Amina Muse Angelo Merendino Amina Muse Angelo Merendino
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The laughter of children and the sounds of steady conversation surround Yaser Alhomsi as he sits at the head of a small glass coffee table in his living room. 

In the next room the women and girls eat together, their heads covered with hijabs, as the kids run back and forth. The men gorge themselves on kabsa — a Middle Eastern dish of brown rice, carrots and tender lamb — followed by a thick tomato stew, chopped liver, grilled onions and peppers, and baked chicken. 

As everyone eats, Alhomsi sits back quietly in his wooden chair with his legs crossed while wearing a bright red-and-blue plaid button-down. What little remains of his wiry, gray hair is combed over his balding head. As plates become empty, he quickly fills them and urges his guests to continue, even as their bellies burst. 

This early October day is very important.

A refugee from Syria, the 53-year-old father of two came to Cleveland with his wife, Sumaia, in mid-September. They have lived on the first floor of a split-level duplex on West 120th Street for little more than a month and just received their food assistance benefit card. So he has invited two other Syrian refugee families to join in a celebratory feast. 

The Hwanahs, a family of five, have been living in Cleveland since June. The Almasris, a boisterous family of six, have only been here for three weeks.

Alhomsi couldn’t buy food for his family before. So, the Hwanahs and the Almasris stepped up and brought groceries to his home whenever they went shopping.  

Now, he’s repaying the favor. The 15 refugees gather under the same roof and dine as one large family, passing paper plates and picking apart meat with their hands.

They are among more than 13,000 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States this year, which is but a sliver of an estimated 4.8 million who have been displaced from their homes due to civil war that has left their country tattered by bombs and bloodshed since 2011.

Yet these families choose not to focus on their past. Instead, they speak in Arabic of their arrivals, often in the dead of night, beholding the lights of the cityscape with wide-eyed wonder and promise for a better life.

Forty-two-year-old Ammar Hwanah relaxes into his seat. He explains his surprise when the nurses at Neighborhood Family Practice community health center thanked him for standing by his daughter Sara while the 16-year-old received her first vaccinations. In his country, Hwanah says, nurses are stern and very seldom empathetic.

“There’s crying. It’s totally different,” he relays through an interpreter. “Here, they’re thanking me for supporting my daughter? It was amazing.”

Alhomsi, the head of the house, leans in and speaks softly about fears that he would be ill-received in America because his wife wears a hijab. They were well aware of anti-Islamic sentiment in today’s U.S. culture.

“From the first minute in the airport, they were nice,” he says. “I felt really happy. They treat us like normal people.”

By the time plates are removed and replaced with tiny clear-glass teacups, 34-year-old Muhanad Almasri begins to speak up — his tone slightly different from the others. 

He sits at the edge of the couch on the far side of the room close to the front door as if he’s pausing briefly between two places. “Truly, [America] is not the image I had in my heart and mind,” he says. “Day by day, I get more open to understand people and the fear starts to be gone.”

In early September, Almasri, his wife and four children were resettled by International Services Center — now known as USCRI-Cleveland — in a small house about a mile from where they are tonight.

“They said, ‘Stay in the home and we will come to visit you later,’ ” he recalls. “I was left for a week in the house with four walls. I don’t know where to go. I’m afraid to go out because I don’t speak English. I don’t know anyone in the country.”

Hwanah had heard from another Syrian refugee that Almasri had been left alone, so he visited, intent on making a connection.

“It was like a rescue for me,” says Almasri. “Then, I felt like there is life here.”


Joe Cimperman paces his office excitedly, waving his hands as if conjuring immigrants of Cleveland’s past. 

The president of Global Cleveland and former city councilman is talking about the decade of Cleveland’s greatest growth, from 1915 to 1925, when it was the country’s fifth largest city. He attributes the success to the immigration of Eastern Europeans and the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South. 

