Amina and her children (Daniel Rowell)

Asylum seekers occupy the uncertain ground between outsiders and refugees. Unlike refugees, who are pre-screened by the government and can access public assistance upon arrival, asylum seekers find their own route to the U.S.—sometimes illegally, sometimes by visa—and are ineligible to receive any government assistance while awaiting a decision on their cases.

The denial of federal benefits, such as food assistance, paired with long delays and denials of the right to work leaves the United States alone among developed countries in its treatment of asylum seekers, according to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “At Least Let Them Work.”

Many arrive with little to no savings, and it can take up to three years for asylum cases to process, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; it used to take just six to eight weeks. The delay is the result of a perfect storm that has clogged the U.S. asylum system since 2014: an influx of Central American immigrants and an ongoing global refugee crisis driven by the Syrian Civil War. Even acquiring the right to work can be a struggle: Asylum seekers in the United States are prohibited from working until at least 180 days have passed (150 days after filing and 30 days of filing) since they submitted the asylum application, unless they are granted asylum sooner.

“Our system is inhumane,” laments Melanie Schikore, the executive director of the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants in Mount Greenwood. “It leaves an asylum seeker with the choice between homelessness while their case processes, or working unauthorized which can jeopardize a pending case,” says Schikore. For just over three years, her organization has provided housing and support to asylum seekers and refugees through the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality for Women in Hyde Park as well as a men’s home in Cicero.

Asylum seekers from Africa have been hit especially hard in Chicago. They disproportionately make up seventy percent of all participants at centers like Heartland Alliance’s Kovler Center, which predominantly serves asylum seekers with active cases in Chicago. Over fifty-five percent of Kovler Center’s clients are homeless at intake, and four out of the top five countries of origin are in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are three stories of Africans caught up in the asylum seeker housing crisis.

Names and certain details of these stories have been changed to protect the identity of asylum seekers with active cases.

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Amina is an asylum seeker from Somalia living in West Ridge. She’s been waiting six months for her work permit to arrive so she can work to pay her rent.

I want you to know that an asylum seeker is someone that is forced out by circumstance. No one leaves their home without the fear of what’s behind them. Somalia had no peace, and there was a different kind of suffocation in the refugee camp in Djibouti. The trauma from your past is baggage you bring with you to America, too, and it finds a way to creep back into your life.

I came to Chicago during a cold December in 2016 with my two children, ten-year-old Mohammad and eight-year-old Zahra, with nothing. We didn’t even have coats. We floated from sleeping on the streets in West Ridge to staying with Somali families who would throw down a mattress for us in their basement laundry rooms during the winter. Every week we would move to a new place, and sometimes that was outside. For me, that feeling of being alone in the darkness of the laundry rooms where we slept triggered my memories of what I ran from in Somalia.

I didn’t anticipate the problems I faced here. I knew no one, but I thought at least I was coming to a country run by a developed government. But there was no help from the government. I found myself on the street roaming from place to place.

This had an impact on my children. Every day I would walk Mohammed and Zahra to school, but with no steady place to live, their grades would drop. At the same time, I wasn’t allowed to work to get money to provide for us. This stress took a toll on my mental health and morale.

In the beginning I was so depressed. In my heart, I would ask myself, “Why aren’t people helping me?” But today, I realize there are so many good people who have helped me along the way—you can call them good Samaritans. When I moved into this basement, it was empty with just two mattresses on the ground. Now, it is furnished. Just yesterday, volunteers were here visiting me. These people really changed how I view my life now in America.

But the biggest thing I can celebrate is the therapy and medical treatment that I have received at Kovler Center. It’s helped me regain my faith in humanity. Once I get my work permit, I will be able to provide for my own children. I dream of studying very hard and becoming a nurse. That’s my goal in America: to educate my children and myself.

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Daniel Rowell
Daniel Rowell

Paul left his country of Congo Brazzaville twenty years ago after his parents disappeared. After he settled in Canada to pursue his PhD, his wife was deported from their home due to a visa renewal delay stemming from a university strike. Paul says his wife’s deportation triggered his past trauma of losing his parents to state violence. Paul, who is now in his forties, sought asylum in the U.S. and spent nine months in an Uptown homeless shelter with two young children and an infant.

Always I saw the only way to make my life better was to study. So I kept studying and working to achieve my two master’s degrees in chemistry and biochemistry of natural products, then I moved on to acquire my PhD in Canada.

Everything changed when I started to struggle with my PhD scholarship. Because of issues outside of my control, my wife was deported to Congo Brazzaville from Canada. A particular judge decided that she had to be deported because of issues that arose from my student visa. It was a black situation.

I’ve always carried the trauma of my parents’ disappearance; I spent twenty years without my family, so I had tried to create a new family with my wife, and then government was again shattering everything that I had built, only this time it was in Canada. In my mind, I thought, this is a cycle. I arrived in Chicago with a baby, a five-year-old, and a seven-year-old, with no mother. Imagine your kids asking, “Where is Mom?” 

For me, the asylum process has been a jump into the unknown. There you are floating around in the darkness, looking, but every possible door feels blocked. You don’t have a work permit and you don’t have housing. You have nothing.

At first we stayed at a hotel downtown, but at $300 a day I realized we couldn’t stay there, and the only option was to go to a shelter. I heard to head to Uptown for temporary housing. I remember arriving there on a Friday, and on Monday I had a meeting with the case manager who said we could stay for a few months.

For me it was great, but for my kids it was crazy. They lived in better conditions in Canada. All we had now was a single room with four beds and one space for baggage and clothes. They would say, “Dad, are you sure we are in the right place? Why are we in a small room with many beds and everyone around us is screaming and making noises? It’s like they are sick.”

You see real life in a shelter. It’s a place where you can see every level of society, and their struggle.

Everything changed when I met a man who had heard about my qualifications. He called me one day and said, “Oh my god, you are not in a good place. The U.S. should really want you here with your skills.” I said, “No, sir, I’m really here in the shelter.” He discovered that I have more than fifteen years’ experience leading labs, and I was researching cosmeceuticals, a sort of marriage between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, in Canada. He told me, “I have the money and you have the brain. Let’s start a business.”

Now, I live in a home with my children and I’m a cofounder, principal scientist, and the doctor of our lab in the northwest suburbs. I have Americans working for me, and I pay their salaries. I’m doing cosmetics and I’m working with the FDA to make natural products. I love this work.

I’m waiting for my asylum interview these days. After I get asylum, I will apply for my wife to come. When she is here it will be the best thing for everyone. For my kids, and for her, too.

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Imam Ousmane Drame

Daniel Rowell
Daniel Rowell

Ousmane Drame is an immigrant from Mali and the imam of Masjid Al Farooq, a mosque that has served African immigrants and African American in Calumet Heights since 2002. As a community and spiritual leader, he has provided emergency housing for asylum seekers predominantly from West Africa for the past ten years.

We had no plan in mind to host asylum seekers. It just sort of happened. The houses were intended for people coming from the prison system who were struggling at finding housing and reintegrating into the community. Although the reasons behind the problems of these two groups might be different, at the end of the day they are facing the same issue: they have no place to live.

If someone has West African blood, any mosque in the city will tell them to go to Imam Ousmane on the South Side. Our first asylum seeker found me in 2007. She was running from government persecution in the Ivory Coast, and I thought to myself, we can’t turn her away, so I found a space for her.

Asylum seekers are often nervous and scared. Many of the asylum seekers we have helped are running from oppressive governments, slavery, female genital mutilation, and forced marriages.

I’ve seen with my own eyes the massive delays in the asylum system. It went from nine weeks to two or three years to get your call. We tell asylum seekers they have six months here so they don’t feel too comfortable, but in the end, we would never ask them to leave. Where would they go?

The housing helps them to some extent, but it isn’t the same as if they had a professional therapist or psychologist. At the end of the day, I’m an imam and I can treat the spiritual aspect, but there is a lot of mental trauma too, just like our brothers from the prison system.

Now, I’m overseeing six houses with about twenty-six formerly incarcerated Muslims and eleven Muslim asylum seekers about four blocks from the mosque. All this housing was funded by Muslims in the Chicago area.

Nine out of ten times, when they get asylum, they get work and they move on. It makes me feel good because at least we were able to help someone become self-sufficient.

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This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.

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