After derecho and fire, looking for home: Displaced Cedar Rapids family not alone in search for housing

Bahati Winifrida of Cedar Rapids sits on the couch with her aunt, Jackeline Gideon, at her home in Cedar Rapids on Frida
Bahati Winifrida of Cedar Rapids sits on the couch with her aunt, Jackeline Gideon, at her home in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Bahati Winifrida thought the derecho was bad. Her unit at Glenbrook Apartments on Cedar Rapids’s southwest side was damaged in the storm, and she had to throw away many belongings after water poured in.

She and her family had stayed in a hotel until the damage was repaired, and they were grateful when they were able to move back in on Aug. 26, a Wednesday. She even replaced some of the things lost in the storm.

But then, just two days later, a second disaster struck.

A fire ripped through the building Aug. 28, destroying the four-unit apartment building, one of several buildings in the complex. Winifrida’s was one of them.

“I don’t have anything now,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Since then, she and her four children, along with her mother, Nsekaruriho Geniya, have been staying in a hotel. At first the Red Cross paid for a room for them, and now she’s living at the Marriott in Cedar Rapids, where she also works as a housekeeper and her boss is letting her stay without charge.

She was working full time there before the pandemic, but since hotel stays have plummeted due to the coronavirus, lately it’s sometimes only a few shifts a week.

She’s grateful for the help with the hotel room, but said she hopes to find an apartment or house to rent soon. The hotel space has one bed in the main room and a smaller area with a pullout couch, but it’s still a cramped space for the family.


They often go to her aunt Jackeline Gideon’s house during the day, to cook and spread out a bit, but there isn’t room for them all to sleep there.

Someone recently brought her aunt a mattress set, which she’s set up in the living room as a place for Geniya to rest. She had a stroke nine years ago and Winifrida and Gideon are her caregivers.

Winifrida hopes to find something more permanent soon, but it has been a challenge. Every time she calls a landlord, she said, she’s been told they have no vacancies.

Though her English is quite good, it isn’t her first language and she said she struggles navigating the apartment search online.

“I keep looking for an apartment and don’t find one,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a shelter because I have kids, and with COVID, it’s dangerous ... . Everybody needs an apartment, somewhere to live.”

Housing shortage

She’s not alone. Mugisha Bwenge, founder of refugee and immigrant-serving nonprofit United We March Forward, said housing is the No. 1 challenge brought up by the people in the African immigrant community whom he talks to in the aftermath of the derecho.

The organization partnered with Cedar Rapids Bank and Trust and other not-for-profits to hold a donation drive for the community Oct. 1, and which served about 150 people.

“The biggest need we hear from people is housing,” he said. “Housing and employment and getting back to some of their routines — English classes, continuing education, things like that.”

His group is small, just a few volunteer board members, but they’re trying to do what they can to connect the families they know with resources and other not-for-profit partners.

But something such as housing is a larger, more systemic issue.


When apartment complexes such as Glenbrook and nearby Cedar Terrace were badly damaged, a large number of residents were displaced. The city already had a low vacancy rate, and after the storm the shortage of available and affordable units has grown.

To address the issue, nonprofit Catherine McAuley Center set up a shelter for immigrants after the storm, with a capacity for 65 people. Since then, they’ve helped several families find new apartments, said Leya Neema, Refugee Resettlement Program Coordinator, and are down to 23 residents.

“The biggest challenge was that some of the residents were not just affected by derecho but, due to COVID, had been laid off or didn’t have a job,” she said. “It was about finding affordable housing and also employment ... .

“A lot of the apartments that were available that were affordable people moved into really quickly. Now the ones that are left are a little more expensive. So it’s a double problem with having a financial issue and finding vacancies.”

Grateful for family

Winifrida wasn’t home when the fire happened. She was on her way to Georgia for a funeral. Her sister-in-law’s son had been shot.

As she was headed to the funeral, she got the call from the apartment building manager about the fire.

“Oh, my God, it is too much,” she said. “But I can say, ‘Thank you, God,’ because my mom was at my aunt’s house and wasn’t there. My kids weren’t there. I can say thank you that nobody is dead.”

Her children are 11, nine, five and a year-and-a-half old. The older kids are in school at Andrews Christian Academy, which has returned to in-person learning.

Born in Tanzania, she’s been in the United States for 10 years. She lived in Texas and Georgia before moving to Iowa to be near her aunt.


Family is the most important thing, she said. She deeply misses her brother and sister, still living in the refugee camp in Tanzania where she spent 20 years.

The Trump administration has sharply curtailed the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year, and she doesn’t know when they’ll be able to join her. She last saw them in 2007.

Life before coming to America was hard, she said — her mother had 11 children, but six of them died. Still, the rest of the family was able to be together.

“I was happy because I was with my mom and with my brother and sister,” she said. “I wish I could be with them.”

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