Breaking the pain barrier

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The Independent Culture
The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture was set up in 1986 to document and counsel people who have been torture victims in their own country. Most are asylum seekers staying with relatives or friends in this country; they have come over here by any means in order to escape from torture.

Helen Bamber founded the organisation. I have been working as her personal assistant for 10 months. Previously I was working for the Kings Fund, helping people with learning disabilities. I had been there nine years, and had been offered voluntary redundancy, when I saw the advert for this job. I didn't know much about the Medical Foundation, other than that they worked with refugees. I'd always wanted to get into this type of work, but I hadn't been sure how to go about it.

My first interview was on a Saturday. I thought this meant they must be really busy; in fact, Helen works a seven-day week. Occasionally I'm called in at the weekend, but only if things are hectic. The Pinochet case accrued lots of extra work, and we were working all hours of the day and night. I don't really mind being called in, because I live only 30 seconds away.

My interview with Helen was extraordinary. She asked the usual questions, such as why I wanted to get into the field. But also I was going through a traumatic period with my daughter, and we talked about that. It was as if she was counselling me. I knew straight away from how she talked to me, that I wanted to work for her, and I think she felt the same. I'm normally quite nervous at interviews, but I didn't feel nervous with her - I could be myself.

Helen's very small in height, but when she sits behind her desk she's formidable. Lots of people are quite nervous of her, but I wasn't. I think she has this formidable reputation because she is very driven, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. She is totally dedicated to her work. I saw this and also the caring side of her.

We have a really good relationship - I hope she would say the same. She's 74 and I'm 40. It feels like a mother-daughter relationship, not so much because of the age difference between us, but because I can tell her anything. She always asks how I am and how my children are. I try to check that all her needs are catered for. Helen is more of a friend than a boss. She has a wicked sense of humour. Sometimes we have ice-cream binges. We'll shut the door so that no one else catches us - we don't like sharing. Some of the cases we deal with are quite traumatic, and eating chocolate or ice-cream lightens the load.

My job involves maintaining the diary, taking calls from clients, and typing up medical reports. Clients have sessions with counsellors that need to be written up. When I see these first-hand accounts of what people have been through, it's terribly distressing. Some of the torture our clients have been through is unimaginable. But they still smile and say thank you. Although it's upsetting, you do become hardened to it as well. There was no formal training for the role, but my previous work with the Kings Fund helped to give me a better understanding of people with mental or physical problems.

Our clients are all different. Some can be aggressive, yet some are so placid, they don't say anything. We do an initial assessment and see whether we can help. Asylum-seekers come to us because they need medical documentation of the torture they have suffered. I enjoy meeting them and talking to them.

It's really disappointing when our clients are rejected for refugee status. People get sent back and you never hear from them again. When we've done so much to keep them here, because they've suffered so much, it feels like a real failure. I know that Helen feels it, and when she feels it, I feel it. But it's brilliant when someone does get status. The client often brings in food from their own country to celebrate. It rubs off on everyone, when you see clients so happy. When they are reunited with families and bring in their children, it's brilliant. It's a hard feeling to describe.

The rapport between staff is really good, despite the centre being cramped. The staff are diverse - there are interpreters, physiotherapists, complementary therapists, counsellors and case workers. Most days it's like Piccadilly Circus; it's a real buzz. I also get to talk to a lot of famous people who help us with fundraising, such as Billie Whitelaw and Harold Pinter. There are also those who have experienced torture themselves, such as John McCarthy and Brian Keenan.

It has been a real eye-opener working here. Like many other people, I thought that refugees wanted to come over here to have an easy life. But, you realise, a hell of a lot of people don't get any benefits. It has changed my outlook and opinion. The media portrayal of refugees is not always positive. Part of Helen's role to inform the public and let them know how it really is, so I work closely with the press office.

I have been doing secretarial work for 25 years, and enjoy this more than anything I've ever done before. I feel as if I've found my niche. It feels like I've been here 10 years rather than 10 months.