Saturday, March 8, 2008

Akron's "Forgotten Families"

Sorry to have fallen off the cyber grid since election night. I've been consumed by tracking down a disturbing story in North Akron. More than 200 Burmese refugees brought to Akron via the International Institute last summer are living in poor conditions.

My two-part story airs Sunday at 6 and 11 on Channel 3 News ... here's a preview.

I was floored by the number of refugees living in some of these apartments and adjacent homes. We found 8 people, including a baby, in a two-room apartment. Not two "bedroom," I mean just two rooms. Their mattresses are up against the wall during the day, and then placed on the floor at night.

We also toured an adjecent home where 15 refugees, including several infants, live with one bathroom. They keep all of their toothbrushes in one bucket and divide up the rooms with sheets as make-shift walls.

There's also serious bug and rodent issues .. and the hallways are so dark, even during the day, that we nearly stepped on two infants crawling in the hallway.

This is North Hill!!! I grew up a few blocks away from where these people live and I just couldn't believe my eyes.

The immigrants came from refugee camps in Thailand, so even with bugs and overcrowding, this is still better than the conditions from which they were rescued. Many have a limited education when it comes to personal hygiene and cooking skills.

A spokesman for the International Institute tells me that his group is only responsible for the immigrants for the first six months. Most of these folks have been here eight months now so it's up to them to find jobs, pay their bills, and make a new life. Still, why did our community bring this many refugees to Akron, if the system was only in place to support them for a short time before saying they're on their own?

When I called the Housing Division of the Akron Health Department to get a background of the apartment building, the director told me he's not going to wait for my story to air .. and he scheduled inspectors to look at each apartment for health and overcrowding. That should happen this week.

The International Institute blames the building's landlord. I spoke with him at length, and he says he's happy to provide insect and rodent help when the refugees report problems, but that most of these folks don't come forward to complain. He also told me he thinks my story is going to "destroy the International Institute."

A woman from a local church who volunteers to help the immigrants says they don't complain because so few speak English. She told me horror stories of finding dead rats in the refugees' apartments and futility of getting them help.

Watch if you can .. and I'll welcome your feedback.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what an amazing story. I wonder how many of these situations go unreported. I have heard of similar situations in Medina Co. I hope your story helps theses families and the families that come here in the future. If there are ways that citizens can help, just let us know.

Anonymous said...

Finally!! Thank you so much for your interest in these wonderful people. They are a joy to know. It is truly unjust the promises that have been made and not kept.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The International Institute is only responsible for the refugees for 6 months. I find it impossible to believe that the refugees have only started living with rodents and overcrowding since the Institute is no longer responsible for them. Shame on the director of the International Institute. Obviously, more interaction and education was needed with the refugees on a daily and weekly basis. It's the director's job to find the money to do it. Every other agency has to do the job with limited funds, the Institute is no different. Write a grant, get the community involved, do SOMETHING. To absolve yourself by saying your initial placement met health and housing standards isn't good enough. It didn't take six months to find them housing. What did the International Institute do after housing was found? The answer appears to be not much!

AvidRdr said...

Wonderful investigative reporting, Eric.

Surprised by insensitive comments of landlord!

Swanny said...

I have always thought the International Institute was a bit shady. I hope your story brings light to their practices and holds them accountable for bringing people over here and just dumping them after 6 months.

Anonymous said...

Around 20 years ago, I rented an apartment from Tom Keith. At the time, he was a very nice landlord. Since then, he's become greedy taking money to house all these immigrants in North Hill. If he doesnt want the problem, let the International Institute find another neighborhood and another landlord to place their refugees. I believe Mr. Keith got in over his head by making these deals with the govt and the Govt is partially at fault for sending more refugees to this already over crowded neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

