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Our Mission and Roots

Our Mission

Freedom House Detroit is a temporary home for indigent survivors of persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States and Canada. Our 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.”

Guided by our belief that all persons deserve to live free from oppression and to be treated with justice, compassion and dignity, we offer a continuum of care and services to our residents as well as to other refugees in need. We advocate for systemic change that more fully recognizes the rights of asylum seekers.

Our Roots

The six pairs of hands, bloodied,
hung from the bumper of the truck,
and the policemen were enjoying themselves.
Then they finished them off.
Only Raúl and I were left…
After a few kilometres they made us get out
with our hands still tied.
Raúl whispered:
“We are facing death and we must run any risk to escape…”
Those were his last words, and rapidly we dashed toward a precipice,
but Raúl slipped and was riddled with bullets;
he fell from branch to branch to the bottom.
I managed to steal away through the bushes…

Excerpt from “Testimony” by Alfonso Hernández from
Mirrors of War: Literature and Revolution in El Salvador.
Ed. Gabriela Yanes, et al. Translated by Keith Ellis. 1985. 
Between the Lines



The Freedom House Detroit story begins where Alfonso Hernández’s “Testimony” ends. Not with death. But with escape.

Throughout the 1980s, the shadow of El Salvador’s civil war crept northward as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the US, many to Detroit. They brought with them haunting stories of torture, disappearance, and death.

Like those fleeing war and persecution today, the Salvadorans lost family members to political violence; many experienced torture themselves; and all lived under the constant threat of violence. They made the perilous and heart-wrenching decision to flee their homeland and their loved ones, seeking safety more than 3,000 miles and three countries away. But, in the US, without legal status, they continued to live in fear of deportation and exploitation.

Despite its prominence as a border city, in 1983, Detroit did not have a service network for asylum seekers and refugees. Traditional homeless shelters and social service organizations quickly found themselves ill-equipped to handle the needs of this population. Shelters didn’t keep immigration lawyers on hand; social service agencies couldn’t provide the intense and culturally sensitive mental health support required. Even the basics--networks of family and friends, safety net benefits, and common culture and language--were non-existent.  

Despite the challenges, social service providers, churches, and individual citizens on both sides of the Detroit-Windsor border began to respond. They aided one refugee, then another. They managed to find a shelter bed here, food there, clothing from somewhere else. They reached out to a lawyer, then a doctor. Someone volunteered to drive. They mined their own networks of colleagues and supporters for help. But, this cobbled-together approach barely made a dent.

To be effective, they would have to organize, to build a completely new network of services designed solely for these kinds of individuals, the persecuted.

And they did.

They became the Detroit/Windsor Refugee Coalition. As the coalition’s reputation grew, so did the number of refugees knocking on its doors. Today, more than three decades later, the DWRC has become Freedom House Detroit, a wholly American institution firmly planted in Detroit, with deep roots extending into Canada.

We stand fiercely against the atrocities of war and bigotry. We embrace those who “must run any risk to escape…”.

Turning the Page

  • The Detroit/Windsor Refugee Coalition, 1983:
    • Local faith leaders and community members witness the Salvadoran exodus to Detroit and Windsor. In response, they found the Detroit/Windsor Refugee Coalition.
    • The coalition’s shelter and offices are housed at St. Peter’s Church in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, founded by immigrants from Ireland’s County of Cork.
    • Reverend Glendon Heath, of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, serves as the coalition’s first coordinator.
  • Voice for the Voiceless, 1986 - 1987:
    • Reverend Heath’s second in command was Sister Kit Concannon, a Loretto sister. The Sisters of Loretto is a teaching order whose mission is to pursue social justice and peace.
    • When Rev. Heath was reassigned from his post at St. Pete’s, Sister Kit was  promoted to coordinator. She lead the coalition until 1987.
    • During and before her tenure, Sister Kit was a “voice for the voiceless,” as she said in a Detroit Free Press article in 1982. She used her voice to shine a light on the plight of Salvadoran refugees.
    • The number of refugees needing services outgrew St. Pete’s, so the coalition moved to Ste. Anne de Detroit’s vacant convent.
    • Ste. Anne’s is located in Detroit’s Mexicantown and is the second oldest operational church in America. Corktown’s neighbor, Mexicantown is a magnet for immigrants from South and Central America.
  • Freedom House, 1990 - 1995:
    • Janet Ray was named coordinator.
    • A tireless visionary, Ray understood that the coalition deserved a name that reflected its mission and purpose. And, so, the Detroit/Windsor Refugee Coalition officially  changed its name to “Freedom House”.
  • Comprehensive Service Model, 1995 - 2005
    • Sr. Gloria Rivera, a nun in the Immaculate Heart of Mary order, worked tirelessly to expand our services and develop partnerships with other service agencies and professionals.
    • With those partnerships, she and the program coordinator Paula Cathcart, IHM, improved our clients access to medical and mental health services.
    • Her work laid the foundation for our current service model.
  • Deborah Drennan, 2010 - Present
    • Through strategic partnerships and use of traditional and social media, Drennan increased awareness of the organization on national and international levels.  As a result of this new recognition, Drennan secured funding to increase staff to two full-time lawyers and two Masters-level social workers.
    • This resulted in new funding sources and recognition from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
  • Detroit Distinction, 2018:
    • Under the direction of Deborah Drennan, Freedom House changed its name to Freedom House Detroit.
    • As the only organization in the country to provide free, comprehensive services to asylum seekers, Freedom House needed to distinguish its singular work from other groups bearing similar names. Also, adding “Detroit” allowed us to retain Janet Ray’s vision and proudly acknowledge our birthplace.

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