Written by Steve Schmidt
Government-funded program for victims of trauma aims to help them deal with burdens
Four men stormed out of a car and pressed guns against Adison Parcham’s chest, ordering him to bow down in the street and renounce his Christian faith. He refused.

These were no men, he thought to himself. What kind of man does this? What have I done to deserve this? I have served my country and my people with my whole heart.

He ran and was shot four times in the hip. That was six years ago, in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Today, Parcham lives in an apartment in El Cajon. Scars crisscross his body. He’s struggling to find a job and pay rent.

“There’s just been pain after pain for me,” he said.

Nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein, many of those who fled the ensuing chaos and landed in San Diego County are still weighed down by a horrific baggage.

The most tormented refugees are often troubled by flashbacks, anger, paranoia and other post-traumatic symptoms.

Then they arrive here, only to take on more burdens — learning a language, finding work in a troubled economy, getting their footing in a new culture. Some say they don’t feel welcomed, even by their own people.

About 120 of the refugees — mostly Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians — are taking part in a U.S. government-funded initiative for those who have been physically or psychologically tortured overseas.

The Survivors of Torture program, created in 2010 and run through an El Cajon nonprofit, is believed to be the only program in the nation geared toward Chaldeans and others from the conflict-racked Middle East.

The goal is to help torture victims deal with their trauma as they try to get their bearings in a new land. Many have a crippling fear that they can never return home, or feel at home here.

“You see their crying and their pain, and some of them have a hard time getting past that,” said program director Bernadette Talia. “It’s about opening up a door to something healthy, so they don’t always feel trapped.”

Based at the Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services agency in El Cajon, it is among about 30 similar efforts nationwide that include a San Diego organization called Survivors of Torture International. That group works with refugees from around the world, including Somalia and Ethiopia.

The El Cajon program was funded with a $240,000 federal grant and was created to serve East County’s sizable Middle Eastern population. It includes counseling, group sessions and even field trips.

Talia said progress often comes slowly and can take years, given the weight of issues confronting the refugees. Some may not recover from their trauma, but may learn how to get through the day without backsliding.

For three in the program, survival is taking different shapes. The past hounds one, the present another, while a third tries to look to the future.

Ban She came to San Diego County in 2010, finally gaining distance on what passed for life in Baghdad.
But she feels anger and loss about the past, which makes each day now even more of a trial. “I’m always afraid of something,” said Ban, a 45-year-old Christian who asked that her last name be withheld. “I never feel safe.”

An elegant-looking woman with long, dark hair, she said her world came unhinged following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The operation spelled the end of Hussein’s dictatorship, but was followed by years of civil strife.

Chaldeans and other Christians, once a largely protected minority, were persecuted and seen as infidels in the Muslim-dominated country. In recent years, some have been massacred on the street and inside churches.

Extremists hounded Ban and her family. They harassed her husband at work. They threatened to kidnap her son, after a family friend was taken hostage.

She and her family fled the country and ended up in Syria and Turkey. Speaking in Aramaic, she said through a translator that she was so depressed that she tried to throw herself off a building and kill herself, before her husband stopped her.

Her torment didn’t end when she got here, and she began to get one-on-one therapy and antidepressant medication through the survivors program about a year ago. She also goes to group therapy sessions.

Bedeviled by the past, she finds it tough to look to the future. She and her husband live in El Cajon and have so far been unable to find work. (She was an accountant in Iraq).

Their oldest son is in Lebanon. His immigration status is in limbo.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I would commit suicide,” she says, in a matter-of-fact tone. “This is not a good life for me here.”

Adison His badly scarred body tells the story of his final years in Iraq. Now 51-year-old Adison Parcham is mired in the painful present.

Like generations of immigrants, he had dreamed of coming to the United States. The good life awaited, he thought. Like many newcomers, however, Adison found that reality fell short of the dream.

When he fled here with his family in 2009, leaving behind everything he owned, he traded the physical insecurity of Iraq for financial insecurity and other problems that can take their own toll.

He ran a supermarket in Mosul. Here, he can’t find any work. That he arrived during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has only made the search harder.

Figuring out how to cover the rent on his family’s apartment, when he receives only $512 in a month in government assistance, is a chronic worry.

Talia, a trauma therapist, said those who have endured sustained periods of physical or mental torture are often dogged by a combination of flashbacks, lack of sleep, helplessness, anger and paranoia.

“I have nightmares all the time of somebody choking or somebody sitting on me,” said Adison.

Complicating matters is that the refugees are not always greeted with open arms, even by their own. Talia and others said some Iraqi Christians who settled in East County years ago dismissively refer to the newcomers as “boaters.”