Cedar Rapids Refugee Community Feels Forgotten in Derecho Destruction

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On the southwest side of Cedar Rapids, there is a community that feels forgotten. Cedar Terrace Apartments, home to approximately 75 refugee families, has been deemed uninhabitable because of Iowa’s derecho, but residents have been living on the grounds for six days before local officials stepped in to assess damage.

Residents are sleeping in tents, smashed cars, and crumbling units as the storm is estimated to have left 250 people from the complex homeless. The majority of the residents don’t speak English and are from many areas of the world including Micronesia, Central Africa, East Africa and beyond. 

“There are always all kinds of barriers, there’s a reason why this is the sixth day now since the storm came through, and this is the first time we’re seeing publicly elected officials here. It’s the first time we are seeing an abundance of generosity from the community,” said Lemi Tilahun, supervisor of the Refugee Rise AmeriCorps Program.

Tilahun, who regularly works with refugees in the area, says this community is often overlooked simply because local officials have not been to the area to know the devastation that has occurred.

Living In Fear 

Through EMBARC, a non-profit organization, translators have been working with residents to communicate important messages and resources. Languages here include French, Swahili, Yoruba, Somali and many more, but there is one consistent message that has been heard — residents are confused.

“We really aren’t sure what to do. We are kind of confused, but however it is, continue to lend a hand and help,” said Pacifique Mushishi with the help of a translator.

Many residents came to Cedar Rapids as climate refugees and others fleeing extraneous circumstances in their home countries. Many, for the first time, had a home to call their own at Cedar Terrace. Now, many families are left with nothing as the storm completely demolished their units taking with it any documents and personal possessions. 

“It’s hard for them to leave because they have their stuff here and that’s all they own. This is their first place that they’ve been able to call home after decades of suffering. So it’s just heartbreaking and it’s hard to describe,” said Tilahun.

When asked to describe the storm, Mahanga Matiaysi said through a translator that he is only alive because God was watching over him and his family. Matiaysi is estimated to be in his 70s and lived in a unit on the top floor of the complex. He said the winds were so strong, the roof blew off his home, throwing his grandchild across the room. 

“When I looked up and found out the roof was completely gone, I was really afraid. I was thinking what is life going to be like now?” said Matiaysi.

Matiaysi’s knee was injured in the storm. He is currently borrowing a cane so that he can walk. His wife has been able to stay with a friend, but he has been sleeping in a torn down area of his apartment. He describes it as a little square, but he is hoping he can get a tent so that he can sleep more comfortably. 

“Rain came, wind came, it was too quick. We simply, honestly thought we were going to die that day. We left Africa seeking refuge here. Now, it feels like we are refugees again here in America,” said Mushishi.

Response from Local Officials

On Saturday afternoon, after several days of not seeing any local officials, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department posted “unsafe to occupy” notices on the doors of the complex. Fire Chief Greg Smith addressed residents with the help of translators and urged residents to stay out of the buildings.

“Some of you are living in tents and some of the stuff here on the grounds the biggest thing that I would say is that these structures here are currently unstable and unsafe and I would encourage you to not enter these structures for your safety,” said Smith.

Smith says they will work with AmeriCorps members to provide food, water and basic necessities.

“We are working on other shelter options, but I want to be sensitive to the cultural needs and cultural impacts to the community,” said Smith.

The Refugee Rise AmeriCorps program through EMBARC will continuously provide services for refugees in the area, including translation services and everyday essentials. To donate to the program click here.

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