Commentary
12:33 pm
Wed December 21, 2011

The Real Homeless: Victims of persecution seeking political asylum

We’re going to see a lot of stories about homeless people in Michigan this winter. Unemployment has come down a little, but is still high, and assistance for the poor is way down.

Shelter and rescue mission managers are bracing for the flood they feel is coming, after the state began cutting tens of thousands of people off cash assistance forever, most of them children.

But today I want to tell you about 29 people who are the most homeless of anyone. Oh, they have a roof over their head. But they are thousands of miles from where they once belonged, and back there, they would risk being tortured or killed.

They are victims of persecution who are seeking political asylum in the United States, and they are getting sanctuary in Detroit in a place called, simply, Freedom House.

Freedom House is a little drab from the outside. It looks like what it once was -- a nineteenth-century convent. It’s an old, rambling red-brick building next to St. Anne’s, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Michigan. If you walk into the church, you’ll see a  rough-hewn old wooden box, inside of which rest the bones of Father Gabriel Richard, who founded the University of Michigan.

The people next door are still alive, and trying to prove they are as American as they come, though none were born here and few speak fluent English. If you remember your history, this country was founded by refugees from religious or political persecution. Some people don’t know it, but America still has a policy of granting asylum to those who can prove they are in the same boat.

But the asylum process takes a long time, and Freedom House, the only agency of its kind in the nation, is where they wait.

When it was founded in the 1980s, most of the refugees were from civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Today, nearly all are from Africa. Deborah Drennan, a Detroit native has been Freedom House’s executive director for the past several years. She tells me she has never had a job that meant more to her.

Keeping the place afloat economically has been getting tougher. She is in a constant scramble to raise money to keep the place running and attend to the residents’ needs.

Those include not only food and shelter, but legal and medical services, English-language classes and psychological counseling. This past year, she served as an assistant midwife while two babies were born. She arranges celebrations when a resident is granted asylum, and helps people cope when things are bad. You can read more about all this at freedomhousedetroit.org

There aren’t as many refugees as there used to be. Drennan thinks that’s because the government has tightened its borders. She worries about the financial crisis in Detroit, and how having an emergency manager might affect her folks.

But she doesn’t have enough time to worry much. She has to rustle up enough paper goods to get everyone through the holidays. She showed me a note a woman named Victoria left after she was granted asylum.  It said, simply, “I have seen the America that I have always imagined before I came to this country. God bless you.”

Now that’s Deborah Drennan‘s kind of Christmas bonus.