Ida floods displaced 150 resettled refugees in New Jersey

Credit: (Matt Katz; WNYC / Gothamist)
Two families displaced by the storm, refugees from Iraq and Syria, pose in one of their hotel rooms with United Tastes of America co-founders Kate McCaffrey (far right) and Melina Macall (third in from the left).

Sahar Ibrahim was at home with his three youngest children when the unexpectedly fierce Tropical Storm Ida poured so much rain that the nearby Elizabeth River picked up their apartment on the first floor. As the water rose inside, she tried to escape, but her front door did not move against the pressure of the flood waters.

At the time, her husband, Salam Asad, was in Newark picking up their eldest daughter from work. An Iraqi who was admitted to the United States seven years ago as a refugee due to his work with the United States military, Asad feared that unlike the bombs in his home, which kill immediately, his family would gradually die in the area. ‘water.

“I thought the world was going to end,” he said.

Sahar Ibrahim and his children climbed through a window and into the murky water.

Stuck on flooded roads in Newark, Asad called his third-story neighbors who, in turn, called second-story neighbors who rallied to help Asad’s stranded family downstairs. They climbed a precarious ladder with a table and chairs and threw a rope. Ibrahim and his children climbed through a window and into the murky water, tying the rope around their bodies so that they could be pulled into the upstairs apartment, to safety.

By the time Asad returned, the apartment complex was unrecognizable, with debris everywhere and damaged cars strewn about. He saw at least one corpse. “I come back and I say, ‘Where is my house?’ “, he said. All of his family’s belongings were destroyed.

Ibrahim was due to start English classes this week at Union County College, but the used car she bought to drive to school was flooded. After the storm, the little gift knots that were placed on the newly purchased car were still attached to the door, even though the car is unusable.

Thirty people in New Jersey died from Tropical Storm Ida two weeks ago. Four of those victims lived in the Oakwood Plaza apartments in Elizabeth, a hub for newly arrived refugees in the area. All 600 residents of Oakwood Plaza have been displaced, including 33 refugee families from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Cote d’Ivoire and Sri Lanka, according to the International Elizabeth Rescue Committee. .

For now, the City of Elizabeth and Union County are funding hotel rooms. IRC, along with a small group of other nonprofit groups that have sprung up in recent years to welcome newcomers, are trying to meet longer-term needs.

A group that has long worked with local refugees, United Tastes of America, is raising $ 50,000 to support them, and possibly to replace the destroyed cars in the storm that so many people relied on to get to work and travel to school.

United Tastes of America runs dinner clubs in which refugees are paid to cook traditional meals in the homes of area residents. It was founded to build community among strangers, and the recent storm has made it clear that its mission has been fulfilled. A woman who met Ibrahim and his family made several trips to the hotel to drop off pizza for dinner and Legos for the kids. Other New Jersey residents who met the refugees through United Tastes of America have offered to help with the upcoming FEMA paperwork assault.

“We hoped to build a network of solidarity. It was our idea from the start, that we wanted to welcome people, ”said United Tastes of America co-founder Kate McCaffrey. “And what we are seeing now is the sustainability of these relationships.”

She said what happened in Elizabeth is’ Ground Zero for climate change ‘and that in this new era the neighbors’ all have to step up and help each other, and that is what we see here. “.

Tropical Storm Ida also saw refugees give back to their new community.

“Mohammed, please help me. “

“Mohammed, please help me,” said the 74-year-old woman from the Dominican Republic who lived in Oakwood Plaza just below the second-floor apartment of Mohammed Zakkour and his family. The pressure of the water against the door prevented him from going out.

Zakkour, a Syrian refugee, called 911, but emergency services across the state were overloaded that night and did not come. So, as the brown water rose as high as her neighbor’s peephole, Zakkour and her 12-year-old son, Zain, along with neighbors smashed down the front door and saved her.

“She lost everything,” Zain said. “We took her to our house… She took a shower, she took her meds, she fell asleep.

At the hotel last week, Zain said he noticed refugees whose cars are still running and driving others who lost their vehicles. “It’s cool to see how people who need help help others,” he said. “This is how I think things are going to start to get… and then the world will be a lot better.”

The Zakkour fled the civil war in Syria and spent four years in Jordan before being admitted to the United States. They said they had found the kind of community they had lost when they left their home.

“When we arrived we met people like [McCaffrey and United Tastes of America co-founder Melina Macall] it made us feel like family, ”Zain said. “We had people around to help us. “

“I don’t like the rain because the rain comes into our house. It breaks the door too.

A spokeswoman for the City of Elizabeth said most residents of Oakwood Plaza apartments will be able to return after repairs are complete. In the meantime, the displaced families hope to find temporary accommodation in Elizabeth so that the children can more easily get to school.

Children don’t have much to do in the hotel where they stayed. Between two gymnastic movements in her hotel room, Maria Zakkour, 5, gave a clue as to how the effects of this movement will persist.

“I don’t like the rain because the rain comes into our house,” she said. “It breaks the door too.”

While they have food and meal donations, without a kitchen, families mostly eat canned food. At night, they linger in the hotel lobby with other Arabic-speaking refugees, still wondering how long they will have to wait before being resettled.

– This story originally appeared on Gothamist.

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