Uprooted, yet again: 150 resettled refugees in New Jersey displaced by Tropical Storm Ida

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

Sahar Ibrahim was home with her three youngest children when the unexpectedly ferocious Tropical Storm Ida dumped so much rain that the nearby Elizabeth River came for their first-floor apartment. As the water rose inside, she tried to flee, but her front door wouldn’t budge against the pressure from the floodwaters.

At the time her husband, Salam Asad, was in Newark, picking up their oldest daughter from work. An Iraqi who was admitted to the United States seven years ago as a refugee because of his work with the U.S. military, Asad feared that unlike the bombs back home, which kill immediately, his family could gradually die in the water.

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

Sahar Ibrahim and her children climbed out a window and into the murky water.

Stuck on flooded roads in Newark, Asad called his third-floor neighbors who, in turn, called the neighbors on the second floor who mobilized to help Asad’s stranded family downstairs. They jerry-rigged a precarious ladder of a table and chairs, and tossed down a rope. Ibrahim and her children climbed out a window and into the murky water, tying the rope around their bodies so 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 scattered about. He saw at least one dead body. “I come back and I say, ‘Where is my home?’” he said. All of his family’s belongings were destroyed.

Ibrahim was supposed to begin English classes this week at Union County College but the used car she bought to get to school was flooded. After the storm, the small gift bows that were put on the newly purchased car were still affixed to the door, even though the car is inoperable.

Thirty people in New Jersey died as a result of Tropical Storm Ida two weeks ago. Four of those victims lived at the Oakwood Plaza apartments in Elizabeth, a hub for recently arrived refugees in the region. All 600 Oakwood Plaza residents were displaced, including 33 refugee families hailing from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, and Sri Lanka, according to the International Rescue Committee in Elizabeth.

For now, the city of Elizabeth and Union County are funding hotel rooms. The IRC, along with a small group of other nonprofit groups that sprang up in recent years to welcome the new arrivals, are trying to assist with longer-term needs.

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

The United Tastes of America organizes supper clubs in which refugees are paid to cook traditional meals in area residents’ homes. It was founded to build community between strangers, and the recent storm made clear its mission has been realized. A woman who met Ibrahim and her family has repeatedly visited the hotel to drop off pizza for dinner and Legos for the kids. Other New Jerseyans who met the refugees through United Tastes of America have offered to assist with the coming onslaught of FEMA paperwork.

“We hoped to build a network of solidarity. That was our idea from the beginning, that we wanted to welcome people,” United Tastes of America co-founder Kate McCaffrey said. “And what we’re seeing now is the durability of those relationships.”

She said what happened in Elizabeth is “Ground Zero for climate change,” and in this new era neighbors “all need to step up and help one another, and that’s what we’re seeing here.”

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

“Mohammed, please help.”

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

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

“She lost everything,” Zain said. “We brought her to our house … She took a shower, she took her medicine, she went to sleep.”

At the hotel last week, Zain said he noticed refugees whose cars still work giving rides to others who lost their vehicles. “It’s cool how people that need help are helping other people,” he said. “That’s how I think stuff is gonna start getting … and then the world will be way better.”

The Zakkours fled the civil war in Syria and spent four years in Jordan before winning admission to the United States. They said they have found the kind of community they lost when they left their home.

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

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

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

There’s little for the children to do at the hotel where they’ve been staying. In between gymnastic moves in her hotel room, Maria Zakkour, 5, gave a hint at how the effects of this displacement will linger.

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

While they have donations of food and meals, without a kitchen the families are mostly eating canned food. At night, they linger in the hotel lobby with other Arabic-speaking refugees, wondering how long they’ll have to wait to be resettled, yet again.

— This story was originally published on Gothamist.

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