Patricia shares a room that’s just big enough for a twin-sized bunk bed; a small wardrobe; and a long, narrow vanity. She and her roommate need to be mercilessly tidy if they want to stay sane in the tiny space — beds are made as soon as the women get up, and clothes are folded as soon as they come off. They’ve developed ingenious ways to store their shoes (under the bed), jewelry (in cookie tins inside the drawers), and winter clothes (inside their suitcases). While her roommate isn't that into fashion, Patricia keeps her side of the small closet organized, with the care and eye of a clotheshorse. The only collection that feels like it might get a red mark from Marie Kondo are Patricia’s beauty products; she has enough creams, sprays, and powders to open up a small salon.
It’s a living arrangement familiar to the many of us who shared dorm rooms in college, but Patricia is not at school. She is a 26-year-old woman who has escaped from West Africa to Detroit, where she lives at Freedom House, a group home that is shepherding her asylum application. For the last year, she has existed in a legal limbo: Without a work permit, Patricia cannot earn money or apply for government assistance; without money, she cannot get her own place. Without her own place, she must abide by Freedom House’s necessarily strict rules, including a 9 p.m. curfew, a “no social media” policy, and meals that have largely been donated, which means it’s chicken and rice most nights of the week.
On a typical Wednesday afternoon, the place looks serene even though the house is at capacity. Residents sit outside under patio umbrellas, quietly chatting with each other, reading, or scrolling through their iPhones. Some people are cooking. Patricia’s roommate is still asleep in her top bunk. But even though everyone appears calm, there’s a lot of planning going on. Some Freedom House residents are plotting how to collect evidence to corroborate their applications for refugee status. Others are in English classes, learning their third, fourth, or — in Patricia’s case — seventh, language. At the moment, Patricia is taking a break from reworking her résumé to show me her secret Amazon shopping cart.
“You know those buckets online? I just put things in the buckets. I know I don’t have money, but just seeing it inside the bucket makes me feel good,” she says, as she scrolls past almost a thousand dollars' worth of clothing that she knows she won’t be buying. Most of these items cost less than $20, which means Patricia has done her homework to find the cheapest variation of the styles she wants. There are a few pairs of heeled sandals, work totes, and off-the-shoulder blouses in blue-and-white ticking stripes, but the overwhelming majority are printed dresses.
“I call it ‘dress life’ — that’s my fashion goal,” she says, laughing as she smoothes out her cardigan so it falls flat over her jeans. Patricia is very pretty and jarringly flawless — not a hair out of place, nor a chip on her painted nails. She's tall, too — and even taller with her wedge sandals on. While the other residents sit slouched and splayed out on the lawn furniture, Patricia scoots up to the edge of the seat, her back ramrod straight, her pointer finger punctuating the air as she explains her sartorial plans for the future. “When I leave Freedom House, I want to switch to dresses, like Michelle Obama. They suit me. There is something I’ve learned: Clothes really help your personality travel. I know what I want to be in the future, and even though I know I’m not there, I have to put myself in those shoes. For me, fashion and life are all related.”
The doorbell at Freedom House does not sound like a doorbell. It is more a jazzy trumpet riff — brash and brassy, and a little silly, too. It is the entry music of Seinfeld's Kramer bounding into Mr. Rogers' house. It’s a curious tone for welcoming new arrivals — typically terrified, bewildered, exhausted people who find themselves at Freedom House’s door with suitcases stuffed with whatever they could fit. In 2016, 65.6 million people around the world fled their home countries because of violence and persecution; 2.8 million of them submitted asylum applications, asking for legal residency within new countries because of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or political affiliation. In the United States, 262,000 people submitted applications. Of those, 150 passed through Freedom House.
Patricia came in the spring. Her lone duffle bag contained a handful of blazers and dresses in pretty, jewel-toned colors, including a beloved ankara dress made of wax cloth in swirling orange and turquoise spirals. Her documents were in a smaller handbag, and she carried two pairs of pointed-toe stilettos in the bigger purse, one patent silver and one black suede. “I brought heels. I only wore them once before, but I felt bad — I didn’t want to leave them!”
All her clothes are polished and perfectly on trend, and sport labels from familiar brands: H&M, Zara, Aldo. They are what you’d imagine a young professional would pack for a work trip, and do not jive with images of refugees we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. One reason Patricia’s wardrobe is different is because she could afford to buy nicer things in the first place. The divide between those fleeing and those who have fled can be financial; and Patricia is, all things considered, one of the lucky ones.
