Caring for the body and soul of victims of torture

Oliver Adey
June 26 2020

There is a place in Paris that gives a new lease of life to many refugees who have had the misfortune of being victims of torture in their country. The Primo Levi Center, that is his name, is the most important structure in France specifically dedicated to this. The people received benefit from psychological, medical and physiotherapy treatment, as well as social and legal assistance.

On the occasion of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we met Dr Agnès Afnaïm, a doctor at the Primo Levi Center in Paris, for fifteen years. This place offers multidisciplinary care to victims of torture and political violence, who have taken refuge in France. Created in 1995 by the French section of Amnesty International, Doctors of the World, the Action of Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), Juristes sans frontières and the Trève association, the center receives each year more than 400 people from more than 40 different countries.

« The peculiarity of the Primo Levi Center is its psychoanalytic orientation. Whatever the field in which we work (physiotherapist, doctor …) we place great importance in listening to their singular words. Knowing what they have experienced (trauma, violence), their journey from exile and their arrival in the host country is fundamental and at the heart of all care. We recognize them, we believe them, we give value to what they tell us.« , explains Dr. Agnès Afnaïm.

This place of peace and reconstruction works thanks to a dozen clinicians (six psychologists, three doctors, two social workers and a physiotherapist). Not to mention the administrative center and a professional interpretation service that can translate 40 languages. Faced with needs exacerbated by the health crisis, access to quality care (especially at the psychological level), individual support and long-term care are relevant and necessary responses.

« Reception and living conditions in France are increasingly precarious for exiles and even more so with the Covid-19. The great difficulties we encounter are a real challenge in our work« , says Dr Agnès Afnaïm.

Future patients are referred to these second-hand experts via a large network of associations and accommodation centers. An Internet site also exists to be able to profit from care. And former refugees advise the Primo Levi Center to new arrivals.

« Keeping in touch with these people is of great importance even if we do not always have an answer to give them based on their situation, » she added.

Survivors of torture

When we talk about the horrible act of torture that may seem distant in the French mind, Dr. Agnès Afnaïm insists that on our streets, on the sidewalks are visible men and women who form informing beings, who no longer look like humans.

« Many are survivors of torture. In the collective spirit, it is difficult to hear, imagine and represent torture, yet it is very active in the world. », She confirms.

Today, Dr Agnès Afnaïm feels good in her work and « in her place » but without filter she admits that at the beginning she did not feel at ease with the word ‘torture’, which was for her too hard to face.

His job is motivated by his meetings with people who at the beginning are physically and internally broken: « for the greatest number, the most marked consequences are psychic, they are not seen from the outside. »

« I have cared for people of great dignity. »

It is difficult for Dr Agnès Afnaïm to tell us a single anecdote, obviously all these links created are memories anchored in his heart. She does, however, tell us about a gentleman from a sub-Saharan African country. « He was very agitated in the cabinet, he did not sit still and he spoke to voices. He could not wait, he felt persecuted by the other people in the waiting room, because he saw his executioner on each face, « she tells us.

After this first meeting, the woman doctor was able to create a high-quality bond with him. Soothed, the man turned out to be a person of great intellectual and moral finesse. « At the moment, his situation has changed, he has not gone out of business, but he has managed to access training, welcoming more precisely. This is a great outcome for someone who does not couldn’t bear the presence of another human, « she observes.

Magnificent news for the specialist who sees the situations of these beings from afar moving in the right direction. Even if the years pass, she keeps a real contact with them: « certain former patients come to consult me ​​as a general practitioner thereafter. »

« They have an extraordinary life force to have passed and survived what was inflicted on them. I bow to this life force. Now, our duty is to animate this flame », summarizes poetically Dr. Agnès Afnaim.

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Caring for the body and soul of victims of torture

Oliver Adey26 June 2020