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Hard-Hit Refugee Families Flooded With Aid, Transition To Shelters

Refugee families living in partially collapsed apartment buildings in the wake of the derecho have been flooded with aid in support in recent days, and have transitioned into short-term housing such as hotels or shelters.
Kate Payne
Refugee families living in partially collapsed apartment buildings in the wake of the derecho have been flooded with aid and support in recent days, and have transitioned into short-term housing such as hotels or shelters.

Some two hundred refugee families in Cedar Rapids have transitioned into temporary housing and out of storm-ravaged apartments that had been deemed unlivable. For days, some families had been sleeping on the ground, in tents or in their cars, or even inside their destroyed homes. Sincelocal reporting has highlighted the conditions at Cedar Terrace, Glenbrook and other complexes, aid has poured in and families have gotten more support moving into short-term housing.

At the Cedar Terrace Apartments in southwest Cedar Rapids, families had continued to live inside apartment buildings that had no roofs, crumbling walls and blasted out windows, the entire complex littered with broken glass, fiberglass insulation, and shreds of plywood and siding.

The Phillip family, a large extended family from the Pacific Island nation of Micronesia, had constructed an elaborate makeshift camp behind their building, pitching multiple tents and cooking over an open fire on a homemade grill.

Images and accounts of the conditions there and at other hard-hit complexes shocked area residents and local officials alike, as refugees recounted that their experiences in the days since the derecho made them feel they were once again living in the refugee camps they had fled.

It wasn’t until last Friday that an overnight storm shelter was opened in Cedar Rapids, days after the derecho first hit, leaving untold numbers of families displaced with nowhere to go.

Dieuriles Damis said the experience made him feel as if city leaders and disaster response organizations did not know he existed.

“Nobody knows if I’m here, that we’re here alone. We don’t have nobody,” Damis said.

Over the weekend, refugee advocates stepped up their efforts, working with service providers at the Catherine McAuley Center, local elected officials and the American Red Cross to transition families out of the partially collapsed buildings.

Some have moved to the Red Cross shelter at the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Cedar Rapids, others to a shelter at the former building of the Catherine McAuley Center, or into area hotels.

Still others are staying with friends or family members, or have already left the city or the state entirely.

“While long-term plans are still being developed, we anticipate this facility will be available for at least 90 days,” reads a post on the CMC Facebook page. “We are overwhelmed with supply donations and immediate needs have been met.”

Some hesitant to leave

Some residents had been hesitant to leave their homes, even those that were completely destroyed, because for some it may have been the only true home they had ever had, explained Lemi Tilahun, a refugee advocate who's been helping families navigate the aftermath of the storm.

“Everyone’s in this state of shock and people don’t want to detach from what they know is familiar, even if it’s crumbling around them,” Tilahun said.

Other families had not been aware the Red Cross had opened a shelter in the city, thought it didn’t have enough space for them, or didn’t want to go to a shelter because of past experiences. Some said they were concerned about contracting the coronavirus at the shelter (officials say specific COVID and social distancing protocols are in place).

“I don’t want to go back to a shelter”, said AJ Phillip. “It was ok, it wasn’t bad. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like being in the shelter”

He said his family planned to relocate directly to Alabama, where they had more family and could be closer to the ocean.

As of Monday evening, Phillip’s family was instead packing up their belongings to move to another apartment complex, after the same landlord located the units and promised to provide moving trucks.

“He’s the one that wants us to go to Iowa City,” Phillip said. “He told us that there’s 10 people that can get there right away and work right away. That’s why my dad is agreeing, is because he needs us to work [to earn money for moving expenses].”

Phillip could not be reached by phone Wednesday for further details on his family's move out of of the complex.

The arrangement concerned Chris Olson, a neighbor who lives a few blocks away. He met and built a relationship with the Phillip family in the aftermath of the storm, after being shocked by the devastation of complex.

Olson said he didn’t want the family taken advantage of, after all they had been through.

“They are literally probably the hardest-working, most genuine people I have ever met. Given the circumstances, that family was extremely strong,” Olson said. “Their kids will have no idea how much they struggled because of their strength.”

Walking the grounds and talking with residents on Monday afternoon, Dan Ahrens identified himself as the father of the men who own the complex. He said he had worked to address the “safety stuff” in the wake of the storm.

As of Monday evening, there were still feet-high piles of fiberglass insulation, power lines remained tangled in trees and broken glass and debris covered the grounds.

“There wasn’t much I could do. We brought food. I have other places to help and other people to help,” Ahrens said. “I don’t really know what more we could’ve done than we did.”

Other residents have complained about the management of the complex, raising concerns about mold and maintenance issues going unaddressed, the Des Moines Register reported.

Long-term solutions uncertain

Standing outside of the partially collapsed apartment buildings Monday evening, Kobinali Lwishi said he’s thankful his family is alive, after they rode out the storm in their apartment.

He was at work but his pregnant wife and two small children were at home in their unit on the top floor of the building, when the roof was ripped entirely off over their heads.

“She was calling, crying. I was at work. Seriously, it was a bad day. I can never forget that day. I was like, I am going to lose all my family,” Lwishi said.

They lost everything in the storm, Lwishi said. His wife gave birth two days later.

“The way you see me, that’s the way I am right now. I don’t have nothing, I don’t have anything. Something I have right now, just water, diapers, because the people help me. But in my apartment I didn’t get anything, anything,” he said. “But we just thank God we’re still alive.”

They have since moved in with a friend for now. But long-term, he doesn’t know what they’ll do.

“Exactly we don’t have any place to go for now. Because some apartments, they are booked already. They don’t have any available apartments,” he said.

Residents in the area were already struggling to find affordable housing. That need is expected to spike.

In the wake of the storm, refugee advocates have assembled a response team to help develop short and long-term solutions. Made up of community residents, leaders, service providers and advocates, the team is called the Emerging Communities Relief Coalition.

“The residents were pretty adamant about having their voices included and not have a decision made for them,” said Tilahun.

With summer quickly turning into fall and another school year coming soon, there is pressure on the families and their advocates to find long-term housing solutions as soon as possible.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter