It’s a sweltering June day and I’m driving down Lafayette Street in downtown Detroit. Empty warehouses line the quiet road, and one lone car passes slowly as I park in front of the former convent of St. Anne’s Church. Walking up the steps of the historic building, I’m greeted by TJ Rogers, program assistant at Freedom House.
Inside I’m met with the smell of a delicious Congolese meal cooking on the stove, and the sounds of children playing throughout the maze of a building. Freedom House is the only group of its kind in the country – an organization dedicated to providing comprehensive services, including accommodations, social services, full legal services, education and job training to victims of persecution seeking asylum in the United States.
Deb Drennan, the director of Freedom House, takes me a on a tour throughout the building. At any given time, Freedom House is home more than 35 individuals seeking asylum. Victims of torture, rape, war arrive from the conflict zones of the Congo, from Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria. Freedom House never turns anyone away, so the organization is nearly always above capacity.
I watch as Deb scoops up a Congolese toddler and chats with her parents in the tiny room the family shares. For many families, the financial hardship of applying for asylum in the United States would make it nearly impossible. It’s difficult and often impossible for asylum applicants to obtain employment authorization while waiting on their asylum case, so survival without assistance can be difficult. In response, Freedom House provides a home for individuals and families for as long as it takes to obtain asylum – typically between one and one-and-a-half years.
Freedom House’s two full-time staff attorneys work on asylum cases all day, every day. When someone gains asylum, TJ explains that the entire house celebrates – singing, dancing, cooking food and sharing stories.
I soon realize that the offices of Freedom House staff members are located in the same building as the living areas, kitchen, and rooms. And as I walk through the hallways I feel like I’m having a flashback to the sights and sounds of growing up in a large family – children playing in the hallway, adults talking, music in the background, the smell of something constantly cooking in the kitchen. I’m realizing that Freedom House is much more than a nonprofit organization helping refugees – it’s a family.
After all she had endured before arriving in the United States, Janet, a refugee from the DR Congo, says her first moments at Freedom House made her fell at home.
“I was greeted by people from my home country and offered bread and tea,” she recalls. “I got to hold one of the babies living at Freedom House and it reminded me of my own children back home. I wasn’t sad though. Somehow I knew things would be okay.”
And they were.
Janet, like so many others at Freedom House, gained asylum here in the United States. Today she is grateful to be far from the conflict that drove her from her homeland.
“I got my asylum and my children are now with me,” she says. “I am so happy to be alive and safe with my family.”
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, and the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin recently returned from Turkey and the Syrian border, where she covered the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy Freedom House.