reedom, an idea that on occasion seems vague and diluted with political nuance, is offered in its simplest form at Freedom House Detroit. Started in 1983, the nonprofit organization is located inside a former convent of the historic Ste. Anne de Detroit in Southwest Detroit and began as a coalition among a group of Detroiters wanting to help émigrés arriving in the United States. Today, the housing shelter-illumed at night by the lights of the Ambassador Bridge-is a beacon for hundreds of refugees each year; some traveling from as far as Iraq and Rwanda to escape persecution. Lucy Neighbor, a political asylee from Cameroon, was once one of those people.
Neighbor, who uses a full alias to protect herself and her family back home, works as a case manager at Freedom House to help new refugees adjust to life in America. And, for many of those first arriving, her story is comforting proof that there is a place-as one of the organization's mottos says-for those yearning to breathe free.
"I am a widow. And I had a (politically) active husband," begins Lucy Neighbor, case manager at Freedom House in Detroit. "In 2002, they were peacefully marching to claim the right of everybody to vote and listen to the voice of the people. And he, with other people, was publicly beat. Two days after that, he passed away in the hospital."
In the U.S., asylum-seekers must prove that there is a well-founded fear of persecution if they are to return to their native countries, afflicted by the government or an entity the government cannot, or will not, control. In several cases, asylum-seekers have already suffered torture and beatings when they arrive to Freedom House.
Persecution can be based on political opinion, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity, nationality or belonging to a social group-which can, in some countries' definitions, include HIV/AIDS carriers.
"After my husband died, I continued to work underground for the political party. And through my work in the community, I began to be noticed," says Neighbor, who holds degrees in hotel management and clinical psychology in Cameroon. Her political party work included encouraging women to receive their educations.
"Culturally, women are told girls are just supposed to go get married," Neighbor says. "So my work was just to talk to the families, mostly women, to get the little girls to go to school. Or help them when they were raped, or sick. I even worked with the HIV population in the clinic through my internship."
After being chosen as a representative to monitor an election in the city of Douala, Neighbor, with other party representatives, noticed election results were rigged after the opposing party in power added extra ballots.
Neighbor was pursued as witness, kidnapped and sent to prison, where she was beaten to the point of near death. When the perpetrators were instructed to dump her body, Neighbor escaped with the help of a female prison guard.
"I don't know what touched her," says Neighbor. "She came to me that night. She helped me to escape through the help of a friend of my husband's." Neighbor fled Cameroon on Jan. 11, 2008 and arrived to Freedom House several months after.
When refugees enter the U.S., they have one year to file and claim asylum-seeker status. At Freedom House, they meet with the legal department to be sure they meet the definition of asylum-seeker. Then, they are given shelter inside the home and asked to fill out a six-page application that can become as long as 500 pages, according to case manager Thomas Rogers. They are asked to recount in extreme detail the circumstances of their persecution-the more detail, the more credibility given to the case.
They are then given an interview date at an U.S. asylum office. The USCIS Chicago Asylum Office serves the Midwest region.
"What I can say is that I found my healing," says Neighbor. "The physical scars, (doctors) can take care of that. But in my mind, sometimes thoughts are too much and you can't help but to have flashbacks."
Neighbor lives in metro Detroit and is a former Wayne State University student.
"I feel grateful to hold somebody else's hand and say, 'Look at me, I was just like you five years ago,'" says Neighbor of her work at Freedom House. "I think of it as giving back. And I am proud of that. Helping other residents realize that it is not the end. And they can build a life here."