In honor of tonight’s benefit for Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT), we’re taking a look back at Absolute Travel President Ken Fish’s field trip to PSOT headquarters to chat with the program’s director, Dr. Allen Keller. In the only way he knows how – unabashedly heartfelt – Dr. Keller discusses his life’s work of giving torture survivors the tools to heal, what he can teach the Chilean Supreme Court, and what it means to be a survivor. In his tenth year on the Advisory Board, Ken is reminded all over again why it feels so good to help.
Many people, including at one time Dr. Keller, assume that torture is limited to faraway dungeons. Unfortunately, this is a grave misconception. “Torture is a worldwide health epidemic. There are 400,000 torture survivors in the United States, probably 50,000-100,000 in New York City alone,” Dr. Keller says. This invisible population lives amongst us. Survivors who have endured traumas so disturbing and so emotionally destructive that we can’t even imagine could be sitting next to us on the subway, walking next to us on the street, or even a colleague at work. “Just this morning, I ran into one of my patients at the bookstore. They are among us and need our help,” Dr. Keller points out.
Since 1995, the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT) has provided comprehensive medical, mental, social, and legal services to survivors of torture and war traumas and their family members. In the past year alone they provided these multidisciplinary services to more than 700 people from 70 countries. Housed in NYU Medical School and Bellevue Hospital, donations support the program’s torture victims directly.
Ken recalls, “My introduction to PSOT was circumstantial, but I was struck by the great need of the survivors, and the resilience, hope and results I observed in them.”
Dr. Keller agreed the program was the perfect fit for Ken. “Ken is a model of integrating his life’s work with social conscience. Ken’s awareness from his travel experiences and understanding of the international issues give him humility and cultural sensitivity. He’s been on the Advisory Board since the beginning, guiding our mission, vision and work strategically. In the darkest of times, particularly the economic meltdown, he still contributed to our program. That’s the measure of the man.”
Survivors arrive at PSOT’s doorstep on their own, leaving their homes not because they want to, but because they have no other option. Families, careers, friends – everything they know – are abandoned in an effort to survive, literally. Dr. Keller explains, “By definition we are seeing the individuals who had the wherewithal and capacity to get out and escape and to find our program. A big part of what we do is tap into that resilience and those strengths. They are survivors in every sense of the word.”
For a moment even Ken, with arguably the best gig in town, is so inspired he wonders if he should have pursued another career dedicated to “helping”. And then, as though he could read his mind, Dr. Keller reminds him that you don’t have to be a doctor, or a psychologist, or a teacher to do your part. “Anyone can contribute to this cause, whether a student, world traveler, or parent.” And just like that, we are reminded that there is so much we can do to make a profound impact on quite possibly the most vulnerable population amongst us. (Learn how here.)
One of Ken’s most recent contributions to the program’s annual fundraiser was deluxe journey to Chile, a country known for its striking natural beauty but also remembered for its sobering human rights history. For Ken and Dr. Keller, the trip is particularly meaningful. Earlier this year, Dr. Keller was invited by the Chilean Supreme Court to participate in a training for Chilean judges and doctors in an effort to bring accountability to several thousand cases of alleged torture under the Pinochet regime. This evening, October 29th, we will be auctioning off a deluxe trip to Brazil.
Digging deeper during our travels gives us the gift of compassion, while also enriching our connection to a country and its people. Dr. Keller says, “Learning to live with dichotomy and balancing it is the key. Frankly, the tourist industry is the lifeblood of many countries. I always make sure to appreciate the beauty, but while I’m there I take time to learn about the country’s history and culture.”
Ken and Dr. Keller said their goodbyes in the form of a big bear hug, and as Dr. Keller opened the door, one of his patients waited quietly on the bench outside. He had just hopped off a Greyhound bus from Portland, Maine, for no reason other than to check in and say hello to his friend, Dr. Keller. He smiled at us earnestly. We could tell despite his past, he was happy to be here. Not just surviving, but living.
We are incredibly proud of Ken’s involvement in such a worthwhile organization. Learn more about our connection to Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture here. And get in touch if you would like to learn more or get involved!