For the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, to commemorate Human Rights Day, December 2011

“I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot, and documents your injuries. It recognises and acknowledges you, for otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human.”Helen Bamber

More than six decades since the UN Universal Declaration was signed, human rights standards continue to unite millions of people in their efforts to have every person treated according to his or her inherent dignity and worth. Yet for clients at the Helen Bamber Foundation, the concept sometimes proves challenging.

For a start, many who visit its therapy rooms may not have encountered these tools in a country that genuinely recognises them, as the UK does – comparatively speaking. Yet more profoundly challenging is the fact that many of these men and women, having survived extreme acts of cruelty and degradation, have had their sense of dignity and worth stripped away. Many no longer feel human. “Victims always feel desperately apart from the mass of humanity,’ Helen Bamber, the organisation’s co-founder and a clinician, has told me. ‘They no longer feel part of life.”

For the men and women who come here, growing to recognise and reclaim their rights as human beings can be a healing concept, and a profound goal.

Humanity denied

In 2011 HBF clinicians treated nearly 700 women and men. All have struggled to come to terms with this country and its processes, say therapists, while experiencing the extremes of trauma-related conditions.

Clients here deal with profound feelings of pain, alienation, fear and shame, because of what has been done to them and because of the debilitating physical symptoms that follow. From panic attacks, nightmares and insomnia; to hyper-vigilance and detachment from reality, these symptoms colonise them, and keep them apart. Many survivors speak of feeling sub-human, and having a sense of appearing that way to others.

In a book chapter by HBF co-founder and clinician Dr. Michael Korzinski, he cites a passage that he often reads to clients, particularly those who have been trafficked for labour or sex. It reads:

‘I was broken in body soul and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spar that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold, a man transformed into a brute.’

The author is former slave, Frederick Douglas, writing in the United States in the 1800s. Yet his voice, says Michael, is often indistinguishable from the young men and women who visit his consulting room today.

Humanity revived

So while HBF clinicians use a range of specialist treatments to help clients heal, they have found the language of human rights to have an indispensible clinical value. ‘By explaining who we are, and our principles, the principles of a human rights organisation,’ Helen has told me, ‘it does help them to see themselves differently in the world, and change how they feel about themselves. They have a recognized place, and they can make demands. It can effect an internal change, from victim to survivor.’

Yet to me, by taking on the cause of those who have fled brutality, and by addressing the suspicion, disbelief and denial that asylum seekers too often face among the UK public, the Foundation’s healing influence has a reach beyond its client base.

Its co-founder – informed by six decades as a clinician and campaigner, and still working a six-day week aged 87 – was keen to stress the role of each person in preserving these hard-won values. It is with Helen’s words to me that I end this reflection.

“Human rights legislation was created to guarantee the protection of those in danger of man’s inhumanity. But it’s when things become very tough, when governments and populations are faced with difficulties that human rights seem to be forgotten. After the carnage of the Second World War there were many thousands of survivors of cruelty, wandering around Europe, and it was our duty to attend to them then, as it still is now.

From my work with survivors of concentration camps, most of all, I learned the responsibility to bear witness. This is what the survivor demands, even in their dying. So I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot… It recognises and acknowledges you. For otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human. And this is how we preserve the underlying principles of human rights.”