“[Our residents] have the resources to afford the visa application process, to go to the U.S. embassy, to apply for and receive that visa,” Freedom House program manager Thomas “TJ” Rogers explains. “And then, of course, afford the airfare to come to the United States.” For some people who believe that refugees who own smartphones are not “poor enough” to receive aid, reserving space in your luggage for your stilettos may seem impractical. But nice shoes are practical, if you imagine that you will be packing for the best version of yourself living out the best version of your life. The clothes you bring with you are a reflection of your dreams, not your nightmares. It’s why there are cottage industries in refugee camps that provide “American clothes” on credit, so new arrivals can immediately blend in. “American clothes” can also provide safety and status, allowing new immigrants to not stand out, and thus to interview for jobs on equal footing. Patricia’s stilettos say something about the future, in defiance of her past.
Patricia divides different chapters of her life based on the clothing that she wore at the time. Her current stay at Freedom House — “cardigans and jeans life” — is bookended by her future’s “dress life” and her past’s “blazer life,” when she wore smart separates purchased from Western fast-fashion brands while she ran a small business from her home. “Cardigans and jeans life” has largely been shaped by an unforeseen factor: American food.
“Food in the United States really made a big change in my body. I got no choices now so I have to eat chicken and rice every day. When it’s a community house, everyone is treated the same. I can’t have something special while other people don’t. I’m also not moving that much — I’m not able to do that much exercise, even though I go to the gym at the YMCA. I’m stressed. So I eat, and then I regret it. Before, I couldn’t imagine that I could be like this, but here I am! It’s funny.”
Freedom House residents take turns cooking dinner for 40 every night, so meals tend to skew more toward whatever’s easiest rather than whatever’s tastiest. That usually means a big pot of rice and an oven of simply roasted chicken, day in and day out. Some days there's boiled potatoes, and other times there's fresh green beans or a cucumber salad. But for the most part, the residents' creative energies in the kitchen are short-lived: “When I first came, I was so involved and tried to make something new, creating sauces,” says Patricia. “But people get really tired. You can feel it with the food.”
Patricia gained weight. To accommodate her new size, she has needed bigger clothes. In particular, she needed warm clothes — something she hadn’t ever had to own back in Africa. Freedom House provides every new resident with new winter jackets, boots, and a fleece — and since nearly all of its residents come from warmer climates, this is essential for Detroit winters. The rest of the clothing and beauty products (including Patricia’s stash of hair care and makeup) come from generous donations made by community members. Freedom House routinely has to weed out stained and torn donations, but most of the clothes that make it to residents are on-trend and well-fitting, if humble.
“We don’t really choose our clothes. But, I like the experience — it’s a good education,” Patricia laughs. “You have to deal with what you have in this life. I think about my Freedom House clothes, and think about these people who I don’t know, where these clothes came from. I take it as an opportunity to feel grateful. There are so many people in this house, but this one piece fits me. That’s magic! I’ll always keep my Freedom House clothes. They help me remember where I came from, where I started my life in the United States, and the people who helped me.”
There are a lot of people at Freedom House who are helping Patricia. There’s her therapist and her doctor. There’s TJ and Deborah, whom she calls Mom Deb. She has a lawyer and a social worker. She has a manager at the nonprofit where she volunteers who has been coaching her on workplace acculturation. She has Lise, a fellow resident who shares her love of style, whom she considers a sister. She has a language partner, Chris, who likes to take her window shopping and is helping her develop a plan for leaving Freedom House as soon as her work authorization comes through.
The vast majority of asylum seekers do not have as much help as Patricia, and the changing timelines for the application process is making it more and more difficult to successfully gain asylum, even with help. The actual application for those who have legally traveled to the United States on a valid visa is deceivingly simple — 12 pages in all. But the key is providing evidence.
“The applications we submit are hundreds of pages in length because of all the documents to support a claim,” Rogers reports. “If you don’t have a lawyer to help you navigate the system, you print out that application, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is so easy!’ Then your interview is scheduled, and when you go without having that evidence, you’re unlikely to be granted asylum.”
After arrival, a person has up to a year to submit their application. After they receive an acknowledgement that the U.S. government has received their application in the mail, they can apply for a work permit six months later. It takes up to three months for that to process. Then they can apply for a restricted social security number that allows them to earn an income, but not to receive state or federal assistance. This is a protracted timeline that requires refugees to wait, but restricts their ability to make the money they need to survive; it asks that they prove their suffering, but shows no mercy.
For a person who is incredibly on-the-ball, well-resourced, stable, and savvy, it will take 14 to 15 months after arriving in the United States before they’re able to legally work. But throw in extenuating circumstances, and asylum seekers could wait years. Say you’re in an emergency shelter (because you don’t qualify for government housing, and have no relatives or friends to stay with for free) and are forced to change addresses every 90 days and miss a mailed letter with your court date — maybe you’re suffering from physical and emotional trauma, and you don’t have money to pay for healthcare, nor do you qualify for Medicaid. Maybe it’s that you’ve lived your entire life in the closet, and don’t feel comfortable explicitly disclosing that you’re LGBTQ. Any one of these circumstances could blow your chances to gain asylum — and that’s just for people who are fortunate enough to have made it legally into the country in the first place. For those who show up at the border, or apply for protection while in a refugee camp abroad, the processes are much more complicated, more drawn-out, and the chances even slimmer.
“It’s nearly impossible,” says Gina DelChiaro, an attorney at the NYC-based Human Rights First that places asylum seekers with high-quality pro bono lawyers. “We have clients who are homeless, who sleep on the subway and in parks, and who are in and out of the shelter system, which can be extremely difficult, particularly when the government insists that you fill out forms that are on the internet, and you don’t even have a computer or internet access. Deportation definitely happens — for our cases, it’s not very common. But in the current climate, it is becoming a reality for more and more people.”
There are many agencies around the country that assist with this process, including those in the Detroit area that specialize in Spanish- and Arabic-speaking clients, which may explain why Freedom House receives a disproportionately high number of residents from Africa. But Freedom House is the only organization that provides comprehensive, soup-to-nuts service that includes room and board, legal counsel, health care, employment literacy, and financial readiness, all free of charge. In 2016, its success rate for granting asylums was 80%; the national average at the same time was 43%.
“Rather than defunding programs like ours, there need to be more,” Rogers appeals. “If you’re closing organizations that help people follow the laws, [that] might force the individual to do something counter to the law to get what they need.”
Patricia is more than halfway through the maximum stay at Freedom House, which is two years. She expects her work permit to arrive within the next couple months, after which she plans to move out and temporarily into the offsite housing subsidized by Freedom House. But judging from the current backlog of cases still pending at the nearest United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, she will wait at least another three years before her asylum interview.
Until then, Patricia’s “cardigans and jeans life” is characterized by a lack of control. But, to use her word, it’s an opportunity. Optimism looks good on Patricia. Even though her clothes are from big-box store brands, she makes them seem designer. Open-weave cardigans and skinny jeans look like they were specifically created for her — “like couture” she says, in her native French — instead of made for the masses. Despite the newly put-on weight, she moves around deliberately and confidently in her body, like someone who is used to being the center of attention. Instead of shying away from our photographer’s lens, Patricia arches her back and opens up to the camera. Even though she knows we can’t photograph her face, her smile is wide and radiant.
Patricia is not Patricia’s real name, and there’s a reason that we can’t take photos of her face nor mention the exact circumstances of her persecution. Despite the fact that she ran a thriving business back home, she’s had to shut it down and erase any mention of her entrepreneurial past on Facebook. She’s also had to close her personal social media accounts. There are two reasons that exposing her identity — or at least making it easy to figure out who she is — would be dangerous. Firstly, it could endanger her asylum case; the logic goes that a person with a public profile would not need much protection. (Many years ago, Freedom House had a client whose case was denied because the judge found the individual online; for that reason, going dark online is now required.) The second is that sharing any information about herself could put Patricia’s family and colleagues back home in danger. “We’ve had instances in the past — two of the worst days of my life — where a young man heard that his father was murdered trying to secure evidence for his case. In the other instance, a woman’s aunt was killed,” remembers Rogers.
Patricia tells me about her family over a rare restaurant meal of fajitas and beans (steak only, no chicken — hold the rice). Her sister loves celebrity gossip. Her brother is getting his Master's degree. Her mom is strict but kind. When Patricia was 7, she got in a car with her grandfather, who drove the family away from the war zone where their home was, past corpses on the roads, past mothers and their children, until the military confiscated their car. The family walked from there. “We slept outside under a tree for a week. We had no water, we had no food, we had no maps. We ate mangos for a week,” she says. They passed through UNHCR encampments, where many of their neighbors and friends applied for refugee status in other countries. But her grandfather didn’t know there was an option for the entire family to be relocated together. “That’s life,” Patricia says, looking down.
At Freedom House, 98% of the residents are survivors of torture — according to Rogers, some of them arrive still sporting fresh wounds. In Drennan's decade of working under its roof, she has noticed a shift as governments began copying depictions of torture they saw in films: “The different forms of torture seem to become more and more heinous. You go to these movies and you see these actors and what they do to each other... It’s crimes against humankind that you couldn’t imagine, that people have imagined for you.”
Patricia’s immigration story is horrifying, but it is also ordinary. She left suddenly and silently, on the eve of a national election before a communications blackout. Her plan, as it was originally mapped out when she first received her tourist visa, was to reconnect with a man she had fallen in love with in school, in his hometown in Pennsylvania. But a month before she left, she learned that he had died in an accident.
