Dakota Bound

I’m on a road trip! No, not to New Orleans. Believe it or not, I am going to meet with three potential donors in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Yee haw!

Here’s the deal. The Center for Victims of Torture, where I work, does psychotherapy, physical therapy, and social work for survivors of torture and war trauma. We do it in groups in Jordan, for instance, because all the clients speak the same language. We do it on an individual basis in Minnesota, because clients come from 36 different countries and speak myriad languages which must often be translated, which doubles the time everything takes.

This is all good as far as it goes, except that there are an estimated 1.3 million torture survivors in the US alone. We do a lot of training to try to equip professionals outside of CVT to recognize and help torture survivors. But there’s also no way we can train every doctor, social worker, cop, or immigration officer that might come into contact with a survivor.

People have been talking about doing something with technology at CVT for years, but without funding that’s just dreaming. Part of my job is to find new sources of funding, and that’s what I hope I’ve done. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are three HUGE international development innovation funds that we hope to tap. To do this, we need to find partners who know how to reach patients in remote or difficult to access situations. That’s why we’re going to South Dakota.

It’s so important, when you’re trying to get people fired up about complicated ideas, that you have the right people on your team. My co-pilots on this trip are a colleague who is from Sioux Falls and whose father has opened some doors for us, and CVT’s clinical advisor for our international programs, who is Kenyan and a PhD psycholgist. He describes the needs this way:

In Nairobi, there are thousands of Somali torture survivors living in the slums who are not there legally, under the protection of the United Nations. They literally cannot leave their dwellings during the day, because the Kenyan police will round them up and shake them down for bribes. Which would you choose: Pay a bribe, or be sent back to Somalia where you may face certain death? They may not have iphones, but could we develop a text-based therapy intervention?

Among the survivors who are in Nairobi legally, there are many Congolese and people of other non-English speaking nationalities. Kenya is an English-speaking country. The refugee kids may have already missed years of schooling due to being forced to serve as child soldiers and living on the run or hiding. Now they spend 12 hours a day in school—regular school, plus an extra block of time added on to learn English. They have survived unimaginable horrors. Many of them need psychotherapy or physical therapy, but they don’t have time for it. Could we develop a game-like therapy intervention that would appeal to youth?

CVT also works in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp on earth, in northern Kenya near the Somali border. Its population is about the same as Minneapolis—about 350,000 people. Could we do tele-therapy with them—either mental health or physical? If so we could reach so many more people. We could also use videoconferencing to train our own and other organizations’ staff.


“Do they all have smart phones in Dadaab?” I asked. I have been to Nairobi but not Dadaab.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “We would have to do a survey to determine who has the old Nokias, how many have smart phones. The Chinese are making big inroads into the African market with cheap smart phones. Most Kenyans use their mobiles for everything. They don’t have tablets or desk tops or TVs or land lines. They’ve basically skipped over those generations of devices and they do everything on mobiles.”

I love projects like this. They’re big, messy, uncertain, and complicated. They require me to work with people with whom I don’t normally interact. They may have big payoffs. And in this case they require a road trip.

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