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Vancouver group has VAST impact on refugees

Services for torture survivors include food bank, phone calls home, sessions for kids

At the office of the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture, there are various banners in the lobby offering words of greeting: Welcome, Bienvendias, Khash-Amadid, Hazza-Estegahbhl, Bienvento, Enna-Visheyam, Hos-Geldiniz.

Over the years, the group has collected many fond memories. Five years ago the BBC reported that during the Iran-Iraq war, a refugee from one country saved the life of a man from the other, and they didnt meet again for many years until one day at VAST.

VAST also provides services to the whole family because children can experience the secondary affects of political violence abroad. Thats why the office includes boxes of toys and Lego on the floor, and down the hall, there are childrens portraits, drawings and masks made of paper plates on the walls. Art therapy is done here, as childrens groups work with metaphors, poems, letters, songs, and paintings. For some sessions each child wears a mask and acts out various roles.

The offices food bank feeds 10 to 15 people a day, and clients are offered one free phone call to their home countries per month. Such aid is needed because refugees, some highly educated, often work in minimum wage fast food and janitorial jobs. As new rules make it harder to gain legal aid, some work three jobs to get enough money for a lawyer.

For this story it was very difficult for find torture claimants to interview for three reasons: to recall torture entails painfully reliving it (rather as they must do at a refugee hearing); they want to fit in and are reluctant to criticize Canadas refugee system; and family back home might be punished if they publicly complain about their home countrys abuses. Tortures can include beatings, electrocution, flogging, waterboarding, starvation, rape, and other practices too disturbing to detail here. Clients report insomnia, flashbacks, panic attacks and depression.

VAST executive director Christine Thomas said the groups story began 27 years ago. In December 1985, seven people held the groups first meeting in the Vancouver office of Amnesty International. They called for an intellectual approach to torture rather than an emotional one, and proposed services such as rehabilitation, dental care, family counselling, and a buddy system. The next year, the group chose its current name (dropping the original term Victims as too negative), and held its first symposium at the Justice Institute with 68 attendees.

In 1987 the group gained charitable status and, at its first research treatment meeting estimated there were 86 known number of torture survivors who had moved to the Lower Mainland since 1979. Over the years, its workload grew steadily, and in 2001 it moved from West Broadway to its much larger space at 2618 East Hastings St. Thomas hopes to move VASTs office to Commercial and East Broadway by 2014, since some refugees may find it unnerving to enter the current location above a police station.

With a $300,000 yearly budget, VAST is funded by the United Nations, the City of Vancouver, B.C. Gaming grants, the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. and donations.