CEDAR RAPIDS — Noela Elophe and her family don’t want to have to rely on the kindness of strangers — they want to be able to get their lives started again after the derecho destroyed their southwest Cedar Rapids apartment building, shattering windows and sending rain into their daughter’s unit.
The family has been in Iowa for eight years; Elophe was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but grew up in Zimbabwe. When they first moved to the United States, they were in North Carolina but quickly relocated to Iowa to find jobs.
Her husband has returned to his job at Whirlpool in Amana, and they’ve been able to sleep at a friend’s home after being driven from the destroyed Cedar Terrace Apartments. But they don’t know where they can go next.
Elophe has been trying to search for a new apartment in between caring for her 1-month-old baby and 4-year-old daughter. But with the power out and internet service spotty, it has been a challenge. She’s also still recovering from a C-section she had just a few short weeks ago.
She said when she finds something that looks promising, she doesn’t get a call back.
“Right now, if you look for an apartment, you can’t find one. So many are damaged,” she said.
Belton Wendo, a board member with the Refugee and Immigrant Association, a local nonprofit led by immigrants to serve other immigrants, said stories like hers are common — people who came to the United States and have worked hard to build new lives in Iowa and be part of their community. What they need, he said, is affordable housing or help getting to work if their cars were damaged — things to help them get back on their feet, the same as their displaced American-born neighbors.
However, the community has unique challenges including accessing information across language and cultural barriers. People often don’t know what help is available or how to apply.
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“There’s a lot of opportunity in Cedar Rapids,” said Mugisha Bwenge, who founded the nonprofit Together We March Forward. “When the storm hit, a lot of resources came.”
The biggest challenge, he said, has been organizing and getting those resources to people who need them. That’s why Together We March Forward and the Refugee and Immigrant Association were two of several groups that met with local nonprofit representatives Friday to talk about how they can work together to best serve the community of African immigrants that calls Cedar Rapids home.
That community is not a homogenous group. Members come from Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and beyond. They speak French, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Lingala and other languages. Some spent years in refugee camps after fleeing war. They have seen traumas that others have not. There are not one-size-fits-all solutions for such a diverse population, even as outsiders often group them all together.
Still, it is rare for the many organizations serving them to get together, said people at Friday’s meeting, which took place in the parking lot of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church near many of the damaged apartment complexes.
Organizations there were all immigrant-led or had representatives there who came from the immigrant communities. They included Together We March Forward, the Refugee and Immigrant Association, Eastern Iowa African Diaspora, AmeriCorps RefugeeRise volunteers with EMBARC, African leaders from several churches with multilingual congregations and nonprofits like Catherine McAuley Center and Young Parents Network. Jean Havugimana, who works at HACAP, translated between English and Kinyarwanda.
Bwenge and Jean Paul Mugemuzi, president of the Refugee and Immigrant Association, were among those calling for more meetings like this, saying their strength could be in numbers.
After the derecho, Mugemuzi’s association raised money to buy charcoal for 18 families who were cooking outside while the power was out. They also raised money to buy grocery store gift cards.
Wendo said though families were thankful for the free meals that have flooded through Cedar Rapids, many of the families are eager to start cooking again.
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“Our difference is, we know what we went through, we know where we came from. When we are here, we try to let them forget. Being given food — that’s how we were living in the refugee camps, where we were given food, even if we didn’t like it,” he said. “When people came here, they said, ‘Now we can cook for ourselves.’ We give money because they can buy what they like.”
The association is made up primarily of Congolese and other East African immigrants, but they help the wider community as well.
One family it helped included Andrea Santos Guadalupe, and her mother, Reyna Guadalupe. Andrea, 8, is going into third grade at Van Buren Elementary. She translated from Spanish for her mother and told the story of what it was like during the storm, which damaged their 20th Avenue SW apartment building.
“It was horrible. We heard trees falling down. The lights went off,” she said. “I was a little bit too scared, and my dad messaged us to go into the bathroom.”
She, her mother and four siblings sheltered there until the storm passed. For the next five days, Guadalupe wasn’t able to go to her job at McDonalds, which created financial stress for the family, especially when they had to throw out ruined groceries. The charcoal and gift card were a small bit of relief.
The Refugee and Immigrant Association still is accepting donations at refugeeimmigrant.org.
“We refugees gave some contributions. We had little, but we shared it,” Wendo said. “Our resources are limited, but we know we are in a big community which supports everyone … These people are helping to make this country succeed.”
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