Program at Elmhurst Hospital aimed at helping survivors of torture, persecution

The Libertas Center for Human Rights staff and clients in front of the “New Life, New Beginning: A Photovoice Project” photo exhibition.
Photo courtesy of Elmhurst Hospital Center

Elmhurst Hospital has become a safe haven for survivors of torture and persecution, through a nonprofit organization looking to help them heal and move forward in life.

The Libertas Center for Human Rights was started in 2006 by two doctors as a voluntary program providing services to survivors of torture that came through the hospital’s emergency room.

After realizing that about six to eight percent of the population coming into the ER were survivors of torture, the Libertas Center was able to get funding and opened a new clinic space in 2010 within Elmhurst Hospital with a full-time staff.

“One of the biggest goals and accomplishments is to establish a safe community for our clients and a safe place for them to heal and become aware of their surroundings and the things that they can access,” said Jacqueline Chiofalo, program assistant at the Libertas Center.

The center focuses on four domains when it comes to its services, according to Leah Weinzimer, program director at the Libertas Center.

The first is providing medical care at the hospital for clients, whether it is through treating wounds resulting from torture or any other medical needs. For most clients, they had to flee their home countries and have not been medically checked, Weinzimer said. The staff at the center helps schedule appointments with doctors and also goes with clients to appointments.

The next focus is mental health, in which clients receive individual therapy concentrating on trauma mental help and also alternative therapies through using creative arts such as photography, art, yoga and meditation.

The center also provides social services, such as referrals for food pantries, English classes and in some cases housing and employment. Finally, clients also receive legal help because 90 percent of survivors are seeking asylum and need help finding or working with lawyers, according to Weinzimer.

“That’s why it’s especially important for this program to exist because during the time that their [asylum] cases are pending, it’s when these clients are more vulnerable,” Weinzimer added. “Our role is to help them to heal and move forward with their lives.”

As part of therapy for the clients, in the past three months, a group of them have worked together as part of the “New Life, New Beginning: A Photovoice Project.” Through this, participants were given cameras and asked to take photographs of aspects of their life that are important to them.

“We’re giving them a voice and allowing them to really show us and tell us about their experiences through their own eyes, using photography,” Weinzimer said. 

This project, funded by Councilman Daniel Dromm, allowed the survivors to get together and share their experiences with one another. They were able to identify what they had in common and came up with questions that were later answered through their images.

“They are seeing that other people are really listening to their stories. They are able to share their experience with the broader community,” Weinzimer said. “To have an opportunity to interact with other people during the process and publicly share their experiences can be very powerful.”

The exhibit kicked off on Jan. 23 and will remain on display in Elmhurst Hospital’s main lobby through Feb. 6.

The Libertas Center is located within the hospital at 79-01 Broadway on the fifth floor, annex G. For more information visit libertascenter.net or call 718-334-6209.