When people ask Marge Pellegrino what she does for work, they often don't understand the answer.
"When they first hear I work for a torture treatment center," says Pellegrino, "most of them don't know what to think."
Pellegrino is director of the Owl and Panther project, a resource for the children of survivors of torture who flee to Tucson from places like Mauritania, Togo, Chad, Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq and Central America. (Pellegrino, it should be noted, is also an occasional Weekly contributor.) Torture, as defined by the United Nations, "includes acts deliberately perpetrated by or with the approval of government officials, which are designed to inflict extreme physical and/or psychological suffering."
Last year, several of the kids involved in Owl and Panther were able to attend the United Nations International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors, held in Washington D.C., and hosted by Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC). They were so inspired by the event that when the funding for this year's trips was unavailable, they decided to honor the U.N. day at home, in Tucson.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, June 26, survivors, policy makers and representatives from religious communities, the United Nations and Amnesty International will gather at Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd St. The event is meant not only to honor the victims of torture and support survivors, but to educate the community about the scope and seriousness of the problem.
"Torture doesn't just affect the person who was tortured," says Wendy Jimenez, daughter of a Guatemalan survivor of torture and assistant director of Owl and Panther. "It affects the family, and the whole community."
Just like the children they help, Owl and Panther has strong parents. 1n 1995, adults who were being treated by Tucson's Center for Prevention and Resolution of Violence--one of the 32 torture treatment centers in the United States, which together help more than 500,000 survivors of torture who escaped to this country--asked the center to provide support for their children, as well. What began as a tutoring program became a creative writing program three years later, named for the owl and panther of Cherokee legend--the only animals that stay awake and watchful through the night.
The Center for Prevention and Resolution of Violence was itself a creation of The Hopi Foundation, which chose to fund the off-reservation program because it so closely paralleled the Hopi concept of Qa Tutsawinavu, which is the undoing of a state of physical, emotional or psychological threat. A representative of the Hopi Foundation will open Saturday's event.
As the heart of the Sanctuary movement--responsible for saving the lives of more than 11,600 people throughout the '80s--Southside Presbyterian is the perfect place for the event, which will also name the countries who actively engaged in torture within the past year by giving every offending country its own candle. At this year's event, there will be 112 candles in all.
"When we got the list of countries from TASSC for this year," says Jimenez, "all the kids were talking about it because Guatemala and El Salvador had been removed from the list, but then we saw that the United States had been added."
Says Pellegrino, "What a sadness; what a heaviness. But maybe now people are more aware of it. So maybe there's a chance for opportunity in this sad moment, to make people aware of what so many other people are living with."
Today, according to Pellegrino, there are 17 million refugees in the world who are fleeing physical danger. Only a small percentage of those ever make it to a safe place, where they can receive the kind of treatment and support offered by the Hopi Foundation, which currently serves 172 clients.
"For those (survivors) who can be physically present at an event like this," says Pellegrino, "there's an enormous strength in that. When they get to the point where they can actually share and stop carrying it around as a dark, horrible secret, it's really empowering. This event is a way to acknowledge what's happening in the world, acknowledge that darkness, and be able to tell the community that these people have shown this kind of resilience. We can't stop something that people don't know about.
"Hopefully," she adds, "some of those who learn more about the issue might be moved to act by writing letters to their congressperson, spreading the word and considering other ways they might be able to contribute to the elimination of torture."
When asked if she thinks more people will get involved in the movement, as more of our own country's abuses of power come to light, Jimenez replied, "I hope so. I think that people now are maybe getting closer together, and that's how we should be."
For more information about the event, call the Hopi Foundation at 628-7525.