Credit: Samantha Cabrera Friend

This story was originally published by City Bureau on May 11, 2021, and is part of the How a Community Heals series.

Each Saturday outside a squat Logan Square bungalow, people in the community know they can come by for items like milk, eggs, fruit, and clothing. Some neighbors come prepared with carts to take home a whole box.

This weekly food distribution began last spring as the small house transitioned from a hostel, garden, and interdisciplinary arts space for local artists to a sanctuary for LGBTQ asylum seekers released from immigration detention, calling it Casa Al-Fatiha. Here they could find a place to rest their heads and a community to rely on.

The house, formerly known as Earphoria, once kept a schedule abundant with open mikes, potlucks, and weekly shows. When in-person gatherings became impossible, two musicians decided to transform the space’s art and music legacy into a new one.

Rooted in the same sense of community and belonging, at Casa Al-Fatiha immigrants find free community housing and support where they can process, rest, and heal from their experiences in immigration detention centers.

“We’re not caseworkers; we’re not social workers. We’re here to be peers, we’re here to be a community, we’re here to be roommates,” says Lyn Rye, one of the cofounders of Casa Al-Fatiha. “We’re here as equals and I think that’s a real plus in some ways.”

Finding housing is a significant hurdle for asylum seekers who can’t access government assistance and aren’t allowed to work for a year or often longer. There is a growing need for housing specifically for asylum seekers who identify as LGBTQ in the U.S.

“The special need for housing for this community in particular is incredibly great and Casa Al-Fatiha is responding to this growing need by providing room and board . . . I can’t stress enough how desperately needed this sort of housing is,” explains Ryan Smith of Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants in an Instagram video. ICDI partners with Casa Al-Fatiha to offer mentorship and case management for those living in the house.

One of the asylum seekers is Luis Martinez. After spending time in Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, Martinez, a political exile from Honduras, found a home this spring at the colorful, plant- and music-filled house.

Martinez, the first of three asylum seekers to have stayed at Casa Al-Fatiha, left Honduras after being threatened as a student activist for his advocacy and journalism against narcotics trafficking and killings. A scar across the right side of his head is a reminder of the violence that would meet him if he returned.

“Yo no puedo regresar a mi país por toda mi vida,” Martinez says, meaning, “I can never return to my country for the rest of my life.”

When he arrived at Casa Al-Fatiha, he wasn’t expecting to have his bed made up and a room labeled with his name. The entire house is welcoming and communal; Martinez remembers making himself at home in the shared kitchen, where he cooked up Honduran tapado using ingredients from Mexican groceries nearby. A deep orange living room facing the street welcomes visitors, full with shelves of plants and a piano. A disco ball hangs over a large wooden picnic table where residents gather to eat and chat.

That feeling of welcome is central to this house. “Al-Fatiha means ‘the opening’ in Arabic, it’s the first chapter of the Quran, it’s also the Lord’s prayer in Islam,” says Rye, who is Muslim and moved into the house as it transitioned to Casa Al-Fatiha. “You say it five times a day, it’s the name of a prayer and also the word for opening. This space is a form of accompaniment, the openheartedness that we feel, so that’s why we named it Casa Al-Fatiha.”

Rye says they got the idea to create a sanctuary space from their work at Masjid Al-Rabia, a BIPOC-led and LGBTQ-affiriming Islamic community center focused on spiritual support for marginalized Muslims. “So much of my role there was about facilitating the space as a sanctuary and giving the space for marginalized people,” Rye says. They suggested creating this same sense of community at Earphoria for LGBTQ asylum seekers.

Casa Al-Fatiha is working with different immigrant and refugee support groups such as ICDI and Organized Communities Against Deportations to connect asylum seekers with a sponsor and a place to stay.

“That way we can make sure that people landing here have the resources and space [they need],” says Mah Nu, a musician, resident and cofounder. “My priority is to make sure that there is space that is comfortable and conducive and deserving of the people that are going to be here.”

Nu ensures each newcomer has a room prepared especially for them. There’s an open invitation to join in cooking, gardening, and sitting at a large table with others. Anyone can tend, harvest, and share in community space however they want to participate.

It goes back to the name of the house, Rye says. “Like the ‘opening,’ it’s like an empty space, a form of accompaniment . . . it’s a room that we’re guarding for someone. [Sometimes I sit] in the living room or kitchen with a chair that’s empty, if someone needs to come and talk, there’s an opening.”

Though Martinez has moved on to California, he continues to advocate for Honduras and against immigration detention, and stays connected with those he met at Casa Al-Fatiha. He says he felt at home in the space. He aligned with residents over political issues, coalition building, and even joined in protest outside the Chicago Spotify office to support the Chicago chapter of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers who feel exploited by the streaming platform.

Since Martinez has gone on his way from the house, new asylum seekers and a formerly incarcerated LGBTQ person are beginning to find a home there. Currently, there are three rooms available and organizers plan to offer more housing in the future. A newcomer from Mexico has been staying there and already feels at ease. Rye said she told them “it didn’t feel new, but like a home she’s been away from for a long time.”   v

Casa Al-Fatiha is fundraising on Patreon and accepts donations on Cash App at $casaalfatiha to support rent for LGBTQ asylum seekers and people released from detention.

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