refugee (noun): a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster
Tucked behind a Potbelly shop next to a shoddy liquor store alongside the hustle and bustle of Roosevelt Road, in Glen Ellyn, IL, the Parkside Apartments is home to 500 refugees who immigrated to the U.S. in search of new lives.
In late February of last year, the 120-unit complex was sold for $6.9 million to Windy City RE, a Chicago-based real estate investment company that specializes in “buying, renovating, and selling apartment buildings”. In buying the Parkside apartments, they promised not to displace current tenants and to “raise the standard of living” for them.
But did they stay true to their word?
“The new owners of Parkside have informed all current tenants that their leases will not be renewed, so many refugee families have already left and many others are preparing to have to leave in the coming months,” Matthew Soerens, who has been working at World Relief since 2006, serves as the Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table – a broad coalition of Christian groups advocating for immigration reforms. “Families could apply for newly-renovated apartments, but the new monthly rent costs are much higher than they were before, and many do not meet the new owners’ guidelines for credit histories or for occupancy limits.”
However, this wasn’t the first blow the families at Parkside took.
In February of 2013, the Glen Ellyn Village Board officials were considering establishing a tax increment-financing district for a section on Roosevelt Road. In other words, the local government would be collecting more property taxes from residents living in that section. The extra collected money would go towards new and improved infrastructure.
The public meeting about the issue held in June of 2013 drew in more than 45 people who voiced their opposition against the TIF. Many of them were refugees and their children who were living in the Parkside apartments, who wanted the apartments to be removed from the TIF district. More taxes they could not afford to pay meant that they would ultimately be forced out from the apartments.
The Officials justified their proposal of the potential tax increment-financing district by stating that the complex needed a fix-up. In their opinion, the land could be put to better economic use rather than a couple of low-income housing units. Thus, the recent sale of the apartments to Windy City Real Estate must have thrilled the local government – new renovations of the complex, and higher rental fees.
The current state of Parkside, though covered with snow, consists of noticeably new roofs and wooden railings. Broken house number signs on off-yellow brick walls and cracked concrete sidewalks next to patchy and muddy shrubs, the real estate company evidently has not done as much as it has promised since its purchase.
Forced out their homes yet again, these families have lost the deeply connected and loving community of Parkside that meant so much to them.
Imagine fleeing or being forced out of your home country onto a remote and unfamiliar land where you are expected to rebuild your life and everything that is familiar to you. How would you feel?
Displaced, desolated, afraid, hopeful – just a few words describing the mixed emotions of a refugee once they have fled to American soil. These immigrants were forced out of their homes to a foreign land, and once again forced to learn English and adapt to American culture in order to survive and support their families.
“Once they arrive in the U.S., most refugees have almost nothing,” says Soerens. “Some were very poor in their countries of origin, others were very well-educated and well-off, but once they arrive here, they usually have just a single bag each of possessions.”
Whatever you have accomplished and wherever you were in life before moving to America will be cut off and considered meaningless. Your role in society is changed and will be dependent on how fast you blend in.
Before refugees became “refugees” in America, they were facing life-threatening hardships in their homeland, such as persecution on the basis of their political stances, religion, and many other factors.
“They are a uniquely vulnerable sub-category of immigrants,” Soerens says, “Many have spent years or even decades living in refugee camps, often under harsh conditions, or living unlawfully in a second country without protection of law, before being among the relative few selected for resettlement to the U.S.”
Coming to America liberated them and granted them safety from that fear.
However, that does not mean that they prefer life in America to life in their country of origin.
For starters, they are expected to learn a completely different language in order to get by in society. “English language learning is a challenge for most refugees, as it is tough to function in our society without speaking English.” Soerens serves in World Relief, an organization that has been resettling refugees since 1979. As the only resettlement agency in DuPage County, IL, nearly all refugees living in the area were resettled by the organization.
Furthermore, it’s even more difficult to blend into a culturally and socially different society. Social mores and cues are hard to learn when you hadn’t grown up practicing them.
“Adjusting to our American culture,” Soerens says, “which tends to be much more individualistic and time-focused than the cultures from which most refugees to the U.S. come, which tend to be more communal and relationally-focused – can…be an adjustment for many.”
Often times, refugees tend to be neglected because of the negative implications of their label. Public perceptions of refugees are tied to terms thrown around in politics and society such as “illegal immigrants” and “aliens” – all derogatory and false conceptions that set them apart as the outliers of American society.
With the burden of blending and fitting into American society, refugees and immigrants desperately need a connecting and relational community that bonds them together – and Parkside was that quintessential community.
“It was a lively community…with kids playing in the courtyard, birthday parties nearly every weekend, and lots and lots of amazing food from all over the world.” Soerens called the Parkside Apartments home since he graduated from Wheaton College in 2006. He and his family were forced to move out last October. “It was a community where I felt that neighbors got to know one another, and to rely upon one another, much more than I think is typical in a suburb like Glen Ellyn or Wheaton,” he says, “We’re saddened that so many of our former neighbors have been forced to relocate, which for many of them has meant putting their kids in new, usually inferior schools to the ones they were in in Glen Ellyn. Parkside was a beautiful, vibrant community, and it’s sad to see it dismantled.”
“Our neighbors – refugees and other immigrants from more than a dozen different countries of origin – were the best neighbors I could have hoped for,” Soerens reminisces.
We are called to be lights of the world (Matt. 5:14), to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), and to love our brothers and sisters (1 John 4:7).
As millennials, we are the motivators of this world, thus – our calling is to take action and do justice. Matthew Soerens from World Relief gave Millennial Influx some “do’s and don’ts” in taking action and helping refugees:
1. Do not Move into a community because of low rent: You are getting involved in the problem of gentrification, which is what took apart Parkside.
MS: Please don’t move into a particular community just because rent seems like a good deal and it’s a cool place to live…rents go up in response to [the] neighborhood becoming [a] cool place for recent college grads to live. Ask those who already live there how the arrival of new, college grads is impacting their community.
2. Do Advocate
MS: Reach out to [members] of Congress and Senators, write letters to the editor of the newspaper, and help to raise awareness on campus and within the local church.
3. Do Move into an under-resourced community
MS: If you are committed to knowing, loving, and learning from your neighbors.
(Check out: Christian Community Development Association)
4. Do Learn from them
MS: We have as much to learn from these resilient refugees as the refugees do from us.
More on Matthew Soerens: Bio
Twitter – @MatthewSoerens
Read his book