As a temporary shelter for survivors of persecution seeking asylum, Freedom House, located in Southwest Detroit, is a global symbol of liberty
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helter and client services manager Zaini Itito is the first of many friendly faces to welcome and comfort asylum-seekers at Freedom House in Southwest Detroit.
"The first thing is to make the person feel safe here," Itito explains, by the offering of food, shelter and, in some cases, medical care. "(Anything) to make their stress even a little bit lower while waiting to talking to our lawyer."
Asylum-seekers travel from all over the world to Freedom House after persecution for various reasons in their country, including political opinions, race and ethnicity, religion and social group affiliations, which can in some definitions include being an HIV/AIDS carrier.
People often arrive at Freedom House scared, confused or sometimes injured after emotionally jarring events, Itito explains. Such is an experience Itito knows intimately-because 10 years ago, he too was an asylum-seeker after fleeing his native country of Togo in West Africa.
"I was a customs officer, and in my country border patrol meant that I worked for the government," says Itito, explaining, it also meant you must support the political party in power. He did not. And as a result, he had conflict with his supervisor, a military officer. "So I had a problem with him because I don't support the government. I can say that was the main problem that made me leave my country."
Anyone who enters the U.S. has a year to submit an application to be granted asylum. While that application is being completed and reviewed, the individual is considered an "asylum-seeker."
Individuals who come to Freedom House seeking asylum meet with a legal team to be sure they meet the definition of asylum-seeker. Once the legal team accepts their case, they are asked to fill out an application recounting in extreme detail the circumstances of their persecution and are given shelter inside the organization's space, the former convent of Ste. Anne de Detroit.
While their application is waiting for approval by a USCIS asylum office, Freedom House provides a variety of transitional services, such as English as second language classes, financial literacy sessions and job readiness workshops to help ease the culture shock of living in a new country and build self-sufficiency. This helps for when those granted asylum are able to seek full U.S. citizenship.
Itito celebrates the third anniversary of his naturalization this month on International Peace Day, which is Sept. 21.
"So it's the same thing when I am here now and I open the door for new residents," he says. "It makes me flash back and remember how I got here first. So I know how the person is feeling when I open the door."
Although Itito explains the situation in his native country is "different now," he says he has found a new home in the Motor City.
"I don't think I can go back to (Togo) and stay one year now. It's a big change," says Itito. "Of course, I like Detroit. Otherwise, I would have moved to another state a long time ago." And in case you were wondering about his local citizenship, Itito says he is an "official" Detroiter.
"Of course! Detroit gave me my asylum. Detroit gave me everything."
Celebrate International Peace Day in Detroit
Celebrate International Peace Day on Monday, Sept. 21 by volunteering with Freedom House.
"(Last year), over 340 volunteers contributed over 4,700 hours of service to help us reach our goals," says Freedom House program manager TJ Rogers. "Without the contributions of our volunteers and other service professionals, each of whom provides valuable in-kind services, we wouldn't be able to proudly boast that we are the only organization in the U.S. to provide this remarkable population with comprehensive services free of charge."
Freedom House is looking for volunteers who can provide job and career mentoring, translation and legal services, transportation assistance, child care and more.
For more information about volunteer training at Freedom House, visit FreedomHouseDetroit.org.