Cimperman connects that fertile time to Carl Stokes, the great-grandson of a slave who became mayor, then congressman, and devoted his life to overcoming racial barriers by speaking out for the poor and disenfranchised. He points to the Ratner and Geis families as examples of immigrants who came to Cleveland and strengthened its foundation with hard work and civic devotion.

“Cleveland is a place that says to people, ‘Regardless of who you are or how you come here, we welcome you, we care about you and we love you,’ ” says Cimperman.

But that resolve has been tested over the last two years and not just by the exclusionary campaign rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. 

In September 2015, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees annually. When terrorist attacks killed 130 people in Paris two months later, 31 governors — including Ohio Gov. John Kasich — spoke out in opposition to Obama’s plan, citing a lack of security measures and a concern that Syrian refugees posed a threat to American safety.

But Cleveland never wavered.

One week after the Paris attacks, Mayor Frank Jackson called Cleveland a courageous city that “has always opened her arms to refugees regardless of where they are from.” Last December, Cleveland City Council followed suit, passing an emergency resolution to “expressly welcome not only Syrian refugees but also Iraqi, Congolese, Bhutanese, Burmese and Somali refugees and any other nationality processed by the Cleveland resettlement agencies.”

In truth, Cleveland has always been welcoming. Since 1983, more than 17,000 refugees have made Cuyahoga County their home.

But that is just a small ripple in a very vast ocean. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are 65.3 million refugees worldwide — equivalent to one in every 113 people.

“There are more refugees in the world now than there have been since World War II,” says Tom Mrosko, director of Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services in Cleveland.

In September, Obama announced the U.S. will accept 110,000 total refugees in 2017, calling the global refugee crisis a “test of our common humanity.” 

As Trump’s presidency takes shape in the coming months, it will require more than tapping into our most compassionate selves for Cleveland to remain a lamppost of opportunity. Creating a safe and stable home for refugees takes bricks and mortar, funding, employment, education and support.  

Mrosko worries there may be too great a burden for the more than 300 resettlement offices like his throughout the country. “Once we start bringing in more than what we can handle and what the community can handle,” he says, “that’s where the problems are.”

Resettlement is no easy task. Once the State Department notifies a local resettlement agency of a refugee’s arrival, it has roughly three weeks to locate and acquire safe and affordable permanent housing. A stipend of up to $1,125 for each refugee helps pay for the first three months of rent, utilities, furnishings and food. Within the first 30 days, the organization must set up each individual with medical insurance and a Social Security card, connect them to mental health, job training and employment services and enroll children in schools. 

But that’s it. Do those things and the contract with the State Department has been satisfied, says Mrosko. 

“The bar is set down on the ground,” he says. “We had to figure out ways to set our own expectations higher.”

In 2011, Cleveland’s resettlement agencies — Catholic Charities, US Together and USCRI-Cleveland — formed the Refugee Services Collaborative with more than a dozen other service providers, foundations and local school systems to create a network designed to guide refugees from arrival through the process of settling into their new homes.

“The goal is to help them get initially housed and resettled, find them employment and then pull back so they handle that responsibility,” says Mrosko. “The resources are getting challenged as we go forward.”

Within the last federal fiscal year alone, the number of refugees resettling in Cleveland has nearly doubled from roughly 670 to 1,100. For 2017, Cleveland’s resettlement offices are expecting up to 1,500 refugees.

“You have three different spigots turning on full force,” says Mrosko. “We have to make sure the community can absorb the numbers that they’re calling for.”

Cimperman disagrees. He contends Cleveland is more than ready. In fact, he’s calling for up to 3,000 refugees to be settled in Northeast Ohio next year.

“We actually have more bandwidth for more people,” he says, citing the abundance of resources available when combining the Refugee Services Collaborative with public and private developers. 

He sees refugees as part of a much larger equation, a global community that includes more than 9,000 international students across 14 institutions of higher learning in Northeast Ohio and the 2,500 to 3,000 new citizens sworn into Cleveland every year.

“Our city needs these people,” says Cimperman. “We need the ideas, the innovation, the work ethic, the creativity, the humanity and the culture.”

A 2012 study conducted by the Refugee Services Collaborative revealed that refugees resettled in the Cleveland area generate an estimated $48 million in annual economic activity — essentially returning $10 for every $1 invested in their resettlement. 

Pamela Holmes, Global Cleveland’s chief financial officer, understands there must be a softer side to the economics. 

“We’ve got to make them feel good,” she says.

“Boom,” cries Cimperman.

“We’ve got to give them opportunity,” says Holmes.


“We’ve got to open up doors for them so they can have social and professional connections,” Holmes continues.

“And we have to make this their home,” says Cimperman, clapping his hands. “Welcome home — that’s what we do.”


It’s the first week of October, and the heat has not yet subsided. 

Although it is nearly 80 degrees, Amina Muse wears a thick green sweater with a hood pulled over her hijab. Her brown khakis peek out from underneath her floral dress as she pulls a rake toward her to catch the weeds beside a long line of sprouting beans at the Ohio City Farm.

“We have only one season — not cold, not hot,” says Deka Ahmed, a Somali interpreter employed by the Refugee Response, which helps new refugees acclimate to life in Northeast Ohio. “The sun goes through your body, so that’s why she prevents the sun.”

Muse left Somalia when civil war broke out in 1991. Now 44, she’s a single mother of seven who speaks very little English. When she talks about her children, she refers to them by the types of food they love — potatoes, carrots, cabbage and warm flatbread called chapati — conveying the nurturing instincts of a mother.

Before coming to America, Muse lived with her family in Nakivale, the largest of Uganda’s 12 refugee camps and home to more than 60,000 people. When she and her children conjure memories of that place, they have competing narratives. 

Her children tell tales of riding an hour to and from school on the backs of motorcycle taxis called boda bodas and playing ball in the street. But Muse recalls the camp’s poor conditions and the struggles of opening a tea shop in her home to support her children after her husband died unexpectedly in 2010.

“The food was not good,” says Muse through an interpreter. 

She points to a muddy irrigation ditch running alongside the outer edge of the Ohio City Farm, where she now works. 

“The water was like that,” she adds. “If you don’t have nobody to support you, the life was so difficult over there.”

Like other refugees who resettle in the United States, Muse’s journey began with an arduous 14-step application process, seven of which involved Homeland Security screenings, interviews and background checks that take an average of 18 to 24 months. 

Of the 14.4 million refugees worldwide who have applied for resettlement, less than 1 percent are accepted into another country each year.

“There are groups of refugees throughout the world that have been in refugee camps for 30-plus years and they’re still not booked on a flight,” says Mrosko. “They’re held up in that process.”

After living in Nakivale for nine years, Muse and her kids were resettled in Cleveland by Catholic Charities in January 2014.

“The reason why I was in a refugee camp, the reason it took so long — I was hoping to come to the United States,” says Muse through the interpreter. “The United States is somewhere where you can live peacefully, you can have food, you can have health, and you can work by yourself.”

Yet after three years, those dreams are still struggling to take root.

In June, she received an eviction notice from a landlord demanding she vacate her two-bedroom apartment above a storefront on Detroit Avenue within three days. The notice came as a final blow after a monthslong dispute over complaints that Muse’s apartment was often too loud and overcrowded. 

With mediation from Refugee Response and the Cleveland Tenants Organization, Muse was able to remain in the apartment until August. Now, she’s paying rent for two units in a building on Governor Avenue so her children aren’t cramped inside one apartment. 

Maintaining employment, however, and raising her children are still major concerns. When the farm closes for the winter, Muse must find a job elsewhere. (By November, she’d begun working as a hotel housekeeper.) 

“I have to pay the rent, I have to pay utilities — nothing in my hand,” says Muse.

Although she reaches the end of her three-year employment contract at the Ohio City Farm in the spring, there’s a possibility she can continue working there seasonally. 

