Freedom House

Interim director Deborah Drennan (center) with members of the Freedom House community. // Photograph by Erik Howard

They arrive here, often with an address on dog-eared paper in hand and painful memories of Rwanda, Colombia, the dictatorships of Central America, and the chaos of the former Soviet Union fresh in their minds.

Many have been tortured, beaten, raped, or stripped of their property, sometimes for no other reason than their religion, race, or ethnicity. Some have witnessed the murder of loved ones. Some spoke out against abuses or took a stand for freedom. All had to flee their homelands.

Every year, a few manage to travel thousands of miles to a sprawling century-old red-brick building that stands in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. A former convent, it was once associated with Ste. Anne de Detroit, the city’s oldest Roman Catholic parish. Today, that convent is a very special house.

“There’s no other place like this in the entire country,“ says Alexa Stanard, an Oak Park-based writer who has been a Freedom House volunteer for years.

Here, refugees from the world’s horrors seek asylum in America, a nation that, after all, was started by people fleeing religious and political persecution. They’re not seeking handouts, but political asylum.

Those who work at Freedom House see their mission as something of a sacred calling. “We’re the only organization in the nation to offer a full range of services to those seeking asylum — including shelter, clothing, and English classes,” says Deborah Drennan, Freedom House interim director.

Legal aid always has been essential. Asylum-seekers are not, in any sense of the term, illegal immigrants. Throughout history, the United States has granted asylum to newcomers who can prove they face persecution for who they are. That’s something the courts have to decide.

Those who are unable to prove their case face possible deportation. But Drennan emphasizes that Freedom House is very selective about whom they shelter and assist. Those merely seeking a handout or those with a shady or violent past are turned away.

As a result, Freedom House has an impressive track record. Over the last two years, they have won asylum for every case they’ve pursued.

Most metro Detroiters are unaware of the newcomers who find shelter in the sparsely furnished, dorm-like quarters in southwest Detroit. Though nearly invisible, they’re exactly the type of people cities desire. Among the residents is a nurse from Colombia who fled to save her son from terrorists. By recent count, the 46 adult residents from 14 countries included accountants, lawyers, and four Ph.Ds.

When they’re granted asylum, a process that can take more than a year, they write letters of farewell before beginning their new lives. “I truly believe that God has sent me [here] … I have seen the America that I always imagined before I came to this country,” wrote a woman named Victoria. (Last names are not revealed here because of the possibility of threat.)

“I’ve never had a job that was as important as this, or gave me the chance to work with people I cared about so much,” says Drennan, a Detroit native who has devoted her career to serving the downtrodden. She was a manager at COTS (the Coalition on Temporary Shelter) and worked for Women ARISE, an organization that helps female ex-offenders stay straight after prison. Rewarding as those jobs were, she says her current task is her life’s calling.

Freedom House has been around since the early 1980s, when a group of mainly Roman Catholic activists wanted to aid refugees from the death squads of Central America. Originally, that effort was called the Detroit-Windsor Refugee Coalition, a name that was changed when Ste. Anne’s donated the house.

In the years since, the ethnic makeup of Freedom House inhabitants has served as a barometer, of sorts, indicating the world’s persecution hot spots. Today, most residents are from sub-Saharan Africa. Relations with immigration authorities are fairly smooth during the process of helping residents start anew, but a few rocky moments arise when officials confuse illegal immigrants with those awaiting an asylum hearing.

The current crisis at the residential refuge is financial. “Freedom House’s biggest need is money,” says Pamela Marcil, director of public relations at the Detroit Institute of Arts and vice chair of Freedom House’s board of directors. “We’ve never been exactly well off, but we’re now in a real crisis.”

Prevailing economic woes precipitated a steep decline in donations. Adding to that fiscal hardship is the loss of a couple of key grants. Some of Freedom House’s minimally paid staffers have been laid off; Drennan volunteered to take a 30-percent pay cut over a period of six months. A chunk of her time is devoted to drumming up support and sending funding appeals. “Even if people can’t donate money, time is valuable,” she says. They’ve been the lucky recipients of pro bono services from a range of volunteers, from carpenters to accountants.

Late last year, Freedom House received some good news. The Jewish Fund of Metropolitan Detroit donated $90,000 over two years for medical and health services. Wayne State University Law School is starting a new asylum and immigration law clinic, which will allow Freedom House to use its services.

Now, Drennan is focusing her efforts on day-to-day expenses. “We believe anyone who flees oppression to seek safety and freedom in America is one of our own,“ she says. As she sees it, the men who wrote our Constitution had exactly the same idea. h

Information: 313-964-4320,

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