So Patricia took a plane down to South Africa, then onward to New York City, to meet her sister’s friend, the only other person she knew in the United States. That’s where she learned about a place in Detroit that specialized in helping people like her gain asylum. She bought a Greyhound bus ticket that same day and started the journey to Michigan.
“We had a stop in Pennsylvania. My friend who passed away, he would be so excited when we were together and say, ‘Oh you’re going to come to Pennsylvania to visit my home.’ When the bus stopped in Pennsylvania… I didn’t plan it. I didn’t know. The first stop was Pennsylvania. It was magical for me. I wanted to feel the earth, so I got down in the grass. It was a way for me to tell him that I just came to your country, and you’re not here anymore, but I’m here. I felt like I knew in this life to never, ever take things for granted. Things happen for a reason.”
Eight hours later, the Greyhound dropped her off at the bus station in Detroit. A taxi driver ripped her off, charging her $20 for a minute-long ride to Freedom House.
After everything, Patricia is still an optimist. “Even us sitting here, we don’t know what we’re doing but somehow, a good opportunity will happen. There’s so much joy and good things about life. The only thing that helps is to have a positive attitude. I know it’s hard, but we have to try. I escaped death several times. I’m 26, but I’ve seen more than someone who’s 60.
“I wake up every morning, stand, look at nature, and talk to myself: ‘I lived through the worst time of my life. Let the next chapter of my life be filled with good things.’ I know it’s going to happen. It’s up to me to be open to that. Things will come, I believe.”
During our last evening together, Patricia and I go “shopping” — aimlessly walking up and down the corridors at the Fairlane Town Center mall in nearby Dearborn without a cent to spend. It’s a mall that could have existed anywhere in America, complete with an Auntie Anne’s, Claire’s, Spencer’s, and Zale’s. But the people inside are not the walking blond haircuts from the mallrat movies I grew up with; there was a mix of women in hijabs, couples in dashikis, families speaking Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, Hmong, and English. A building of immigrants.
In fact, as of 2015, 6.5% of Michigan’s residents are now foreign-born — that’s an 11% increase since 2010. But, the political situation in 2017 is not immigrant-friendly: Dozens of vacant immigration judge seats have yet to be filled, pending cases are bottlenecking the courts, and President Trump issued a travel ban that the Supreme Court partially upheld.
“A lot of people will be deterred from applying, and that’s really scary,” says NYC-based immigration attorney Ruchi Thaker. “It’s frightening because a lot of people viewed the United States as a savior, and we’ve been that for immigrants for centuries." DelChiaro is already noticing that certain issues have arisen in recent cases that haven’t been problems before. “Our clients come here fleeing some of the worst kinds of torture simply because of who they are, and they come here thinking that the United States stands for these freedoms. Many feel like they’ve made a mistake — that they have not come to a country that stands for these things. They question their decision. But they don’t have anywhere to go.”
Rogers tells me that the number of inquiries that Freedom House has received from people who want to seek asylum in Canada rather than America has shot through the roof. Despite this, he believes that the American Dream endures.
“There’s no French Dream. There’s no Syrian Dream. There’s no Rwandan Dream. The American Dream is the only dream that there is in the world. In many ways, that’s still a draw,” he says. “As soon as our residents cross our threshold, the pride they take in America is palpable. Without being asked to assume American pride, they walk in and they’re grateful to Freedom House — and by extension, to the United States, because the United States is the country that’s saving their lives."
I ask Patricia about American pride, and she nods. “I’m just grateful to be here in America — I am. We have Trump, but we’re still going to do it! And I’m not going to say that he’s a bad president. I’m going to say that he’s a good president. Because the more I say that, the more good things will come to me.”
We walk at a snail’s pace through the mall, and Patricia touches every garment she passes, tries on every 9.5 shoe she thinks might fit, considers every print, slogan, and label. She shows me the neat stitching inside of a bag: “That’s how you can tell a bag is of good quality. Michael Kors, for example, has the best bags.” Inside a beauty surplus store, she points out all the hair products she used back at home: organic olive and argan oils, shea butter moisturizing creams, and Cantu revitalizer spray.
“Going shopping is like going to church,” she says, as we paused in front of a kiosk selling light-up sneakers. “It’s therapeutic. There is nothing in this earth like clothes. They help me admire myself when I don’t feel like there’s much to admire. It’s good to look nice when you don’t feel nice.”
We pass a display outside of Claire’s advertising a new collection of bachelorette party gag gifts. Patricia stops, and waves at the inflatable pool swans and shot glasses. “We have that at home,” she offers. “But we call it enterrement de vie de jeune fille. If I translate it directly, it means ‘to bury the life of a young girl,’” she laughs. Then she cocks her head.
“But, it’s more like closing a book chapter so you can start a new chapter. You dress up and celebrate before embracing a new chapter. That’s how life should be.”