According to the Refugee Services Collaborative, nearly 80 percent of refugees who resettle in Cleveland are employed within the first six months and 73.5 percent are still employed after two years. When compared to the national average of 68.3 percent who remain employed after two years, Cleveland seems to fare better than other cities.

But what about refugees like Muse who still struggle?

“The resettlement agencies do amazing work,” says Maggie Fitzpatrick, director of the Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program that oversees employment at the Ohio City Farm. “But they need to make sure everyone kind of goes through their machine.”

Designed as a two-year program, Ohio City Farm ensures refugees with high barriers to employment or strong agricultural backgrounds are given immediate work while having access to English classes and one-on-one tutoring for everyone in the household.

“We try to have an effect on the entire family,” says Fitzpatrick. “The gap we wanted to fill was the small sliver of people who aren’t really ready to go through that machine in terms of being employed.”

In essence, the process of resettlement doesn’t stop once refugees walk in the front door of their new American homes. In fact, it involves an entire community of service providers and groups such as Building Hope in the City and Refugee Response to wrap services around refugees that go beyond what’s available through resettlement offices.

“For someone to thrive, it takes quite awhile,” says Mrosko. “There’s no map for any particular refugee or group, so as we go along we figure out where there’s a need.”

For some, picking up where they left off in their native countries takes a great deal of time. Take Ali Al-Tekreeti, a 51-year-old Iraqi refugee who taught literature and philosophy for nearly 20 years in Iraq and Libya before coming to the United States in 2013.

“Many Iraqis have high education, but without American experience, without fluent English, they can’t get a good chance,” says Al-Tekreeti. He worked jobs ranging from delivery driver to manufacturing laborer while taking English classes upon his arrival in Cleveland.

Eventually, he was able to volunteer as a tutor with US Together and became reaccredited within 1 1/2 years. Now, he holds adjunct positions at both Baldwin Wallace and Cleveland State universities.

“The life in America is not easy,” he says. 

Some in the Somali Bantu community struggle with even their most basic needs. Predominantly farmers in their home country, they began resettling in Cleveland in 2004. But they are often poor and severely undereducated. Things most Americans take for granted are completely foreign to them.

“We are not used to taking the kids to school or to the doctor’s, and we are not used to paying rent,” says Idiris Mohamed, a 30-year-old Somali Bantu refugee who resettled in Missouri in 2004 before relocating to Cleveland one year later. “Up to now, [we] are struggling on almost everything.”

Now, more than a decade later, the Somali Bantu community has established a network of support. 

On Lorain Avenue, just a half-mile from where Muse now lives, the Somali Bantu Community Center offers newcomers a variety of services from other refugees who have learned how to make a life here. 

Elders like Muse can come here on the weekend for English classes. Their children, who have picked up the new language, study the Quran. 

“Good behaviors start from home,” says Mohamed, who works as the president for the Somali Bantu Community Center. “That is why we are here to keep them and train them to be a nice, great people and hard workers.”

A community like this may be exactly what Muse needs in order to survive.


As the women collectively disappear into the back of Yaser Alhomsi’s house, the men continue their conversations in the living room, passing cigarettes as they share stories. 

Elma Huskic sits quietly on the couch, her dark brown hair uncovered and curled, her eyes fixed on Almasri’s 3-year-old son as he reaches high above his head for the string that slowly twirls from the ceiling fan in the dining room.

Huskic, a Harvard University undergraduate student, was resettled in Cleveland eight years ago with her mother and brother. Her family spent several years in Germany seeking asylum after fleeing conflict in Bosnia. 

Now she’s returned to Cleveland and she  joins Danielle Drake from US Together and the three Syrian families for their celebration to conduct research for a class about global engagement.

“Could we get the kids in here and ask them what they want to be when they grow up?” asks Huskic, leaning forward.

A few moments later, a parade of giggling children rushes into the room. 

Nawar, Alhomsi’s 13-year-old son, wants to be a programming engineer because he loves computers. Six-year-old Fadwa Almasri, barefoot in a blue-and-white collared shirt, says she wants to be a nurse because she wants to give people shots. As everyone laughs, she throws up a tiny peace sign.

