SALT LAKE CITY — It is a crisp Tuesday morning in downtown Salt Lake City, but steaming mugs of chai await the women who trickle into the sparsely furnished room, adorned in their finest clothing.
One wears a bright yellow babub, an African-style dress with a billowing skirt and puffy sleeves. Another sports a traditional Congolese headscarf embroidered with roses. Bangles encircle a third woman’s arm. They jingle softly as she pulls out her knitting.
The others follow suit. As they sit down to stitch, they laugh and complain about their husbands, trading recipes and the latest gossip.
With the morning sun streaming in through the window, accentuating the bright, lively mood, it is difficult to grasp the dark truth that brings these refugees together, week after week, to this same place.
All eight women are survivors of torture.
Mifunga Lyonze, Sifora Bamurange and Christine Mukankusi knit at a knitting group meeting for refugee women at the Utah Health and Human Rights office in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
A vulnerable population
Approximately 17,500 of the 50,000 refugees resettled in Utah have endured the unspeakable: repeated beatings, electric shocks, confinement in small cages, mock executions or being forced to witness the murder of family members.
That’s according to Utah Health and Human Rights, the only organization in Utah devoted to the rehabilitation of torture survivors. The group is one of a consortium of 32 such programs across the country. The Women’s Knitting Circle, held every Tuesday in the group's office, is just one of its many services.
In addition to physical injury, survivors of torture often suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety. Their experience of inhuman cruelty makes them the most vulnerable refugee population and the most likely to become a drain on social resources, explains Utah Health and Human Rights executive director Heidi Justice.
“The majority of people we work with are living in extreme poverty,” says Justice. “The more we can help them become self-sufficient, the better for everybody.”
The organization’s mission stands in stark contrast to the growing hostility to refugees in Western Europe, which is fueling the rise of right-wing political parties in Holland, France and Germany.
Here at home, President Donald Trump's administration policies aimed at restricting refugee resettlement — including the travel ban, and last month’s announcement of a 50 percent reduction of refugee admissions to a record-low 45,000 — are subjects of intense debate around the country.
Mara Rabin, medical director of Utah Health and Human Rights, says these developments are troubling. “We have a moral obligation to reach out to those in need,” she insists. “After all, many Americans, including citizens of our own state, are descended from refugees fleeing unjust denial of basic human rights.”
Refugee torture survivors in Utah, a population nearly large enough to fill the Vivint Smart Home Arena, teeter on the edge of a psychological and social abyss. Without specialized professional help, they are at high risk of falling into a never-ending cycle of poverty, homelessness, isolation and despair.
But the funding the Utah organization receives from federal grants and donations only allows the organization to serve 400 clients a year, just 2 percent of refugee torture survivors in Utah, says Justice.
Christine Mukankusi, one of the knitting group’s most devoted members, lives in a bleak apartment complex in South Salt Lake City.
Christine Mukankusi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, knits at home in South Salt Lake, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The paint coating the cookie-cutter apartments is gray and thick with grime. Some of the unit numbers have fallen off, and it takes several loops around the compound to find the right one.
Pungent aromas of cinnamon, chili powder and cardamom seep out invitingly from under Mukankusi’s door.
“I’m cooking,” she says, pointing to the counter, where heaping piles of cauliflower, carrots and tomatoes await their plunge into a bubbling broth.
Gripping a cane, she limps toward a tall chair in the center of her kitchen, an arduous task for the 65-year-old. Mukankusi’s chronic back pain prevents her from standing for long periods. As she chops, slices and stirs, she constantly shifts in her seat in a futile attempt to ease her discomfort.
Soon, she needs to rest. She settles into her living room couch and begins to talk about growing up on her family’s farm in the Congo.
“We didn’t even have to go to the market to get food,” she recalls. “We grew everything ourselves. It was a beautiful and wonderful life.”
But in 1994 everything changed. Interahamwe, the Hutu militia responsible for the Rwandan genocide, invaded the Congo. During the fighting her family was held prisoner, and she was forced to watch as her captors shot four of her young children and cut her brother to pieces with a machete.
“It was a horrible chaos,” she remembers.
In the confusion, Mukankusi and her remaining family members managed to escape and find safety at the Gihembe refugee camp.
She would remain there for the next 22 years.
Food was scarce in the camp and when it did come, it was often spoiled. There was no permanent housing, running water or plumbing. Latrines were not just unsanitary, they were dangerous — mothers forbade their children from going alone, lest they fall into the pits, dug 10 meters deep. Life was permeated by disease, hunger and hopelessness.
Christine Mukankusi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, uses a tall chair to prop her up while cooking at her home in South Salt Lake, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Mukankusi suffers from back pain.| Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
At long last, in 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees approved Mukankusi’s application for resettlement in the United States.
“I feel so lucky to have been able to come to America,” she says.
But most refugees are not as fortunate as Mukankusi. Emily Lynch, a cultural anthropologist who conducted field research in Gihembe, says the majority are never resettled and are forced to live out the rest of their lives in the camp.
Indeed, Mukankusi left her 97-year-old mother, brother, five adult children and three grandchildren behind in Gihembe. Their resettlement applications are still pending.
Lynch explains that the U.N. commissioner's office ranks refugees according to a “rubric of vulnerability” — the applications of the most vulnerable get first priority.
“Paradoxically,” she says, “the same vulnerability that prioritized Mukankusi’s resettlement application would also make her transition to life in America more difficult.”
The disabling injuries Mukankusi and her husband suffered during their confinement in the camp facilitated their entry but have left them unable to work. Social Security and food stamps barely cover the cost of food and the rent for their cramped apartment — not to mention their medical expenses.
Christine Mukankusi, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cooks at her home in South Salt Lake, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Though Mukankusi is taking English classes, she has a hard time communicating with her neighbors. Without work to keep her busy or friends to talk to, there is little to keep her mind off thoughts of her family — the ones so brutally murdered before her eyes, and the ones out of reach, still trapped in Gihembe.
“Refugees spend decades surviving appalling camp conditions, chasing the dangling carrot of a happy life in a new country,” says Lynch. “For the few who do get resettled, the trauma and hardship they experienced in the camps are reintroduced in the United States under new conditions.”
A vital lifeline
For Mukankusi and other refugee torture survivors, Utah Health and Human Rights’ services, including individual and group therapy, job counseling and English classes, have been a vital lifeline during the very difficult transition to life in the United States.
But reaching 2 percent of the torture survivor population is not enough, Justice says. Too many survivors still struggle alone.
She hopes the Utah organization’s funding will increase, but is not optimistic in light of recent political developments. “We are very concerned about our federal grants getting cut,” she worries.
For now, Utah Health and Human Rights relies on an army of volunteers who act as receptionists, greeters, medical case managers, drivers, therapists and English tutors.
“We can’t afford a van, and many of the women are too disabled to use public transportation,” says Cherie Mockli, a psychotherapist for the Utah group. “Having volunteers to drive them to the knitting circle is so meaningful, you can’t even put a price on it.”
Cherie Mockli, licensed clinical social worker, hugs Christine Mukankusi goodbye after a knitting group meeting for refugee women at the Utah Health and Human Rights office in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
‘Knitting circle saved my life’
At the knitting circle the following week, one of the women is putting the finishing touches on a dress for her daughter. The others gasp and coo, admiring her careful stitches and her good fortune.
Another woman, Sifora Bamurange, looks on, smiling broadly.
Then her eyes fill with tears.
“I will never see my children again,” she whispers, holding her head in her hands.
Sifora Bamurange gets some knitting help from Christine Mukankusi at a knitting group meeting for refugee women at the Utah Health and Human Rights office in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Mukankusi puts her arms around Sifora and begins to sing softly. Soon, all the women join in the mournful melody, their voices combining, growing in strength.
When the song is done, Mukankusi helps her friend return to her knitting. Sifora begins to stitch again, and her smile returns.
Mukankusi says she is glad to be able to support other women in the group. After all, they have been there for her when she needed help most.
“The knitting circle has saved my life,” Mukankusi says simply. “Knitting with the others keeps me busy and I can’t think about most things I’ve been through. When I’m doing it I feel joyful and happy.”