However, most risked their lives to come here. Nearly all have been tortured, frequently in ways too terrible to mention. Not a single one is a U.S. citizen, and they don’t even have a legal right to stay in this country, unless they are granted political asylum.
They are the men and women who live in Freedom House, a century-old red brick former convent that sits in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. For nearly thirty years Freedom House has been a refuge for those who desperately need political asylum.
People in Flint and Grand Rapids may not know about Freedom House; some people in Detroit don’t. But they know about it in Managua and Kinshasa, in the torture pits of Somalia and Kosovo. Exhausted, injured and half-starved, they turn up at Freedom House’s door with a scrawled address in their hands, an address carried sometimes halfway across the world.
It’s run these days by Deborah Drennan, a native Michigander who lives in Macomb County, and who believes in the American dream, and in the words carved on the Statue of Liberty.
Except the people whose lives she watches over at Freedom House have had a far worse time than most of the millions who came through Ellis Island. In a way, they are more like the Americans who arrived on the Mayflower, four centuries ago.
They have been persecuted for their beliefs, and are seeking asylum. There is a difference, however. Most of the Puritans hadn’t been tortured. The vast majority of the refugees in Freedom House have been raped. Yes, both men, and women.
Nor are today’s asylum seekers the scum of the earth. The thirty-eight at Freedom House include accountants and teachers, economists and four Ph.Ds. Some were guilty merely of being a member of a particular ethnic or social group.
“We do work that no one else does,” Drennan told me. “We are the only organization in the country to provide a full range of services to those seeking asylum -- shelter, clothing, legal aid, medical care to heal injuries from torture, English classes and job training to provide them with opportunities.” When they are allowed to work, the refugees are extremely popular with employers; they have an amazing work ethic. But Freedom House is in financial trouble.
The economy is part of that. They’ve lost some grants, and contributions are down. Drennan and her small staff are doing the best they can. They’ve had to cut back on services. She wasn’t making much money, but took almost a 20 percent pay cut.
Today, she’s struggling to raise the money they need to keep the place open. But she’s also struggling with an anti-immigrant attitude in the land an idea that people like those at Freedom House aren’t “real Americans.”
Here‘s what she thinks: “What makes us unique is that we believe anyone who flees oppression to seek safety and freedom in America is ‘one of our own.’
That’s something the Founding Fathers believed too, by the way. If you want to help a truly American institution in these troubled times, you’d have a hard time doing better than this.