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Iowa City Organization To Open New 'House Of Hospitality' For Immigrants And Refugees

Iowa City Catholic Workers stand in front of the Victorian-style home they bought as their second "house of hospitality" for immigrants and refugees to stay in.
Iowa City Catholic Worker
Iowa City Catholic Workers stand in front of the Victorian-style home they bought as their second "house of hospitality" for immigrants and refugees to stay in.

An Iowa City immigrant advocacy organization announced it will purchase its second "house of hospitality" where new immigrants and refugees can stay while they get back on their feet.

The Iowa City Catholic Worker bought its first house in 2016 (and paid it off in 2020).

In a press release announcing that first house, Catholic Worker co-founder Emily Sinnwell said “We want everyone to know that immigrants and refugees are welcome here."

Since then, the bed-and-breakfast style home has been at capacity “pretty much all the time,” according to Kim Novak. She’s with Iowa City Catholic Worker House and said the houses are a way to address immigrants’ and refugees’ needs that are not fully being met in the city.

"For us, that really came to look like refugees that were coming to the area that needed a little bit of help, not just with housing, but also with things like getting kids in school, figuring out how to apply for paperwork properly, all of those types of things. And so it really just came to be obvious to us that was a need that was not being met right now," she said.

Novak met her husband Tom through Iowa City Catholic Worker. He also helps with the volunteer-run housing program.

"There are a number of hoops that refugees and immigrants have to jump through in order to get a green card or work permit. In the meantime, they have no funds. And they don't qualify for many of the social services that full citizens do, even if they're in the process of getting citizenship," he said. "They're just left hanging. They don't have a place to go, they don't have a way to house or feed or clothe themselves, and they're relying on the mercy of someone who cares."

He said there's a "disconnect" he has noticed in Iowa City there is a higher cost of living paired with a high demand for low-wage jobs. He hopes building another home will bring Iowan's attention to the growing gap.

Kim said it took about five years to find the 5,000 square-foot house is in downtown Iowa City. It has six bedrooms and seven bathrooms.

Rent and other services are completely free, but guests have the understanding and agree to a community-style living arrangement. There isn't a time limit for staying, as they want to make sure individuals are set up for success. Once a guest has a job, a bank account and money saved, they're in a better position to move out and make room for the next guest.

"Finding a house that met our needs in terms of space and location was really challenging. And so we were just really excited to come across this house, have it be in really the perfect location and have enough space for us to be able to serve a large number of people compared to what we're serving right now," she said.

The Novaks added the houses of hospitality are a way to really help immigrants and refugees hand-in-hand, instead of just telling them what to do. They spoke about the positive feedback Iowa City Catholic Worker has received from former guests of the house.

Tom noted the influx of refugees Iowa is expected to have from Afghanistan soon, so they want to meet the needs of these new cultures and people on their way. Although the guests have come from all over the world.

They did acknowledge the pushback certain immigration policies have received, "but I would challenge anybody to just come spend a day with one of these families. And I think that they would walk away understanding that these are people who come from places that really have very, very little resources. And they're just simply trying to get for their children, what we all want for our children," Kim said.

The house is expected to open by the end of the year.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines