They come from the hellholes of the earth, from the torture cells of the former Yugoslavia, the military prisons of South America and the killing fields of sub-Saharan Africa. Usually tortured, with family members murdered, they show up on the doorstep of the century-old former convent they call Freedom House.
They have risked their lives to get to the address they have carried halfway around the world, scrawled on a sheet of paper or painstakingly memorized: 2630 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI 48216.
Plenty of people in Michigan have never heard of Freedom House. But they know of it in Kinshasa and Kosovo, in Colombia and Iran. There is no other place like it in the world. It's the nation's only organization, as interim administrator Deborah Drennan puts it, "to offer a full range of services to those seeking asylum: Shelter, clothing, legal aid, English classes," as well as health care, both physical and mental.
These are the refugees this nation was established to take in, right from the start: victims of persecution and torture. The goal is to win them permanent asylum, here or in Canada. Once they get asylum, Freedom House helps them find transitional housing, and a job. Freedom House has been doing this for almost 30 years, since the days when a few refugees from the death squads in El Salvador found their way to this part of the world. Freedom House was called the Detroit-Windsor Refugee Coalition then.
Later, after the Roman Catholic Church donated the ancient building, the movement itself got a name, a new name, the same name: Freedom House. Over the years, it has been a gateway to freedom and new life for thousands.
"As you all know I was looking like a wild man, but in three days you make me look like myself again. You guys are amazing," Abdulaye Dildoa wrote, after he got the news that he had been granted asylum last November.
Consolas Dominique put it this way: "God, I thank you for having sent the F.H. staff and the residents to give me hope when I did not have hope. When I missed my family, Freedom House substituted [for] my family, ... taught me how to care and welcome people." There are many, many more letters like that.
But today, Freedom House is in trouble.
Deborah Drennan is a master at stretching dollars; she's been involved in running nonprofits on a shoestring her entire adult life. She's been a manager at Women ARISE, a group that tries to help women prisoners go straight when they go free, and at COTS, the Coalition on Temporary Shelter.
She knows how to pinch the eagle on the back of the dollar. But you can squeeze those feathers only so much. Freedom House lost a couple major grants this year, and donations are down. Way down. Much of that undoubtedly has to do with the recession/depression, which has seen unemployment in the city rise to a whopping 28.9 percent. But some of it may have to do with the fact that immigrants in general are intensely unpopular these days, thanks to a steady barrage of garbage from bargain-basement demagogues like Lou Dobbs, and a bunch of Brilliantine-wearing Republicans desperately in search of an issue to ride.
The fact is that asylum-seekers like those at Freedom House made America great. Recently I compared the 38 men and women now living at Freedom House to those who came on the Mayflower, fleeing persecution and attempting to find a better life in the New World.
Well, that wasn't quite right. Most of the Puritans hadn't been tortured and raped, as most of these folks have. (Yes, the men too.) And if you think these modern pilgrims are the scum of the earth, nothing could be further from the truth. The 38 people there last week include accountants, finance experts, teachers, lawyers and former professors. Four have Ph.D.s.
Try to find four doctorates under one roof anywhere else in Detroit. Our poor city needs a few hundred thousand people like these to revitalize it, to shake things up. Freedom House is perhaps Detroit's most quintessentially American institution — and yet, if Drennan can't find at least $100,000 in the next few weeks, it may not be able to continue helping those who are most deserving.
"What has always made Freedom House unique is that we believe anyone who flees oppression to seek safety and freedom in America is one of our own," Drennan wrote in a letter to supporters this week.
Pardon me, Deborah, but you are wrong. The idea that anyone who comes here to escape persecution is one of us isn't unique. A bunch of guys called the Founding Fathers happened to agree with you. Let's hope that some people reading this do the patriotic and conservative thing and send you a check.
Rashida fights back: Last week, I wrote about the dastardly attempt to recall state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), an idealistic new legislator whose only crime has been to stand up to the billionaire slumlord Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, whose plan to twin the Ambassador Bridge and increase concentrated air pollution threatens the health of her mainly poor constituents.
Last week, in a letter to her friends and neighbors, Tlaib wrote, "This is an intimidation tactic that will result in a costly legal battle. I have the support of my colleagues in Lansing, but ... I will need to fundraise between $50,000 and $100,000 to cover legal fees." But whether she can scare up the money or not, she vows, "I will continue to demand that all local, state and federal processes are followed by ANY bridge that is being built in our community."
The recall attempt is being coordinated by the appalling Adolph Mongo, a consultant to Moroun's company. Mongo, by the way, first admitted he was doing it for Moroun, then, chain yanked, claimed to be doing it on his own. (He lives nowhere near the district.) The Detroit News' Neal Rubin put it best: "Mongo's record suggests he'd support cancer if there was a buck in it, but this could be a new low." Stay tuned.
Last word on Teddy Kennedy: We've been flooded with reminiscences, tributes and arguments over the life of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who died a week ago of brain cancer. Much of what was said was predictable, but what might have been startling to anyone with an open mind was the reaction of his more intelligent conservative Republican colleagues in the Senate, like Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and John McCain of Arizona. They had not only come to like him as a human being, but to appreciate the great liberal demon as the most talented man in the Senate — the best at getting a bipartisan compromise on just about any issue.
There were also those who were angrily offended that a hero's funeral was given to the man who, in 1969, was the drunken lout who left a young woman to die in his car at Chappaquiddick. Yes, he did that. He also recklessly caused the death of a close aide and his pilot in 1964, when he forced the pilot to take off in a thunderstorm.
Personally, the man was a mixture of good and bad who got better as he got older. But here's something curious: I have yet to hear anybody angry at Teddy over Chappaquiddick say, "Well, on the other hand, George W. Bush killed 5,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, by lying us into a war we never should have started in the first place."
Why do you suppose that is?Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]