Potomac Doctor Treats Torture Survivors

Potomac Doctor Treats Torture Survivors

The 55-year-old family physician is helping many would-be Olympic runners

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Physician Kate Sugarman with some of the refugees she's helped, elite distance runners (from left) Gebre Zewde, Mekonnen Emiru and Berhanu Alemu. Photo by Michael Ventura

Kate Sugarman is a family physician who lives in Potomac and works at a public health clinic in downtown Washington. Over the years she has developed an unusual specialty not taught in medical school: treating the physical and psychological effects of torture.

“It’s all self-taught,” she says. “I see 20-plus clients a day, but a growing number are survivors of torture seeking asylum.”

Sugarman says she’s had to develop a “tougher shell” to handle the “stories of unbearable cruelty and suffering” she hears regularly. But her reward comes from helping survivors “emerge from the deep tunnel of despair” and begin a new life here.

“I always cherish the big hugs that I get when someone is granted asylum,” she says.

In fact, Sugarman—who is 55 and the mother of three sons—has acquired a subspecialty. She works with elite distance runners from Ethiopia who have fled political repression back home and arrived here as refugees.

“It started about 10 years ago, and at this point people get off the plane from Ethiopia and call my cellphone,” she says. She’s learned some pidgin Amharic, the dominant language of Ethiopia, and the speech patterns of her new patients. “They thank God a lot,” she notes, repeating the Amharic phrase for pious praise: igzabeher yimesgen. “Sprinkle that in and you get a lot of mileage.”

Last fall, as a flood tide of refugees from the Middle East swamped Europe, the International Olympic Committee decided to allow stateless athletes to compete under the Olympic flag in Rio de Janeiro this summer. This unexpected and unprecedented news electrified the Ethiopian exiles.

The runners organized themselves into a team and adopted the name Black Lions, after a resistance group that fought Italian occupation of their country in the 1930s. Most of the 14 athletes work several jobs and training time is scarce, so they agreed to meet every Sunday morning and run together through Rock Creek Park.

Sugarman calls herself the “team mother” and brings drinks, bananas and homemade baked goods to sustain the athletes, but cultural differences can be daunting. At the first meeting last November, she proudly served pumpkin bread. But the Ethiopian Orthodox Church observes many fast days that ban meat, eggs and dairy products. That Sunday was a fast day—and her recipe included eggs. Now she checks the church calendar before baking.

Sugarman and her husband, attorney Allen Greenberg, lived in Israel for six years with their young children, but she grew up in Baltimore and they moved back here to be closer to family. Her interest in torture victims was initially sparked by individual patients who showed up at her clinic. Then other professionals—doctors, lawyers, social workers—started referring cases to her, and she gradually learned how to document the abuse suffered by asylum seekers. That evidence is often critical to their appeals because asylum is only granted to applicants who can prove they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution if they return home.

“I can’t ever say, ‘That scar on his leg was caused by a cigarette,’ but I can say that the size and shape of the scar is consistent with what he says happened to him,” she says.

The doctor now knows the common signs of abuse: knees shredded from crawling across gravel; shoulders dislocated by ropes and chains; teeth broken and ears damaged by police batons. Physical scars reveal only part of the story—the emotional fallout from torture shows up in many other ways. Sugarman now teaches medical residents how to identify survivors: “If you see an African person coming in and they say, ‘My stomach hurts, my head hurts,’ it’s important to know the bigger picture—where that person is from and the conditions of their country.”

The conditions in Ethiopia “have been bad for a long time, but it seems like they’re getting much worse,” she notes. Many of the country’s top runners belong to the Oromo tribe, and the government has been particularly brutal in suppressing that ethnic group. “They’re fleeing for their lives, without question. They’re giving up everything,” says Sugarman.
And they need a lot of help. She’s coaxed colleagues, from orthopedists to massage therapists, to donate their services to the Black Lions. Balance Gym in D.C. provides free memberships. RnJ Sports supplies running shoes. “I have this Rolodex in my head of free specialists,” she says.

Several of the exiles have settled in Montgomery County, and the doctor and I met three of them one Sunday evening at a café in downtown Silver Spring, the center of the county’s Ethiopian community. One-third of the county is foreign born, but in this neighborhood the percentage is much higher.

One of the runners is Mekonnen Emiru, a soft-spoken man of 34, who first came to America in 2011 to compete in the Marine Corps Marathon and finished seventh out of 21,023 runners. But his brother was an outspoken opponent of the ruling party, and when Emiru returned to Ethiopia he was arrested and beaten. He emerged with a broken ankle, a bruised back and a dim future.

After obtaining a visa reserved for athletes and entertainers, Emiru moved here a year later and met Sugarman when he sought treatment at her medical clinic. Some days he works two full shifts, 16 hours, as a valet parker just to get by. “I’m working double,” he says. “If I’m working only eight hours I cannot afford it.”

Alan Parra, a human rights lawyer in Silver Spring who joined our conversation, adds: “So many runners when they come here, they don’t have any type of support. Emiru falls into that category. The reality of surviving causes a lot of them to wind up quitting.”

Now the possibility of competing in the Olympics has given Emiru and the other Black Lions a burst of hope. A small one. In order to qualify, each runner has to meet performance standards set by an international panel, and given their lingering injuries and lack of training, that will be difficult.  

But they are running again. They are living again. They are finding their footing in their new country. When I ask Sugarman if reaching for Rio is as important as getting there, she answers quickly.

“Completely,” she says. “Completely.”

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. This column was suggested by a reader; send ideas for future columns to


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