Anxieties rise at Detroit haven for asylum seekers

DETROIT (AP) — Lucy Neighbor knew that to start over after fleeing torture, bloodshed and repression in her native Cameroon, she needed to find something called Freedom House. She managed to reach the place in 2008, and though she wasn’t exactly sure what it was, she felt at home the moment the door opened.

“When you come here, the person talking to you has so much compassion and love. All the anxiety, all the fear starts just going,” said Neighbor, 41, who became a U.S. citizen last year and now works at a Detroit-area hotel.

Freedom House is a haven in Detroit for asylum seekers that bills itself as the only facility in the U.S. providing temporary housing, legal aid and other services under one roof and at no charge. For more than three decades, the nonprofit organization has welcomed immigrants from around the globe, especially Africa, Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East.

But now, residents and staff members are anxious about the future as President Donald Trump tries to close the door to many newcomers to the U.S.

“They’re scared, they’re crying. Many of them are having PTSD, flashbacks,” said Freedom House executive Deborah Drennan, who is known as “Mom Deb.”

In addition to trying to bar nearly all refugees, block travelers from seven Muslim countries, build a wall at the Mexican border and cut funding to immigrant-protecting “sanctuary cities,” Trump made it clear in an executive order signed last month that he intends to take a harder line on asylum claims to “end the abuse” of the program.

Drennan said there are fears that more applicants for asylum will be detained, deported and, ultimately, consigned to death in their home countries.

“It gets me big afraid because I don’t know what’s happening in the future,” said a 29-year-old Freedom House resident from central Africa, who would not give her name or country out of fear for her safety and her family’s. She said she was jailed in her homeland for protesting the government.

Foreigners who arrive in the U.S. can win the right to stay permanently if they can show a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland. It takes years for asylum cases to be decided, but between 2011 and 2015, an average of 46,000 requests were made annually and about 9,500 were granted each year.

Freedom House was started in 1983 by faith and community organizations to help a flood of refugees fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. Based in a former convent, it can hold roughly 50 residents and provides medical and mental health care, job preparation and English classes. Residents also play games and music, and cook in a large kitchen overflowing with the sound of laughter and the scents of savory concoctions.

They can stay for up to two years while they get their feet on the ground.

Freedom House has an annual budget of $750,000, 60 percent of which has come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency recently announced it was cutting the funding as it shifts priorities to permanent housing programs. Drennan said Freedom House is appealing the decision but also trying to fill the gap with more donations from individuals, companies and foundations.

Neighbor was an opposition party member in Cameroon, where, she said, she was beaten and raped in jail and her husband and teenage son were killed. She said sending desperate people back to the country they tried to escape is “like killing someone twice.”

“Just give them the chance, like I got this chance,” she said. “If they sent me back, I would be dead.”

AP Photo

Lucy Neighbor laughs with Deborah Drennan, Freedom House’s executive director, Friday in Detroit.