March 12, 2015

Solidarity with Rasmea

by Jess Ghannam

Rasmieh Odeh, 67 years strong, is, by all accounts, a pillar of her community. A leading advocate for Arab women on Chicago’s south and southwest side, as Deputy Director of the Arab-American Action Network, she worked for over a decade to build community literacy initiatives, halt domestic abuse, and nurture projects for womens’ well-being. 

This work is recognized by her community as all the more powerful because it is done under a dark cloud of post-traumatic stress disorder. Acquired as a result of torture and sexual assault during her imprisonment in Israel over 40 years ago, it is a disability she has endured the bulk of her life, and she shares with countless survivors of torture around the world. Yet it has not stopped her from being a model American citizen, always striving to find ways to bring collective strength to the most disenfranchised communities.

Now, as a result of her conviction on misstating details on her naturalization application in 2004 when she incorrectly responded to questions about previous arrests, this wonderful, deeply moral, and vulnerable community elder may be facing prolonged imprisonment. She already served a month immediately after her verdict, three weeks of which were in a solitary confinement that triggered a severe relapse in her PTSD symptoms. Indeed, even before her imprisonment, the court proceedings exacerbated her posttraumatic stress disorder, causing her to re-experience its symptoms including ongoing nightmares, severe anxiety, depression and a decline in her psychological and behavioral health.  In fact, her whole trial and conviction has traumatized the Chicago Arab and Muslim community as a whole, and in particular the many young Arab and Muslim women she nurtured and supported during her tremendous work the last twenty years; women for whom Rasmieh was both a lifeline for those fighting to claim their rights, and exemplar of courage under duress.

And now, if Rasmieh were to be held pending appeal of her conviction, the ordeal will most certainly exacerbate her very severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, causing significant and severe decompensation in her already-fragile psychological state. Her supporters are appealing to all, what threat does a torture survivor hold for the public? In particular, one who has dedicated her life to community service and empowerment. Surely, and at the very least, we owe those who have worked so hard to be the truest embodiments of civic duty the benefit of humane leniency and compassion.