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Doctors pool knowledge of trauma treatment

Family service groups offer health care, legal advice and educations to those who have been traumatized by violent conflict and natural disaster.

By ALDO NAHED
Published June 3, 2006


Times Staff Writer

TAMPA -Florence Akiti escaped the West African Republic of Togo three years ago. A political activist, she had been persecuted, beaten and raped, she said, and kept apart from her husband and four children.

"I had to run to America," said Akiti, 39.

On Friday, the Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services hosted a one-day institute where psychiatrists and doctors shared their know-how on ways to treat trauma survivors such as Akiti.

About 150 area health care and social service providers attended "Beyond Survival: Emerging Best Practices in the field of Torture and Trauma Treatment" at the Wyndham Hotel in Tampa.

Keynote speaker Dr. Richard Mollica, director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, said that 25 years ago people didn't believe recovery was possible for trauma victims.

"We know now that you can recover from extreme violence," he said.

Mollica has studied people traumatized by conflict and natural disaster, including the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, along with refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Cambodia.

Like others grappling with mental health issues, the trauma victims can benefit from psychotherapy and medication, he said.

"Just having an additional conversation with the patient at a later date can do wonders for their mental strength," Mollica said.

Dr. Uwe Jabobs, director of California-based Survivors International, talked about helping victims of genital mutilation, domestic abuse and genocide.

Some patients need to be assured they won't be sent back to their home countries, he said, making a case for political asylum.

Michael A. Bernstein, president of the family services agency, says the bay area is home to about 40,000 people who have fled persecution and 10,000 who survived torture, including sexual violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that nearly 400,000 torture survivors live in the United States.

Bernstein's agency, which gets some of its funding from the United Nations, helps pay for health care, legal advice and educational programs, he said.

Niki Kelly, director of refugee services for the Tampa Bay area, said the agency supports about 130 refugees a year.

Some choose Florida for its climate, Kelly said.

Akiti, who originally landed in Chicago, heard from friends that it was warm in Tampa, so she made the move.

With free legal help from Jewish Family Services, she recently qualified for asylum.

The agency is trying to reunite her with her husband and children, who now await immigration clearance in Ghana.

She works as a janitor and hopes one day to become a social worker.

Aldo Nahed can be reached at anahed@sptimes.com or 813 310-0998.

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 06:47:46]


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