Hwanah’s 12-year-old son, Mohammed, who keeps his hands clasped in his lap and looks around the room with a tentative, goofy grin on his face, says he wants to be a doctor. Immediately, Hwanah leans forward.

“Laish?” he asks in Arabic.

“To treat the people,” relays Mohammed through an interpreter as Hwanah humbly smiles and settles back in his chair.

The physical and mental anguish his family experienced during their final days in Damascus runs deep. 

Hwanah says very little of Syria’s second-largest city. When asked to describe his former home or what life was like before the Syrian civil war began in 2011, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and asks to skip the question. “I don’t want to think about these things,” he says. “I want to forget. I don’t want to remember.”

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, has called the Syrian refugee crisis “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.” 

What started as peaceful protests in 2011 erupted into a bloody uprising by the Free Syrian Army against the Syrian Armed Forces in an attempt to take over a city of more than 1.7 million. As control of the city districts wavered between sides, the use of suicide bombers ensued in late July 2012.

“Innocent people dying without reason,” Hwanah said during a short segment by Vice News in July. “Children, women, men who didn’t do anything wrong killed with no fear of retribution.

“Children were kept from getting an education,” he continued, “kept from their fathers, kept from the love and tenderness of their parents.”

Hwanah says the bombs never stopped. One day while he was at the hospital with his wife for a routine checkup, an explosion erupted near the school where his then-12-year-old daughter, Najwa, 11-year-old daughter, Sara, and 8-year-old son, Mohammed were in class.

“The principals and the teachers ran away,” says Hwanah. “The kids remained in the schools until their parents came to get them.”

By the end of the month, the FSA had largely retreated and the Syrian government declared victory. But in an effort to seek out civilians who might have aided in the rebel attacks, people were pulled from their homes and detained.

On Aug. 3, armed men broke into the Hwanahs’ home unannounced. While his children watched, Hwanah was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and taken away.

“They took him and put him in a place for torturing,” says Ibrahim Alani, Hwanah’s interpreter. “And they tortured him.”

His family didn’t know if he would return or if the men would return for them. For 56 days, Hwanah was held captive — until his captors were satisfied he didn’t have the information they were seeking.

Hwanah returned home, badly beaten. In his absence, his wife, Mirvat, was wounded when a bomb struck their home. 

For two months, they stayed with neighbors and waited — until they were finally healed enough to run and received word that it was safe to cross the border. 

On Dec. 14, 2012, the family left their home at sunset and never looked back.

“I don’t have a word that describes the war,” says Alani, long after the kids have disappeared from Alhomsi’s living room. “All the words you can give as a description is not enough. It’s not enough.”

Almasri leans forward in his chair and holds up his right index finger to call everyone’s attention.

“If you see any Syrian — man or woman — you’ll see them laughing and living their life,” he says, with the help of the interpreter. “But deep inside all of them, in each one, there’s sadness because they have bad memories of losing people and losing a lot of things.”

When asked what keeps them strong, Hwanah speaks first.

“Iman b Allah,” he says.

“Iman b Allah,” repeats Almasri, followed by Hwanah for a second time.

It means “faith in God.”

For 35 days, the Hwanahs stayed in Zaatari, an overcrowded refugee camp in Jordan that lacked basic resources. So the Hwanahs moved in with a friend who lived in the city of Amman. They kept a low profile there for 3 1/2 years. 

On June 14, 2016, the Hwanah family was resettled by US Together and moved into a two-bedroom apartment above a small repair shop just a few miles down the road in Cleveland’s Westown neighborhood.  

“We believe that if God wants it to be like this, we’re not going to say no,” says Hwanah. “We believe that some things it’s our will to do, and other things it’s God’s will to do. So, we’ll believe in what God wants and we’ll follow.”

