Helping an Asylum Seeker

In mid-February, Margo Schlanger sent a request to ReconChat, one of our congregation’s networking tools, that said in part “the fantastic folks at the National Immigrant Justice Center have gotten an Eritrean asylum seeker out of detention and seek our help to set her on her way to her sponsor. She’s been detained for over a year.” Odile Hugonot Haber and Alan Haber responded that they could help and then sent in this report on their experience.

“There was a letter from Margo Schlanger asking if someone would pick up a NIJC client, Feven, just released from the Detroit ICE Field Office, and to take her to the Greyhound bus in Ann Arbor. She needed to get to Chicago where a friend from her country would be welcoming her, and helping her on the rest of her journey. So we went to the ICE Office in Detroit where the waiting room was full of people awaiting the release of their loved one or friends.

Many children were playing, many Latino people and some people from Africa. After 45 minutes Feven was released accompanied by an officer. She had a backpack. She was petite, her hair magnificently braided, and she spoke a few words of English. We hugged. We wanted to show her a little of Detroit. So we drove through the town and Dearborn and a bit of Ann Arbor. She wanted to see everything, and feel the fresh air. We offered to get some food right away, but she was not hungry.

As we drove we learned a little bit of her story.

She spoke Tigrinya, she was from Eritrea, seeking some kind of asylum from the violence of her village area. With her husband she had flown to Italy, which had once been the colonial overlord of the area. But in Italy there were many, many immigrants and it was difficult getting a job, so they decided to come to the US. They flew to Ecuador and then traveled by bus and foot, mostly walking, through Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and the length of Mexico until they came to the border at Texas.

At the border, the U.S. officials saw that she did not have a visa, and she was put in jail. First she and  her husband went to a jail in Texas where there were many immigrants. It was a very big jail where the food was varied and they could go outsides at times.

After some time, she was sent to a county jail in Michigan, which held immigrant detainees, and where she was fed only beans and rice and rice and beans, wore only an orange jail suit, and could never go outside. The nights were cold as the prisoners were given only thin sheets and a Cotton spread for the beds. This treatment continued for a year and two months, until she was released, thanks to many people’s good work at the legal end.

We were the first people she saw as a free person in America. Her happiness and relief was beautiful to see. She is a Christian from the Eastern Orthodox Church, and showed us her bible written in her own language, a script we had never seen before.

When we picked Feven up, she was very clean and the clothes she wore, given back to her on release, were fashionable and neat, though her tennis shoes had no laces, because they took the shoe laces away.

Her husband had been sent to a jail in Oklahoma. They were going to meet each other soon, yet  we did not know if he was going to be released. We did hope so. Fifteen months is a to be a long time for people whose major crime was to hope for a better life.

We gave her some food from the Mediterranean Market, a sweater for warmth, and shoe laces.  Her back pack was full. She emptied a yellow bag that had written “Hygiene Kit” on it from the Red Cross from Honduras. We found that she had had some medical problems in Jail.  We would have liked to know more but her English was limited and we did not want interrupt her happiness inquiring of a story now behind her, in her first day in her first hours of freedom. After a lunch, we put her on the Greyhound. We hoped the rest of her journey would be a more pleasant one.

We know she arrived well in Chicago, but haven’t heard more. It was a sweet mission. Maybe we will meet Feven and husband again some time.

Odile Hugonot Haber and Alan Haber