BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo physician and
expert in refugee health has been named the primary clinician and
medical director of the Western
New York Center for Survivors of Refugee Trauma and Torture.
The center is a collaborative initiative conceived and funded by
Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County through a grant
from the New York State Health Foundation.
Kim Griswold, MD, MPH, associate professor in the departments of
Family Medicine and Psychiatry in the UB School of Medicine and
Biomedical Sciences, will conduct forensic exams of refugees from
all over the world who are being resettled in Buffalo and
Certified by Physicians for Human Rights, her work with the
center involves documenting and assessing evidence of torture and
trauma in refugees and asylum-seekers. She also is required to
provide testimony at asylum hearings.
“The UB Department of Family Medicine has been highly
visible in serving this region’s immigrant population,”
said Marlene Schillinger, president and chief executive officer of
Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County. “We are
mounting this critically needed project with the goal of
integrating physical and behavioral health care for refugees. Dr.
Griswold has unique qualifications to do this.”
Jewish Family Service is one of Buffalo’s four federally
certified refugee resettlement agencies. In addition to UB Family
Medicine, partners in its recently launched project are Lake Shore
Behavioral Health, Journey’s End Refugee Services and Vive La
Casa, with Rochester Catholic Family Center as a regional
collaborator. Other UB partners on the project include the UB
Global Health Initiative in the School of Public Health and Health
More than 90 percent of the state’s refugees settle in
upstate New York. An estimated 1,500 new refugees resettle in
Western New York annually from Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Bhutan,
Nepal and other conflict-ridden countries.
“The more refugees coming from places experiencing major
conflicts like Syria, the more there is a chance that they may have
suffered trauma and/or torture,” says Griswold. “They
have a trauma history that we, as their providers, need to know
about. They may have witnessed violence or been beaten or raped and
we, as objective assessors for court testimony, need to know how to
do a sensitive inquiry. There are specific techniques that we are
trained to use, a process of inquiry and documentation that allows
us to identify trauma and torture.”
According to Griswold, broaching these subjects with victims
requires extraordinary care.
“Survivors have their armor on,” she says.
“They want to protect you from knowing what has happened to
them. You don’t want to strip off all the armor in one piece.
They would fall apart. It’s a process. Providers have to
learn how to work well with interpreters and to be culturally
Griswold says the types of torture and trauma many resettled
refugees experience range from sexual violence to state-sponsored
violence in order to elicit information or being forced to witness
violence against a family member.
“Sometimes it’s not torture per se, but extreme
trauma,” says Griswold. “They have seen horrible things
that don’t leave a physical mark but leave an imprint
The center will help create a coordinated network of care for
“Now, if we have a referral for a specific refugee or
asylum-seeker, we’ll have a better network of providers who
can care for them,” Griswold explains. “Whether
it’s medical, social work, or mental health counseling,
we’ll have a better fabric of providers who can seamlessly
care for this person.”
“From a human rights perspective, it’s important to
help remove barriers to self-sufficiency,” says Pam Kefi, JFS
Buffalo director of program development and implementation.
“We hope to improve people’s ability to live
In addition to providing care directly to Buffalo’s
refugee population, Griswold will conduct research on how well the
project is going in order to assess its success.
“The research aspect will show us where there are gaps in
service,” she explains. “It also will demonstrate how
this project can help us use resources more wisely. Treating people
who have been victims of torture and trauma will, in the end,
result in their becoming more successful, contributing members of
Interprofessional education among UB’s health
sciences schools also will be impacted as students will have
opportunities to become more familiar with issues in the refugee
community. This summer, two UB medical students will be working
with Griswold to help identify health and medical networks in
Buffalo for this population and to identify services that may be
“From my perspective, refugees and asylees are incredibly
vulnerable populations,” says Kathleen Soltis, president of
the UB student chapter of Physicians for Human Rights and a
second-year medical student at UB. “We don’t receive a
lot of education on them in the formal medical curriculum, but
through our clinical work with mentors in the community, we often
come into contact with them. It gives us the opportunity to learn
about different medical issues that refugees experience that you
don’t see in the rest of the community.”