Since his arrival, Hwanah has become a father figure in the Syrian community, making every effort to connect with incoming families within 24 hours. When newcomers need food, he delivers. When he sees they need furniture, he pulls up a list of contacts in his phone and reaches out for donations from other Syrians. 

Like the Somali Bantu, Bhutanese and Iraqi communities who came before them, their strength now exists in lifting each other up and building connections. Tonight, in Alhomsi’s living room, it’s already begun. 

They are here now. They are together.

“If we don’t think about our past, we cannot move on,” says Almasri as he leans back and settles into the couch by the front door. “We cannot forget, but we will try or even pretend because life is here.”


Three miles east of the place the Hwanah family calls home, Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy rises like a behemoth out of a seemingly quiet neighborhood of single-family homes and multiunit apartment buildings in Cleveland. 

Within the halls of its three-story complex, flags from more than 28 countries representing its 753 students hang from the ceiling like mile markers guiding children from one class to the next.

On the first floor, 22 first-graders from 14 countries including Somalia, Sudan and Iraq take their first spelling test of the year. On the third floor, a sophomore English class with a quarter of its students hailing from Nepal study a lesson designed to teach the components of a short story. 

When the periods are over, the hallways quickly become a frothy ocean of language — 25 in all. Drifting through that sea in plain clothing are 285 refugees, almost 60 percent of whom stepped on American soil for the first time this year.

“If you want to know the thermometer for the crisis in the world, it’s there,” says Cimperman on that early October day.

Opened in 2010, the school was designed to serve non-English speakers new to the country or those with no formal education or disrupted education within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Now it’s become a haven where refugee children take their first steps in a new life. For their first two years, refugees have the option to attend classes here before entering other multilingual schools within Cuyahoga County.

At the conclusion of the 2015-16 academic year, 824 students were enrolled at Thomas Jefferson. Principal Marisol Burgos expects to have more than 1,000 students by the end of December.

Originally, immigrants and Puerto Rican expats made up the majority of students, but that’s changing. In early November, refugees make up about half the population. “The refugees keep on coming,” Burgos says. 

Since the school opened, the neighborhood has also received a lot of attention. A 2014 study by Metro West Community Development Office revealed a dichotomy: 150 abandoned and vacant properties coexisted alongside a host of longtime homeowners.

Rather than seeing blight, Cimperman envisioned refugees thriving within a self-sustaining neighborhood where community gardens overflowed with vegetables, children played in the street and entrepreneurs opened storefronts along Clark Avenue. The school would be a crown jewel at the center.

“The refugees going to that school are going to create a dynamic in that neighborhood where the houses aren’t abandoned, where the storefronts are filled, where there’s economic vitality,” Cimperman predicts.

Dubbed “The Dream Neighborhood” when Cimperman proposed the plan two years ago, his vision brings together public and private investors, developers and community development offices to build a thriving global refugee hub in an area where housing is plentiful.

Putting shingles on that vision has been quickly outpaced by the increase in refugees.

“We need something with traction,” argues Mrosko. “We don’t need an idea or a concept, we need a house. It’s not like we can hit the pause button and develop an area or a different resource and have six months to get that up and going. No, the arrivals are here.”

But even without the urgent need, the effort may be fighting against the current. A similar project by USCRI-Cleveland called “Discovering Home” seems to be stalled. The organization received and renovated six properties from the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. With homes in Cleveland, Lakewood and South Euclid, the project is designed to help stem the foreclosure problem by filling vacant homes, primarily with refugees, first as renters and then as homeowners.

Yet only two of the properties have been purchased by USCRI-Cleveland’s clients. The last time USCRI-Cleveland received a new property from the land bank was July 2013. 

“It’s never easy, but we are pushing forward,” says Karin Wishner, director of USCRI-Cleveland. “Being a small nonprofit limits how fast you can grow.”

But Mrosko is not waiting around for housing. He hopes to expand resettlement to other parts of the region by potentially opening a field office under the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown. 

