For my final project, I spent time each week volunteering at Freedom House in Detroit. Freedom House is a non-profit organization that provides comprehensive services – including housing, job search, education, case management, social supports, legal, and therapeutic services – to individuals and families who are seeking asylum in the United States. Freedom House is located in the unused St. Anne’s Convent in Southwest Detroit, and you can see the bridge to Canada from the house (see photo below – note due to privacy concerns for residents I was not able to take any photos inside of Freedom House).
Here is a bit more about Freedom House, from their website: “Freedom House Detroit is a temporary home for indigent survivors of persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States and Canada. Our mission is to uphold a fundamental American principle, one inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, providing safety for those ‘yearning to breathe free’” (“About Us,” n.d.).
When I learned that my field placement would not be with refugee and immigrant communities, I decided to research opportunities to volunteer, so that I could keep in touch with the type of work that makes me feel the most fulfilled and that reminds me of why I chose to pursue an MSW and MPH. I found Freedom House, and was immediately drawn by their unique advocacy and support services to asylum seekers, a population that is often forgotten about or neglected among the public discourse and the media. In my previous work as a case manager with a survivors of torture program, about half of my caseload was composed of asylum seekers, and I took a lot of time to learn about and attempt to understand the unique barriers and challenges that these individuals face (relative to individuals with other immigration statuses, such as refugees or green card holders). Given that this is a course in Community and Social Systems, before reflecting on my specific experience volunteering at Freedom House, I’d like to briefly share some information about the systems that asylum seekers may encounter and the unique barriers that this community faces:
- Healthcare access – Until they receive a work permit, asylum seekers are not eligible for any health insurance except Emergency Medical Assistance (which has strict requirements and most will not qualify for). Upon receipt of a work permit, asylum seekers can apply for health insurance through the Marketplace (under the ACA or “Obamacare”). While Marketplace insurance is typically pretty affordable (many will qualify for subsidies to cover their monthly premiums), asylum seekers often must go through a lot of hoops before enrolling – many of the clients I worked with had to submit their work permit and proof of immigration status, along with proof of income, to the ACA Marketplace multiple times, before getting approved.
- Mental Health access – In addition to healthcare access, access to trauma-informed, linguistically and culturally appropriate, services to address the mental health needs of asylum seekers is challenging. Due to their limited eligibility for health insurance, and the limited range of interpretation services available in mental health services, many asylum seekers struggle to find therapists (or other mental health care) that addresses their unique needs and that supports them in healing from their trauma.
- Public Assistance Benefits – Asylum seekers are not eligible to apply for any public assistance benefits, including SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, TANF (cash assistance) and section 8 housing (public housing assistance). Until their asylum claim is approved (which can take years), asylum seekers are not eligible for such public assistance programs, and this can place a huge burden on them, especially given that they are not eligible to apply for work permits until 180 days (6 months) after submitting their asylum application, and the jobs that many are able to find are minimum wage.
- Legal – The process of applying for asylum can take years, with the average wait time being between 2 to 5 years. The process can be very traumatizing for individuals, in having to recount and repeat their story of how they fled their country and having to provide detailed evidence to the courts. In addition, many asylum seekers I worked with described the frustration and stress of feeling constantly “in limbo” – waiting for a work permit, waiting for an interview from the court, and then waiting for approval of their application. This constant level of instability and uncertainty can be very stressful and overwhelming.
- Housing – For many of the asylum seekers I worked with in Philadelphia, access to housing was a major challenge. My organization did not provide housing, and many of my clients had to live with family, friends, or acquaintances, as they were not able to afford to live on their own (especially during the time before they received work permits). I had a few clients who were homeless, and navigating the overburdened shelter system was a huge challenge.
- Social support – The process of seeking asylum can be very isolating and lonely – many of my clients described feeling highly stressed, missing family members and friends they had left behind, and lonely in this country.
Based on all of the aforementioned challenges and barriers that asylum seekers face, I was impressed to learn about the comprehensive level of services that Freedom House Detroit is able to provide its clients. In particular, its ability to provide free housing for clients is a major asset of the organization and is a unique model compared to other programs that I have seen. Freedom House houses approximately 30 residents at a time (including individuals and families with children), who are able to stay for 1-2 years. Immigration attorneys on-site support people in navigating their asylum claims, social workers provide case management and therapy, and a range of groups come in on a weekly basis to conduct programming, social events, and other activities for the residents. The house has a welcoming and communal feel, and residents take turns cooking meals, which they eat together, and cleaning.
My role at Freedom House this semester involved providing childcare in the evenings, giving parents an opportunity to attend programming in the evening or to just relax a bit. I volunteered at Freedom House for 2 hours a week, getting to hang out with the sweet, rambunctious, and silly group of kids there. The children currently there range in age from about 2 to 12, and they are friendly, loud, and fun. They seem to be very used to having visitors, and always seem excited to have somebody to play with. Each week, we play games, color, and chat, and I have really enjoyed getting to know these kids. This week, for the first time it was nice enough for us to play outside on the playground.
Currently at Freedom House, the majority of residents are African, and it is typically pretty clear when a white volunteer like me is around. The other week, I saw some new people at Freedom House – three women who were speaking Arabic and English – and who joined me in playing board games with the kids. Not wanting to make assumptions about their role, I asked the women if they were also volunteers, and they told me that they were residents at Freedom House. I think that I had gotten used to expecting those who looked more like me to be in the volunteer role, and this moment was a good check on the assumptions that I make about people.
Other challenges to my assumptions that I’ve experienced at Freedom House have come from some of the kids – one child pointed out to me one week that I have “yellow skin” and that she has “black skin.” Another girl one week asked me about what the difference is between African American and black, asking me about black people in the United States and Africans in the United States, and wondering what kinds of differences there are between these groups’ experiences. Over several weeks, a couple of the older girls asked to braid my hair, and commented on how my hair was different from theirs.
I have really enjoyed my time volunteering with Freedom House, and I plan to continue to volunteer there throughout the summer and fall. It is a great opportunity for me to work with communities that I have missed getting the chance to work with, in a setting in which I am not in a formal social worker role.
(n.d.). About Us. Retrieved from https://www.freedomhousedetroit.org/index.php/about-us