This is the worst I have seen in journalism in the area. Being familiar with refugees in Akron, you deserve some comments and other people need to know to see how you “investigate”. Not that I expect of you to do correction on your story but to tell you and others how displeased people that actually do excellent job in preparing and conducting resettlement are with your misleading and manipulative headline and story in general. You showed that you don't care about Karen refugees and consequences for them by running this irresponsible story, but about headlines and ratings. That is sad. Sure, nobody likes insects and rats and refugees should not live in those conditions and responsible journalist would make a judgment call and ask simple question: is my story going to solve anything or just create more problems for the most vulnerable? This is going to tremendously help Karen refugees by making them search for new apartments, probably under worse conditions and maybe not being able to rent any because of your story. Good luck helping them! The question is credibility of your story. It is full of manipulations. Eric, stop manipulating the public. You did not do any “investigation” and Karen refugees did not invite you. You were invited by so called "volunteers" quoted in your story. They are concerned so much about Karen refugees that they drive 50 miles (from the poorest areas of Ohio) to proselytize and take control of refugee lives by opening their mail and undermining great work done by real volunteers that actually collect furnishings and other things from the community and assist the Institute and help refugees by initially setting their apartments just like it would be for any American, according to family sizes and gender. Did you ask “volunteers” in your story why they don't help refugee resettlement? Instead, they are using naive Karen refugees and complain about others. Question is: do all Karen refugees live in those conditions or few that you were pointed to you by these people? Why is it that your “volunteers” did not contact Fair Housing but media instead? Are they looking for help and solutions or their influence and attention? Are they going to help Karen find new places when landlord rescinds their leases to renovate? Did you know that these refugees are on month to month leases and that anyone not liking the place could move and that many refugees actually move? There are many misstated facts in your “investigation”. Did you ask refugees why they are moving from original units and merge families against the rules and advice of their sponsors and overcrowd those units? Did you ask refugees why are they moving from other states against the advice of their sponsors to Akron and stay with relatives and friends creating those conditions, especially if Akron is "forgetting" its own refugees? Or is it because they are told by their friends of better services they can receive in Akron from the Institute? Did you ask refugees how many people were in those individual units when they arrived and what were conditions when they arrived? Were there any insects or rats? Your comment about lack of jobs and connection to English could not be farther from the truth. I know that all refugees are offered option to work soon after the arrival and job is secured for each one of them by their sponsor, the Institute and that their rents and utilities are paid for months if they choose so. Others, not willing to work, get public assistance. And most of them are taking advantage of great programs Institute offers and actually work and provide for their families not depending on anyone’s help. And that should be the goal, right? Employers like them very much, even though they don't speak English. Did you inquire those that you spoke to about the attendance of free English classes walking distance from their housing and did you verify attendance? You misstate that 200 refugees were brought to Akron last summer. You manipulated the viewers. You should check data before spreading misinformation. And it happens that most refugees you and your “volunteers” feature in your story arrived almost 2 years ago and not last summer? Maybe its news to you, but refugees are brought to this country to be law abiding, responsible, productive and independent and not be on public burden or baby sited for extended period of time. That is why many free services and education is provided to them by sponsoring agencies in the initial period. As we have about 40-50 million Americans in poverty, so there may be some refugees that will struggle if they do not organize their life in a responsible manner and take responsibly opportunities and advice given to them. Did you know that refugees have same rights as you have, including refusing services or ignoring advice, including on issues such as hygiene? You did not go trough many apartments of Americans in that same building where refugees live; did you? Why? Because they are not easy target as refuges are? So you followed the suit of the so called “volunteers”. Let's exploit the refugees, who cares what happens after? How about 40-50 million “forgotten Americans”? You mention sick kids. Eric, many refugee children and adults arrive sick from the camps. Did you talk to Health Department and hospitals and enormous efforts by the Institute staff to get them cure and help? You talked to schools, and supposedly many teachers are buying from their own money things. You and they should no better. Each refugee family has enough resources and more to live decent life and purchase items for their children as needed. Many actually drive quite fancy cars. Check refugee benefits before you misinform the public. Some refugees, just like many poor Americans will sometime rather by LCD TV and have mobile phone then buy basic things or live in better conditions. Can we blame them for that? You missed the point. Sleep well Eric knowing that maybe Akron refugee’s loved ones living for the past 10-15 years in the cramped camps in Thailand will die never seeing their loved ones in Akron because of your story. You are sad story Eric.

Eric Mansfield said...

Wow .. looks like I obviously hit a nerve .. thanks for taking the time to lay out your points of view ...

I took the liberty of deleting your duplicate comment on my other post ... no room for that here.

Cuttin to the chase: I stand behind my stories.

I think your comments smell of bias and a loyalty you have to some of the organizations involved. They're big boys .. they can speak for themselves .. and if the issues you bring up below were as true as you'd like others to believe, you can bet those groups would be banging on my door to refute our stories.

I think it takes a lot of brass to see kids living with rats and roaches and in overcrowded conditions . .and come down against them.

I think you've judged this series before there's truly been time to validate its impact. It didn't break overnight, so it's not going to be fixed overnight either.

I think we all need to give the housing department time to work through the violations and see if the landlord can make improvements. There's also several public service groups that have come forward to work with these refugees behind the scenes to help.

I think taking the attacking approach you've taken while hiding behind the "anoymous" moniker fails to give credence to your comments.

Regardless, I welcome the debate here on my blog . .and it's good to discuss differing points of view .. but I'll be damned if you're ranting and raving is going to deter me from following this story and reporting on the good and the bad that comes to these people who now call our Akron community "home."

I think it's odd that I have a dozen emails (from people who actually use their names) who are telling similar horror stories about the Karen refugees they've met here in Akron or in their own plight with the International Institute. How is it you're the only one claiming that the story is somehow not what it's been presented to be?

I welcome your debate .. but until you're doing something to help these people and not just pointing fingers, I don't think you have much room to rant and rave.

Stay in touch .. Eric

Anonymous said...

Hey Eric, no one is denying the issue, its just that your story is based on wrong premises. There are other ways to solve problems and people that are genuinely involved are doing exactly that. Others that are not willing to step up and help when needed and be responsibly involved, like your "volunteers" call media and point fingers at others. By working on the sides and margins and "helping" Karen, you will create more problems for Karen.
You will realize this at some point. They are smart people, and they will pretty soon figure out things for themselves, who is truly working in their interest and who is making their life more difficult. You will see how some Karen will probably pay the price of your service and your "volunteers" advice. Your service should be to advocate to strengthen local services and generate support for existing programs by educating public, not the opposite. You are scaring the public. There are many people helping Karen, that don't have time to blog and rant. Check it out and ask others to help them, don't create mess and parallel structures. You'll miss the point again.