Tortured overseas, still tormented in San Diego

Written by Steve Schmidt
Many of those who fled chaos in Iraq are weighed down by a horrific baggage
Adison Parcham fled his homeland of Iraq and settled in San Diego County in 2009. — Howard Lipin
EL CAJON — 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 welcome, 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 slow 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.

Adison Parcham fled his homeland of Iraq and settled in San Diego County in 2009.

Ban holds her rosary beads and crucifix. — Howard Lipin


She came to San Diego County in 2010, finally gaining distance on what passed for life in Baghdad.