Denise Ziya Berte, standing for people suffering trauma after war and oppression

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Philadelphia, PA

”The sense of community and family, cooking with groups of women, participating in community events with dancing and drumming, staying up late and arguing over politics, are all things I love and miss when I have been away from Africa for a while…Mostly I miss my courageous, passionate and ever struggling soul mates who continue the work of demanding peace, justice, and well-being for their children. Whenever I can assist them in their sacred calling I will always return”.


My interest in human rights and social justice began at a very young age. Even as early as age 12 I was involved in a youth movement to eradicate world hunger and went to my first protest in favor of Equal Rights Amendement for Women. It is the belief that under one creator all people had the same rights and should have the same opportunities that fueled my work. I knew I wanted to be a psychologist and my speciality became community organizing and the trauma suffered by people in war and oppression. As a university student I became aware of the wars in Central America and the role that my own government played in propagating a system that kept millions of people in poverty for its own gains and convenience. I took a stand, along with many others in the US that supported people fleeing from the Central American wars and offering them safe haven under international law although the US administration would not recognize them as ”refugees” and instead called them ”illegals”. At that time our work itself was considered ”illegal”. I donated my time as volunteer without pay for five years living and working with women, children, and families who had demonstrated great courage by standing up to oppressive systems in their home countries and then fleeing to tell their stories in the US. When I received my doctoral degree I dedicated it to working with those most vulnerable populations who had suffered great persecution in the name of human rights and continued my work both domestically and internationally.


Almost all newcomers to the United States are leaving their homes, families and safety under some great pressure. For some it is the threat of torture and death, for others the safety and survival of their children due to economic hardship. Most newcomers have had to face perils and dangers on their journeys. There are very few that come without some psychological scar from what they have endured despite their strenght and courage. In order to document their experiences we interview individuals always in their own language so that they can tell their story unencumbered. We meet with them on many occasiions and help them to gain confidence in who we are. We allow them to tell their story in their own way and in their own time. We help them to recognize their strenghts but give them permission to discuss their questions and concerns. It is also important to recognize that individuals who have suffered trauma are affected in their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual lives. A psychological diagnosis will never tell their story sufficiently. We strive to document their experiences in a holistic way that emonstrates their strength and dignity as well as the disabilities that have resulted from their experiences.


The most difficult and challenging factor that all survivors of torture must face and especially those from Africa is the lack of trust and hope. Systems of oppression that have survived for generations, threats of clandestine punishments and violence, paired with corruption create a population of individuals who can trust in no one and who can lose hope in any lasting change.

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