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Caring for NYC’s torture victims

Some 75,000 to 90,000 victims of torture have sought refuge here, making the New York metropolitan area home to perhaps the most torture survivors in the nation, according to the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.

Some 75,000 to 90,000 victims of torture have sought refuge here, making the New York metropolitan area home to perhaps the most torture survivors in the nation, according to the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.

Among other things, helping those who’ve been electrocuted, suffocated or burned face the dentist’s drill sounds, blinding lights and sharp tools is no simple task. To fill a hole in the 15-year-old Bellevue treatment center, 12 students and two faculty from NYU’s College of Dentistry treat 20 patients a week, 40 weeks a year, in the first program of its kind.

“It’s not something any of us had thought about, and it’s absolutely shocking,” said Mark Wolff, chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care. “We recognize we have to do something special to make people feel comfortable.”

For someone interrogated under bright lights, students might work with a flashlight. They would let a waterboarding victim control the water. They gave a West African woman whose front teeth were knocked out by a rifle butt a fixed denture instead of a partial one, knowing memories of violence would rush back whenever she removed it.

“You have to take the time to understand their concerns,” said Nivedita Seerpi, a senior in the 2-year-old dental program. She just started treating a South American whose front teeth were knocked out in an attack over his political affiliation and sexual orientation.

“You listen to their stories. Your hair stands on end,” Wolff said. “It’s sad that humans do this to other humans.”

 
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