“We responded with…a burning concern with social justice, political action, and the impatience and frustration against a confused world of passive bystanders.”
(Federico Allodi, Founder)
The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture (CCVT) provides an array of services to survivors of torture and war, helping them to rebuild lives, families, and communities as they negotiate the complex legal and social systems faced by newcomers to Canada. Their response is fundamentally social, focusing on a cultivation of connection, solidarity, and meaning that had been profoundly undermined through political and personal violence. In partnership with community organizations and working within a human rights framework, CCVT has helped thousands of individuals and families from over 100 countries make a home in Canada.
“You need to build your credibility and the money will come later.” (Mulugeta Abai, Director)
CCVT began in 1977, largely in response to an influx of refugees from South and Central America. It was started by a group of physicians who understood the impacts of torture through their work with Amnesty International. They held meetings in their homes and volunteered their time to develop a strategy to challenge the denial and bureaucratic barriers faced by victims of torture. They developed partnerships with lawyers in a collaboration “both professional and ideological” founded on principles of human rights, and facilitated the development of a network of professional volunteers who engaged in multiple forms of activism while working to address the health and legal needs of those fleeing violence. They took part in street demonstrations and in 1979 occupied the office of the Minister of Immigration in protest of policies that compounded and contributed to the suffering of the refugees they served.
“CCVT promotes a “culture of community” throughout its practices, resisting the uni-directional type of relationship characteristic of many professional human services.” *
Over the past 30 years, as CCVT grew into a funded organization with 32 staff members, the foundations of volunteerism, advocacy, solidarity, and support have remained steady as they expanded their activities in both breadth and in response to the growing diversity of their clients. CCVT offers a profile of services that, in many ways, is a community response rather than a service response. Counsellors and physicians are available to address health problems associated with exposure to violence, participant-driven support groups allow for a sharing of resources and group-specific programming, settlement and legal services assist with negotiating immigration processes and connection with institutions, and a large network of volunteers provide individualized support in everything from navigating the city to learning English. It is a “vibrant infrastructure of people relating interpersonally…that meets needs and works for change.” CCVT is also thoroughly integrated with other agencies, hospitals, and universities – having a strong community presence through strategic partnerships and public education activities.
“Our uniqueness is as a result of creating the sense of the lost village of survivors left behind and we have created a safe haven. You may have noticed that when you were coming into our building it was locked down and you have to buzz in? We have to do this because it creates a sense of safety”. (Huda Bukhari, Settlement Program Manager)
CCVT has embodied several values and strategies that have contributed to its being recognized as an example of social entrepreneurship. From its beginnings it had a clear focus on human rights and social justice – articulating both a direction for action and the compelling need for action. It is an organization that is established on a very credible foundation – built from advocacy by lawyers, physicians, and other professionals who can actively influence service delivery and policy. There has been less of an emphasis at CCVT upon formal service delivery by “providers” but, rather, a large foundation of mutual support, volunteerism, and integration with the communities involved. Not bounded by individual-focussed approaches, their work engages families, communities as a whole and their subcomponents, spiritual organizations, other service organizations, policy makers, and the public.
Finally, and equally important, they have demonstrated reflexivity. When a community was concerned about their children struggling in school, they set up a homework program. When Somali women were concerned for their personal safety as single mothers, they arranged self-defence classes. When Muslim people would not come to group meetings in a Christian Church basement, they approached a local Imam who attended a meeting at the church to reassure their clients that attending the group would not compromise their commitment to their faith. This is a model of an organization fundamentally operating from the centre of the communities it serves.
* Chambon, A., J. Simalchik and M. Abai. (1997). The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture: Transforming relations between refugees, professionals and the community. In H. Campfens (Ed.), Community Development Around the World (pp. 51-63). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.