Uwe Jacobs, Ph.D., has worked with people who have fled persecution, violence and torture from at least 100 countries around the world. These survivors find a friend, therapist and advocate in Jacobs, whose mission is to help torture survivors rebuild their lives and heal.
“Torture undermines everything that makes the world a place that’s good to live in. When the torture is perpetrated by the state, when it is systematic, it breaks down everything that makes people feel safe in the world,” Jacobs says.
More than a decade ago, when a colleague asked Jacobs if he would help provide mental health assistance to survivors of torture in the San Francisco Bay area, he didn’t hesitate to say yes, despite the fact that he knew very little about the problem. “It was one of those things that you have to say yes to, and then figure out how to do it later,” says Jacobs, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.
The countries the survivors flee change over time. “After the Bosnian War we worked with the Bosnian community very heavily; before that we worked with a lot of Iraqis,” Jacobs says.
Over the years, Jacobs realized that many people who had suffered persecution were victims of domestic violence, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and honor killings. Working with these survivors led Jacobs to develop a special program to provide services to victims of gender-based violence seeking asylum in the United States. The program has demonstrated that survivors of gender-based violence have levels of trauma that are comparable to those of most torture victims.
Clients who come to Survivors International are usually referred by community organizations or lawyers. The consequences of their torture—medical and psychological—must be documented to support their asylum claims. “The survivors must show that they are actually affected by the things they say were done to them. That work is so important because until you have legal status, until you are given asylum, you can’t really recover. You can’t begin to rebuild your life. You are just in limbo. There is the threat of deportation back to where you were persecuted. Until that is resolved, you can’t really heal,” says Jacobs.
How do you heal people who have suffered ultimate hopelessness and shattered trust? Jacobs acknowledges the challenges, which include providing support for the therapists who listen to these terrifying and traumatic stories. In addition to helping people heal from the long-term consequences of torture, Jacobs has become an expert in the ways that torture affects the brain.
His own national origins have influenced his path, as he says, “For post-war Germans, we feel an extra sense of responsibility regarding human rights. Because of the Holocaust, we feel this enormous collective guilt and shame. You feel compelled to do something.”