University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content
atUBHeader

on campus

Downtown Campus

Bearing Witness

UB helps asylum seekers gain legal status—and heal—by documenting their trauma

Griswold (right) and a student conduct a forensic medical exam.

Griswold (right) and a student conduct a forensic medical exam. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Rebecca Rudell

“People can tell their stories and we can bear witness to what happened to them.”
Kim Griswold (MD ’94), associate professor of family medicine, psychiatry and public health

“My work with refugees makes me feel as if I’m part of something bigger,” says Kim Griswold (MD ’94), associate professor of family medicine, psychiatry and public health at UB, and the medical director of the WNY Center for Survivors of Refugee Trauma and Torture.

More than 100,000 men, women and children apply for refuge or seek asylum in the United States every year. Many have suffered devastating experiences, from aggravated rape to seeing members of their family killed. The Survivors Center estimates that roughly 15,000 resettled refugees in Western New York alone were traumatized or tortured in their home countries.

Established in 2014, the Survivors Center is a joint project between UB and four other Western New York social service agencies. In addition to providing medical and psychiatric referrals to refugees, it is one of four centers in Western New York authorized by the U.S government to help asylum seekers gain legal status. Whereas refugees are screened before coming to the U.S. and automatically become eligible for citizenship on arrival, asylum seekers make their way here on their own; to stay legally, they must prove their cases of trauma—and this is where Griswold and her students come in.

Using the Istanbul Protocol, a set of international guidelines endorsed by Physicians for Human Rights and used to document torture and its effects, they conduct extensive forensic medical exams. Each interview entails several hours of gently and sensitively coaxing out the details of the reported physical and psychological trauma. These details are put into an affidavit, later to be used in court. Stories must match any physical and mental scars revealed by the medical part of the exam, or the case could fall apart.

In addition to gaining multicultural clinical experience with an underserved population, the student volunteers—mostly from the medical and law schools, but also from public health and even anthropology—gain essential communication skills through conducting these interviews. The students are, says Griswold, her legacy; she knows some may carry on this crucial work after she retires. Most importantly, she says, “They’ll have an experience that shapes them forever. That’s what it’s all about.”

So far the center has completed 17 affidavits and had one victory. (At press time, one case is currently on appeal, while the other 15 are pending in court.) No matter what the outcome, Griswold says, the process itself is important. “People can tell their stories and we can bear witness to what happened to them.”