By TJ Rogers
John’s 12-hour shift ended, and he changed out of his uniform. He exchanged “good nights” with his co-workers and headed out a side door. It was 11 p.m. He could be home in 15 minutes. But as he turned the corner from the alley to the side street, a rancid burlap sack was placed over his head; he was carried into a motor vehicle where he was transported for what felt like hours to an unknown location that seemed far beyond city limits.
John was placed under illegal detention and endured unimaginable torture. He was hung by his wrists from the ceiling for over 24 hours. A handful of men wearing police uniforms beat him, delivering endless punches to his stomach, ribs and genitals. When he was finally dropped to the floor, they dragged him into a trailer and locked the doors behind him. John thought he had a few moments of respite, only to then begin feeling hot, burning, stinging sensations on his legs — “I was being bitten by red ants,” he said.
John’s story is not unique. Discrimination and torture — state-imposed and community enforced — is rampant throughout his home country of Uganda, especially among the LGBT community. It’s not uncommon for people to be brutally attacked by a group of men because of rumors and suspicions of their sexuality. Some citizens and political leaders condone this mob and vigilante justice. The victims, assuming they are able or willing to make it to a hospital, are often denied healthcare treatment due to their sexuality.
At a young age, when John accepted who he was, he vowed never to stray far from the city capital, Kampala, with the hopes that the presence of tourists would protect him and help conceal his identity. This is a common mindset, equating a tourist presence with security. John’s place of employment, a hotel with a restaurant and bar inside, is a place where members of the LGBT community frequently patronize. When not at work, John volunteered at a non-governmental human rights organization that is a part of a coalition that aims to secure the respect of minority groups and their rights, particularly healthcare. Due to his activism, John is well-known among the LGBT community and, consequently, often a first-responder to situations of abuse. He would then take necessary precautions to contact the local LGBT-rights organizations and request assistance.
Working at the hotel and volunteering with the NGO was John’s reality for more than five years. This ‘arrangement,’ which was undeniably unfortunate in its very existence, afforded him with the ‘luxury’ of being a bit more open with his identity, albeit still discrete.
Nevertheless, John’s torture in jail went on for nearly one month, until he managed to escape and ultimately flee to the United States to save his life.
According to latest United Nations Global Trends Report, by the end of 2013 there were approximately 51.2 million individuals worldwide with stories like John’s who had been displaced by violence, oppression and persecution. Of that, close to 1.2 million were asylum seekers, or individuals with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race/ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership within a particular social group (e.g. LGBT), by their home governments or an entity the government cannot or will not control.
Fortunately, for John and 159 others from 30 different countries, they found what some have rightfully called the local, global jewel that is Freedom House Detroit.
Nestled next to historic Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge, the nonprofit Freedom House is home to both survivors of persecution and torture from around the globe who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and Canada, and victims of human trafficking. Founded in 1983, Freedom House is the only organization in the U.S. to provide quality comprehensive services including shelter, food, clothing and toiletries, legal aid, case management, medical and psychosocial care, English as a Second Language, financial literacy and job training, acculturation, recreation and offsite housing. All help is free of charge for this unique, courageous population.
Under current U.S. immigration law, asylum seekers have one year from date of entry in the country to submit their applications and are not permitted to work until asylum is granted or Employment Authorization Document is granted at least six months after application submission. Freedom House staff and volunteers journey with residents through the arduous legal process preparing them for self-sufficiency and employment once asylum is obtained.
The micro-global community at Freedom House is best described as a family. Everyone has his or her respective role: mama, papa, brother, sister, auntie, uncle, niece or nephew. And like every family, we fight over the little things like chores and cooking. But most importantly, we are there for one another during the good times and the bad: when an asylum is granted or a birthday arrives. For happy occasions, we dance, eat special meals and celebrate. For sad events, like when a resident received word that her father was murdered back home for helping gather evidence for her application to help prove her claim, we grieve and mourn together.
We all do it together.
We do it because our life experiences have affirmed the indisputable fact that all people deserve to live free from oppression and to be treated with justice, compassion and dignity. We see our humanity reflected in the eyes of all persons.
We do it because we adamantly believe in the fundamental American principle, one inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, of providing safety for those “yearning to breathe free.”
And we proudly do it because no one else does.