Local Refugees Who Escaped Hell Honor Victims of Torture
On the other days this group of Detroiters comes here, it’s to survive.
On Tuesday it was to celebrate.
About 30 residents of Freedom House, a shelter and advocacy center for refugees, gathered with staff members from ACCESS, the social, health, education and employment organization, to mark the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
Under a tent on the ACCESS front lawn on Schaeffer Road in Dearborn, they ate African and Arabic food, reflecting the ethnicities and home countries of nearly everyone there. They danced and sang to the drums and guitars played by men from Rwanda, Congo, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. They posed for pictures and they played with children in the shadow of a banner reading “Together Against Torture.”
“Look around,” says Deborah Drennan, Freedom House’s executive director. “Everyone here less than a year ago was raped, beaten, sodomized, had their heads beaten in or left in a prison to die.
“Today at least, they can dance.”
Mama Deb, as she’s known to the residents, is a five-year veteran of running the shelter located a few miles southwest of downtown Detroit and she still gets teary-eyed discussing some of the stories she sees, hears and lives.
Freedom House’s residents are men and women – sometimes with young children – who have been persecuted, imprisoned and sometimes nearly killed in their home countries for their political beliefs, minority religions or past military experience.
They flee and make their way somehow to the shelter, sometimes learning of it by word of mouth while thousands of miles away and remembering the address as they escape, cross oceans and navigate to Detroit.
These survivors reflect the human cost of ongoing civil wars, human rights violations of the worst order and the haunting effect of violence on its survivors who hope for a safe home and a chance to heal.
Like the woman, for example, who spent months in an African prison, enduring dozens of rape attacks and watching guards count “one, two, three,” selecting which trio of prisoners to execute. She knew her time would come, but one night a guard brought her a bag with clothes and food and helped her escape.
In the United States they plead their cases in the immigration courts with help from Freedom House staff and volunteer attorneys and have a 70 percent success rate in earning asylum here on the first attempt.
“That’s how compelling the stories are,” Drennan says.
She celebrates when she can and uses the successes to fund raise, recruit volunteers and make her meager grants, donations and other funding stretch to feed, clothe, educate, teach English, do job training, socialize and otherwise help the refugee survivors adjust.
Her thin budget this year has been supplemented with a $20,000 grant from the United Nations to pay for some legal work and the medical needs resulting from torture in the residents’ home countries. That includes the neurological, orthopedic and psychological injuries, problems and issues.
ACCESS also provides Freedom House residents basic medical services and care in the Psychological Rehabilitation Center for Refugees of Torture.
Throughout the year, the residents meet with the counselors and psychologists to deal with the long-term trauma and stress of what they suffered. But Tuesday it was to mark the UN’s international event locally.
“We just need peace, no more torture in the world,” one woman from central Africa wrote in the day’s guest book. “And I hope so some day it will be better for everyone.”
Freedom House, www.freedomhousedetroit.org, is located at 2630 W. Lafayette St. in Detroit. Volunteers are needed who have professional skills – like electricians, computer network experts and web designers and managers – as well as people who can help residents learn and practice English.