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.”