‘wellness’ in Somali.
Since arriving in the United States, Kuba and his wife welcomed a second son, an American citizen, into their family. Kuba says he feels for the first time that he’s ready to work, and that nowadays he sleeps longer than two hours each night.
For someone who has been through what he has, that sounds like living again.
We first reported on Amer Kuba for KUOW in January 2012. Listen online »