Desirée Venn Frederic doesn’t simply enter a space. With every step, she alters it. She is 5-foot-10, taller in heels, a black woman with hair to the middle of her back, a soft voice and a towering presence. She wears a bright yellow broad-brimmed hat one day, a pink kimono another. They are costumes on another person, art on her.
And it’s all art at the Nomad Yard Collectiv, her New York Avenue NE vintage store, which doubles as the occasional retreat for men from a nearby homeless shelter.
“How are you doing, Billy?” she asks one such visitor, who is short on teeth and long on time to kill. He wanders among her treasures — amber-colored glass chandeliers, gilt mirrors and 1970s Dior dresses.
This is Desirée Venn Frederic’s wonderland. The one she dreamed up while lying in solitary confinement as an immigration detainee. This is the garden that grew from her jail cell.
Desirée, 34, will tell you that she thinks her spirit demanded to be born in Africa, to be rooted in the land of her family’s past. She spent most of her early years living with her grandparents in Sierra Leone while her parents attended graduate school and launched careers in the United States.
In 1989, when she was 7, she came for a six-month visit, but her mother, who was in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, decided that she wanted her daughter to stay. So she filed naturalization papers for the child, who, because of a civil war in Sierra Leone, was granted temporary protective status in the States while her case moved through the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a process that can take many years.
As a teen in Maryland, Desirée was shy and solitary but ambitious. She graduated at the top of her class and earned a full ride to the University of Maryland. But in the spring of her freshman year, the financial aid department informed her that her scholarship was being revoked because she was not yet a U.S. citizen.
“They said I had to give back the money, and I owed Maryland, like, $40,000. And they gave me two weeks to pay it,” she recalls.
U-Md. forced her to re-enroll as an international student — at three times the normal tuition rate. Her family couldn’t afford it, so she dropped out and got a job at the local mall.
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In 2004, Desirée received a letter from the INS saying that the temporary protective status for immigrants from Sierra Leone had been revoked, and she had four months to leave the country. By then, she had a driver’s license, a Social Security number and a whole life in the United States. Her family hired a lawyer to fight the case.
A couple of months later, she was stepping out of her car when a SWAT team surrounded her with guns drawn. “For a moment, I thought I was dreaming,” she recalled.
But when they brought her to a Howard County jail, Desirée caught a glimpse of her ex-boyfriend in a men’s cell and realized that this had something to do with him. He was also a Sierra Leonean, whom she’d met in college and dated for 18 months, although he didn’t always treat her well.
Officers informed Desirée that while she and the man were dating, he and several friends had embezzled money, and she was being charged as a conspirator. She maintained that she had no knowledge of the crime.
She would wait four years to stand trial. With her life in limbo, she sank into a depression. “This experience exposed to me my own insecurities,” she says. “I was making bad decisions about who I was surrounding myself with.”
In 2009, despite her insistence that she had not been complicit in the crime, a judge found her guilty. She remembers shaking as he told her: “This is a telltale case of a young girl who is book smart and not street smart. You are naive.” He sentenced her to 60 days in a halfway house.
Desirée knew that a felony record would make her immigration case dramatically more complicated. But she continued to fight, recruiting assistance from university law clinics and lobbying for the passage of Maryland’s version of the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities. Although she said she was advised to many times, she refused to enter into a green-card marriage just to get citizenship. When she marries, she wants it to be for love.
In January 2013, as she was walking out of the courtroom after a rescheduled immigration hearing, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers approached and asked her name. When she responded, they put her in handcuffs. The charge was overstaying her original visa.
Instead of fear, Desirée felt relief. For almost a decade, her life had been on hold. “I wanted to move forward with my life — desperately,” she says. “I wanted to know where I stood.”
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At a Frederick County jail, she was strip-searched and placed in a cellblock with criminal inmates. After two days she was relocated to solitary confinement, “for my own protection,” she was told.
She spent the next two months in solitary, struggling with bouts of extreme anxiety and claustrophobia. Her only respites were books, yoga and meditation — and the vintage store she constructed in her mind.
Desirée had always had a singular sense of style and had dreamed of opening her own shop someday. But in that cell she realized that she couldn’t afford to wait for “someday.”
On the very night she told an aunt on the phone that she felt her sanity slipping away and that she was ready to sign voluntary deportation papers, guards roused Desirée at 3 a.m. and transferred her to a jail on the Eastern Shore. She was put in a cellblock with a dozen other female immigration inmates.
Reinvigorated by human contact, she vowed to keep fighting. She wrote a letter to the judge assigned to her case, saying that if U.S. immigration officials wanted her gone, they’d have to forcibly deport her.
At her final hearing that May, she was questioned again about the conspiracy charge, and she explained again that she’d known nothing of the crime. But, she said, she was sorry for being a poor judge of character. “If I had known, I would not have put myself in that position,” she said. “I have a lot to lose.”
The prosecutor assigned to her case was said to be one of the most ruthless around, so Desirée held her breath when the woman asked for a 15-minute break. But when the hearing resumed, the judge informed her that the government wanted to end the case and offer her protective asylum status. It wouldn’t grant citizenship, but it would ensure she’d never be deported.
Desirée walked away a free woman, filled with gratitude. Six weeks later, she filed for a business license using the money left in her commissary account. Nomad Yard, near Union Market, opened in August 2014. It has been named the District’s best vintage store by Washington City Paper and Washingtonian magazine. And, earlier this year, Desirée, who has nearly 20,000 Instagram followers and is frequently featured in style blogs, opened another store inside Mulebone, the 14th Street NW restaurant owned by Andy Shallal and spearheaded by celebrity chef Carla Hall.
Today, Desirée is manically busy and gives little thought to the strange journey that brought her here. “I live in the past in so many ways,” she says. “I wear vintage clothes. I drive a vintage car. I talk about history all the time. But in terms of my own personal experience, if I allowed myself to think about what happened, I wouldn’t function. Because it’s a deep pain — a really deep cut. And I don’t know if it’s healed yet. I don’t know if it ever will.”
Still, she believes that everything happened exactly as it should have. Because it did “expand my own capacity to love and understand.” And it pushed her to bring long-held dreams to fruition.
Although she may not think much about the past, she has brought it with her. The name Nomad Yard is a nod to her conviction that it’s a fundamental human right to move about Earth — and to be welcomed to new lands.
“I firmly believe that we are nomads, and that our spirits wander and our bodies are meant to wander and migrate and explore,” she says. “It’s our way. It’s been our way since the beginning of time.”
This Life is an occasional series highlighting the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.