Asylum seekers in the only homeland they’ve ever known

director and residents of Freedom House Detroit
Deb (left) photo by Nick Hagen; Nadia and the twins (right) photo by Alex Godin/both photos courtesy of Freedom House Detroit

Detroit, Michigan – Deb Drennan honors a community of asylum seekers for World Refugee Day 2018

Before I joined Freedom House Detroit, I’d spent years working as a social worker for organizations that served marginalized populations: prisons, job training programs, social service agencies. I quickly found that FHD was unlike any place I had worked before.

I’ve been the chief executive officer of FHD for over ten years. FHD is a place of refuge for asylum seekers in the United States. We provide legal assistance, shelter, food, acculturation programs, and medical and mental health services, all free of charge to our clients. That’s our elevator speech.

But, FHD is not merely an institution through which people pass along their journey to self-sufficiency. It is not a way station. In my time here, I have come to understand it as a place that is shaped by all who visit it, who work for it, who partner with it, and who volunteer here. The FHD difference is the community that is formed from and shaped by the people who enter this space.

We gather here because, whatever else our differences may be, we believe in the right of every person to live with dignity. From that simple value grows the strength of a community of strangers.

Our residents are thrown together in this house because their home communities threw them out. They may have loved the wrong person or advocated too loudly for democratic principles. Their existence so threatened their country’s social or political framework that they had to choose between death and exile.

The price of life in exile is high: fleeing in secret, possibly without saying goodbye, leaving loved ones to face possible threats and danger, knowing that they may not be reunited with them for years, if ever. Those are just some of the burdens they carry with them across our threshold.

Their stories are tragic and heart-wrenching and far too common. So common that what is shocking is not the experience, but the commonality of the experience. But what continues to amaze me, to delight me, to surprise me, despite more than a decade of work here, is what happens after these “tempest-tost” asylum seekers cross our threshold.

They are welcomed by a community of strangers – fellow asylum seekers, volunteers, staff, partnering organizations. And, in spite of, or perhaps because of, so much fear and loneliness, our new residents embrace this community and make it their own.

One of the first times I remember recognizing FHD’s impact was years ago, not long after I began work here as a social worker. One of our residents was dying of AIDS, a death sentence imposed upon him by his torturers. Without a medical team of our own, we relied on our partnerships with several medical facilities to meet his physical needs. Those partnerships are critical to this community.

What we could offer from inside the house was comfort, and the other residents delivered that. This man had suffered so much cruelty and inhumanity in his home country. But here, in this home full of fellow travelers, residents spoke and sang to him in his native language. They gave him warmth and compassion as he slipped away to death.

Our community is just as powerful in life. When Nadia arrived here five years ago, she had no idea she was pregnant with twin girls. Not long before she fled her homeland, she suffered a miscarriage, so news that she and her husband were expecting quelled one ache but gave way to others: Her husband remained back in their home country. And now, she was pregnant in a foreign place and a newcomer to the FHD community.

Though she might not have expected it, I was thrilled when Nadia gave me the news. Babies light up the House. And, though our organization is not equipped to shelter babies and families on a regular basis, we are well-practiced in managing the unexpected.

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Our medical partners and volunteer corps rallied to our aid, delivering critical medical services throughout and after the pregnancy and providing all of the new-baby accouterments needed. The results of these Herculean efforts were three healthy and well-loved individuals.

Today, those babies are gearing up for kindergarten, and their dad is here to support them. Mamba and Nadia were reunited in 2015. Using FHD’s network of community partners and connections, Mamba has jump-started his restaurant business idea, Baobab Fare. Though the family now has their own home, they visit FHD often. Sometimes Mamba and Nadia cater food here. But, more often, they bring the girls back to visit. And, despite that the residents have changed, the girls still love this place. It is their first home, their first community, in the only homeland they’ve ever known.

Watch a video about how Freedom House helped another family of asylum seekers reach self-sufficiency.

Deborah Drennan is the CEO of Freedom House Detroit.

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.