Refugee advocates call for independent experts to review city’s resettlement practices

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A fire-damaged apartment where five children perished in May 2018 was unsealed so an investigative team could extract materials. (photo by Jordan Green)

Advocates for refugee families call for an “independent body of experts” to review the practices of resettlement agencies a year after a tragic fire took the lives of five Congolese refugee children at the Summit-Cone apartments in northeast Greensboro.

One year after a tragic fire that took the lives of five Congolese refugee children at a northeast Greensboro apartment complex, a group of community advocates is calling for an “independent body of experts” to review local resettlement agencies, alongside representatives of the “newcomer communities.”

A group calling itself the Summit-Cone Families Committee recently held three “public conversations” facilitated by UNCG professors Jeremy Rinker and Daniel Rhodes that were closed to the news media.

“There was a wide range of the Greensboro population coming from different sectors of our city,” said Andrew Young, an advocate for refugees in the community. “To that extent, as an organizer, I’m very satisfied that this being an event that we both advertised on social media and we sent out personal invitations to particular groups in order to obtain a fair and balanced participation — we’re very satisfied on that score.”

Young said that to honor a pledge of confidentiality offered to encourage candid conversations, he did not want to divulge the names and affiliations of participants or the content of the discussions.

The May 12, 2018 fire resulted in the deaths of five children from a single family, sending shockwaves through the city and focusing public anger at the Agapion family who owns and operates the apartment complex, along with scrutiny of the city of Greensboro’s housing code inspection process. In spite of residents’ unequivocal statements that appliances and wiring in the apartment were faulty, an investigation by the Greensboro Fire Department largely absolved the owners of responsibility for the fire. Residents also said the conditions at the apartment complex constitute discrimination against the refugee population, but to date the Greensboro Human Relations Department has taken no apparent action to investigate the owners or commence civil litigation. Human Relations Director Love Crossling could not be reached for this story.

Some advocates have also faulted refugee agencies for placing clients in the apartments, considering the decades of adverse publicity the Agapions have received for substandard and dangerous housing.

“These children’s lives were cut short due to hundreds of decisions made along the way,” states a press release issued by the Summit-Cone Families Committee released on Tuesday. “Their deaths exposed the inhumane conditions many people are forced to endure here in Greensboro at the hands of the agencies who are entrusted with their resettlement and care. We would like to see these agencies reviewed by an independent body of experts in the field along with representatives from the newcomer communities who can assess Guilford County’s current practices, obliterate the destructive ones, salvage those that work well, and create non-oppressive programs and practices that support humanism and social justice.”

The North Carolina African Services Coalition, which is one of two refugee resettlement agencies in Greensboro, declined to comment for this story. TCB did not hear back from Church World Services, the other resettlement organization.

The press release issued by the Summit-Cone Families Committee acknowledges a number of modest policy actions taken by the city and various agencies that affect the refugee community in the wake of the May 2018 fire. The press release says the city has increased the ability of housing inspectors to address code violations; the city’s International Advisory Committee has built bridges between city officials and immigrants; the human relations department has funded two interns to gather data from immigrants; the Greensboro Housing Coalition has pledged to not refer clients to Arco Realty, the company that owns Summit-Cone Apartments; and the Greensboro office of Legal Aid of North Carolina has hired a Swahili-speaking attorney to help residents recover rent.

“Compared to the enormity of the tragedy, these measures are welcome but insufficient,” the press release says. “They do not answer the families’ original concerns nor do they inform the public of the status of efforts that were undertaken to address immediate family needs following the fire.”

The press release continues: “But because these unknowns and the short progress list do not represent a coordinated response that will prevent future tragedies, we call for an independent body of experts working with newcomer communities to properly review and assess the effectiveness of our local refugee resettlement system of agencies, organizations and offices and our community’s ability to respond to system failure. Such a body will be able to evaluate the dearth of discrimination claims, the effectiveness of Legal Aid strategies to regulate the abuses of landlords, or the spotty follow-up and lack of social worker assessments for already traumatized refugee families.”

Young mentioned Raleigh Bailey, the retired director of the Center for New North Carolinians at UNCG, and Mark Sills, the retired executive director of FaithAction International House, as potential members of an independent review board who are widely respected and trusted in the community for both their expertise and neutrality.

Frustration with the perceived inadequacy of the response from the city and various nonprofits to the May 2018 fire holds a particular sting in Greensboro, a city that projects a progressive image. In 2014, city council unanimously approved a resolution naming Greensboro a “Stranger to Neighbor” city, at the prodding of FaithAction. Mayor Nancy Vaughan reiterated her support of the resolution in January 2017 to reassure residents alarmed by a slate of executive orders issued by President Trump affecting refugee resettlement and immigration enforcement.

“Our city, Greensboro, has already pledged or committed to be a more welcoming city,” Young said. “That has to be more than kumbaya. It presumably means that people are entitled to rights and representation…. With or without Trump, we should be even more mindful of the vulnerable population among us.” 

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