Freedom House Seeks Help for LGBT Refugees

Kate Opalewski
By | 2016-10-20T09:00:00-04:00 October 20th, 2016|Michigan, News|

Members of Freedom House and Southwest Solutions gather during the 2015 Voices of Freedom event. From left to right: Thomas “TJ” Rogers, Tim McGorey, Caitlyn Pisarski, Deborah Brennan and Sandra Svoboda. Photo courtesy of Freedom House

There were 2 million asylum applications submitted around the globe last year according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. New applications submitted in the U.S. were just shy of 173,000 — a 42 percent increase from the year before. Clearly there is a need for places like Freedom House in Detroit, a temporary home for indigent survivors of persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and Canada. Their 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.”
Yet, the political climate in the U.S. poses some difficulties for refugees who hear xenophobic and downright hateful comments from people in all areas of society, especially within the media.
“They think they’re coming into a country where they’re going to be respected. These soundbites can be very hard to swallow,” said TJ Rogers, program manager at Freedom House. “Some people in the Detroit community are engaged and supportive, but there is still a huge gap.”
That gap is specifically for LGBT immigrants who can’t rely on people from their country of origin for support, then come to the U.S. and can’t rely on people in their cultural community because many of them carry homophobic stances.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “What are they left with? The LGBT community here in the U.S., because we know very much what it means to be excluded and our rights not to be fully extended to us as LGBT people.”
Rogers said there is an estimated 76 anti-gay countries around the world where it’s illegal to be LGBT, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Pakistan and Qatar where it’s punishable by death.
“On planet Earth in 2016, are we still dealing with this?” he said.
As a result, “We have, on a regular basis, weekly house meetings. We work with law enforcement, for example, when we’re having these conversations, doing our best to make sure that we don’t forget about this population of people who live at multiple intersections of identity, pushing for reform, more inclusivity and welcoming communities.”
While LGBT asylum seekers and refugees are not an exclusive population the Freedom House works with, they are seeing an increase because of their outreach efforts and partnerships.
“There needs to be compassion and if we truly care about our equality and our equity, then that extends to all people who are a part of our community regardless of nationality or country of origin,” Rogers said.
Working through issues of discrimination should be the least of their worries at the Freedom House. The refuge addresses the need for housing, legal aid, medical and psychosocial care, job training, financial literacy and language skills — all of which are not only necessary for someone to secure legal status and obtain a work permit, but also to secure a job.
There are a few different ways people can help.
“The simplest thing somebody can do is to stand up to hateful actions and rhetoric. If you hear something that is against what is at the core of humanity, or hear something dehumanizing somebody, stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s not right,'” Rogers said. “If in our individual one-on-one conversations we don’t shy away from those difficult issues, that has the capacity to create change and drown out these soundbites that are getting the loudest speaker, if you will.”
Another option is to attend the “Voices of Freedom” annual dinner and auction on Oct. 27 at The Atheneum Suite Hotel on 1000 Brush St. in Detroit. The fundraising event welcomes Amy Lange, Fox2 News Investigative Reporter and Emmy award winner, as Mistress of Ceremonies, and “The Ben,” Rwanda’s top R&B artist and Freedom House alumni.
The VIP reception begins at 5 p.m. with dinner at 6 p.m. Two Penny Productions will premiere a video, “How Freedom House Changed the Lives of Two Alumni.” Tickets are $100. Exclusive reception and event tickets are $150.
For those who cannot attend the event, please consider making a tax-deductible donation online to support Freedom House. Checks can also be made out and sent directly to Freedom House at 2630 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI 48216. If further information is needed, call 313-964-4320 or email

About the Author:

Kate Opalewski
Kate Opalewski is BTL's features editor and has been since 2015. She has covered a variety of topics ranging from art, politics and community outreach. Recently, she was honored by the Detroit Police Department LGBT Advisory Board for her work for the local LGBTQIA community.