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The coronavirus pandemic leaves asylum seekers at ...

The coronavirus pandemic leaves asylum seekers at Freedom House Detroit in an excruciating waiting game

sign reading Refugees Welcome.

By Amy Haimerl

Michigan’s mandate to stay at home and socially distance unless you’re an essential worker has ground normal life to a halt. It’s lonely and restless, even if you’re healthy and your job is secure. 

At Freedom House Detroit, however, staff are scrambling to keep the doors open, while residents are on standby, waiting for what could be life-or-death decisions. Freedom House is a shelter that provides housing and legal services to indigent people seeking asylum in the United States. There are currently 56 people living there, all awaiting news about their futures as court dates and interviews are pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic.  

We talked to Deborah Drennan, the nonprofit’s executive director, about what they are experiencing.

Detour: Is Freedom House still open?
Drennan: We’re a homeless shelter, so we have services 24/7. People are still working at the location. Our executive team alternates between working from home and from the House.

Have you had to curtail services to residents?
Early on when they identified that [COVID-19] spread from being close, we closed our off-site program. And for the time being, we’re no longer able to have volunteers on site. Some of our language partners are sending letters, but they can’t come to the house and meet with people.

Are people able to get to you right now with borders closed?
If someone is trying to get into the U.S. right now, it would be unlikely they would get in. But there are people who might already be in the country and they can still find us and get services. Or perhaps a student who was here on a visa that’s expired and no longer has a dorm. If that person would be eligible for asylum, they should check with us.

How are people holding up? What are spirits like at the House?
They watch the news; they know what’s going on. But as an asylum seeker and limited in being able to go out in the community already, it’s still very isolating. We’re hoping the weather will warm up so people can at least go outside into the garden space. They need something to keep them from just worrying.

It’s a pandemic, so it’s happening in Columbia and the [Dominican Republic], everywhere they come from. So as people are watching the news, this is one more thing for them to be concerned about because they can’t do anything to help. It’s another level of anxiety.

Has anyone come down with symptoms?
We haven’t had any yet. We are a shelter and people have their rooms, but once someone has symptoms then they have to wear masks and gloves and be quarantined. We’re getting ready for that. 

I am really impressed with the City of Detroit and State of Michigan for how they are handling this and providing services for homeless people. The Health Department comes out to take temperatures twice a week, and of course we’re doing it daily. But they have facilities so that if fevers go over 104 degrees, homeless people have a place to go.

What will this mean for your work when it’s over?
Right now interviews and biometrics appointments [with federal immigration officials] are postponed, and our staff attorneys hope they can get those back on the calendar as soon as possible. And as soon as the borders are open, we want people to know that there is still the legal right to apply for asylum and that we are a place they can come for safety.

What is the hardest part?
The hardest part is the kids. We can’t hug, and those little ones need that affection. All the violence they’ve observed and violence they’ve witnessed, and we’re like, “No, can’t hug you.” But we have to do that to make sure we’re not spreading the virus. 

What do you do for yourself daily to keep spirits up?
It’s not hard when you work at Freedom House because the residents are so fabulous. Plus, working with people that are so good and have a sense of humor. We talk about self care all the time, it’s not just this situation. We work with people who are trauma survivors and that carries a lot of weight, emotionally as well as physically. 

How can people help you?
I went into the grocery store the other day and wanted to buy three loaves of bread and could only buy one. So, I would ask people to consider Freedom House when they are shopping.

Forgotten Harvest is a main food source for us. However, because people have gobbled up so much food, there is little that they can donate. If you have the extra and can, donate it. Or go to the website and make a donation so our staff can buy what we need. Food is huge. Also: Buy supplies on our Amazon Wish List.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

One more way to help: Join Repair the World Detroit’s virtual volunteer army! The Jewish community organization compiled ways for you to help local service providers that have critical needs during the recent health crisis — without overwhelming them with “how do I help” requests, and while you practice social distancing. You can stay at home and pack up boxes of needed supplies for Freedom House, collect household castoffs found during your recent binge clean for Arts and Scraps or use your sandwich-making skills to prep a bunch of lunches for The NOAH Project. 


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