Pending State Department approval, the idea follows on the heels of a similar initiative begun last December when the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, New York, sought to open a sub-office with Catholic Charities in Ithaca to relieve some of the same pressures with housing refugees in upstate New York.

“We’re trying to reach out to other locations around the U.S. that have not been actively resettling refugees,” says Richard Hogan, director of Resettlement Services for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We’ve got responses back from perhaps 20 diocese who want to explore the possibilities.”

According to Hogan, similar discussions about a Toledo affiliate office are in their earliest stages. If the State Department approves, new refugees would come through the Cleveland office and be diverted to housing close to a satellite office in Youngstown. The office would accept a minimum of 52 refugees for the first year before taking on its own full-fledged operations.

When asked about the importance of establishing focused communities, Hogan agrees it’s a good idea for some.

“If it’s a population that has not been resettled here in the states to any great extent, we would want to try to facilitate the creation of a community to the greatest extent possible,” he says.

At a time when more Syrians like the Hwanah family are arriving, the Dream Neighborhood looks to build upon the successes of past refugee communities to do that very thing.

One developer, Daryl Anderson, is already working in partnership with US Together to purchase and renovate properties within the Clark-Fulton, Detroit Shoreway and Stockyard neighborhoods, then rent those properties to refugees resettled by Drake’s agency. 

He’s also working as a private developer within those neighborhoods alongside the Geis Foundation and the Metro West Community Development Office. 

According to Kris Harsh, housing director of Metro West, 18 renovations have been completed in the neighborhood, with a goal of completing another 30 homes by summer 2017. Toward that mark, four houses are finished with another nine under construction and 15 in the acquisition process. 

“The world is falling apart in more than one place,” says Cimperman. “Where it comes together again is in Cleveland.”


Danielle Drake paces the living room of a two-bedroom apartment just one block away from Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy. She’s got the landlord of the four-unit building on the other end of the line.

In less than 24 hours, Drake is expecting the arrival of a single mother of three from Iran. They’ve been living in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, since 2008 after fleeing religious persecution.

There’s just one problem: The apartment isn’t ready. The windows are boarded up, the electricity doesn’t work in half the rooms, and there is no refrigerator, stove or bathroom door.

“I’m telling you, if this shit is not ready I’m going to lose it,” says Drake, before hanging up.

As a resettlement agency, US Together must search for houses wherever it can find them. It’s common to have unexpected problems arise in the final hours before a family arrives. Sometimes, the organizations are given almost no notice at all. 

In September, the three agencies saw more than 60 arrivals in one month. So this isn’t anything Drake hasn’t handled before.

Soon, the contractors return to the apartment and the electricity is up and running. 

Mattresses are already set up in the bedrooms — the pillows and sheets remain in their sealed packages so the family knows that they’re new. The walls are painted a bright yellow, which seems appropriate considering the incoming family was scheduled to be reunified with a relative who’s already resettled in San Diego. 

Due to a lack of housing and a small capacity, they’ve been sent here instead.

“I hope they like it,” says Drake, wrapping a scarf around her neck.

Outside, the Anwari family is busy unloading groceries from a green van. The family of six — comprised of a husband and wife, the husband’s parents and two kids— are Afghani refugees who moved into the apartment upstairs in September. They’ve agreed to cook for the new family when they arrive and plan to introduce them to their neighbors who are also refugees. 

As they lug in sacks of potatoes, gallons of milk, pots, pans and cooking utensils, the youngest child, a 3-year-old named Hasib, stands nearby, frozen by all the commotion. His 6-year-old brother, Mustafa, isn’t around to keep him company because he’s attending his first day of school at Thomas Jefferson.

Like Amina Muse who continues her search for stable employment so she can support her children, or the Almasris, Alhomsis and Hwanahs who’ve only just begun to settle into their new homes, these families are finding refuge in the communities they build together in Cleveland.

“We can make this city thrive again by bringing these people in and making them want to stay and want to rebuild our city for us,” says Drake. “The best way to do that is to build these communities where they feel safe, loved, accepted and welcomed.”

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