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Published: 9/4/2009

For those seeking asylum, America is still a sanctuary

DETROIT - They arrive here from all over the world, usually after having been beaten, tortured, traumatized. Many have seen family members killed; some were left for dead themselves.

Some were persecuted because of their race, religion, or ethnicity. Others because they spoke out about abuses or fought for democracy. They are the people for whom America was invented. This nation still has a policy of granting asylum to all who can prove they are refugees from political persecution.

A small group of those manage, against all odds, to get to Detroit every year, to a place that they know will help them. It is the Freedom House, located in a rambling, century-old red-brick structure in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge.

It contains offices and sparse, dormlike living quarters. It was once a nunnery. But for those living there now, it is a shining sanctuary. And, indeed, there is nothing like it anywhere else. "We're the only agency of its kind in the United States," said Deborah Drennan, Freedom House's program director, and top administrator.

"We try to provide all services needed by those fleeing persecution in their home country." That means medical care, legal aid for the asylum process, housing and food, and also English language classes, job training and placement, and transitional housing.

"I've never had a job that was more important or worked with people I cared about so much," said Ms. Drennan, 53, a Detroit native who has spent her life working for the downtrodden. "But for the first time, I am really worried that we aren't going to have enough money to keep this up," she said. Donations have fallen off, and they've lost a couple of grants.

Accordingly, she has sent out an emergency appeal looking for the $150,000 she needs to "continue providing our clients with the necessary resources to rebuild their lives in freedom."

Freedom House residents are not scum, to put it mildly. The 38 men and women there last week included accountants, lawyers, teachers, and four PhDs. They have, however, suffered horrendously. Most have been raped - men as well as women. Potential residents are carefully screened, Ms. Drennan said, and those not meeting the qualifications are not allowed to stay. But most of them do.

And the staff works hard to win them asylum. Nationally, Ms. Drennan said, only about 42 percent of those who apply for asylum are granted it. The success rate in Detroit's immigration court is far less than that. But the nonprofit group's mostly volunteer legal staff has a perfect success rate over the last two years.

Freedom House was founded in the early 1980s to help a few refugees from Central America's death squads. Originally called the Detroit-Windsor Refugee Coalition, it changed its name after the Catholic Church donated the building, a former convent associated with St. Anne's, the oldest church in the city.

For years, it was far easier for those fleeing persecution to win asylum in Canada, until Ottawa toughened the rules. Now, refugees must seek refuge in the nation where they first arrived.

Over the years, the ethnic composition of the house has changed dramatically, depending on where things have been worst in the world. Today, most are from sub-Saharan Africa, with a few from Colombia and Iran. Relations with immigration authorities, sometimes rocky in the past, are pretty smooth these days.

Freedom House's biggest problem is now economic. While the economy undoubtedly accounts for much of the problem, it also has become fashionable to bash so-called illegal aliens.

Ms. Drennan, whose ancestors came from Ireland, finds that ironic. "When our refugees are legally allowed to work, employers absolutely love them."

But some of the refugees find getting work in their field very hard, like a 30-year-old Rwandan named Aimable Iragula. He has an extensive background in finance, but his English is not up to acceptable levels. Meanwhile, he works as a nurse's aide.

Still, residents of Freedom House are cheerful. When one wins asylum and leaves, they write a farewell in a guest book.

"I truly believe that God has sent me through this wonderful establishment to show me and prove something to me," wrote a woman who signed her letter only Victoria. "I have seen the America that I have always imagined before I came to this country.

"God bless you."

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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