I’ve been writing a series of posts about traveling in Cuba that starts here. I am pausing that for a day to write about an unsettling experience where my worlds collided.
I volunteer with the Minnesota International NGO Network, or MINN. MINN is composed of Minnesota companies and nonprofits that work overseas, like my employer, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT).
Last year MINN launched a class called MINNspire, which helps 50-somethings to explore doing something abroad. This could be anything from volunteering with Peace Corps, to teaching English as a second language, to consulting on communications, as I have done. MINN isn’t there to find them placements; we’re there to guide them through the thought process. I led one of the four sessions last year and will do the same this year—I think.
I was excited that we had 18 people registered—about twice the number as last year. It’s kind of a big commitment to come to something after work, in the dark, during the winter.
I walked in and said hi to my friend Carolyn, one of the four facilitators of the class. There were already two students in the room. Carolyn said to me, in a way that told me we might have an “issue”, “Something really interesting happened with registration. I spoke to a Rotary Club that happened to have a lot of members of the DOC, and we’ve got 10 people from the DOC registered for the class.”
The Department of Corrections. The people I never wanted anything to do with, ever again.
I had come from work, where I had spent the day writing about Eritrean torture survivors. Eritrea is known as the “North Korea of Africa.” They have forced conscription, which means every young man must join the military or go to prison. In the military, they are worked like slaves and their service is indefinite. If they try to escape, Eritrea throws them into underground prisons where they are tortured. If they make it to Ethiopia, they wind up in refugee camps with no future, and their family back home is persecuted. Sometimes they try fleeing to Israel, the one country that reluctantly takes them in, but often they are caught by—essentially—desert pirates called Rashida who hold them for ransom, torturing them while their families listen helplessly on the other end of the phone.
As you might imagine, a lot of Eritrean torture survivors have PTSD, and that is where CVT comes in. We provide trauma therapy and we hope to add physical therapy next year.
So I was writing about this all day and then I stepped into a room of people who had been my and my son’s tormentors for a year and a half.
I am in no way comparing what I went through to what Eritreans have endured. My point is that I know firsthand what a flashback feels like. A surge of adrenaline surged through me. My heart started racing and my palms got sweaty. I felt a powerful urge to bolt.
“I figure if I was a prison warden for 20 years, I can do anything!” one of the women exclaimed. The thought of her volunteering in an orphanage made me uneasy.
“My son just finished the boot camp program,” I told them. Might as well get it out there before she said something that would cause me shoot my mouth off. They oohed and ahhed said what a great program that was.
Carolyn knows my back story and has a high EQ. She emailed later:
“I would never imagine that you would come face to face with your oppressor in MINNspire. I mean, last year you were in Palestine, looking for ways to collaborate, professionally, with enemies of the Jewish state and now you come to St Paul and you are asked to teach the people whom you’ve written about for years.
“ I have to shake my head at what the universe is throwing at you. But if anyone can handle it, you can.”
I hope she’s right, because I thought about backing out of the class but I’ve decided to stick it out. I’ll keep you posted.