Advocacy work, like most professions, is less glamorous than people imagine. Not to say it isn’t rewarding, life-changing, and deeply impactful. It is an experience that stays with you.
My first experience with advocacy work was joining a delegation of torture survivors and representatives from peace organizations on legislative visits to two Congressional offices. Our purpose was to advocate for the rights of torture survivors who seek asylum in the U.S. I was blessed to join three survivors of torture and an intern from Amnesty International in my delegation.
The three torture survivors came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and West Papua. These countries are currently under either military dictatorship or one-party control. Human rights violations are rampant and power of the press and civil society groups are severely limited.
The day before our appointments at two Congressional offices, we attended a conference held by Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International, in commemoration of the U.N. International Day for Victims of Torture on June 26. At the conference I learned more about the issues torture survivors face when they seek asylum, especially mandatory detention in immigrant detention centers, usually for months as they try to establish their case. Torture survivors often suffer from PTSD. Being held in detention in the U.S. can re-traumatize survivors and keep them from the mental health services they so desperately need.
Despite experiencing the trauma of torture in their home countries and the injustice of mandatory detention when they seek asylum, the survivors in my group are all optimistic about their futures. During our lunch break between our appointments, I asked them what aspect of American life has made the strongest impression on them. All three named freedom – freedom of assembly, religion, and press – as an amazing, powerful experience in the U.S. and unfortunately impossible in their home countries at this time.
I realized as we talked how much I take these freedoms for granted. How often have I not even thought about being able to peacefully assemble, choose my religion, or criticize my government? When have I neglected to use my voice as a citizen to speak for or against legislation or government policies?
All too often the poor and marginalized do not have a say in the structures and policies that affect their lives. Some of them may not be legal citizens; some may be treated as second-class citizens by their government or lesser-than or disposable by their culture. But each person is made in God’s image and has inherent value, and my peace is bound up in their peace.
Advocacy work, while not a magic bullet that can fix all of problems, can give people a voice in an arena where policy makers may not be aware that they exist. Advocacy work isn’t just going to Capitol Hill in person. Advocacy work can be calling or sending a letter to your member of Congress, or attending an in-district meeting with your Congressional representation – anything that gives a voice in our government to those who are on the margins of our society.
My accompanying torture survivors to advocate for more humane conditions in detention centers and in the U.S. asylum process fulfills the hope of the Church to stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, to recognize that despite our differences in privilege, we are part of a global family where the sanctity of human life is to be protected. I hope that I can bring this message to more legislative visits, carrying the hope of the torture survivors that the U.S. upholds the dignity of human life.