Lack of help after Iowa derecho felt like 'we were back in the refugee camp'

Aid arrives late for immigrants in hard-hit apartments


CEDAR RAPIDS — For the last week, families with no where to go after the Aug. 10 derecho tore holes in their apartments have been living in tents and cooking over open fires outside their buildings on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side.

On Monday, a week after the storm, many had moved into shelters elsewhere. But it took days for those shelters to be set up, and longer for those options to be communicated to residents, said advocates and community members — mostly immigrants and refugees — living at Glenbrook and Cedar Terrace Apartments, two hard-hit complexes.

“For the majority of the week, until Friday, the people here have just felt forgotten. The only engagement with government or officials was people coming to put non-occupancy notices on their doors and leaving with no explanation,” said Lemi Tilahun, with the organization Eastern Iowa African Diaspora. “The community has been asking, ‘Where’s the help?’”

He said that on Friday, Cedar Rapids Fire Chief Greg Smith came to talk with residents. Over the weekend, some moved to a Red Cross shelter at Veterans Memorial Building, others moved to hotels paid for by the Iowa Department of Human Services and yet others sheltered at the Catherine McAuley Center, a nonprofit that serves immigrants and refugees.



Tilahun works at Hoover Elementary School as a community coordinator and has been on the ground trying to organize help for the residents. He said when he showed up Monday night at Cedar Terrace to check on some of the students he knows, he was stunned at the devastation.

“I didn’t think anyone could have survived,” he said.

The wind tore off roofs, shattered glass and sent trees crashing into units. One woman, holding her 2-week old baby, was badly injured, along with her two older sons. A neighbor rushed them to a hospital. Tilahun showed their unit to The Gazette; it is missing walls, and blood still is smeared on the floor.

“Things like this are very triggering for a lot of our families,” he said. Many had fled wars or other crises in the past, some more than once — which is why they wanted to move to the United States. Many were reluctant to leave their apartments, even with them open to the elements, because they feared losing everything again, he said.

Some residents lingered Monday, like Violette Ntibangana. Her family huddled in their bathroom while the storm tore off their roof at Glenbrook Apartments and rain poured in. She and her husband cleaned out deep piles of insulation that fell into their bedroom. A tarp on the roof flapped in the wind a week later, sunlight shining through.

She is originally from Tanzania, and her son, Boni Niyo, a senior at Jefferson High School, translated for her.

Seven family members live in the apartment. For now, she said, they scatter to sleep with different friends and neighbors each night before coming back to cook outside the unit each day. They are reluctant to leave, she said, because this is all they have.



After a Sunday meeting between residents and nonprofit groups that have been on the ground working with the community, including EMBARC, Eastern Iowa African Diaspora, Catherine McAuley Center and others, the Catherine McAuley Center set up the shelter at its former building, which it vacated just a few weeks ago but still has. The shelter has capacity for about 50 people, said Sara Zejnic, director of refugee and immigrant services, and she expected it all to be filled. The building had previously offered transitional housing for women so it was already set up to house people, with more space for each family than at the Red Cross Shelter, places to cook and private bathrooms.

Zejnic said they heard from many people who were fearful about going to a congregate facility like a Red Cross shelter because they had gone to shelters like that before, in their home countries — and ended up being there for years, sometimes decades, before getting to rebuild their lives. She said the goal now is to help get them into new housing of their own as quickly as possible.



State Rep. Tracy Ehlert was at Cedar Terrace on Monday, checking on residents. She said after the days of little help, people flooded the residents with supplies over the weekend. The need now, she said, is not for physical supplies but monetary donations so the groups helping them can target their efforts.

An extended family of Micronesian immigrants still was living in tents Monday outside Cedar Terrace. Jaizyann Rasa, 13, helped her grandfather, Alsandy Phillip, as he tended the outdoor cooking fire and watched over who played in a make-do pool fashioned from a tarp.

“We’ve been living here because we didn’t know where to go,” she said.

They were packing up because that had finally changed; Phillip said the landlord told them he had found apartments for them in Washington, Iowa, along with construction jobs.



For most here, this is far from their first crisis.

Immaculee Mukahigiro was born in Rwanda, which she fled to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 1994 genocide. Another conflict in Congo led her to flee again in 2006, to a second camp in Zambia.

She came to the United States in 2009 and Iowa in 2013 and is a facilitator for African Women Empowered, a nonprofit based at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church near the apartment buildings.

She lives at Glenbrook Apartments, where her unit wasn’t damaged, but like many others, she cooked on a fire outside while the power was out, using fallen wood and a makeshift grill. The wood smoked terribly, however, so she switched to charcoal once she was able to get some.

“We were saying that we are back in the refugee camp,” she said. “It was hard to eat. We did not know what to do.”

She said it wasn’t until Wednesday that help started arriving in the form of donated food and other supplies like diapers and baby food. Still, she said she is grateful, for the help now that it has arrived, and for the fact that she and her family have weathered yet another storm.

“I’m glad I’m still alive. My family still is alive, my friends, my neighbors are still alive,” she said.

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