Asylum-seeker from Haiti finds an army of supporters in Cleveland

Ansly's Army

Ansly Damus spent over two years in jail despite having committed no crime. Ted Koppel reports on how he came to live in Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin's upstairs bedroom in Cleveland Heights, Ohio

It's a proud Independence Day tradition, naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. citizens across the land, including one at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Yet even as others take the oath of citizenship this Thursday, a refugee from the Caribbean is continuing his fight for the right to stay.

This is the story of how Ansly Damus, a 42-year-old asylum seeker from Haiti, came to be living in Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin's upstairs bedroom in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Melody and Gary told Ted Koppel of "CBS Sunday Morning" no discussion was needed before taking Ansly in.

"We knew that could be his room without talking to each other," Gary said.

Gary, Melody and a bunch of neighbors who began calling themselves "Ansly's Army" were outraged that an asylum seeker who had committed no crime, was spending endless months in jail. He clearly needed help and they were ready to provide it.

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Melody, Ansly and Gary

But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. Back in Haiti, where he was a teacher, Ansly spoke Creole and French. He taught mathematics and physics and ethics and pedagogy.

You know, "pedagogy," the theory and practice of education. Ansly Damus is an educated man.

His troubles began back in Haiti in 2014, when one of his former teachers went into politics.  Ansly began peppering his lectures with references to that teacher's corruption.

In retaliation, he says in a court statement, the politician sent thugs to beat him and threaten his life. Ansly's father called him and told him to get out.

"'Leave your house. Leave your house,'" Ansly recalled him saying.

Ansly was afraid, he says, that if he stayed, his wife and two children would be in danger. So he left Haiti, ending up in Brazil. After 18 months, he says, he found Brazil too violent and claims he encountered too much discrimination.

So he decided to come to the United States.

Baja, California, is where Ansly sought asylum, where he was processed by the border patrol and ultimately shipped to a jail outside Cleveland to await his day in court. That turned into a very long stay.

"Two years, 27 days," Ansly said.

Understand, a jail is not the same as a prison. Jails are meant for short stays. This jail doesn't have exercise facilities, inside or outside. And you can't see through the windows.

After his first six months in jail, Ansly got word that an immigration judge, had ruled in his favor, but twice, Ansly was granted asylum by immigration courts and twice the government successfully appealed. All the while, Ansly stayed in jail.

According to Cecillia Wang, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the long-term detention of asylum seekers is pretty commonplace these days. 

"The vast majority of people who are now in immigration custody, 50,000 human beings on any given day, have no criminal record," Wang said. "They are fighting their deportation cases, and the majority of them don't pose a flight risk or a danger; and we are spending our tax money to lock people up in these abominable conditions."

The Trump administration makes no bones about trying to discourage asylum seekers; and Ansly Damus was certainly getting discouraged.

For more than a year, Ansly's only visitor had been his pro-bono lawyer. Until one day, out of the blue, Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin showed up. 

"He'd been in jail about 14 months when we decided we would apply for-- to be sponsors," Melody said.

Melody, a financial consultant, and her husband, Gary, an attorney, learned about Ansly through a friend.

They went to visit him; but even that was an arm's length proposition.

"You sit there and you pick up the phone and you look at him in a monitor, and he sees you in a monitor," Melody said.

Now, here's the problem, noise level, hard to hear, you don't speak French, he doesn't speak English at that point.

"I don't understand Melody," Ansly said. "She talk and I… yeah."

But he understood he had a sponsor.

"After Melody and Gary come, I-- my life change," Ansly said.

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It was the difference between a life of isolation and having a support network.

"What we could do is put money in his commissary account," Melody said.

"He wanted to be able to go to the commissary because he couldn't get soap or toothpaste or a toothbrush," Gary said. "They didn't hand those out, you had to buy them."

To give him a connection to the outside world, Melody and Gary started sending Ansly photos of their house to show him where he'd be living when he came out. 

"'Here's your room, here's the yard and here's the dog,'" Melody said. "But then we'd take pictures of the seasons because he hadn't seen it. So we took pictures of the leaves turning we sent him snow pictures."

Loneliness, though, remained a constant problem.

"He wanted more companionship," Gary said. "So we started talking to people about sending him letters and sending him cards. And when we couldn't go on some Sundays, other people would fill in."

Which is how Ansly's Army got its start. It's forces rallied outside the ICE office in Cleveland, urging his release from jail; and they began holding regular meetings. At this point, Gary and Melody still hadn't been officially approved as sponsors. Ansly's release from jail was rejected on the grounds that he was a flight risk and lacked community support.

"So we did our second application," Gary said. "We tried to make it bulletproof. We got our bishop endorsing us, three doctors, a local judge, a priest, a rabbi. It was a pretty good showing of support in the community."

And it was rejected again.

"Flight risk and-- and not enough contact in the community," Gary said.

That's when the ACLU filed a petition stating that Ansly's detention was unlawful. The government was keeping him locked up indefinitely and denying his release without providing any evidence.  

"We went to court and we chartered a bus and got Ansly's Army on the bus," Melody said.

Melody said 35 people showed up for Ansly.

"We filled the courtroom," Melody said. "They had to pull in more chairs."

Which clearly had the intended impact on the judge.

"And she said, 'Well, you know, it says here that he has no community ties. Who are all these people?'" Melody said. "And she says, 'So I'm just gonna cross that off if that's not a valid reason.'"

And, last November before the judge had a chance to rule, the government finally agreed to release Ansly from jail, on the condition that he wear an ankle bracelet, and live with his sponsors, Melody and Gary, while his asylum case is being appealed.

Ansly's Army is still active. Last winter, they held a fundraiser raising $10,000.

He is studying English diligently, in class and also with volunteer tutors from his army. 
He now gets himself to one part-time job doing maintenance at a church. He also works part-time as an electrician restoring houses.

As for the troops in Ansly's Army, they're involved in more of a crusade than a military operation 

"A reason why I got involved is because I felt that the way Ansly was treated was so un-American," one member said. "I wanted to stand up for principles that I think are important for this country."

"I think we're all people of faith, deep faith," another said. "In our values and how we treat other human beings."

Which brings us back to Gary and Melody and that upstairs bedroom, now occupied by Ansly Damus. All in all, it could be two years before his asylum case is finally resolved.
 
In the meantime, Ansly video-chats with his wife and kids every day. And, yes, he is thinking about how and when he can bring them to Cleveland.  

"I told my wife all the time - Cleveland is very cool," Ansly said. "I don't have life before. People in Cleveland give me my life."

For more info: 

ACLU Website