Documenting psychological scars can lead to new home for survivors of trauma

Judy Eidelson ’75, a clinical psychologist, works with torture survivors.
Judy Eidelson ’75, a clinical psychologist, works with torture survivors.
Beverly Schaefer

In 2002 Judy Eidelson ’75, a clinical psychologist in the Philadelphia area, saw a notice from a local center for torture survivors in a professional newsletter. The center sought volunteer psychologists to provide evaluations of asylum seekers that would be used by immigration attorneys to support their clients’ claims.

Eidelson observed one evaluation to see if she could handle it emotionally. She could. Since then she has conducted about 200 evaluations, and has helped individuals find safety — and new lives — in the United States.

Tens of thousands of people annually apply for asylum in the United States. A study based on data from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) for 2000–04 found that 89 percent of asylum seekers who had medical and psychological evaluations by PHR professionals were successful. During that same time period, the average national approval rate for all U.S. cases was 37.5 percent — suggesting that medical and psychological evaluations increase the chances of being granted asylum.

“It is very difficult for [asylum seekers] to prove the claim that their petition is based on,” says Eidelson. “They usually don’t have much physical evidence. It is a huge problem for the whole immigration system because any evidence that would normally be used in establishing a claim is likely to have been destroyed in another country or not to exist in the first place. ... So people arrive here, and really all they have is their story.”

She has worked with young men who had been forced to become child soldiers; victims of female genital mutilation; and others who had been tortured and persecuted on the basis of ethnicity, politics, race, religion, or sexual orientation. She served as an expert witness for a political activist who had spoken out against drug cartels and escaped an attempt on her life. A young Somali man she helped had seen family members murdered and raped and had been told that he would be killed if he didn’t join the al-Shabab militia.

Trauma victims, she says, might hesitate to talk about their experiences, appear emotionally detached, and be unable to remember details consistently — which can be detrimental in an asylum proceeding because it can affect their credibility.

Eidelson spends several hours with applicants, listening to their stories and conducting assessments — to document the psychological scars of their trauma — that serve as evidence. She also trains local mental-health professionals to evaluate asylum seekers and lectures at law-school clinics that provide representation to asylum seekers.

The asylum seekers can become frustrated and disappointed, says Eidelson, because they come to the United States thinking that once they tell people what happened and that they need protection, they will be allowed to stay. Instead, they might be accused of lying. “So they appreciate having somebody really sit and listen to the story in a careful way,” she says.

“I feel that when I document somebody’s asylum case, there’s the potential to make a difference in that person’s life and the life of an entire family,” she says. “It feels like I’m doing something that matters.”