May 21, 2009

The Human Rights Clinic

Bread for the City launched a new program yesterday: the Human Rights Clinic, a special after-hours medical clinic designed specifically for refugees.

America has a long history of receiving victims of persecution--be it political, religious, racial, ethnic or any of the other reasons why humans brutalize each other. In Washington DC, the collective need for refugee assistance and services is truly great, and for years, many have turned to Bread for the City for food and medical care.

"We see waves of different groups," says our Medical Clinic Director Dr. Randi, who is a member of Physicians for Human Rights. “They come in phases. For a long time, we were seeing just so many Cameroonians. Recently, we've seen a wave of Ethiopians. But we’ve received people from all over the world."

When such refugees arrive in America, they can seek asylum, a special legal status that enables refugees to become permanent legal residents, bring their immediate families to the U.S., and eventually become citizens.

“But refugees are often not allowed to have a job while they apply for asylum,” explains Laura Parcher, who is a partner at Jones Day, the director of their pro bono program, and a Bread for the City board member. She has worked with many refugees during the complicated legal process. “It can take a long time. They can’t afford an apartment or food, let alone a lawyer, doctor, or therapist. Pro bono assistance is critically important for them to be able to present a case to the court.”

To apply for asylum, refugees must essentially prove their claims of persecution – often times through the physical evidence present on their own bodies. This process can entail a lengthy and resource-intensive medical examination, requires extensive, legally-appropriate write-ups, and the doctors might even need to provide testimony in court. Furthermore, they must have the psychological capacity to engage with deep trauma.

"An exam can get extremely emotional," says Dr. Randi. "People are unburdening their souls."

As a result, it can be very difficult to find doctors who are willing to perform this work.

In the course of recent discussions with Drs Katalin Roth and Hope Ferdowsian, Dr. Randi devised the monthly Human Rights Clinic to offer these patients a quiet, safe space, removed from the daily bustle here at Bread for the City, while still connected to our array of integrated services.

“We hope that the clinic will raise awareness among service providers and the public at large about the harrowing experiences of refugees in our community,” says Dr. Roth, who also serves on Bread for the City’s Board of Directors. “It’s a way for medical professionals to donate their skills in support of human rights, right here in our community.”

Bread for the City now seeks additional physician volunteers, in hopes that we can expand the capacity of this program. To learn more about the Human Rights Clinic, contact Amy at

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