Amid Hostility Toward Immigrants, Working to Help Asylum Seekers

Health professionals at a Physicians for Human Rights asylum training in October 2016.

For Spyros Orfanos, PhD, a psychologist at New York University (NYU) and a Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) partner, the current negative political environment surrounding immigrants strikes a personal chord.

In the early 1960s, his uncle – an undocumented Greek immigrant working in New York City – was arrested during an immigration raid. Instead of sending him to a detention center, Dr. Orfanos says, police brought him to the prison at Riker’s Island, where he was beaten before being sent back to Greece.

“It was a very powerful and emotional experience for me,” the 66-year-old doctor said. And it inspired him to begin working on behalf of immigrant communities. “It became important to try and be helpful to people who are undocumented.”

Today, Dr. Orfanos runs a postdoctoral clinic at NYU’s program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. He and his colleagues provide services to patients at a low cost. And now, amid increasing hostility to immigrants in the U.S., the New York City native is working to broaden the clinic’s services to include people who are seeking asylum in the United States.

“We don’t want to just talk about things; we don’t want to curse the darkness,” he said. “We want to light the candles.”

Dr. Orfanos attended a training conducted by PHR’s asylum program this spring to recognize and document the physical and mental scars of torture, ill-treatment, and sexual violence. After completing their initial training, participants like Dr. Orfanos can join the more than 500 clinicians in PHR’s Asylum Network who volunteer their time and expertise to draft medical affidavits for people seeking asylum in the United States.

Dr. Orfanos has been working on these issues for most of his career. After becoming a licensed psychologist in 1986, he became an adult trauma specialist and set up an independent practice, diagnosing and treating patients suffering from all forms of trauma.

But Dr. Orfanos was eager to do more. In 2003, he participated in a training led by the humanitarian organization Doctors of the World, and shortly after began volunteering for their human rights clinic. There, Dr. Orfanos conducted forensic evaluations for Tibetan monks seeking asylum in the United States, documenting both the physical and psychological trauma they had experienced at the hands of Nepal’s police. One monk told him the police hadn’t just tortured his body, but also his soul.

Now, Dr. Orfanos says, in the midst of heated rhetoric about immigration in the United States and globally, he’s been inspired to incorporate what he’s learned from his own experience and from PHR into his clinic at NYU. This past March, the clinic began a pilot program with NYU Law School’s Immigration Rights Clinic to conduct psychological evaluations for adults and children facing deportation.

“The feeling of my professional community has been one of moral outrage at the gross misunderstanding of our common humanity and our global responsibilities,” he said of the current political moment.

Indeed, since the election of Donald Trump, more than 90 health professionals in his clinic have expressed interest in working with asylum seekers, Dr. Orfanos said. He is exploring the option of working with PHR to build on and harness that enthusiasm through targeted trainings and referral relationships.

Dr. Orfanos is also considering setting up a support group for his own clinicians and evaluators, which would allow them to talk about the cases they encounter in a systematic way and to discuss the vicarious trauma they may experience while treating asylum seekers.

PHR’s training came at just the right time for Dr. Orfanos. It’s given him a springboard to energize not just his own practice but to inspire those who are also moved to help asylum-seekers in the United States.

“I felt much better prepared to handle cases,” he said after attending the PHR asylum program training. “It’s exciting for me to think of organizing something at NYU with the help of PHR and their expertise and values.”

Get Updates from PHR